I’m getting used to being called Madam around the house, these days. Sadly I don’t have a butler, or even a new hair dresser. It’s just that shops is the game of the moment, and we are all customers whether we like it or not.

It goes something like this: I reach for the tin of custard or bottle of HP sauce only to grope around where I’m certain I last saw it. There’s a trundling in the hall, and Ilse appears with perambulator, baby and bags. Ilse, I begin, have you got the…?

She beams. Good morning, Madam. I’ll just open up the shop. I’m sorry I’m late; my baby took forever to eat her porridge this morning. She abandons said infant in the street while she serves me with food from my own larder. Good day, Madam. I hope we’ll see you again soon.

No doubt she will, and I must admit it is a lot more fun than simply reaching things down off the shelves. We all play along – even Ben, when he realises he needs to buy back his Oxford geometry set, and Fliss, when she finds her hair slides missing. Even John, who is accosted as soon as he walks in the door from work, succumbs to the shopkeeper’s charms. And sometimes, to Ilse’s intense delight, there is a second shopkeeper to help around the place and take turns in playing each role.

What is it that appeals so universally about playing at games like shops? I don’t remember enjoying trailing round behind my mother as she ticked things off her list. I’ve certainly never wanted to open a shop of my own – a cafe, perhaps, but not a shop. And yet I loved playing shops so much and for so long that our Irish grandmother used to keep all her empty packets for Meg and I to play with when we visited. She’d take us over to the little barn we were allowed to play in and roll back the big black metal door and there they would all be: empty packets Coleman’s Mustard and Bisto. Bottles which once held lemonade or something mysterious called milk of magnesia, the dregs of which smelled nothing like milk and came in pretty blue glass. There’d be old furniture and crates to move around, and a couple of wicker baskets coming apart at the top, and bits of newspaper to wrap things in.

In this house it’s the kitchen scales which go missing first, followed by the baskets and items from the larder. On sale today are an assortment of conkers and pine cones, and windfall apples from the garden. There’s the book I know Fliss is reading and John’s spectacles and most of the packet goods from the larder. The shopkeeper weighs the HP sauce, in its bottle, before placing it in my basket. That’ll be three and six, please, she says. Everything costs three and six. I count imaginary coins from an imaginary purse, which she deposits in her imaginary till. I pocket John’s spectacles for safekeeping and spot several of the items I’ll be needing to make supper. It looks as though I’ll be coming back to the shops quite soon. Ah well, it’s a good thing that it’s just as much fun as ever.

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— October 20, 1931

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