The Timely Chocolate Shop

By Patricia Poppenbeek

I’m interested in chocolate, goddesses (several of whom, like Aine and Queen Mab, became fairies), time travel romances, whether or not the past can be changed, and going through doors. Presently ‘celebrating’ my 250th day in lockdown, I’ve been thinking about how previous generations coped with similar catastrophes and how to write about the pandemic. The grocery shop photos exist, as does the café. As did Benjamin.

I’m a librarian. I know a little about a lot of things. So I’m familiar with the phenomena of people infatuated with historical personages. Richard III, of ‘King in the Car Park’ fame, for example, has no less than three Societies officially devoted to him; but lesser people can also become the objects of someone’s passion.

This is what happened to me when the supermarket put up photos of historic local scenes. One is of a young man in a grocery shop. Smiling crookedly, he stands in his high collar and white apron by an ornate and gleaming cash register. His eyes follow me as I go down the escalator and again when I come up. I know this is a photographic illusion; he was gazing directly at the camera and anyone looking at him will feel his eyes are on them. But every time I meet his dark eyes I get an unmistakable hot buzz of longing low in my belly.


Naturally, I googled the photo. Algernon Darge, an eccentric photographer, had photographed two views of the grocery store, an interior and an exterior. They are listed as being taken of a Benjamin Bolton at 87 Raglan Street in 1913.

I walked there and found it was now a funky little café that has no period charm except for the Edwardian verandah. I went inside, ordered a coffee and looked around. All signs of the former grocery store and Benjamin’s occupancy had been erased. Disappointed, I went outside and sat in one of the wooden chairs. Then I saw it. Scratched deep into the concrete next to the door was a heart with B+A inside it.

My name is Alice.

Of course, what I was thinking was ridiculous and impossible.

Benjamin Bolton, Family Grocer, Port Melbourne

But the next day I left the supermarket by the side entrance. This is an arcade containing ordinary shops like a liquor shop and a children’s clothing shop (closed because of the pandemic) and the unordinary Timely Chocolate Shop. This is owned by Anna Perenna, the confidante of everyone who goes regularly into her shop. She has a hawk nose, curly black hair streaked with grey and, appropriately, her eyes are the colour of bitter chocolate dusted with gold flecks.

After my mother died and I came into Anna’s shop and burst into tears, she let me cry and fed me dark chocolate, and lemongrass and ginger tea. ‘Chocolate and ginger for optimism and lemongrass to soothe,’ she explained. ‘Let it go, darling. You’ve been brave so long. Take some time and a little treat for yourself now.’

Despite my embarrassment, I felt my mouth tug up in a smile. ‘Is that why you’re The Timely Chocolate Shop?’

She patted my shoulder. ‘That’s one reason, yes.’

Now Anna looked up from rearranging some chocolates behind the counter, her eyes crinkling above her colourful mask. ‘Alice!’ she said. ‘How lovely to see you! How are you going, darling?’

I shrugged. ‘A bit up and down, like everyone else, but it’s so good to have fewer restrictions.’

‘Isn’t it! And how is your research going?’ I’d mentioned the effect Benjamin’s eyes had on me, expecting her to find it funny, to agree it was an illusion.

But she nodded. ‘Yes, that is a sad boy. He never finds his soulmate. Like you haven’t found yours,’ she added.

I had flinched. ‘I don’t think I believe in that soulmate stuff.’

‘So, the research,’ she repeated now. ‘What have you found out?’

‘I can’t find anything more about him unless I start looking at the Births, Deaths and Marriages Register. And … I don’t think I want to know when he died.’ Or any indication he had led an unhappy life. Which, considering what was ahead for people in 1913, would have been almost inevitable.

She nodded, and held out some pieces of chocolate on a silver plate. She was always trying out new chocolate combinations. She pointed at one piece. ‘What does this make you think of?’

I took the milk chocolate square, smelled it, nibbled, let it melt in my mouth before swallowing. Tasting chocolate is like wine tasting, and Anna becomes stern if you don’t do it right. It tasted of roses and violets. It tasted of the stars - and moonlit nights I’d looked out at from my window when I was fourteen, full of dreams and possibility. ‘Young love,’ I murmured.

Her mouth curved. ‘It’s going to be part of my Valentine’s Day range.’

‘It’s wonderful. But what about oldies like me who want love?’

‘At—what?—thirty-five, you’re hardly old,’ she demurred, and pointed to a dark chocolate square with a small piece of crystalline apricot.

I nibbled. Dark and rich, like a combination of the lushest berries you can imagine and a fine old burgundy. Sighing, I said, ‘Fabulous.’ I added, ‘You know, there are stories about travelling in time to meet your true love. But what if you discover you can’t love them after all? And you’re stuck in an era with no hot water? Or fridges?’

Anna laughed. ‘My practical Alice!’

I went red at the thought of how embarrassing this would be if I were wrong, and stared hard at her. ‘I just thought Anna Perenna might know.’

She stopped laughing. ‘Trust you to research me. So you want to know what an old goddess of time and renewal can tell you?’ Her eyes turned gold.

‘Yes,’ I croaked.

‘A mistake happened.’ She pointed to the last chocolate. ‘Eat this and open the door.’

It tasted of cinnamon and salt, of oak and mint and fresh beginnings. I turned, opened Anna’s door, and stepped into Benjamin’s grocery shop. Behind the counter, Benjamin looked up from the book he was reading, his tattered version of Donne’s poems.

His face lit up. ‘There you are! You were gone so long I thought you were never coming home!’

‘Benjamin,’ I said, tasting his name and lifting my mouth for his kiss. Parallel memories raced by me.

Later, as he played with my long hair—drat, I thought, it’s going to be years before I can get it shingled—he said, ‘I had the strangest dream. I dreamt you’d never been born. And I knew my life was meaningless. I wanted to die.’

I embraced him fiercely. ‘You won’t die for a long time.’ I would safeguard him through the Great War, the Spanish Flu, the Depression. Who knows? With me in the past, maybe some of these would change. After all, the goddess of renewal had said there’d been a mistake.

This piece was originally published in the Australian Fairy Tale Society Ezine Issue 10 Spring, November 2021