I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.
My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.
The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.
From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.
Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.
What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.
So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.
It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.
Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.
Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.
‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:
Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.
Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.
She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.
Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.
‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.