Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop

‘You know what? I was actually going to buy that. I came here in good faith, money burning a hole in my pocket, all ready to spend. But your shocking customer service has put me right off. GOOD BYE!’
Well, slam if it’s a good old-fashioned wooden-framed door, such as the pharmacy on School Hill, or Bright Ideas, not that I am implying for one minute that I would ever have cause to storm out of such outstanding emporia.
You can forget your raindrops on roses and your whiskers on kittens. For me, there’s nothing quite as pleasurable or energising than a no-holds-barred, honest-to-God, pipe-clearing argument in a shop. My favourite was in a bank-which-used-to-be-a-building-society, where they refused to issue Thing Two with a baby account because his surname was different to mine. They didn’t quite say, you need to marry the father of this bastard child, or get thee to a nunnery - because their staff-training manual said not to - but they came pretty close. I expressed amazement; I laughed; I pleaded. But they foolishly held firm. So I gently remonstrated. I forget all the details – though presumably there’s some cracking CCTV footage – but I do remember my final line was, ‘IS IT IN FACT 1950 I DON’T THINK SO!’ delivered loud enough to make the clerks’ ears bleed as they cowered behind the bullet-proof glass.
My friend Grange Girl instigated a Big Lewes Row, just before Christmas. An entry-level novice, she achieved the rare double of dragging the thing out over several visits, plus a glass-shattering slam to finish it off. It was a top class fracas. Then she threw me completely by saying, ‘But where am I going to get this job-which-I-can’t-name-for-fear-of-identifying-the-shop done now?’
‘Well, Grangey’, I said, shaking my head slowly at her naivety, ‘You can’t. Not here. You’ll have to go to Brighton.’
Lewes is a small town, and mostly there’s only one of anything. Have a rumpus in one of the many knick-knack shops and you’re laughing. But make a tiny scene in a useful shop and you will have to eternally Go To Brighton for your shoes, your photocopying, your wristwatch repairs and your fresh mackerel (these are merely examples and have been posed by models).
Grange Girl’s story has a happy ending, as she discovered that tucked away in the Needlemakers was another shop that could do what the first shop couldn’t, and cheaper.
My story is less edifying: my passage along Lewes High Street these days is regularly punctuated by having to drop to my haunches and scurry past at a crouch with my hat pulled down over my face. But who needs these businesses anyway? I put Thing Two’s money under the mattress, and given the state of the economy, he’s done rather better than expected.

Beth Miller, 20th January 2009. Published in Vivalewes.com. Photo taken by Alex Leith.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Little Runaway

My first day of commuting, and amidst the bustle and haste of Platform 2, clutching my shiny new briefcase, a piece of grit from an imaginary steam train suddenly lodged in my eye. Tears streaming, I stumbled through the doorway of the ‘Runaway’ café, and entered another world. Soothing classical music played; fresh flowers decorated every table; a chalk-board listed the lengthy bar tariff; and there was honey still for tea.
Ah, Runaway! How many times since then have I joyfully turned, on hearing the inevitable announcement of a delay to the 8.09, to enter its hallowed portals and shake the dust of the twenty-first century off my trainers? While other commuters curse and moan, I eagerly embrace the enforced leisure of a jumbo tea and a sit down in the blissful warmth of this most timeless of refreshment rooms. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Celia Johnson enter in a state of agitation and order a ‘small whisky please’ – steady on there, Cel! The friendly, patient and considerate staff would doubtless swiftly oblige, then keep half an eye on her to ensure she didn’t do anything rash, like step too close to the platform edge, or try and talk in a Cockney accent.
When you order a piece of toast, they ask not whether you want brown or white, but when your train departs. The staff like to make sure there’s time to cook, butter and wrap the toast lovingly in a napkin before you need to leg it out into the real world. When you order tea or coffee they don’t do anything as mundane as pour milk from a jug or – god forbid – a carton. They ladle it out of a large metal pitcher. I have no idea why, but I love them for it. 
There’s a striking impact on customers of entering such a space. A suited man shoves impatiently through the door with his elbows; a smartly dressed woman click-clacks faster than the Stevenson Rocket to grab some caffeine before leaping onto the 8.47. But something about the Runaway slows their pace. They queue quietly; allow themselves to be drawn into good-natured banter about the weather; and linger, long after they’ve received their order, humming along to the radio and agreeing that Rachmaninov is well-served by this particular recording, till all at once they remember where they are, look at their watch, utter a muted expletive, and bomb out of the door faster than they came in. Those of us long since surrendered to the Runaway’s spell smile to ourselves, for we know that in some tiny way they have been changed by their time here, and that the pace of their day will be different, imperceptibly altered by this brief encounter.
Of course, a few commuters are immune. That first day I staggered in, teary and red of eye, the staff tutted sympathetically and said I was in luck: that a doctor always came in about now for his regular cappuccino. When the tall handsome man with the stethoscope round his neck strode in, I tip-tilted my face for his inspection, and found myself saying, ‘It would be awfully good of you’, a phrase which has never before nor since sprung to my lips. But he brushed me aside as he hurried out with his coffee, muttering something about his Harley Street practice not running itself. 
‘Never mind, me duck’ said the woman behind the counter, ‘Let’s have a look’, and with a flick of a crisp white napkin, she deftly removed the grit.
‘Thenk you’, I said then, and say again, every time they ladle me another cuppa and tell me there’s just about time for a bacon butty. 
And I like to imagine the Runaway replying, ‘Thenk you, for coming back to me’.

Beth Miller, 13th January 2009. Published in Vivalewes.com. Photo taken by Alex Leith

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Wonder of Woolies

When Country Mouse came to stay a few weeks ago, she asked if Lewes was a good place to buy her nephew a present. ‘A good place?’ I shouted. ‘A GOOD PLACE? We’ve nothing BUT gift shops. IT’S ALL WE’VE GOT!’

After begging me to stop yelling - they’re not used to loud noises and hysterical laughter in the sticks, apparently - she entreated me to take her the length of the High Street so she could examine every single one of the chi-chi gift shops, which is to say, every shop. She wandered around Wickle, flounced into Flint, breathed over Brats, rested in the Laurels, scampered round Skylark, and had a Mc-breakdown in Ada McKewski. I don’t think there was a small wooden thingy of great expense that we didn’t peruse, a single carefully crafted whatsit that we left unturned. And yet. The nephew’s gift remained elusive.

We had a well-earned tea-break in the Riverside café, and it was there that Country Mouse turned to me with the light of revelation in her eyes and said, ‘You know what I need to find?’ ‘Yes’, I sighed, gazing at my steaming feet and wishing I was somewhere far from any shops, such as Country Mouse’s own dear village, ‘You need to find a new nephew.’

‘No’, she cried, ‘I need something plastic!’

There was a sudden silence in the café, as everyone turned with a sharp intake of breath to gaze at the unwitting Country Mouse. Tea-cups rattled, forks froze half-way to lips, a waiter shed silent tears. ‘Yes’, my dear friend went on, not realising that she had made a terrible faux pas, ‘I need a Woolworths!’

I shoved a handful of Lewes Pounds at the waiter and ushered Country Mouse out of there, my coat over her head for her own protection. It was only when we got outside that I was able to say, under my breath so no-one else could hear, ‘You may not believe this, Mousey one, but we do actually have a Woolies right here in Lewes’.

The look on her face was a joy to behold. Emotions flitted across it: delight, astonishment, excitement and anger - the latter demonstrated by her hitting me with her umbrella and yelling, ‘Well why didn’t you say so in the first place?’

It’s not a long walk from the Riverside to Woolies but all the way she berated me for not taking her there straight away. ‘He’s a six year old boy!’ she said. ‘He just needs some plastic.’ And ‘Who’d have thought there would be a Woolies here?’ And ‘Oh my god there’s an Argos too!’

We swept in, past the Perry Como CDs and racks full of straight-to-DVD titles. We skirted the famous pick-n-mix which has oft been cited, on this website’s very own forum as well as many a lesser publication, as the training ground for every fledgling shop-lifter. Avoiding the nylon slippers and packets of Bob the Builder vests, we arrived at the marvellous plastic toy section. Every child in Lewes was here, gazing mutely, and sometimes not mutely, at the array of Ben Ten merchandise, High School Musical dolls, and Power Ranger lunch-boxes. It took almost no time at all for Country Mouse to select a brightly coloured something and hand over the £1.99 – a sum which wouldn’t have been enough for even half of the smallest wooden bauble in any of the other shops.

‘Woolies!’ she sighed happily, clutching the timeless red and white carrier to her chest as we strolled down a darkening street, ‘What would we do without it?’

What indeed?

Beth Miller, December 2009. Published on Lewes.co.uk