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