Ordinarily, Grange Girl is phobic about the normal rules of social intercourse. She will hide behind a lamp-post rather than make small-talk with an acquaintance, and if you invite her out, will quiz you closely as to whether there will be ‘any people there’.
But bizarrely, put her in a shop and she is transformed – she simply has to banter. She banters so long and so amiably that anyone in a hurry is forced to take their custom elsewhere.
Lewes isn’t a brilliant town for repartee, compared with less englishly inhibited areas of Britain, such as, well, most of Britain. But there are some pockets of excellence, where a mundane exchange is given sparkle by a bit of old chat. These places make life just that bit more worth living. Particularly for Grangey, who otherwise can spend the entire week speaking only to her goldfish.
One of the happiest days of her recent life was arranging for us to go to a gig, because the few remaining tickets were secreted in banter shops across town. She flitted merrily between Laportes and Riks Disks, buying one at a time, drawing the shop-keepers into the drama of whether there would be enough. She enjoyed the quest considerably more than the gig, which she pronounced ‘too full of people’ and left early.
Grange Girl’s friend, Library Boy, once foolishly tried to emulate her parlaying skills in Waitrose. However, he merely bewildered a poor assistant by his attempts to sympathise with her long shift on the check-out. ‘And what time do you finish this evening?’ he chattered gamely, as she pressed the security button and had him escorted from the premises.
Elsewhere, with a little encouragement Catlin will lean his elbows on the counter and natter about the latest planning scandal. You can’t peruse the slab at the Riverside fishmongers without Terry himself him riffing about cunning ways with a grilled mullet. Say Cheese is unbeatable for a surreal chinwag, like the time they gave me ten good reasons to eat unpasteurised camembert despite my being pregnant.
Sometimes, however, for really top-notch chatter you have to shove your shop local in your bag for life, and get in the car. No-one gives better banter than my friend, the Postmistress of a nearby unnamed village. Her queues stretch out the door. Though whether this is due to the renown of her badinage, or because every transaction takes time beyond imagining, who can say?
The best place in Lewes for blether is of course the Runaway at the station, where they sprinkle magic onto every transaction. One morning, the man buying tea in front of Grange Girl mentioned his imminent flight to Europe. Instantly, the staff broke into an acapella rendition of ‘Leaving on a jet plane.’ Grange Girl, who normally would die of shame rather than hum a note, joined in with gusto, and soon the whole café was singing the chorus. Everyone then went on with their day uplifted, despite having missed their trains.
Beth Miller, 19th May 2009. Published in VivaLewes.com. Photo by Alex Leith