I was in Lewes earlier, checking out an arty shop with my Mum and brother. Some of the stuff was lovely – delicate sheets of copper with elegant fish and bird shapes carved out and standing proud like leaves, cuff necklaces and bracelets made of woven silk yarn, and amazing Lino prints of poppy fields, starlings and gardens, which reminded me of old Sunlight soap posters, and had me regretting the fact that I don’t earn a little more. The shop was staffed by an intensely arty, and on this occasion, unsmiling, assistant. She had a long skirt, long hair, neck-skimming dangly earrings, and an expression which revealed a certain distaste for customers. She was the kind of assistant who sits threading beads onto a children’s applique of a a boat at sea with Radio 3 playing close to her ear whilst customers struggle to attract her attention. But today, her peace was to be shattered. A couple in the next room had been browsing the few items of small furniture, which included Bauhaus-style coffee tables and chairs. They had selected a table, and they wanted to buy it. I first noticed the man as he guided the miffed-looking assistant through the shop towards the potential purchase. He was intensely English, and made my heart leap in mingled recognition and nostalgia for my own kind. In his mid-forties, with a Bean-like posture, balding head and bad polo-shirt -and-shorts combination, he revealed an educated and faintly humorous voice when he spoke. And he turned out to be a hero. ‘Bit further’ he said to her as they walked through the shop in single file, she flouncing ahead of him. ‘Stop!’ he advised as they come level with his wife (who was called Sue), and who had been guarding the table like a good ‘un. The assistant drew her face into a scowl.
‘Well, I’m not sure if I can let you have this.’
‘It says £70’ said the man. ‘I thought the general idea was that the things in this shop were for sale’.
‘I’ll have to ring the artist’ said the snooty one. ‘It could be his last one’.
‘Might I suggest that if that turns out to be the case, he could make another one?’ countered my hero, with a Cleese-ian patience-in-the-face-of-the-ridiculous tone which was both perfectly measured and punishingly to the point.
Stumped, the assistant permitted the couple to carry the table to the cash desk, and allowed them to pay. I could imagine the note she left for her manager when she closed up today: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I was forced to sell something on Saturday. Hope Glynn won’t be too upset. They didn’t seem like the right sort of people, but the man was simply dreadful to me, and besides, the Monteverdi Prom was about to start.’
As I pondered the service industry we know and love in this country, I toyed with the idea of asking the assistant to unlock various jewellery cabinets for me with fiddly keys, or of making an obscure request for an outsized crocheted waistcoat in puce. But I didn’t. Instead, I picked my favourite Lino print up once more, sighed, and resolved to save my pennies, and to come back.