Now that the shops are all open again – well, those that still can open, of course; our local high street is looking even emptier and more forlorn than it did before this time last year – I can divide the staff into two groups: those who are very happy to be back working and those who were OK about being at home, as they were still getting paid, and are therefore a bit more half-hearted about it.  The first group are all very young and the second group are more my age: ie, grumpy and knackered and wearing too many decades under our ever-expanding belts. 

In one shop, the young sales assistant confided they had all been working there during lockdown and she was sick of her colleagues and of the piped music playing on an endless loop (I’m not surprised; it was a bit crap). It was nice to talk to “real people” as she put it. The store was rewarding customers with free gifts with every purchase.  I received a scented candle and some stickers with my towels. A nice thought. It reminded me of when stores were handing out free flowers this time last year.

The staff in Boots looked a little busier than when I was last in there. Back then, I had knocked something off one of the shelves and bent to pick it up, whereupon the bored-looking male assistant perked up enormously and cried: “No, don’t do that! It will give me something to do.” 

“At least you have great music in here,” I said encouragingly. Hey Jude was playing at the time. “The classics are the best. This is my era,” I added, and proceeded to sing it on my way out of the shop, to prove I know all the words (“Laaa,lalalalalaLA…” Told you).  One good thing about wearing masks in these circumstances: people can’t tell when you get the words wrong.

I couldn’t wait to get into Waterstones, to start spending my Christmas book token pressie from the OH. (Yes, I know you can buy from them online, but it’s just not the same, is it? For one thing, they haven’t yet invented scratch ‘n’ sniff for the full virtual bookshop experience.)

Our cafe-owner friend is selling up. He was struggling before the first lockdown and this past year has clinched it for him. I’ll miss him and his wonderful food, but can understand his reasons, of course. Besides, he is now 70, although he looks about 50. Must be all that olive oil and pesto.

Meanwhile, the rest of the town was busy, with three sets of buskers providing entertainment, all vying for our attention and the dreaded bussed-in beggars were back. There were huge queues for the loos and coffee shops, in particular. Oh, and the barbers. The OH is trying – in vain – to get a haircut at the moment. 

“Matey” (as we like to call him) down the road from us is also selling up. He runs a small salvage yard and we’ve bought some great things from him over the years. We’re very sorry to see him leave, too, but he is also way past retirement age and lockdown has finally forced his hand.

I spotted a cheese called “Pitchfork” in a deli last week and joked that I should have had it on me while shopping in the nearby Waitrose. Not much social distancing going on in there.

In the same Waitrose, which is known for its famous clientele, as it’s in a particularly posh part of Surrey, within ball-kicking distance of the Chelsea training ground (we once stood behind Jamie Redknapp at the checkout), I pondered on the thought that many famous people must be relieved to wear a mask while out and about, as it surely cuts down on the recognition factor. 

Our checkout lady commented on the smell of the cheese bread we were buying and told us of the recipe her mother had made for the family the night before, which had included plenty of cheese. She added that she couldn’t cook, and I said neither could I, nor could I do anything at all practical, but that we were all good at something. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m good at winning arguments!”

On another occasion, an older checkout lady told us of the time when she was stuck at home isolating and awaiting a food delivery. Fancying a banana, she had put in her order. Unfortunately for her, the store was clean out of bananas that day and helpfully sent her a coconut instead. “Fancy sending a bloomin’ coconut to an elderly lady with no teeth of her own!” she exclaimed. “I had to go out into the garden to crack it open!”

Trying to dump our old printer the other day, we were surprised to see a very long queue outside the tip, and a sign at the entrance which informed us we had at least a 40-minute wait. We knocked that one on the head. It can wait. But I wondered what everyone else was doing there. Spring clean, perhaps? The start of the garden season proper and maybe clearing out the shed? Or getting rid of the bodies of their families and near-neighbours who had been driving them crazy during lockdown?

Some businesses have thrived this past very peculiar year. Aside from the obvious ones, the makers of gym equipment, hair dye and…maps… have seen a welcome boost to their coffers. Also rubbish bins. Our local parks and green spaces are benefitting from brand-new and much larger bins, due to more people out walking (hence the maps, presumably) and depositing their rubbish into already overflowing, much smaller bins.  

I heard of an antiques dealer complaining there were no storage containers to be found anywhere – apparently, everyone is using them for moving house. Since lockdown has proved that most people can work from home, more or less anywhere, it’s a seller’s market as everyone scrambles to get away from it all – well, nearly all. They’re still going to need their precious internet connection, of course. (I used to work with someone who insisted she and her husband would retire to the centre of London and be within walking distance of everything; not move out into the sticks, as so many do. Last I heard, they were in Dulwich, so they’re definitely getting closer.)

A roadside van we often drive past is currently offering both ice-creams and hot chocolate. Hedging their bets, given our unpredictable weather. During lockdown, they were selling face masks, sanitiser and plants. Very astute. Also astute are a friend’s husband and son, who have set up a pawn shop.  This was classed a necessity during lockdown, because lots of people had no money coming in. It’s been a big hit with house clearance people, as well.

They’re still not accepting cash at the garden centres we like to visit, though, and when I enquired about this in one of them, the young assistant said, “It’s usually the older people who ask that.” Then, on seeing our crestfallen faces (or half of them, anyway, thanks to our masks), swiftly and diplomatically added, “Much older than you,” which mollified us slightly – but only just.

In another garden centre we visit regularly, their one original bookcase containing second-hand books for sale (great idea!) has now been expanded to five; all crammed full. Books AND plants under the one roof! My cup runneth over… 

I had my long-overdue and much-needed haircut, this week.  I’m no longer frightening small children and inciting adults to make the sign of the cross when they see me. Two men from the council came into the salon while I was there, brandishing huge clipboards and checking everyone was adhering to the rules. (The hairdressers have to wear both masks and visors, as well as other protective garb.) I suppose they could close the place down if they thought it necessary, or at least issue a huge fine.  I’ve not seen or heard of this happening before and it was slightly unnerving to witness. 

Afterwards, as I was walking past two men sitting outside a café, I heard one of them say: “I’m sure I saw a model just now.” Sadly, shiny, bouncy new haircut notwithstanding, I knew he wasn’t referring to me. 

I’m always picking up stray snippets of conversations and, in a supermarket the other day, I was passing a family just as the mother was saying: “We’ve got some changes to make in the family, too, haven’t we?” I’d love to have known the context, but I did note her children looked none-too-thrilled at the prospect of those changes. My mind is still boggling.

And again, in the same supermarket, in the next-door cubicle in the toilets: “Someone’s tired. You need an early night, tonight.”
“No, Mummy,” came the tiny, emphatic response. “I’m not tired. I’m just bored.”

Author: Hampton Caught

The rants and ramblings of an ex Deputy Fiction Editor of Woman's Weekly magazine.

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