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A Customer is Not Always Right

Author: Sylvia Smith

In 1960 it was possible to get a part-time job at the age of thirteen. I considered myself very fortunate to be employed in a sweetie shop. I also enjoyed tidying the shelves, filling up the cigarette displays, weighing out sweets in quarter pounds and half pounds from large jars and serving people with freshly made ice cream cones and wafers.

I was even trusted to mind the shop on my own when the boss went on little errands. Once, when one of his errands was a bit prolonged, I found myself being addressed by a red faced, round man with a large leather briefcase who wore a brown suit and a crushed felt hat.

'S’Ron in? Oi’m f’m Pekin.'

I looked blankly at him, thinking that it couldn’t be the same Peking I had read about in my history books. I had grown up in a house where we didn’t have a television and the radio station most listened to was the Scottish Home Service, therefore my ear was not keenly tuned in to regional accents. He repeated the phrase, a bit louder this time. It still made no sense to me. He became more red as I failed to understand for a third time.

I handed him a pen and a white paper sweetie bag and asked him politely to write his message down. I would tell my boss about it when he returned.

The man was not happy as he scored heavily into the flimsy paper.

Jim Sargent. Travelling Salesman. From PEEK FREANS Biscuits.

As I read the words, he glared at me and pointed to a nearby shelf.

'Those! Garibaldi. Lemon puffs. Chocolate Bourbons. Custard creams.'

At that point my boss heaved himself in the door, smelling a bit beery.

'Sorry Jim, just remembered you were due today to take my order.'

As I trudged into the back shop to collect my school bag and head home I heard Jim say something unintelligible to Ronnie. The word I did pick up was “brainless”.

I began to feel that a career in retail was not for me.

This feeling was reinforced one dreich Sunday morning, when a gentleman with a very plummy accent who did not even condescend to take his pipe out of his mouth blew a cloud of blue smoke over the newspapers and made a request.

I thought I had this one sorted.

I handed him a white packet, banded in blue and emblazoned with a navy blue crest portraying a white ship in full sail. It contained ten Senior Service cigarettes, untipped.

He shook his head, pointed at the piles of Sunday newspapers on the counter and yelled at me.

'Stupid girl! I want a Times and an Observer!'

By the time I rang up the sale in the till and handed him his change I had seriously decided that I would be looking for a job where I could never be spoken to like that again.