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Why was I ever deluded enough to think this was a cushy job? In my defence, I wasn’t the only one and that’s not just surmising, because I know people who were turned down for this job and think I’m a lucky so and so – except even if they don’t say it, I’m pretty sure they’re thinking of an expression other than “so and so”!

But they didn’t get the job. I did. To this day I’m not quite sure why, though, okay, fair enough, I didn’t tell any lies on my CV, but three weeks in the Friends of the Hospital Shop hardly counts as “Extensive Retail Experience” and a GSCE in history isn’t really “Knowledge of Heritage”. But I listed my qualifications themselves truthfully enough – well more or less!

So here I am. If I wouldn’t go so far as to say my dream job (there were none for chocolate tasters on offer!) then one that a lot of folk, including me before I got it, would consider to die for. And by what means? On the block? No, more likely through exhaustion or sheer boredom.

I’m working in the gift shop at the Museum of East Anglian Life. Have you ever seen the Past Times gift catalogue – the one that sends historians and archaeologists into apoplexies? Well, let’s just say that compared to most of the stuff we sell in the MEAL gift shop it would look like a model of realistic and historically authenticated artefacts!

I suppose that’s not entirely fair. There’s some genuine stuff in the museum if you’re into shards of pottery and photographs or photos of agricultural labourers. And we sell stuff related to that, not bad quality either. But for an area that had no particular history of the railways, even before Dr Beeching swung his axe, we’re certainly fixated on them. Some of it what my colleague Malcolm, who can be unkind but has a terse way with words, calls “Train Tat” on the lines (pun unintended!) of fake (honestly fake, of course!) plates from the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman and dolls dressed as engine drivers and stokers. But we do have some very nice model railway paraphernalia, if that’s the kind of thing you like.

The trouble with the model railway enthusiasts, who have been here in their droves today, though as far as I know there’s not been a special excursion and there’s certainly no relevant “rolling exhibit” is that they are very nice, too, but dear God, they’re high maintenance and for relatively low returns. In rapid – or not so rapid! – succession today I’ve had some exquisitely polite gentleman, and the vast majority are male, though I’m sure there are plenty of female model railway fans, asking me to find just the right signal box, just the right sidings, and just the right “mind the gap” sign.

I am very wary of the proposed new line in dolls’ house furniture. I have a friend who’s into dolls’ houses, and at times they make the model railway fans look undemanding and easy to please. What is it with folk who like things on a small scale?

But it would be unfair to say they’re the only ones. We’ve had an invasion of what Malcolm calls the Tea Towel Spreaders who are exactly what it says on the tin, they unfold our range of tea towels with Cottages of East Anglia and Native British Wildlife and The Perfect Cup Cake on the counter and inspect them as if they were choosing an altar cloth for Westminster Abbey before deciding they’re not quite right. And who has to refold them? We do, of course! The calendar tea towels will be in in a couple of weeks – I swear they come earlier every year! – and that’s going to make things worse. We already have some Christmas cards out, though discreetly.

Then there’s the “do you sell refreshments?” brigade. We redirect them to the museum café, and a “specimen reply” is “But we only want a bottle of water and a Mars bar and thought they’d probably be cheaper here than in the café!” They probably would, which is why Olive, who runs the café franchise, has put her foot down about us selling them. Oh, for a lull to have an unhealthy snack of my own. A couple of quick sips (okay, swigs) of water are all I’ve managed this afternoon.

“I do wonder if you could help me,” An elderly gentleman, wearing a coat with leather patches on the elbows and a slightly battered trilby appeared at the counter about fifteen minutes ago.

“Of course, sir,” I said, “I’ll do my best.”

“This model railway stuff …..” My heart sank, though it struck me he had an unusual turn of phrase. One of the worshippers at the shrine of the model railway would not be likely to refer to “this model railway stuff” even though there was nothing disparaging in his tone. “Would you mind if I sat down?” he asked. I maintain it was a mistake having a chair “customer side” of the shop and I know that sounds mean. “Oh, don’t worry, my dear,” he said, “I’m not going to flake out on you. Just these old legs get a bit weary at times.”

“That’s fine,” I said, feeling vaguely guilty about my uncharitable thoughts.

“You have – the scenery, as well…” We do. We have miniature trees and miniature sheep and miniature children waving at the trains. To be frank, they tend to be a lot less carefully made than the actual rolling stock and lines, platforms, and the like.

“I believe there’s a miniature cricket match …..”

We vary our “surrounding scenery” and at the moment we have the football match out. For a couple of minutes I was seriously tempted to tell a white (well, off-white) lie and say we didn’t have it in stock, and could I interest him in the football match. But it would probably no more interest him than a diesel train would a steam-head, and even though I doubt anyone would have been any the wiser (Malcolm was visiting the bathroom!) in the end I decided to be honest. “We do. It will just take me a couple of minutes to get it out.”

“I hate to be any trouble.”

“Not in the slightest.”

It’s surprising how small a box a whole cricket match can be packed in, though the customers have to provide their own “grass” (which we do sell, but hardly ever sell, if you see what I mean). I hurriedly wiped it over with some kitchen roll to get rid of the dust on it (when it comes to dusting we do tend to operate on an “out of sight, out of mind” basis).

“May I have a look?”

“Of course.”

He opened the box and took out the figures almost reverentially. He didn’t seem quite so interested in the miniature scoreboard and wickets, which were surprisingly well done.

“That’s the one!” he exclaimed. “I hoped it might be, but couldn’t be sure until I saw it. It’s the one based on the international match played at Hopden Green in 1939!”

Well, I might be impatient and sarcastic, but I’m not into defrauding elderly gentleman, and I said, gently, “Sir, these are modern models – well, only made in the last ten years or so.”

He smiled, and it was a warm, crinkly smile, that made him look younger. “You’re a very honest lady, and it’s to your credit, but I know that. They’re still based on it, though, and that’s definitely the right one. I promise you this won’t take long” (that triggered alarm bells, but that longed for lull had finally materialised, though oh, my packet of crisps was calling to me!) “Please may I borrow that green cloth over there?” It was one of the tea towels, this time with Deciduous Trees of our Woodlands on it, but the back of it did, if you used your imagination, look close enough to cricket pitch green.

He laid out the match, I had to admit, quickly and expertly. His fingers might be a bit gnarled and papery, but they functioned perfectly well.

“You see that chap at Cover Point?” Though my Dad is cricket-mad, I would have been hard pushed to know Cover Point if it bit me, but he obligingly pointed out the fielder in the relevant position. I had also noticed that the players did, indeed, all have their own faces and height and hair colour – this, at least, was a quality item even if it was a reproduction. The chap at Cover Point had reddish hair and lanky limbs.

“My Uncle Norbert,” he said. “Norbert Thompson. He played for the village team in the local league, but he had already signed a contract with Middlesex, and there was talk that he might play for England one day.” His voice was wistful. I’m no expert historian, but knew well enough what the match being played in 1939 might signify. I wondered if saying “I’m sorry” would be appropriate. But he patted my hand. “He came through the war, my dear. I won’t say unscathed, and certainly not mentally, though he didn’t talk about it much, but he always said he was one of the lucky ones, and meant it. But he never quite made it to the big time as a cricketer. There were younger chaps coming up behind and – well, perhaps his way of playing was just a bit too old fashioned, even then. He was philosophical about it. He trained as a PE teacher, and he loved it, and the boys loved him. He lived into his nineties and died in his sleep. A good innings, you might say. “ Even as he spoke, he was neatly and carefully packing the figures away with the same skill and care he had unpacked them. “I’ll take this, my dear. And the tea-towel too, though it’s far too pretty to wipe dishes on and I’ll put it on the wall.”

He paid by card, rather than the stack of coins I had expected, reinforcing the lesson I should have learnt long-since not to stereotype people, tipped his hat, thanked me again, and was gone.

No, this isn’t a cushy job. But it has its compensations!

December 13, 2019 08:24

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1 comment

Juliet Tullett
14:00 Jul 03, 2021

I visited Gressenhall Rural Life Museum just this week. I am sorry to say that I didn't see any model trains in the gift shop but they did have a very good range of tea towels.


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