‘Cracked. We’re cracked, Wilfred.’
Alan Bennett, ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’
My plate is cracked, but, to quote Wendy Cope, I have decided not to make a big tragedy out of it. I am going to mark the occasion, though, because this plate has been mine for a long time. Internet shopping means we’ve lost the habit of remembering when and were we bought certain objects, how we chose them and how we saved for them, but this plate – one of a set of four – came into my life at a very particular time, as a result of a very particular set of circumstances. And so, while I may not be making a big tragedy out of it, I am going to write about it.
It’s December 1991. I’m nineteen and back from university for the first time. I’m a bit of a mess, partly because I’m exhausted from the intensity of my first term, but largely because the guy I’ve been going out with has decided to end things and it’s my first big, horrible, painful rejection. I am coping with the culture shock of being back in Newton-le-Willows after two months at Oxford and it’s every possible shade of weird. There are no doors I can knock on, nobody to meet for coffee or cake or a trip to the bar. I need something to do, to take my mind off things.
Therefore, I get a job. I’m in Warrington one day with my mum and I spot a poster in a shop window. The shop in question is Warrington’s only independent department store, a proud institution in a Georgian building on Bridge Street. They want extra assistants for the Christmas period. I go in to see if I can find out more, and ten minutes later I’m in an interview being asked about my GCSE grades and previous work experience.
I start two days later. I’m in Jewellery, to start off with. Jewellery is basically a huge white rack, fixed to a wall, on which I’m supposed to hang earrings. This is meant to take me all morning. The earrings are mostly plastic, in various colours. I decide to arrange them by colour, and work my way through from white at one end of the rack to black at the other, with a special section for silver and gold. It takes me about half an hour. I find my manager, a morose woman called Pauline with frizzy hair, and ask what I should do next. ‘Find something to do’, I’m told. ‘Just make sure you look busy.’
There’s a stand of books near Jewellery, an odd mixture of recipe books, road atlases, romantic fiction and children’s stories. I’m at home with books. I arrange the books, first by genre and then alphabetically within each genre. There aren’t many of them. I take them all out and rearrange them. Then I rearrange the earrings, starting with white at the top this time, and silver and gold at the bottom. I am more bored than I have possibly ever been before.
At about half-past eleven another assistant comes over with a cardboard box, and asks me to unpack whatever’s inside and arrange them on the shelves. What’s inside turns out to be a collection of fake bonsai trees, made of some kind of translucent resin, their leaves attached with wire. The wires have all been flattened and therefore they need to be twisted artfully to make them look as realistic as a fake resin bonsai tree can possibly look. I put a lot of effort into my artful twisting.
I have a forty-minute break for lunch. I eat my sandwich and slink off to Bookland, my favourite bookshop, to decide which books I’m going to buy with my wages. Then I go back to the shop, and try, again, to spin out whatever tasks I’m given so that I always look busy. I’m not allowed on Tills, because I haven’t been trained – ‘We don’t train temporary staff’ – and apart from helping occasional customers to find gloves or handkerchiefs, there isn’t much else to do.
I have a lot of time to think. This hadn’t been the intention. I need something that will take my mind off the Big Rejection and stop the ache that it has left me with. I keep replaying lines from our conversations, the we-can-still-be-friends ones, the it’s-not-you-it’s-me ones. I am probably not the bouncy, cheerful kind of staff that the store wants. There’s another student working there too, and when we’re working the same shifts we take it in turns to mix up each other’s displays so that we’ve got something to rearrange, her on Fancy Goods and me on Accessories. We joke that there should be a Leotards and Handbags department, in honour of Victoria Wood. But then Pauline gets wind of our alliance and puts us on different shifts, and I go back to trying to make a half-hour task last four times longer than it really needs to, tweaking and reorganising and keeping an eye out in case anyone tries to shoplift a fake bonsai tree.
Lunch breaks, and the half-hour between finishing work and catching the bus home, become the focus of my days. I spend a lot of time browsing in Bookland, and decide that if I can buy one book, every day, then working at the department store won’t seem quite so mind-numbingly awful. We’re doing the twentieth century next term, so I buy Woolf and Joyce, E.M. Forster and Dylan Thomas, books that still remind me of that Christmas holiday and the bookshop glowing like an oasis, the hush and smell of paper, the low lights and tactful quiet. And I decide, too, that I need some plates for university. I’d taken mugs, the previous term, but not plates. We were catered for, living in college, and I hadn’t thought I’d need them. But cooking with friends, in the tiny kitchen in our accommodation block, had become part of the glue that held life together. So I wanted my own plates, and in the Homewares department in the basement of the Co-op I found a set of four plates – deep, white plates, with a blue floral border – that, to my nineteen-year-old mind, seemed exactly right.
My dad’s reaction was predictable. ‘Why are you buying plates in Warrington and taking them all the way down to Oxford? Do they not sell plates anywhere in Oxford that you can buy?’ He had a point. But those were the plates I’d decided on. They came home with me, and eventually, when my four weeks at the department store were over, they came down to Oxford with me as well, wrapped carefully in tea towels and packed in a box.
They’ve survived a lot, those plates. A year in a shared house off the Cowley Road, another year back in college, and then four house moves. They’ve been our everyday plates for over twenty-five years. And then, a few days ago, one of them cracked.
It was on the worktop, next to the hob, and whether it suffered from some kind of sudden temperature change or not I don’t know. At least it wasn’t dropped, at least it’s still basically intact. But we’re not going to risk using it any more. It’s now got a safe place in the sideboard, with the proper dinner service we got as a wedding present. And there it will stay, a reminder of that holiday when I tried and failed to cope with the world’s dullest job whilst nursing a broken heart, and returned to university bruised, but with several new books and four blue-and-white plates.