My debut in the 'world of work' on a fruit and vegetable stall almost sent me bananas / Sue Plunkett column

A letter from my son Robbie's school about a 'work experience' week triggered long buried memories for me.

Monday, 22nd November 2021, 3:45 pm
Sue Plunkett talks about her disastrous job on a fruit and vegetable stall and later a biscuit stall

I actually completed a 'work experience' week at the Burnley Express when I was 14!

The thrill of being in a busy newsroom with the clatter of the typewriters, phones ringing constantly and reporters rushing around cemented my ambition to be a journalist. And to be there when a national story' broke' with a Burnley connection was the icing on the cake.

I love my work and feel privileged to be doing a job I enjoy as I know many people don't.

My very first job at the age of 15 was working on a fruit and vegetable stall in Burnley Market Hall. Spurred by the ambition to earn some of my own cash I trawled the town until I found someone who would take me on.

I arrived bright and early for my first day, unaware of the hell that awaited me! Standing in front of the array of produce I was told to memorise the prices and get behind the counter and start serving customers.

I was a complete disaster. I couldn't remember ANY of the prices and my mental arithmetic was abysmal.

The owner of the stall would not allow his staff to use a jotter to add up so half the time I guessed at the amount customers owed and then took 50 p off, so they were never going to complain were they?

At the end of the day each server was given a tip depending on their sales which were recorded on the till.. The top seller received about £5.

I usually got about 20 or 30 pence and the owner, who would bark out orders all day, always used to say "you did very well today.'

It was physically back breaking work and I lasted about six weeks before I just couldn't face it anymore.

My next job was in the same location but on the biscuit stall. Popping custard creams and bourbons into paper bags must surely be easier than lugging potatoes and carrots around.. right? Wrong.

The job was harder because the stall owner's wife took an instant dislike to me. I was the youngest of three 'Saturday' girls and I always got handed the tasks everyone hated.. serving the most awkward customers, emptying the bins and sweeping underneath the very large counter at the end of the day.

You had to get down on your hands and knees and I looked like a chimney sweep at the end of it.

I felt like Cinderella every week in that job and my only consolation was the day a customer arrived with a box of chocolates for me because he thought I was doing a 'grand job.'

You should have seen the owner's wife's face... picture Cruella de Vil! It made all the sweeping worthwhile, I can tell you.

By today's standards her behaviour would be described as 'bullying.' I saw her many years later in a restaurant but I didn't have the courage or inclination to speak to her as her mean attitude towards me was still prevalent in my mind and I didn't want to give her the opportunity to do it all over again.

Eventually I got a job at Marks and Spencer and spent the next five years working there as a 'Saturday' girl and also throughout the summer and Christmas holidays when I came home from university.

I worked in every department and made some lifelong friends there. I still feel nostalgic for those days when I go into the store now and the regular customers who I got to know well.

One of the highlights was serving former Burnley player Trevor Steven when he had just signed for the Clarets. He came into the store for a a new shirt and tie and I helped him to pick them out.

Working at M and S was a breeze compared to the fruit and veg and biscuit stalls, but you could say it was 'character building' a phrase I frequently trot out to my own kids.

So, I have one son, ready and able for some 'character building' work... any takers out there?