Fond memories from my days as the Saturday girl

Writer Claire Bailey who worked in Castle Market as a 15-year-old writing on the new Moor market.
Writer Claire Bailey who worked in Castle Market as a 15-year-old writing on the new Moor market.
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It’s Monday morning and I’m standing at the edge of a crowd that’s started to gather around the doors of the New Moor Markets in Sheffield.

I wonder if it’s curiosity, or the chance to grab a bargain that’s brought so many out on this frosty Monday morning. I scan the crowd; it’s a mixed bunch. I can’t describe the atmosphere as electrifying, but nonetheless, there’s a tinge of excitement rippling through it. More Robson & Jerome than Arctic Monkeys.

With its share of controversial media coverage and an emotional final day of trading at the former Castle Market just two days ago, are these people shoppers or recession rubberneckers?

Nostalgia has brought me along. On a very early Saturday morning in 1985, at 14 years old, I went to the Castle Market to look for work – a Saturday job.

Every visitor and worker at the Castle Market will, I’m sure, have their own opinion of its unique smell. When I shopped with my Nannan as a young girl, the smell conjured up images of live fish wriggling in crates along with the scent of – not so fresh – rubbish. This followed me around as I went from stall to stall asking for a job. I’d been turned down at Top Shop and C&A.

Some three stalls later, I met David, the owner of a butchers-come-delicatessen. A cheery man with red cheeks, he needed a Saturday girl. Within minutes, I was donning a white overall and red-and-white striped tabard, learning how to weigh half a pound of smoky bacon.

Some three years later, with a few GCSE’s under my belt, having worked every Saturday and school holiday I possibly could, I left the market with a heavy heart and a wicked list of sarcastic put-downs.

Behind that counter, I learnt how to add up accurately without the aid of a calculator. I developed confidence and respect as well as a deep love for garlic sausage – no wonder I couldn’t get a boyfriend.

I had a sense of humour that taught me how to laugh at myself – probably due to the moustache that my colleagues drew on my face in permanent marker on my 16th birthday. It could have gone two ways, but in their defence, it did make me look older in the pub that night. I could finally move on from Dad’s stolen home-brew to the more classy lager and black.

Monday to Fridays, I was swaddled in a famous-five-esque household, thinking only of Simon Le Bon and school work. But on Saturday’s, all that changed.

My vocabulary widened along with my eyes: bacon scrag-ends, 5 o’clock witching hour, tea-leaves at midday.

Eager to learn, and keen to volunteer, I became the butt of practical jokes on a quiet day. I would traipse around stalls looking for elbow grease and a long weight. The last one still makes me blush.

I saw my first stripper at the bakers as I queued to buy a breadcake to house my garlic sausage. As I ran back to my stall to call the Police, distressed and out of breath, the girls stepped in and saved my parents from what would have been an embarrassing tea-table discussion.

‘Poor Karen – that’s what they bought for her birthday?’ I asked, eyes bulging. I was a late developer.

I recall helping the other Saturday girl with a bad tummy ache one day, which led to a visit to hospital due to her pain. Those stomach pains turned out to be a baby boy, weighing 6 pounds. I still bear Julie’s fingernail scars in my hands, but that impromptu lesson on birth control would stick with me for life.

And above all, I found out about the value of friendship.

Wandering around the new market with its sympathetic fit-out but remarkable architecture, the one thing that stands out is the people.

A far cry from laptop world with its click and collect button, I see laughter lines. I listen to the rustle of carrier bags, and the grinding knife on the butcher’s block. I smell satsumas, sausage rolls and stewed tea.

Of course, convenience calls for most of us to streamline our buying, but sometimes you just want to join a queue and ask for a pound of tomato sausage. So I do. Tomato sausage crozzles in a way that no other sausage can. For me, you can only buy it in the market.

Today, I’m reminded of a simple time of life. Although in reality, nostalgia has probably painted my memory with a rose-tinted veneer.

The location may be different, and today, the retailers may tweet their wares, but this market is alive, and it seems to have resurrected my memory in a way that a visit to the original market never could.

For that, and tomato sausage, I’m thankful.