Poster child

BHS is dying, and nobody is talking about the real tragedy of this whole situation, which is that Tammy Girl has for years only existed as a BHS concession. Won’t somebody think of the tweens!?

(A quick scan of their website to check that Tammy Girl even exists to this slight extent reveals that it is now styled as #TammyGIRL. For the kids, innit?)

I’m not fully clear how BHS has survived this long. At any point over the last 10 years that I have found myself inside one, it has had about three things on the racks (two ugly nighties and an elaborate make-it-at-home teppenyaki kit).  The West Ealing branch was (is?) particularly dismal. 

This isn’t a think piece on what went wrong with a former jewel of the British High Street. There’s a reason I left the retail industry; I have no instinct for moneymaking whatsoever. But thinking about BHS set me off (inevitably) on a path of thinking about aimless afternoons mooching around town, which for some reason quite often involved a pit stop in the charmless BHS café.

When I was eleven, I had A Horrible Friend. At this remove, I’ve now mostly forgotten the specific ways in which she was so nasty, but I can still feel the creeping, angsty unease of being in her presence. We’d gone to different primary schools, and had grown up five minutes and several worlds apart. She was a little bit sharper than me, a little bit tougher – and she made me feel that difference every single day. Through her eyes, I was small and square and babyish. (She was not wrong! I was all of those things! I was eleven!) Through her eyes, these qualities were unforgivable.

Despite being constantly uncomfortable in her presence, I craved her approval desperately. 

And so I found myself, Saturday after Saturday, dragging anaemic chips through vinegary ketchup in the sticky, faded BHS café. 

For a while, I had a buffer, in the form of a Very Nice Girl who was also our friend. But she was stronger-willed or faster-witted than me, and extricated herself from the horrible friendship much, much sooner than I did. So then Saturdays became me, and the Horrible Friend, and various combinations of Horrible Boys. Some were horrible because they were eleven, and some were horrible because they were boys, and some were horrible because they had unhappy home lives, and some were horrible because they didn’t, and most, I’m sure, have grown up to be perfectly pleasant adult men. 

There is one Saturday which sticks in my head.

After mooching round BHS and Woolworths and Poundworld and Boots, we had made our way to Horseplay. It was a hodgepodge of a shop. I think it pitched itself as a party supplies shop, but its stock was more varied than that implies. Among the fancy dress clothes and helium balloons were trays of “healing” crystals and shelves of awful novelty gifts. At the very back of the shop were racks and racks of posters: film stars, musicians, inspirational puppies, the Athena tennis girl, a montage of every way Kenny had ever died in South Park. 

(I had several. The two of which I am least proud:

  1. A black and white image of a Native American chief. Block caps caption: ONLY AFTER THE LAST TREE HAS BEEN CUT DOWN. ONLY AFTER THE LAST RIVER HAS BEEN POISIONED. ONLY AFTER THE LAST FISH HAS BEEN CAUGHT. ONLY THEN WILL YOU FIND MONEY CANNOT BE EATEN. Nice one, middle class white girl.
  2. This one, which I took with me to university and had up on my wall for two full years:FFS, teenage me.)

On this particular Saturday, the Horrible Friend was not flicking through the posters with me, but had instead wandered off to peruse the gift aisles. When I found her, she was arguing gobbily with the cashier about an item she wanted to buy. The cashier did not want to sell it to her, and it makes me feel much better about my own malleability that in the face of Horrible Friend’s bolshiness that adult person eventually backed down. (As I write this, I realise that perhaps they weren’t an adult at all. Possibly they were a bored 16 year old working a Saturday job. My point just about still stands though, I think). 

The thing she’d negotiated to buy?


A novelty “emergency cigarette”.

It cost more than a full pack would have, probably, but even she couldn’t have talked a shopkeeper into selling her those. So instead, she settled for this single, sealed ciggy. My heart filled with ice.

We left Horseplay as a triumvirate: me, the Horrible Friend, a Horrible Boy. We wandered some back streets. I tried to act cool.

My feet carried me unwillingly after them into a multi-storey car park. It was dank in the way of all such places: grim, urine-smelling concrete. We ran round the levels, up the ramps, getting in the way of Saturday shoppers as they navigated complicated parking manoeuvres. 

“Do your parents know what you’re up to?”

“Yes.”

(No.)

We stood on the top level, suddenly exposed to the open air. The next bits I remember only in sensory flashes. A sharp crack of the thin glass. The scrape of the match against the concrete wall. The familiar, comforting smell of a burnt-out match. The familiar, terrifying smell of a cigarette. The glass shell thrown to the pavement below, smashing at the feet of an unsuspecting pedestrian. Our footsteps pounding as we ran, breathlessly, away from the edge and out of sight.

I didn’t smoke the cigarette and I didn’t break the glass, and I certainly didn’t throw it off the top of the car park. But nor did I run away. I didn’t end the friendship, though I wanted to and could have. I carried on trudging miserably in the wake of the horrible friend for weeks and months to come.

There’s no neat ending to this story. Eventually, we fell out of step with one another, and spun off into separate social circles. There was no major blow out. I never called her out on her nastiness (which I realise I haven’t really managed to articulate here in any meaningful way). 

Where did I start? BHS? 

Perhaps it’ll struggle on in some form, like HMV has. Perhaps it’ll die. I hope for the sake of its staff that it’s rescued. But if it does fail, if it does fold, I think I’ll feel oddly relieved to say goodbye. 

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