A dame, a mouse and a brooch

This was not the only peanuts-paying job which Cleo Laine had as a teenager in London during the war but it was the only one that she gave up because of a mouse. The pawnbroker's where she worked in Ealing had diversified into cheap household goods and it was not, to put it mildly, the kind of establishment where you would expect to be served by a future Dame (as she is) and wife of a knight (as saxophonist John Dankworth has been since the New Year's Honour's List).

"They were very poor," she says of the customers who used to borrow small sums of money against the security of their most valuable possessions, which they would redeem by paying back the loan plus interest at a swingeing rate. Some of them would come in every week.

"Generally it was women who came in with wedding rings or objects which they didn't want to get rid of. Maybe their husband had drunk the rent money away or she was pregnant again. It might be for only a small amount of money to buy food for the weekend or to pay a debt or rent or it might be the insurance payment for a coffin or plot when they passed on. It was not for luxuries.

"If somebody lost a ticket or wasn't able to pay, the object was 'tagged' with a price and put in the window for sale." Cleo still remembers a young wife who regularly pawned her cameo brooch in order to escape a beating from her husband for not saving enough from the meagre housekeeping money; finally the poor woman never returned to take it out of hock and her brooch was put up for sale. "She often crosses my mind, especially when I pass the three large golden balls in my travels."

The three spheres in question are the traditional sign outside a pawnbroker's and are said to derive from the coat of arms of the Medici family; the symbol reached England via Italian bankers and moneylenders who first set up shop in Lombard Street. The number three is connected with the belief that for every two customers who redeemed their item, there would be one who failed.

Another tradition was the oblique way in which a financially challenged person referred to a trip to the pawnbroker's: "People would say, 'I'm going to uncle's'," recalls Cleo. She has never been to an "uncle" herself but she feels sure her mother, who kept a boarding-house, must have been a customer occasionally.

One day young Cleo was waiting for the trolleybus home when she found a mouse had smuggled itself inside her coat. Horrified, she gave in her notice. If even the rodents were trying to do a runner, it really was time to move on to a new day job.

The Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and Friends tour will be at St George's Bristol on 8 April