This week with Roddy still in bed, I decided to post the very first short story that I ever wrote and hope that it will make up for the lack of photographs – and no blog dog!
My very best wishes to you all. Marcia
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I saw a rook today with a straw in its’ beak and my heart gave a little upward leap of joy and hope. Then, all at once, I was back in the past hearing Elizabeth Drake saying, ‘Oh, no. 1 hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. 1 love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person.’
Even now, thirty or more years on, I feel the little thread ox shame worm through me: that little hot flush of horror that comes when remembering that of which one is more than a ,little ashamed.
I was so young. That’s one of my excuses. Nineteen, twenty, I can’t remember now, perhaps old enough to now better, Anyway, my father had decided that I was quite old enough to get a job and earn some money and, though my mother and I protested, he insisted that daughters didn’t stay at home any longer, writing letters and arranging flowers and that it would be good for me to be independent. In spite, or because, of an expensive education, nothing readily rushed to mind. Perhaps my father suspected that my efforts weren’t totally whole hearted for, one day, he returned from his game of golf to announce that he had arranged an interview for me with the Managing Director of a very large furniture store in the nearby town. My father had been playing a round with the Chairman and somehow my problem had cropped up. My problem! 1 liked that. I’d been quite happy pottering about, following up leads from my girlfriends which had unluckily come to nothing. There was nothing for it but to go.
At the time, I remember, 1 was quite surprised to be offered the job: assistant in the China and Glass Department. I knew nothing of the retail business, though I recognised a few names such as Crown Derby and Wedgewood. If I had heard of the Old Boys Network 1 didn’t apply it in my own case arid naively imagined that the M.D. liked me and saw my potential. The department was a small one and included lampshades, wall-lights etc. The window-dresser, an elderly man who wore very floral ties and would appear at regular intervals to collect up items for his displays in the ‘dining-rooms’ and ‘bedrooms’ and ‘sitting-rooms’. He had to sign a book to show that he had taken them: two Doulton figures, a set of Waterford wine goblets, a table lamp and shade etc. etc. Off he would go with his little assistant, a shy boy of about sixteen with an acne-ridden face arid floppy fair hair, clutching things or pushing them on an expensive tea-trolley.
‘Do be careful!’ Elizabeth Drake would cry. Her tone suggested, quite accurately, that she resented anything being carried out of the department. So did I but for quite different reasons. If a customer wanted to see anything that was out on display I was the one who had to get it, toiling up and down the stairs staff weren’t allowed to use the lifts! too stupid! and round the endless acres of carpeted floors until I found the little .Doulton figurine stuck on a bedside table in a corner of the Beds department 1 would seize it and go hurrying back the customer might get fed up with waiting, mustn’t lose a sale often with Mr Dickson, that was the window-dresser’s name, leaping out of the woodwork at me to ask what I was doing. Perhaps be mistook me for a shop-lifter, his eyes were, after all, very weak and his spectacles had very thick lenses.
Elizabeth Drake. 1 can picture her quite clearly. I thought her old, well, middle-aged but she was probably no more than thirty-eight. She was very fastidious. Her shirts, plain and simple, were always immaculate, her skirts, practical, were newly pressed, her shoes, sensible, were highly polished. She wore the minimum of make-up, just enough not to shine, and her dark, short hair was always in place. I could never imagine her being passionate, with, frantic At least, not in the beginning.
She was my boss, the manager and buyer of the department and she was the only member of staff who treated me as an ordinary person and, not, as I realise now was the case with the others, as a friend of the Chairman. Uh, they knew all right. I don’t know how. Certainly not through me, it never occurred to me to mention it, but they knew. Everyone was charming to me. Slowly I got to know the people in the other departments and slowly I came to realise that they all, without exception, hated Elizabeth Drake. Even now 1 don’t really know why. 1 think she committed the cardinal sin of letting them see that she felt herself superior to them, Well, she was. There’s no doubt about that. Apart from one or two little secretaries and some girls on the switchboard there were only two other female staff: Mrs Jenkins, who was the receptionist and sat behind a huge bar sort of arrangement on the ground floor, and Mrs Steed.
Mrs Steed I can see her, too. Fat, fair and forty, dressed to kill and with a bubbly charm that disguised the thinness of the brightly painted lips and the calculating coldness in the pale blue eyes. This is with hindsight. At the time I was flattered by her friendliness. As tar as I could tell she was employed mainly in bolt Furnishings but helped out with anyone who was short staffed, strutting between departments on high-heeled shoes, her ample bottom tightly encased. in short skirts admirably chosen to display plump calves in shiny stockings. She was very popular with the men. She and Mrs. Jenkins were often to be seen, heads together, in corners or in the staff-room canteen, well, they called it a canteen. It was a tiny room, tucked away on the top floor, painted a depressing green and furnished with some small tables and a few chairs, a grubby cooker next to a little sink and a supply of china, spoons etc. The staff had to supply the milk and coffee and anything else that they wanted to consume, The management would never have got away with it in this day and age but they were perfectly happy for stall to go out of the building for coffee breaks and lunch as long as they were back in time, so no-one much minded.
Elizabeth Drake always went out. Brisk, looking neither to right nor left, pulling on her gloves, she would leave the department, descend the stairs and, by way of the staff entrance, staff were not allowed to use the main doors! too stupid! vanish into the throng outside in the town. Once she’d gone one or two of the staff would gather together and the whispering would begin. In the early days I was left well alone. Perhaps no-one quite knew whose side I would take and what I might say to a higher authority. Anyway. The chief whisperers were Mr. Baxter from Carpets, Mrs. Steed and Mr Griffiths. Everyone called him Griff and he was the manager and buyer of Soft Furnishings. I thought he was the funniest man I had ever met. He had spent most of his life working in the London branch of the company and had only recently moved to the provinces. He could smell out the people who came into the store to avoid the rain or waste time and was brutal to them. I remember him advancing on a woman who had been roaming about for some time, She’d already been round the China and Class department and had moved into soft furnishings. The departments were next door to each other and I watched him approach her.
‘Can I help you, madam?’ he asked. He had a peculiarly menacing smile, I remember. He never opened his lips. His silvery hair was plastered to his skull and he always wore a pin-stripe suit. The woman was now riffling half-heartedly through a pile of bedspreads. She straightened up.
‘No, no thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m looking for a friend.’
‘Well, you won’t find her in there, madam,’ he said.
I remember hiding behind a display cabinet to stifle my laughter. We had lots of laughs together when Elizabeth Drake was out. He was always asking me questions about the department: how were our sales, figures for the month, our budget and so on. When Elizabeth Drake found out she was furious.
‘And I suppose you tell him everything,’ she exclaimed bitterly.
By this time I was used to her antagonism to the staff and her dislike or my overtures of’ friendliness towards them.
‘Hardly,’ I said, ‘1 don’t know any of the answers.’ Nor did 1 care, Perhaps that was implicit in my tone because she managed a smile.
‘I suppose not. It’s just none of their business,’
Fine. Didn’t bother me either way. She and I got on very well. She always called me by my surname, I remember, like at a boys’ school.
‘Come on, Beauchamp,’ she’d say. ‘Get the duster out.’
She’d pull my leg about being privileged.
I remember her saying to me, ‘I thought that the first time I saw you attempting to put a lampshade into a paper bag I’d die laughing. Have you ever been asked to do anything useful?’
I used to 1augh with her. Didn’t bother me a bit. And anyway, it was perfectly true, We had some pleasant moments but, even in the early days. 1 was irked by her attitude of isolation, the feeling of ‘them and us’, that the department was an oasis amidst the infidel. I was young, light-hearted, the job wasn’t that important. I wanted to laugh with Gritf and Mr. Baxter, gossip with Mrs Steed and Mrs Jenkins. I realise now that she was worth the lot of them put together. She had fine ideas, a high moral-tone a sense of duty and with the unerring shallowness of youth, when I chose, I chose Mrs Steed and. Grill,
Mrs Steed. had a boyfriend, It was Griff who told me and. it came as the most dreadful shock. 1 had had a sheltered upbringing and. was still naive enough to think that married women didn’t have boyfriends. Grill had great pleasure in telling me. He was that sort of man. He enjoyed shattering youth’s illusions, discrediting his friends and making it all sound great fun arid perfectly normal. Hindsight, again. At the time I thought that I was being treated as one of the lads and belt grown-up and important. Mrs. Steed’s boyfriend came into the store one day. Boyfriend! He was thirty-five it he was a day! I shook my head, mentally, in disbelief. Still, it was all great fun, lots of jolly jokes and laughs and, apparently, Mr. Steed knew all about it and was perfectly happy. So, I joined in and was introduced. Needless to say, Elizabeth Drake was at lunch.
‘Where’s the gorgon?’ I heard the boyfriend say ‘Gone to Mass?’
I have to admit that I laughed with the rest. It was the first I’d heard, though, of Elizabeth Drake being a Roman Catholic. 1 recalled a conversation we’d had about abortion, She’d. been unusually heated. about it, saying that it was a crime, murder Well, of course, if she was an RC that would. explain it.
It was about that time that we had the conversation about spring I has told her how much I loved the autumn, the colours, the woodsmoke and Christmas at the end of it.
‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘I hate the autumn. Dank and cheerless, dark nights and winter ahead. So depressing. I love the spring, new life, re-birth. I’m an Easter person. Wait ‘till you’re older, Beauchamp, you’ll feel as I do,’
‘But Christmas,’ I pressed her. ‘Surely you like Christmas?’
Her face closed. ‘I hate Christmas,’ she said. And that was that.
Time passed and my birthday arrived. She gave me a little leather bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She’d written on the flyleaf. It was a quote about friendship and values. I can’t for the life of me remember it now and I’ve lost the book, At the time I was more excited by Mrs. Steed’s present of some silk stockings.
As the time approached for her to take her holiday she became agitated. She went off to see the M.D. and came back looking grim.
‘I asked him to let me leave you in charge,’ she said, ‘but he won’t, He says you haven’t enough experience. Mrs Steed’s going to be in here with you.’
I opened my mouth to say, ‘what fun!’ and shut it again. She spent all day putting things away and locking drawers and leaving me with endless do’s and dont’s. Mrs. Steed came into the department during the afternoon to see if she had any instructions for her. Dislike crackled tangibly between them, beneath their icy politeness and I could see, just round the corner, Griff rubbing his hands and smiling to himself, I left with her that evening and wished her a happy holiday.
The next two weeks were carnival. The department became a place of fun and laughter. Mrs. Steed’s friends dropped in, including the boyfriend, and other members of staff stopped off for little chats,
‘You see it doesn’t have to be like a mausoleum,’ Mrs. Steed said to me on more than one occasion. ‘You poor girl we really feel for you, you know.’
I said things like, ‘oh, she’s not so had, you know,’ and ‘she’s OK. really,’ but they wouldn’t have it and I began to feel that perhaps, after all, I was rather hard done by in having such a stiff, unfriendly stickler, for a boss.
When Elizabeth Drake came back it was like going back to school after the holidays. She went through the department from top to bottom, checked for dust and then settled down to go through the figures. Members of stall gave me little winks and nods of sympathy and I felt as though, somehow imperceptibly, I had moved from her side to theirs. Her behaviour didn’t help, she was cool and stilt and wouldn’t talk much about her holiday. She set me to completely change the department round, no doubt to throw off any lingering memory of Mrs. Steed, and I was hard at it all day.
‘Shame,’ whispered Mrs. Steed as I passed her going out to lunch. ‘Miserable old cow. We had such time, didn’t we?’
‘Shame,’ whispered Grill. ‘Pity she didn’t drown on her holiday. Janice Steed should run your department.’
‘Shame,’ mumbled Mr. Reed who was an alcoholic and worked in Beds, He used to chew garlic to disguise the whisky and the result was very interesting. He was often to be found sleeping it off in one 01 the big wardrobes in his department and snoring gently. He’d rather enjoyed the party atmosphere in our department during the last fortnight and had brought his hip-flask along.
I definitely began to feel hard done by. A few days later Anthony Lachlin strolled into the department. He was the chairman’s son and I’d known him forever.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I heard,’ he drawled gazing round with eyebrows raised in disbelief. His glance rested on Mrs. Steed and Grill, peering from Soft Furnishings and Mr. Baxter hovering at the edge of Carpets. He nodded at them regally. ‘My dear Caroline, what are you doing here.’
‘Daddy thought I ought to get a job, It’s all your father’s fault,’ I said crossly
He burst out laughing and Elizabeth Drake raised her head and gazed at him coldly from her desk in the corner. It was a huge old-fashioned wooden thing with plate glass almost to head height.
‘Shut up,’ I whispered pulling at his sleeve, ‘I have to work here.’
‘Not for much longer, 1 hope,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s over fifty by the look of it, Dreadful collection of old fossils. What can father have been thinking oft Well, never mind, I’ve got a splendid idea. A friend of mine’s trying his band at an antique shop and he needs an assistant. Much more your thing.’
I walked with him to the top of the stairs and then, to my horror, he kissed me on both cheeks in full view of all the first floor staff.
“Bye, darling,’ he called as he descended the stairs, ‘don’t forget, eight o’clock on Saturday.’
Elizabth Drake met me at the entrance to the department.
‘I really must protest, Miss Beauchamp,’ she began, loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘at your using the department as a place to entertain your friends.’
Now this was really unfair. Apart from Anthony only one or two of my friends had ever been into the store. These had taken in the hushed atmosphere, the ‘old fossils’ and the deep gloom generally and fled. I always met them outside in the town. What she was referring to were my mothers’ friends who, in town for some shopping, would descend with shrieks of joy, ‘Caroline, darling, your mother told us to be sure and look you up. Now, do you get commission? Oh, goody. Come on Connie,’ or Mary, or Jane, ‘let’s buy a little something to swell the coffers.’ then they’d swoop round picking things up and putting them down whilst Elizabeth Drake nodded frostily to them room behind the plate glass. The problem was that nearly all of them were account customers so there was nothing she could do and, after all, they’d always buy a little something and rush off with it calling goodbyes.
I apologised. Sullenly. I could feel waves of sympathy emanating from the rest of the store and old Mr. Dickson came over specially to say that he wanted to change the window display and could I help him carry some things as his boy was away. Grudgingly she said I could and I went with him gratefully.
Things didn’t really improve and, when Anthony told me I could have the job at the antiques shop if I wanted it, I jumped at it, I went at once to the MD’s office to give in my notice. He seemed reluctant to take it. He looked tired and worried, his fingers pressing constantly on a point just above his waistline at the front. On his desk stood a glass of milk.
‘I wonder, Miss Beauchamp, if you’ve given it long enough,’ he said. ‘I can understand that it’s not too exciting for a young person of your age but soon you’ll be able to start learning how to buy . ‘ He droned on and on . . .
At last, when I really thought that he was not going to accept my notice I said, ‘To be honest 1 really don’t want to work with Mrs Drake any more. We’re not really compatible.’
He sat up straight then, ‘Ah, so that’s it,’ he said. ‘Well, of course, we’ve had complaints before. Well, if that’s the case you can leave it to me. Mrs Steed can run the department. You get on very well with her, don’t you?’
I stared at him. ‘Yes, but that’s not the point . . .’
‘Don’t worry, my dear.’ He stood up and came round the desk. ‘I’ll get it all settled. She’ll be no loss, I assure you.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I began, but he was hustling me out or the door.
When Elizabeth Drake appeared in the department later I tried to hide. She seized me by the arm, her race was red, her eyes watered and her mouth was stretched into an ugly shape.
‘Why did you do this?’ she cried. ‘We’ve got on very well. Why did you say you couldn’t work with me?’
‘I didn’t,’ I tried to free myself, shocked by her appearance. ‘I didn’t actually say that. I’m leaving anyway. It’s nothing to do with you.’
‘Will you say that? Will you come with me now and say that?’ She was dragging me towards the stairs, oblivious or the interested stares. I was hot with shame and embarrassment. I knew that I had done something dreadful.
‘Please,’ I begged her, ‘please wait. I will go. Be calm.’ But she wouldn’t listen, Mr. Harrigan, the Assistant Manager was coming down the stairs and she flew at him dragging me with her.
‘Miss Beauchamp says that it’s nothing to do with me,’ she cried to hum. ‘She’s prepared to go now and say so. It’s all a mistake. Please . . .’
It was dreadful. I wondered how on earth she could contemplate continuing to work there having exposed herself so completely to her enemies. Mr. Harrigan hustled her away and presently appeared and suggested that I should go to lunch. When I came back she’d gone. No sign of her was left behind and, in her place, was Mrs. Steed, triumphant at last, The place was agog. Rumours raced round the departments. Elizabeth Drake had gone mad, hit the MD, had fallen on her knees and begged for mercy.
‘White as a sheet she was when she left,’ reported Griff, smiling. ‘I watched her. She passed right by me,’ How he would have enjoyed it.
‘So that’s that,’ Mrs. Steed could barely hide her exaltation. How well I had played her cards for her. ‘Let’s tidy up a bit, shall we?’
I left anyway. I went to say goodbye to Mr. Harrigan. He was a gentle, quiet man with a limp and had been patently distressed by the scene on the stairs. I told him how sorry I was, how it had all been a hit of a muddle, It made me feel a bit better to say that. Less guilty.
‘Poor woman.’ He shook his head. His mild gaze roamed the middle distance, ’Such a tragic story. Her husband is an invalid, you know. He was knocked down by a drunken driver one Christmas Eve, The child was killed.’
His gaze returned to me. ‘She told me once but no-one else ever knew. That’s how she wanted it. I shouldn’t have mentioned it but she’s gone and you’re going anyway. Don’t tell anyone else please.’
I said again, ‘Child?’
He sighed. ‘Yes, She had a child, He was two or three, I think, After the accident it was found that her husband would never be able to provide her with another. It was a dreadful grief to her. She has to work to support them, now.’
He turned away and began to pull himself up the stairs with his odd salting gait.
‘Mr. Harrigan,’ I called after him. ‘Where did she go? Can you give me her address?’
He looked down at me and shook his head.
‘Well, she’ll be in the phone book.’
He shrugged. ‘She worked under her maiden name,’ he said and went on his way.
I searched for her for weeks. When I’d done all the stores I tried cafes. No luck. Lime passed and I got married. Some years later, when I’d almost forgotten, I was pushing my second child through the China and Glass department of a large store when I saw her. She looked relatively unchanged to me. There’s not a great difference between the mid-thirties and the mid-forties. I watched her for a bit and then went up to her.
‘Hello,’ I said. After a moment she smiled, coolly, warily.
‘I looked for you,’ I said, ‘I wanted to apologise. Can you ever forgive me?’
She smiled again. ‘Ill try,’ she said. And then she saw Freddie, Her face lit up. ‘You have a child,’ she said and came right round the counter to look at him. I felt my throat constrict.
‘Two, actually,’ I said. She crouched beside him arid he stared at her stolidly, thumb in mouth. She looked up at me. ‘I have a son, too,’ she said. And her face blazed with love and pride. I stared. She touched Freddie’s cheek with her finger and stood up.
‘I couldn’t get another job, you see, so we decided to adopt. You get all sorts of help and allowances. He’s started school, now, so I’m working part tame.’
I swallowed. ‘I’m so glad. What’s his name?’
‘Andrew. So you see, it worked out very well.’ Her smile, this time was warmer, ‘I forgave you long ago, actually. When Andrew arrived.’
I nodded words were difficult. ‘So you don’t hate Christmas anymore?
‘Not any more. But I still like spring best.’
I never saw her again. But it all came back to me when I saw the rook with the straw in his beak,
I wish I could find that book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, though.
© Marcia Willett 1995