‘How the working life?’ asked my dad that evening.
‘It’s OK. My boss is really nice.’
The agency hadn’t found me another office job although I’d been on their books for six weeks, waiting around to find work every day. Instead I’d eventually been given a Christmas shop assistant job, a few weeks working in the small central London flagship store of a luxury British food brand. For shop work, it was a great gig- the shop hadn’t changed its opening hours for decades, so it was closed at the weekend and every day we were mopping the floor by 4.45, unless a tourist chose to linger among the china, ignoring our practised British hints (up to and including pointedly mopping around their feet).
‘Frank, no boss is nice. They stop being nice once they become a boss. Whatever they’re giving you, you can be assured they’re getting it back twice over in your labour. That’s what bosses do.’
I’ve often thought about those words, and they’ve proved strangely comforting over the years, but in fact my boss was nice, an older Yorkshire-woman with a tight perm who liked to make me blush by asking me about boys but assumed an air of perfect genteel professionalism in front of customers. I had two other colleagues, all women, all at least thirty years older than me, and they all treated me like I was their daughter, ribbing me, making me mop the floor even when it wasn’t my turn. I loved the girls’ club atmosphere, with smutty jokes and lots of giggling, even though I was the butt of most of the jokes.
During the day, I took products down off the shelf, cleaning the wood, restacking the products in reverse date order. I weighed dry food into bags and advised customers on the ideal present to take home to Japan, to Switzerland, to Indiana. We had regulars: famous people some of them, although I didn’t have a TV at home so I didn’t recognise the newsreaders or the politicians. I tidied up the cellar, a damp, narrow corridor stacked with thousands of boxes of products, and I sorted out orders for our one-woman mail-order operation. There was a lot of dusting.
I was quite happy there, I think. I had a little money in my pocket after I paid my parents the rent, which I spent on drinks for my cash-strapped friends studying at Sixth Form. It was around that time that Rhiannon and I drank six pints each in the Shakespeare’s Head and I was sick all over the last train from Liverpool Street. I was smoking B&H Silver and going out every night trying to get laid, but I recognised that my new colleagues needed me to be the nice girl I resembled in my beige H&M linen skirt, so I did what I was told and kept my mouth shut. Occasionally we went for a drink on a Friday evening, and my colleagues had a white wine and complained about their feet and how rude Italian tourists were. I stuck to Coke and kept smiling.
The business had been family-run for more than three hundred years, and lets-call-him Mr P. Junior occasionally brought in clients for meetings in our back room. I had to make the tea, in a white porcelain service with a gold rim kept especially for such occasions. The first time, I had never made tea in a pot before and so I put in five tea-bags, one for each person. Mr P. didn’t say anything about my mistake. He was very posh and vague and always approved of me. ‘Nicely-spoken,’ was the adjective he used.
There was also Mr P. Senior, a white-haired gentleman with pin-striped waistcoats and a watch-chain. One day when he was affably flirting with my manager she said something nice about me. He turned and looked at me. ‘Well, well, we must give Frances something.’ He reached into his inside breast pocket and handed me a gold pen with the name of the company stamped on the side. I still have it actually.
As a flagship store for a very successful company, we weren’t slaves to market pressures like most luxury stores. We opened at 9.30 after we had all had our tea, and when sometimes, after locking the doors a few minutes early, we saw the noses of disappointed tourists pressed up against the door, we cheerfully ignored them. My manager was lovely but occasionally would lose her temper with a particularly obnoxious customer and then they wouldn’t get served no matter what. Weekend opening was unheard of.
Now those colleagues have moved on. The shop opens at 9 on the dot and closes at 7.30 pm, including at weekends. The team is younger and more proactive and trained to please the customer, no matter how difficult or demanding. I went in a few months back and didn’t recognise anyone. The days I spent trying every single one of the products ‘so I understood the range’ seemed pretty far off. I wonder if they actually make more money now- I would assume not particularly.
After Christmas, which included shutting the shop for a week (unpaid of course- remember I was still working for the agency at £4 an hour) I did a couple more weeks, but the manager eventually called me into the office. ‘You know we love you Frances, and you’ve been fantastic-’ I can still hear the exact Yorkshire intonation of Fran-ces and fan-tas-tic – ‘But Mr P wants to get in a trained professional. We need someone with years of experience in luxury food retail. The new woman’s coming to us from Fortnum and Mason.’
The agency weren’t pleased to see me back.