Saturday 23 May 2009

Shop Girl in Sequins

I go upstairs and make two cups of tea.
I don’t know why I make two; I’m on my own today.
I chuck the milk carton in the bin outside and notice the man from the wig shop, looking cool in sunglasses.
I’ve never asked him to put my shutter up before. He seems the type who’d think it was beneath him. But when I do he’s very obliging.
“You need a strong man around,” he says, “ask me whenever you need help.”
What a find, I think, and go back to my teas.
The first is weak.
The second is cold.
Veronica comes in and I realise I’ve started something off. She now knows I’m capable of buying her jewellery.
“Mummy not here?”
“Not today.”
She looks slightly disappointed.
“What size are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve got a dress here.”
I’m blinded as she pulls out this glittering blue number, covered top to bottom in sequins.
“Oh, wow,” I say, struggling for words. “I don’t think it’s Mum’s thing.”
“You try it.”
“I don’t think I’d wear it.”
“Just try it.”
“But really, I wouldn’t...”
“Let’s just see how it looks.”
It’ll only be a moment, I tell myself. Veronica won’t give up unless I do.
The dress is really heavy.
I step into it and pull it up over my jeans. It’s so tight I can hardly move my legs.
It’s like being stuck inside a tube of toothpaste.
“Oh yes, it looks gorgeous on you,” Veronica says.
A tube of toothpaste covered in sequins.
The phone rings and I suddenly realise I’m in my shop dressed up like a drag queen.
What was I thinking?
I pull down the straps as I pick up the phone.
“Is that accounts?” a woman asks.
“Uh ...accounts is... away.”
Veronica comes around the counter, right up to me.
“You need to try it on without your top,” she says, and then tries to lift my top off.
The dress is stuck around my hips.
“I see,” the woman says.
I wriggle and the dress slides down, pushing my knees together. I fall forward and catch myself on the counter still hanging onto the phone.
The dress drops around my ankles.
“Do we owe you something?”
“You could wear it to a nice party,” Veronica says.
I pull my top back down.
“Or a dinner.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” the woman says, and gives me the amount.
“Right, I’ll sort it out tomorrow.”
“Thank you.”
I hang up and hand the dress back.
“It’s not really my style.”
“It’s only 20 pounds, it was 150...” Veronica pushes.
I catch myself thinking about my friend’s hen party.
“No, really,” I say, gathering my wits. “It’s not me.”
“I know it’s a bit over the top,” she says, “but I think you and your Mum should be a bit a bit more over the top...”
“I have to say it,” she says. “I think you’re both too conservative.”
This is news.
Is that the impression I give?
She starts getting her bags of jewellery out.
And I don’t know how she does it.
But after she’s gone, I look at my reflection in the mirror and run my finger over the new necklace. It’s a blue heart pendent with a big bling diamante inside it. On a gold chain.
And I think, maybe if I look at it long enough, I’ll start to like it.

Friday 15 May 2009

Shop Girl and the Local Economy

It’s been a difficult week for independent businesses.
The pub across the road has been boarded up.
“We’ve been hearing all sorts of reasons why,” confides the owner of the cafe, lowering his voice. “Infestation of bats, apparently.”
“Bats? I hope we don’t get them!”
“No, not bats! Rats!”
And that’s just one of the possibilities.
An inside source tells me they’re refurbishing. But either they’ve boarded it all up with the builders within or they haven’t started yet.
I go to the ‘all and everything’ African shop to get some disposable table cloths and find a bailiffs notice stuck on the door. Where am I going to find a disposable table cloth now?
It’s sad. The owner could never find anything you wanted but he was a nice guy.
Back at the shop we have our own problems.
A lanky white-haired man strides in with a bottle of white spirit under his arm.
“Now, am I right in thinking you sell hoover bags?”
“Nope, try a few doors up.”
An Indian man holds up a memory card from a camera.
“Nope, try a few doors up.”
A black man comes in carrying a folder.
“Do you do shipping?”
“Nope, but you could try a few doors down.”
Veronica creeps up on me on Friday with her endless bags of second hand jewellery.
A more mysterious regular customer had come in only moments before.
He’s a Nigerian lawyer and journalist who appears every few years to, in his words, ‘monitor’ my progress.
“That sounds creepy,” I say. “I’m going to blog about you now just in case you turn out to be a psycho.”
Lately I’ve forgotten how I’m supposed to talk to customers.
Veronica ignores the lawyer sitting on the stool by the counter and proceeds to shows me her wares.
“I haven’t got any money,” I say.
But she passes me the silver earrings anyway. I’m surprised to find I really quite like them.
“You won’t see another pair like it,” she says.
A couple come in and are looking at a chandelier. I’ve seen them before and sense they're probably quite serious about buying. We need a sale and I want to help but between the lawyer in front of me and Veronica at the side, I’m locked in.
“Okay, I’ll have them,” I say.
I think by buying the earrings Veronica will go and I’ll have a bit more space to sell something of my own.
No such luck.
“Have a look at this necklace,” she says.
“Hang on.”
I squeeze passed her to answer a few of the couple’s questions before leaving them to deliberate.
The thing is, the necklace is lovely too.
“Vintage,” she declares.
And cheap.
So I buy the necklace and off she goes.
The lawyer stays where he is.
“Do you want anything?” I ask him
So I leave him be and attend fully to the couple.
Then Veronica marches back in.
“Can I use your phone?” she says. “It’s a free number.”
I hand her the phone because it’s quicker than not giving it to her.
“There’s no dialling tone. Can you have a go?”
“I need to help these customers.”
“Let me try,” the lawyer says.
“No, she’ll do it for me,” Veronica says.
The couple glance at each other; confused or worried, I don’t know which.
I expect they’ll escape now, while they still can.
My counter is under siege, I can’t get in front of it or behind it.
“It’s free,” Veronica keeps saying. “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t.”
It’s one of those moments when I wonder if my life will ever make any sense.
“We’ll take it,” the couple say.
But maybe it doesn’t have to.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Shop Girl On Call

I’m in the Ladies toilets of a local pub.
I’ve come to replace the missing crystal on their chandelier.
It’s a metre long and hangs across the two cubicles.
My ladder is ready but I'm waiting for Miss Tinkle to finish in the loo. I don’t want to alarm her by reaching out across her head.
She sounds like she’s drunk a fair amount.
tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle...A pint of beer?tinkle tinkle..Two?tinkleSilence.
I tap my pliers against the rung of my ladder and wait for the flush.
Instead it starts again.
tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle tinkle...
The main door opens and another girl comes in.
I hadn’t anticipated these interruptions and am beginning to worry that this job will take a long time.
The girl eyes my ladder.
“I’m not a pervert. I’ve just come to put some crystals on the light.”
“If you say so,” she says.
The toilet flushes and Miss Tinkle comes out. The second girl goes into the cubicle.
“Do you mind if I put them on while you’re in there?” I call out. “I can’t see you.”
“Yeah, go on,” she calls back, “as long as you’re not a boy.”
So I go up my ladder and awkwardly manoeuvre myself so I can reach the gaps in the chandelier. I can’t see her but she can see my hands fiddling about above her.
“That looks weird,” she says.
It doesn’t take long after that and I’m glad to get outside into the fresh air.
We do this sort of thing for local customers; turn up to do the fiddly bits.
One local woman still asks after my brother when her halogen bulbs blow.
“Where is the boy?” she’ll ask.
And I have to tell her he turned into a man a long time ago and doesn’t live in England anymore.
Other jobs are a little grander.
Like the 2 metre tall spiral chandelier we dressed at 8am this morning in a stairwell at South East London’s most famous Funeral Directors.

It was like entering a country estate; beautifully maintained with its gardens and clock tower. There was a buzz of activity as everyone got on with their jobs for the day; each person appropriately dressed for the task at hand.
Their spacious car park was full of gleaming black vehicles.
They were all so smart and shiny that Mum hesitated before going in.
“What are you doing?” I asked her, as she reversed.
“I can’t go in there with this car,” she said. “It’s covered in bird’s poo.”
“But this is like, our van,” I said.
“It still doesn’t need to be covered in bird’s poo.”
To reach the chandelier we needed two ladders locked together down the stair case and two Polish builders to hold each side.
I climbed to the top and Mum handed me up a string of crystal, one at a time.
There were hundreds of strings, each one a different length; it was going to take a while.
The builders didn’t speak much English and watched in silence.
At one point I felt an urge to chat to them.
I’d done four classes of Polish while studying TEFL* (teaching English as a foreign language).
I knew how to say ‘bread’ and ‘one sausage’.
But half an hour later I was still wondering how I could put my knowledge to use.
In the end I kept quiet and let the chandelier do all the talking.