Authors: Michael Cannon
‘I didn’t see that on your CV.’
‘I don’t have a CV. I wrote a letter. If I did have a CV it would have been shorter still.’
The younger guy clears his throat too. His pose mirrors the older guy’s. ‘We called her in on the strength of the letter.’ He hands this across and his finger taps the top
corner, pointing at the Bridgeton address I’m guessing.
‘Reference?’ asks the woman.
‘If you phone Tommy I’m sure he’ll vouch for me. He might not be as quick to commit himself to paper. Most of it was on the black.’
‘Black economy,’ the younger guy translates.
‘If you give me a chance I’ll do my best to punt shed-loads of that classical stuff. That’s really all I can say.’ And it was.
The woman smiled at me kindly. ‘We’ll let you know.’ The girls were equally kind on the way out. One of them looked at my top and said she couldn’t have gotten away with
it. I think she was sincere.
I anticipated a letter, the kind that arrives on bonded paper and begins ‘We regret...’ I gave it a week. Still nothing. In my book that’s just plain rude. The following
Tuesday I just
to be passing with Millie and I wheeled her in. I wouldn’t normally take a pram into town, but I wanted to make a point. Precisely what point I’m not
‘We expected you yesterday,’ one of the girls said.
‘You’re expected to turn up to get turned down?’
‘Simon offered you the job.’
‘First I heard.’
‘We tried to reach you on the number you put in your letter. We left a message and a text asking you to come in.’
My mobile is pay-as-you-talk, and I’ve been too broke to top it up. They offered to look after Millie while I went into the back to apologise. Simon turned out to be the younger guy. I
think he didn’t commit the offer to paper because a text was his small revolt against their ancient procedures. He agreed I could start a week late.
* * *
I’d been in the shop for a fortnight before I realised the thing that distinguished most of our customers – beards. Perhaps you can’t really appreciate
classical music without one, which is tough for women. I had a secret theory that a lot of them
to like it because they think it’s the right thing to do, like those wankers
who pretend to like modern art. Having said that, most of them were nice. They weren’t the type I’ve met before who would try and grope you
shoplift at the same time. They
were patient with my inexperience. They asked me my first name and didn’t forget it. They seemed disproportionately grateful when I returned the favour. They said my ‘frocks’ were
‘pretty’. They kind of patronised without realising they were doing it. In a completely disarming moment, in relation to nothing at all, one showed me a picture of his grown-up daughter
and asked me about Millie. I gushed. He nodded, holding on to the CD racks, and then he walked right out without a backward glance. Simon told me she’d died. I cried on the top deck the whole
way home. After a month he still hadn’t overcome his embarrassment enough to come in. I found his address from our mailing list and sent him a note, saying there was buy one get one free on
Rachmaninoff. He came in, smiled sadly, and said he couldn’t see the offer on display.
‘I lied,’ I said.
The worst were the jazz fans, or, as Simon called them, ‘aficionados’, who could sit in a booth for half an hour and listen to a noise that sounded like someone sawing a trombone in
half. This, one explained, was an ‘improvised set’. The soloist was a ‘genius’. I agreed. Anyone who can lure hard cash for those emperor’s new clothes isn’t
stupid. Even the jazz types weren’t that bad. In fact I liked most of them too.
I laid out my stall to the girls on the first day. Gabrielle, shortened to Gabby, and Naomi, that couldn’t really be shortened (it had to be names like that, when you come to think about
it – no one with that kind of expensive teeth work is going to be called Agnes). ‘Look, girls,’ I said ‘I’m not going to hold it against you just because you grew up
with money and wield the right cutlery.’ They took this in the spirit it was intended. It didn’t take a genius to work out that neither of them was overburdened with brains. Daddy and
Mummy probably spent the price of a car each year on their education. They were probably getting French verbs drummed into them while mum was getting fucked across sacks of polenta, and you have to
go some, with that amount of coaching, to wind up in a shop you don’t own – or at least manage. They both looked like toothpaste adverts. They both smoked and swore with poise. They had
a style, bought early enough to look natural, and even if they were shit thick they knew enough to know that. And although it sounds terrible, I got the impression that in the eyes of the customers
they were interchangeable. Ask either and you’re going to get the same well-pronounced useless reply.
It turned out that Gabby knew the owner. In fact it was her dad, the older guy at the interview. I never found out who the woman was. Naomi’s dad was a friend of Gabby’s dad. They
probably went fly-fishing, or truffle-hunting, or some other posh thing together. Neither girl could sell a thing. They never knew where anything was. All their organisational skills were used up
turning up on time with the teeth and the hair and the skin.
A point that’s been brought to my attention more than once is that my intelligence is chronically underestimated by people who don’t know me. If it’s anyone’s fault it
must be mine more than theirs, because they change and the general opinion doesn’t. It might be because I don’t have any qualifications to speak of. Or it might be because I speak in a
simpler way than I think.
be that I’m the feral product of an absent mum and an alcoholic dad, left to drag herself up in a council high-rise, with no
idea of how to act or dress except what I’ve picked up on the hoof. New people take one look and usually underestimate me. But Simon took a look and he didn’t underestimate me.
Within a few weeks of me starting Simon grew a beard – of sorts. I remember the physics teacher at school put up a picture of Einstein, the famous one with the electric hair. You’d
need to be a bona-fide, twenty-four-carat genius to get away with hair like that. He did. His hair looked like a by-product of all that mental energy. It’s the same with beards. Darwin could
carry a beard. Simon couldn’t. It wasn’t even a proper Old Testament beard. It looked more like the kind they use to advertise facial trimmers, the type vain wankers grow to look
cultivated. I might have kept my opinion to myself if he hadn’t surprised me. I was doing a stock check, and sighing for something I could recognise as music, when I straightened and he was
‘Fuck me, a musketeer. You must be pathos.’
He looked startled, touched his chin and disappeared as quietly as he’d arrived. On castors. The next day he’s clean shaven. ‘Suits you better.’ He went through the mime
of pretending not to understand, as if my joke and his shave were a coincidence.
Gabby told me I got away with murder. Gabby had the hots for Simon. Anyone could see it, the way anyone with a shred of intelligence could see that nothing was going to come of it. He had an
easy number, listening to music, dabbling with work and acting posh in the company of two big-bosomed lame-brains he could enjoy feeling superior to. He wasn’t about to risk all that for a
poke at the boss’s daughter, or even the boss’s best pal’s daughter. Besides, there was something else about Simon. He chose his words
carefully, and he was careful
to pronounce them all. Like I said, I speak in a simpler way than I think, but that’s not the impression I got from the girls. They employed their full vocabulary, and it wasn’t
impressive. They made this noise when they didn’t know what to say, which was often, that sounded like a small engine idling. Or they could say ‘Yesssssss...’ for five fucking
seconds. It’s the arrogance of people who assume you’ve got all the time in the world to listen to them form a thought. I didn’t get the impression there were any profound nuggets
struggling to get out. They both did it, even to each other, and neither realised. He tried to be like them, but he was too clever and didn’t start early enough.
He wasn’t bad looking, and despite my lack of self-confidence he didn’t seem to think I was that hard on the eye either. All that attention that Gabby craved came my way. And we had
reason to be together. I think the unspoken bargain with the ‘management’, in other words Gabby’s dad, was that the girls were the cosmetic lure. Once they’d attracted the
punters they’d filled their part of the bargain. I wasn’t employed for my dress sense, and it suited me to work. I’m easily bored. I reorganised things the way I had in the last
place, and he found every reason to stand near me. I can’t say I minded. It had been a long time since Quick Nick, and my confidence about my appearance was at a bit of a low ebb. He
suggested I develop a taste for music ‘with substance’, and when I asked why he said it ‘might better qualify’ me to sell it. I bit back the obvious about the girls because
I was flattered by his interest. My neglected ego, that abandoned car with the poked-in windows, coughed a few times and trundled itself off the waste ground. Lolly noticed it.
‘Why the make up?’
‘I’m going to work.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘Why does it have to be a man?’
‘Because you used to go to work looking like one of those women protestors living in a tent outside a missile base, and you’re answering a question with a question.’
Simon pretended to educate me and I pretended to be impressed by his Sunday supplement sophistication. But there were certain things I couldn’t let pass.
‘Don’t tell me you
‘What’s wrong with jazz?’
likes jazz. They only
to like jazz.’
‘It can have its merits.’
‘What kind of answer is that? Your arse must get sore.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Sitting on that fence. Jazz is the emperor’s new clothes. People
to like it because they’re frightened of missing what other people
‘There’s not much room for doubt in your scheme of things, is there?’
‘There’s not enough time. I don’t have the energy not to mean what I say.’
And so it went on like that for a couple of months. He found more reasons for being with me. He asked my opinion on the smooth running of the shop, which was easy, and then went on to ask my
opinion on anything else that happened to occupy his mind, which was nicer still. Given I was the only part-time employee, I had a disproportionate effect on the running of the place, and he seemed
to think that because I was competent at this I’d be competent at other things too. He’d find me, hand across a mug of coffee I hadn’t asked for, unfold
point out – well, anything – from another crop failure in Africa to dwindling literacy rates in the Home Counties. And I’d have to abandon whatever I was doing and muster some
half-baked opinion. And he’d look at me while I was talking, and I’d know he was listening, really listening, not focusing on my tits and taking inventory the way most men do when they
pretend to listen. And it was as if he was always struggling with the problem of my appearance, this diamond in the rough.
He never made the girls coffee or asked their opinion on anything. Gabby accepted defeat gracefully, and I was tempted to console her with the fact that there wasn’t anything in it, we
weren’t going anywhere. If I didn’t have Millie I might have thrown caution to the wind and asked him out, even though work relationships are a bad idea. A child in the picture changes
everything. Nothing’s ever really casual after that, unless you’re a parent like one of mine. I was reconciled to it stagnating into friendly chit-chat, till he found someone else, when
he asked me out. It caught me completely flat-footed.
‘I’ll have to arrange a sitter.’ He looked blank. ‘For Millie.’
‘Of... of course...’ he looked confused, as if I’d just invented her as an excuse not to go out with him.’
‘She’s the person I talk about all the time. The reason I only work part-time.’
He looked relieved, as if she’d just been wheeled into the shop like some court exhibit to prove a point.
‘Well of course you must find a sitter for Millie.’ And he smiled. And I had an image of him pushing a supermarket trolley with her in it while I chose posh biscuits from an aisle
that stretched on for miles that didn’t sell anything else. And we all smile at my choice.
Lolly offered me the loan of any of her outfits. I’d have looked like a starved tart. Ruth said I could try any of hers. The most alluring thing she had looked like a tent with a
drawstring. I went out and bought a classic short black dress. Ruth, God bless her, said I looked like Audrey Hepburn. I humoured her and said the resemblance was uncanny: Holly Golightly, except
not quite as good looking, living as a single parent in a Bridgeton high-rise. I’d still been expressing milk for Millie on the days I worked. Most of my bras were maternity washed-out
hammocks. Lolly can identify a cup size on a moving bus at a hundred yards. She arrived with a present. ‘It’s a front-loader, rounds them up and herds them out. You’ll actually
have a cleavage. Spray some perfume in between so he can stick his face down there and draw up a lungful – works for me.’
They both arrived at five on Saturday evening, having struck a truce in the middle of one of their on-going arguments, to boost my confidence. I was already nervous, and the sight of this
alliance for my sake made me worse. The three of us together gave the situation a seriousness it shouldn’t have had. If you hang around Lolly for any length of time some of her reputation
rubs off. But despite what the rumour mill might have thrown up, I haven’t had many boyfriends. Two one-nighters. The only man I’ve had sex with more than once is Nick. Here was a
chance maybe to start something with someone who might actually care for
It was the only offer I’d had, beside the kind of bottom-feeders who see single mothers as an easy mark.
The very worst thing I could do would be to let him know how much tonight meant to me. Maybe all the poor boy wanted was a meal in company. Lolly broke the silence with ‘It’s only a
date,’ walking up to me and spraying perfume she’d found in the bathroom down my new cleavage. Ruth found something to occupy her at the window. She’d never been on a date and
there wasn’t one on the foreseeable horizon. I knew
what she was thinking: people are meeting people and no one’s meeting me. I wanted to squeeze her hand and break a
plate over Lolly. Millie stirred. I wiped off the perfume and gave her a last feed. Lolly left on ‘only a date’, using up yet another of the finite meetings of this night. Ruth stood at
the door, making small talk while I waited for the lift on the landing. It pinged on arrival. I told the surprised old lady inside to hold the door and rushed back to kiss her.