The store I worked for underwent an overhaul a few years ago. Having sat comfortably on her stoical British bottom for slightly too long, she had realised that the young pretenders had been quietly taking over the high street as she dozed. She was dragged back to her feet, dusted down, and buffed and polished to within an inch of her life. New work practices were devised by earnest young executives sitting in air-conditioned ivory towers, far away from the mêlée of the shop floor. Monday morning meetings became an endless list of new rules and regulations, to be rolled out across the shop floor by myself and other equally fraught, and, at times, incredulous floor managers.
These actions were understandable, all businesses need to move forward. But one factor hadn’t been taken into consideration. And that was those staff members of a certain age, who had grown up with the comfortable slipper feel of their workplace, and weren’t impressed by the sudden switch to blood red stilettos!
My food department became the proverbial rug, under which these blots on the new sleek appearance were swept. I didn’t mind. Because I ended up with some of the most glorious characters I have ever worked alongside!
Merci was a tiny pixie of a woman, eyes dancing with mischief, a deep voice rubbed raw by years of smoking. She played the dizzy card to great effect, but was in fact possessed of a rapier sharp mind, and outrageous wit. Her sparse blonde hair was the bain of her life, and barely a week passed where she wasn’t trying some bizarre treatment in the hope of suddenly developing a flowing mane. One memorable month she gamely massaged snail slime into her scalp, despite the merciless teasing she received. Her personal life was marked with tragedy, but she was the consummate professional, and it was never mentioned at work. Most glorious of all was her frequent habit of using entirely the wrong word, with hilarious results. My favourite was one very busy afternoon, the two of us manning the tills, with a queue that snaked across the floor. A tourist asked her if everyone in Gibraltar spoke Spanish and English.
“Oh, yes,” came the reply. “In Gibraltar, we are all bisexual!”
And then there was Jane. Almost a caricature of an English shop assistant, lank hair held back from her face by two grips, shirt always pulled and gaping across her chest. Slightly stooped, sensible shoes, short socks, vaguely crumpled. No matter how busy we were, she moved at Jane speed, a slow careful crawl, with a slightly nasal voice that matched perfectly her pace. Apparently always in a semi-comatose state, she in fact did not miss a thing, and managed her section with frightening efficiency. A keen sense of the ridiculous hid beneath her surface, and would bubble up in unexpected moments. What fascinated me most about her was her true love story, which she told me one quiet afternoon. Forced into a loveless marriage at sixteen, with a small child, she had met the love of her life when she was eighteen. She was on a rare night out with her younger sister, and saw him from across the dance floor. He asked her to dance, and one week later, she moved in with him, and never left. When she told me of the moment she knew he was the one, it brought tears to my eyes.
“He asked me to dance, and took my hand, and I knew at that moment that I never wanted him to let it go again.”