Authors: Alexandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
‘Fine, I’ll try harder,’ I say, feebly masking the sarcasm from my voice.
‘Good.’ She pauses. ‘And tell Annie too. That girl is practically illiterate, I know she’s half Traveller, but honestly, who spells Juicy Couture as Juicy K-A-T-O-O-R?’ I open my mouth to defend Annie, but Tina carries on. ‘Look Georgie, I’m sorry about snapping at you the other day. Don’t know what came over me.’ She smooths an imaginary stray hair from her swishy high ponytail that’s scraped back so tightly her face looks as though it might burst at any moment.
‘No worries, let’s just forget about it shall we? So, have you set a date for the wedding yet?’ I say, swiftly moving on to a topic that I know she’ll love.
‘Oh yes. It’s going to be on Valentine’s Day. Only four weeks to go!’ She claps her hands together. ‘And it’s just perfect that February the fourteenth falls on a Sunday this year so everyone can come, and of course it will be really romantic, with loads of balloons and hearts and swans. And there might even be a pink unicorn!’ Her eyes widen and my mind boggles. ‘I found a place that will spray-paint one of those dinky little horses, and then I’ll get someone to strap a horn to its head, plastic of course, I don’t want those animal rights freaks coming after me. It’s going to be a-mazing. Just like a fairytale. Of course, you’re invited, but only to the evening reception. You don’t mind do you?’ I shake my head as if on autopilot. ‘It’s just that I don’t think everyone will fit in otherwise,’ she adds.
‘Of course, I understand,’ I say, thinking how being home all alone suddenly seems so much more appealing now.
‘And you’ll need to bring a plus one. I’m not having any singletons, apart from Eddie, of course.’ It dawns on me … how the hell am I going to get a plus one at such short notice? Panic surges. I’ll be the only person there without a date in tow.
Tina purses her lips while I swallow hard and glare at the display that flashes a red five. Only one more floor to go, thankfully. The lift grinds to a halt, breaking the awkward silence, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief as I turn to leave. But she pipes up again.
‘And you will come to my hen do, won’t you?’ she smiles, her finger on the door hold button. ‘But don’t worry about trying to find someone to bring along. I have sooo many friends coming,’ she says. For a moment I’m speechless, but I don’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing that she’s riled me, so I manage a grimace.
‘Thanks, sounds marvellous.’ I step out of the lift and, turning my back, mutter, ‘Can’t wait,’ under my breath, just as the lift starts moving again.
I make my way along the corridor towards the offices.
‘You OK? You look really stressed.’ Lauren’s head pops up over the enormous beechwood reception desk.
‘What? Oh yes sorry. It’s just other people, you know … annoying sometimes,’ I say, feeling flustered by Tina and the ridiculous competition she seems to have pulled me into. ‘How come you’re up here and not in the cash office?’
I notice that her eyes are swollen as if she’s been crying.
‘Oh, the new big boss wants me meeting and greeting. Talking of which, Maxine has insisted that I come and sit here all day. Said it looks more professional and that she doesn’t have time to keep coming to the door to get people herself. I have to run around after her constantly, meaning I can’t even get on with any of my real work. And now Tina’s told me that I’ve got to stay late to catch up,’ she sniffs. I shake my head. I bet she has, she’ll not want to miss an opportunity to exert her authority.
‘You poor thing. How’s Jack?’ I ask, remembering her baby.
‘He’s gorgeous, and he can just about walk now,’ she says, her eyes lighting up. ‘Thanks for asking, Georgie.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I reply, thinking it must be hard for her being on her own and having to leave him with her mum all day. Then I remember the copy of
in the bottom of my bag. I quickly pull it out and hand it to Lauren. ‘Here, now don’t let her catch you with it though.’ With a quick pincer manoeuvre Lauren reaches over the desk and snatches the magazine, secreting it underneath the large appointment book in front of her. She grins up at me.
‘Down the corridor, in the room on the far right. She’s waiting for you. Oh, and good luck,’ she whispers in a much brighter voice, waving her flashing red heart pen after me.
‘Thanks Lauren,’ I call back to her, and make my way off down the corridor, hoping that I won’t need any luck.
Please let me keep my job, Please let me keep my job,
I say as a mantra, over and over inside my head, as I make my way along the long wood-panelled corridor.
I push open the door expecting to see Maxine, but she’s not here, and by the looks of it she’s got half of Home Interiors’ stock crammed inside her spacious office. There’s an oval polished wood table to the right of the room, while framed paintings that look expensive hang on the two walls cornering the table. There are two very large open glass cabinets containing various Swarovski crystal figurines that were definitely part of Chinaware’s display just a few weeks ago. I know, because I helped Mrs Grace dust them all. Nestled amongst the figurines are a couple of framed pictures of people that I presume are Maxine’s friends or family.
Slipping my handbag from my shoulder for fear of nudging one of the paintings from the wall, or worse still, crashing into the Swarovski showcase, I shuffle like a geisha over to the two black leather sofas that are positioned in a show-home style to look like a cosy seating area. Just as I’m sinking down into the soft leather, the door flings open and Maxine sashays across the room, just like the model in the Dior J’Adore advert. She’s got the leg movement down to a tee, making me wonder if she’s actually done professional modelling before.
‘See you’ve made yourself at home,’ she says, in a breathy American Deep South accent. Ahh, hence the pageant smile, I knew it! I bet she’s the former beauty queen of Alabama or somewhere. ‘Finally we meet. The infamous Georgina. Heard so much about you.’ Maxine extends her right hand towards me, not bothering to exert herself too much as I try to haul myself out of the cushions. I manage to scramble forward, jutting my hand towards her as I steady myself with the other. Her handshake is firm, so firm that my hand smarts from the crush. And what does she mean
? She walks over to her desk and gestures for me to follow.
I scuttle over, clutching my bag and notepad in my lap. My chair is really low so I have to peer upwards to look at her, like some obsequious minion, which I guess is the point. ‘Now let’s see. Georgina, bit of a mouthful isn’t it?’ she says, perching on the corner of her desk. She starts doing ankle circles with a black patent Loub-clad foot, and I see what Eddie means about the playsuit. ‘What about Gina? Yes that’s it, Gina, Gina, Gina,’ she says, each time in a different tone as if limbering up for an operatic performance. ‘Yes I like it,’ she adds, pronouncing it ‘
’, and slapping her hands together with glee. ‘You don’t mind do you?’
‘Err, well actually I prefer …’ I start, but her immaculately manicured hand whips up with such speed it causes her Agent Provocateur scent to catch in my throat. So I end up spluttering instead.
‘Oh dear, not ill are you? It’s very important to be fit in the retail industry. Very exhausting on the legs,’ she says, as if I don’t know that already. ‘You are fit, aren’t you Gina?’ she adds, smoothing a hand down over her bare thigh.
‘Err, yes,’ I manage.
‘Awesome, because we’ve got our work cut out over the next few months. This is going to be big. Huge,’ she says, whirling an immaculately manicured finger up in the air above her head like a cowboy with a lasso.
‘OK, so what does that mean?’ I have to know one way or the other. Maybe then I’ll be able to relax a bit, if I know what I’m dealing with. At least then I can face it head on.
‘Well, what do you think it means?’ she says, dazzling me with her pageant smile.
‘Well, I guess I want to know if my job is safe.’ There, I’ve said it. I sit back and listen to the blood pumping in my ears.
‘I can see why you might be worried about losing your job. Given the current financial climate and your family history … shall we say?’ She stops looking at me, and busies herself instead by circling her other ankle now. There’s an uncomfortable silence. I fidget in my chair.
‘How do you know about that?’ The words are barely audible and I can hear the panic rising in my voice.
‘Oh, someone mentioned it,’ she says, breezily. Oh my God! So who else knows? My cheeks flush and, as if reading my mind, she adds, ‘That’s it!’ as though it’s just popped into her head. ‘It was in your interview notes with something about it being your own personal business and not to mention it in case it upsets you. So I Googled it.’ James! Lovely kind James. I breathe a little sigh of relief, knowing I can probably trust him.
‘How is your father these days?’
‘Well, we don’t have much contact …’ I say slowly. ‘It was a long time ago,’ I add, tentatively. My mind is working overtime trying to fathom out where she is going with this.
‘Must have been hard though.’ I can feel my hands trembling so I push them underneath the sides of my thighs.
‘Yes it was,’ I mutter, looking at the floor and wishing I was anywhere but here.
‘I’m sure. Dreadful business. Losing everything like that. And then you being left all alone,’ she says, touching my arm briefly.
‘I lived with a foster family,’ I say, instantly hating myself for feeling a need to explain.
‘Oh dear, no other family then?’
‘Not really,’ I say quietly.
My only relatives, Dad’s brother and his family, were living in Dubai when Mum died, with ‘no space for an extra teenager’ they said. The memory is scalded onto my brain along with the clinical smell of the hospital as I cuddled and stroked Mum’s hair during the goodbyes. She’d been ill for so long … and I’d tried to look after her, even bunking off school on occasion, but it was the pneumonia that took her in the end. Her body, so weak with MS, just couldn’t fight it. A jolt of grief grabs me, and for a second tears sting in my eyes. She would have been celebrating her sixtieth birthday this year.
‘Well, good thinking on your part to use your mother’s maiden name,’ Maxine says. ‘Break from the past and all that …’
‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but where are you going with this?’
‘Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. I trust nobody else knows, apart from James of course,’ she says, changing tack now. I shake my head, knowing Eddie would never breathe a word. ‘Good, because us girls have to stick together.’ She leans towards me in a conspiratorial way. ‘Just make sure everything else is in order, because in addition to revitalising the store, I’m going to attempt to modernise Carrington’s.’
‘What do you mean?’ I ask, trying to keep my voice steady.
‘Well, given that an exceptionally high volume of valuable items are handled on a daily basis, I’ve suggested HR pull their finger out and do proper checks on everyone, like other stores do. Credit checks and so on. I can’t believe they haven’t even bothered before now. I’ve already discovered there’s at least ten thousand pounds’ worth of shrinkage – stock unaccounted for in the last quarter alone.’
I knew it! I gulp and vow to get hold of my credit file. I’m going to have to get it sorted out, once and for all.
‘So I’m not going to lose my job then?’ And no sooner are the words out of my mouth, when I want to cram them back in.
‘There will be changes,’ she starts, and I brace myself. ‘There are way too many sections in this store that don’t make enough money. Every inch of floor space must earn its keep. So, I’ll be assessing the viability of each section and rationalising them into bigger, more lucrative ones. For example, those homemade silk purses you have taking up a lot of shelf space, how many do you actually sell?’
‘Err, well, I’m hoping to push them as Valentine gifts.’ Marigold, the designer, will be heartbroken if we stop selling her stuff. ‘And the tourists love them,’ I venture, thinking of her working away in the little weatherboard studio on the shingle with unbroken views of the sea. Admittedly, I don’t actually sell many of the purses, but customers are always intrigued to hear about the local artist who makes them.
‘They’re an indulgence. And one Carrington’s can’t afford if it’s going to be successfully rejuvenated, and that’s where you come in.’
‘I do?’ I say, perking up. Maybe this isn’t going to be so bad after all. My section does pretty well compared to the others.
‘I shall be assessing the sections on the ground floor by the main entrance first for visibility and profitability. Women’s Accessories, Men’s Accessories and Fine Jewellery. I can’t believe the cabinet is hidden away up in the personal shopping suite. No, it must be downstairs right by the door, where everyone can see it and be encouraged to buy from it before they waste their money on low-value items elsewhere in the store. I want their shopping fix satiated by high-end goods.’ I nod, thinking,
so do I, means more commission for me
. ‘And new brand names. Big names! I want Prada. Hermès,’ she gushes, her voice getting louder and more animated, and my nodding head speeds up. ‘And then I’ll decide who is best to sell such exclusive brands.’
My head stops and my heart sinks.
Whaat? What does she mean?
I’m the best sales assistant. Carrington’s finest …
‘Well, if you look at my sales figures, you—’
‘I like to shake things up a bit.’
Hmmm. Bully for you.
‘Show me your mettle. Let’s see who is
the best sales assistant and then they can sell those exclusive brands,’ she says, triumphantly.
‘Does James know about this?’ I manage to say, my mind reeling. I’m going to be in direct competition with James. And how is my section ever going to compete with Fine Jewellery? One piece alone can cost the equivalent of ten Louis bags.
‘He was the first to know,’ she replies, scribbling something on a page in her Filofax. The room reels as I try to take it all in. ‘So it will be the three of you section heads that I’ll be focusing on initially.’ Maxine carries on scrawling, not even bothering to look up at me.