Authors: Alexandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
‘Not a word now,’ he says in his perfected stage-whisper voice and blows me a kiss as the lift starts moving again.
I travel down to the ground floor, pondering on Eddie’s gossip, trying to fathom out how it might affect me if it were true. What does Walter know? The feeling lingers, making me edgy. These days nobody is changing jobs unless they really have to.
I step out of the lift and make my way along the dimly lit staff corridor that winds the entire length of the ground level. It still has the original 1920s Tiffany glass wall lights. After pressing the security pad to release the heavy fire entrance doors, I arrive on the shop floor. My feet immediately sink down a couple of centimetres into a new plush carpet as I wade over towards my section at the front of the store.
‘Georgie Girl! How are you today?’ Ciaran hollers in his lovely Southern Irish accent. He’s a waiter in Sam’s café, and he’s calling me from behind two massive bundles of cellophane-wrapped napkins. ‘Not like you to be this late – it’s practically lunchtime.’
‘Ha ha very funny,’ I laugh, glancing at my watch. ‘It’s not even opening time. Anyway, what are you doing down here? Shouldn’t you be upstairs making banoffee coffees?’
‘What happened, you get stuck in this silly new carpet?’ he says, ignoring my banter and placing the napkins down on a counter nearby. He treats me to a huge grin before shooting me with his pretend finger pistol. I like Ciaran – we’re Twitter mates and underneath the flirty swagger he’s a sweet guy, but he can be so naïve at times, especially when it comes to women.
‘Yeah, something like that,’ I lie. The truth is I was up until nearly midnight filling in one of those income and expenditure forms for the bank. I’m hoping they’ll let me reduce the monthly payments on a personal loan. And then I spent at least an hour lying in bed trying to unwind so I could fall asleep. I must have just slept right through the alarm.
Pinning my gold Carrington’s name badge into place, I reach my till point, which I think is the best one on the floor. It’s right at the front of the store, next to the floor-to-ceiling window display, giving me a panoramic view of the cobbled street with its white colonnaded walkway, pretty pansy hanging baskets and romantic olde-worlde streetlamps. During quiet times, and we’ve had a few recently, I love watching all the people milling up and down outside, or huddled in a deckchair enjoying a musical performance on the bandstand opposite. And on a clear early morning, when the town is still empty, I can see as far as the peppermint-green railings down by the harbour and out to the glistening sea beyond.
Carrington’s is an Art Deco institution set in a prime location in the seaside town of Mulberry-On-Sea, where everyone knows us and most of the locals have grown up coming to the store. For anything from school uniforms to wedding gift lists to baby clothes, they all turn to Carrington’s.
Tourists stop to take pictures of our impressive powder-blue building with its intricate white cornicing around enormous arched windows. The store is nearly a hundred years old, and not quite as glorious as it was in its heyday, but still a landmark on the south coast. Owned by a family firm spanning three generations, Carrington’s offers old-style elegance alongside the latest merchandise.
The shop floor in front of me is lit up like a Valentine’s theme park. Red and silver lights are entwined around the original ornate Art Deco marble pillars, which are dotted throughout the high-ceilinged space. Giant Perspex hearts containing merchandise hang on lengths of invisible thread, giving an illusion of floating handbags, shoes
and glittery costume jewellery. Even the traditional cher
rywood gilt-inlayed panelled walls have twinkly rose-shaped fairy lights draped all over them. The display guys have done an amazing job in replacing all the post-Christmas sales stuff and getting the store ready for our next big seasonal promotion, Valentine’s Day.
Even though I’m single at the moment, I still love this time of year. The atmosphere in store is always so fun and flirty, and that makes me enjoy working here even more. All six of the podiums situated by the entrance doors showcase various items amidst scattered rose petals and miniature Cupid figurines, luxury scented candles, thick embossed rainbow-coloured stationery and silky lingerie, drawing customers in, showing a teaser of what’s on offer within. All designed to entice customers to touch the merchandise, to place a coveted bag over a shoulder or run a finger across the shoestring strap of an exquisite La Perla negligee.
After all, it’s ‘all about the merch’ as we say, and every decent retail assistant knows that customers who try it buy it. True fact. And there’s everything on offer to our customers. Handbags, shoes, cosmetics, all mingled in together with a glorious surge of euphoric optimism. A promise of reinvention, of a better life.
And I just adore the look on customers’ faces when they emerge through the shiny brass revolving doors, flushed with adrenalin as they try to decide where their retail experience will begin. Savouring every moment. It’s one of the reasons I work here. But my memories of the store go back a long way. I grew up in Mulberry-On-Sea and Mum used to bring me here on Saturdays and we’d shop and eat fairy cakes in the old-fashioned tearoom with its Formica tables and white-pinnied waitresses. We always had such a good time, just being happy together. This was years before Sam turned it into Cupcakes at Carrington’s, a cosy café serving red velvet cupcakes and sponge cake with pinkberry-infused frosting.
Plonking my handbag in the little locker secreted behind the glass-topped counter, I rummage around for my mobile. I locate it nestled inside a red payment reminder letter that arrived this morning from the gas company. After flicking the phone onto silent mode, I slip it inside my trouser pocket and quickly shove the letter back to the bottom of the bag, vowing to deal with it later.
The smell of newness mingled with expensive perfume wafts over from the various cosmetics concessions. All three of the security guys are getting into position by the entrance doors. I give Annie, one of the other sales assistants, a quick smile as she plumps up a gorgeous midnight-blue Mulberry tote with rose-gold detailing. As I busy myself placing trays of rainbow-coloured chunky cocktail rings on top of a display cabinet, Betty, our mumsy switchboard supervisor, puffs her way over to me, pulling her hand-knitted cardy in tighter around her rotund frame.
‘A rather lovely-sounding man from the Fiat garage called for you,’ she just about manages, in between gasping for air and reaching for her glasses that are bobbing on the end of a chain around her neck.
‘Oh?’ I crease my forehead, wondering why he called the main number and not my mobile.
‘He said if you want to call him back he’ll be delighted to chat things through with you. I tried putting him through but your extension is engaged.’ I swivel around to the phone and see the handset hasn’t been replaced properly.
‘Sorry Betty, I didn’t realise, it won’t happen again,’ I say, knowing we’re not supposed to have personal calls come through the switchboard.
‘Don’t worry duck.’ Smiling, she hands me a pink Post-it note with the return number on before making her way back over to the staff security door.
‘So, come on then. Are you buying a new car?’ Ciaran says, placing his elbow on the counter and leaning in towards me.
‘Oh, err … just thinking about things at this stage,’ I say, fiddling with my hair. The truth is I can’t afford the monthly payments on my car any more, let alone the petrol to put in it. I’m hoping the garage will buy it back so I can clear the finance. And I just wish my last pay review hadn’t been quite so non-existent. I’d been hoping for at least a small rise, but nothing. Zilch. In fact, when I work it out, I’ve probably taken a pay cut, if I take into account the hike in tax and everything else these days. I force the worry from my mind, and resolve to keep all spending to absolute essentials only. Mortgage, food, utilities and the occasional red velvet cupcake … I shove a smile on my face.
‘Fiats aren’t very fast though, are they?’ Ciaran says, rolling his eyes.
‘Oh, I’m not bothered about all of that,’ I say, trying to sound convincing. Better make sure I shift a few more of the high-end handbags just in case the garage doesn’t go for it. Two per cent of the sales price of every £2,000 Bottega Veneta soon adds up. And I’ve got eight of them. I do a quick commission tally in my head and hope for the best.
‘So how was your weekend?’ I ask, changing the subject. I can see that he’s desperate to tell me something, he’s swivelling his eyes around like Inspector Clouseau, but before he has a chance to answer, his girlfriend Tina appears. After placing a possessive arm around Ciaran’s waist, she flicks her high ponytail, sneaks a smug glance in my direction and turns her face towards his.
‘What was all that about?’ she pants, desperate not to miss out on a bit of gossip, and not bothering to excuse herself for having barged in on our conversation.
‘Nothing, we were just chatting about cars.’ He grins. ‘Oh,’ she says, dismissively. ‘Well, have you heard about Emma in Stationery?’ She pauses to make big eyes, but before Ciaran can answer she carries on. ‘She’s pregnant again.’
‘But didn’t she just come back from maternity leave?’ Ciaran says, looking puzzled, and I can’t help laughing as he pulls a monkey face. Tina shoots another stare at me.
‘She’s so lucky. Just imagine all that time off. I can’t wait until it’s our turn.’ Tina tilts her head back and closes her eyes for a moment, as if imagining the whole experience as her very own nirvana before looking to Ciaran for his response. A fleeting look of panic appears on his face, which is quickly replaced with a half-smile. He opens his mouth to say something else, but she puts a finger on his lips before he can talk.
In addition to being Ciaran’s girlfriend, Tina is the accounts manager, or at least that’s the title she gave herself. She adds up the sales receipts, checking the money and allocating our commission before someone from the office up on the executive floor authorises it all. But most of all, she bosses people around, especially Lauren, a nineteen-year-old first-job girl on one of those NVQ schemes. Anyway, Tina’s excelled herself by making Lauren organise the next Christmas party already. A memo was stuck on the staff-room wall requesting the £15 payment by cheque and our dinner choices by the end of next week … and the turkey carcass is barely cold after last year’s do.
‘Oh I think it’s so romantic,’ Tina smiles.
‘Sure it is. Anyway, got to go, only came down to collect these from the delivery guy. Tweet you later,’ Ciaran says, winking at me and grabbing up the napkins before sauntering off towards the fire door. Tina scurries off after him, moaning about his Twitter addiction and how much of a flirt he is. Poor Ciaran! What’s wrong with a bit of Twitter? How else would I get to talk to famous people like Cheryl Cole or Mr I Am with his ‘boom boom and dope’ lines?
ello. Cupcakes at Carrington’s
how may I direct your
?’ This throws me for a second. It’s definitely Sam’s bubbly ‘everything is lovely in the world’ voice, but there’s an East Coast American accent attached to it now.
‘Sam, is everything OK?’ I ask, tentatively, as I duck into the little recessed vestibule behind my counter. We’re not really supposed to make personal calls during opening hours, but everyone does, and as long as the shop floor is quiet and we’re discreet, it’s all right.
‘Oh, thank God it’s only you,’ Sam says, back in her normal voice.
‘What’s going on?’ I hesitate, and then brace myself for the answer. I’ve known Sam since school and, despite my abrupt exit halfway through, catapulting our lives in totally different directions, we managed to stay in touch and be best friends ever since. But she has dragged me through some real harebrained escapades over the years. Sam’s always been a real foodie, so when Miss Sims retired and some genius here decided the Carrington’s tearoom needed an overhaul, I rang her right away.
At the time, Sam had just been sacked from her personal shopper job at Harvey Nichols because she’d spent more time concentrating on the ‘personal’ part of her job title than actually trying to sell things to the customers. But her ex-boss had been so impressed with her sterling spending efforts that she’d been given a platinum store card by way of a sweetener. So, after a cash injection from her mega-wealthy dad, Sam made the move down from Chelsea to Mulberry-On-Sea and now reigns supreme over her gorgeous café. It has a honey-hued interior and reclaimed train seats upholstered in crimson velvet, sectioned into booths, so you feel as though you’re actually in a real vintage steam train, complete with golden glow lighting from frilly-shaded table lamps. It’s very nostalgic in an
way. And the food is to die for – salted caramel cupcakes, rainbow salads, delicious artisan breads and the most fabulous afternoon cream teas you can possibly imagine. Homemade scones piled high with strawberry jam and gooey clotted cream, surrounded by delicate finger sandwiches crammed with every filling imaginable.
‘Oh nothing. It’s just some guy called Justin. He says we met a few months ago at a club. Well, anyway he keeps calling and texting.’
‘Hmm … why don’t you just tell him you’re not interested?’
‘Well I tried, but he’s being very persistent. Anyway, I’m hoping the other guy calls and I can pretend to be unavailable?’ she says, dramatically. ‘Hence the screening, this way I can take orders over the phone and still make myself appear elusive and mysteriously hard to get at the same time.’ She laughs, seemingly satisfied with her elaborate plan.
‘So who’s the other guy then?’ I ask, feeling confused. The last time we spoke, just a couple of days ago, she was going on about some guy called Steve. Sam changes her men like the rest of us switch TV channels, making it near on impossible to keep up with her.
‘Oh my God. I can’t believe I haven’t told you about him yet. It
be love. I’m losing my mind already. He’s only “the one”. I met him when I was having my monthly dinner date with Dad on Friday, up in London at The Ivy. He was on the next table, and well he’s a lawyer, maritime or something, and he lives here but commutes to London. And he’s a gentleman, not full of himself like all those shouty Cityboy types, but anyway, Dad knew his boss, so we got chatting and he’s absolutely drop-dead, knicker-ripping gorgeous. Not that he’s done that yet, but I’m working on it.’ I try and push the image of Sam’s knickers being ripped from her body, from my mind.