Authors: Alexandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
‘Are you still there?’ I say, having heard about ‘the one’ a zillion times before.
‘Yes. Err sorry,’ she sighs, no doubt having lost herself in some fantasy moment. ‘What did you want?’ she says, dreamily, followed by, ‘Oh my God, sorry that sounded so rude.’
‘Charming,’ I say, feigning mock hurt. ‘Just wondered if you’re free later for a gossip and to ask if you can keep one of those delicious red velvet cupcakes for me please?’
‘Oh sorry hun, none left.’
But you must have. It’s not even tea break time yet.’ I can’t believe it.
‘A guy came and bought the whole batch for his office Christmas party.’
‘But it’s January! That’s outrageous, why couldn’t he have his party at the actual proper time in December, like everyone else?’ I say, fighting a sudden urge to hunt the guy down and beg for a cake – they’re that good.
‘Ciaran served him. You know I’d have kept one back otherwise … Talking of Ciaran, have you seen him recently?’
‘Yes, he was down here earlier, why?’
‘Did he seem different to you?’ she says, lowering her voice.
‘Not really, why?’
‘He’s up to something, I’m sure of it. I reckon he’s got his eye on someone.’
‘Don’t be daft. He’s with Tina.’
‘Even more reason to look elsewhere,’ she snorts. ‘Why else does he keep disappearing then? And it’s not to see Tina, because she’s in here demanding to know where he is all the time.’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Never mind, maybe it’s my imagination. Anyway, what delicious delight can I tempt you with instead?’
‘I’ll have one of those vanilla slices.’
, do you mean?’
‘Think so, the one with layers of puff pastry and loads of deliciously thick custardy cream-type stuff inside, topped with combed fondant icing an—’
‘Sorry, can you hang on a sec?’ I hear the whoosh of the steam from the coffee machine as I lick my lips, willing her to have one left. I’m practically salivating at the mere thought. ‘Right, that’s all done. I’ve popped one in a box inside the fridge, what time will you be up?’
‘Lunchtime?’ I want to use my tea break to organise the Valentine’s raffle. With the dwindling sales recently, every bit helps.
‘Oooh, can you make it later? I’ve got to pop out to the cash and carry. How about fiveish?’ It’s early as we don’t close until six today, but I can always ask Annie to cover the last hour. I covered three times for her last week.
‘Sure, look forward to it.’
‘OK hun. Bye for now. Oh, I almost forgot, you don’t mind if “the one” comes along on Saturday, do you? I can always ask him to bring a friend. Just imagine, we could double-date on Valentine’s Day – if you like him, of course.’
‘No. Err … yes,’ I say, thinking no more blind dates. I’ve been caught out like this before. Her man of the moment brings along a friend who usually turns out to be the beer-bellied guy with the body odour problem. ‘What’s his name?’
‘Nathan. How sexy is that?’ she squeals.
‘Mmm. Nice. Well it’s your birthday after all, and if he really is “the one” then you’ll want him there,’ I say, wanting her to be happy. ‘But no blind dates, do you hear me?’
‘Pardon?’ Sam giggles, before ending the call. I drop the receiver back on the phone and peer down at my trousers, only to see that I now look as though I’m wearing a pair of fluffy Ugg boots too.
‘What’s with the carpet?’ I say to no one in particular. It’s my boss, the floor supervisor, James, who replies.
‘Blame upstairs,’ he says, approaching my counter. He’s carrying two crystal weights with lengths of silver ribbon attached to crimson heart-shaped balloons. ‘Here,’ he says, handing them to me. ‘Save you having to go down to the basement to organise them.’ He’s wearing a new slim-fit shirt that nicely accentuates the V of his firm chest. I quickly look away, praying he didn’t spot me checking him out.
‘Thanks. And I’m sorry,’ I say, gesturing to the phone. He waves a hand.
‘Ahh, no problem. It’s fine if there aren’t any customers around.’ He smiles casually. I take the balloons, reflecting on how thoughtful he is. His hand brushes mine and he immediately apologises, while a little shiver of excitement pulses through me. It’s just such a shame that he’s married, and that he’s my boss, because he’s so hot. I remember when he interviewed me for the job. The sandy-blond hair that kept bobbing into his eyes as he looked down at the questions on the desk in front of him. His emerald-green eyes probing me for the answers every time he looked back up, and the fact that he’s oblivious to it – well, it just makes him so damn sexy. ‘You OK? You look tired.’ He grins, and a warm glow flickers within me. He’s the first guy I’ve felt anything for since the disastrous break-up with Brett. We had been virtually inseparable for three years and his betrayal hit me really hard.
‘Thanks a lot. Do I really look that bad?’ I say, instantly hoping he’ll disagree.
‘No. No I didn’t mean it like that,’ he replies, momentarily patting my arm by way of apology, and I take a deep breath. After Brett left I swore off men completely – I really wasn’t interested in going through that sort of pain again – but it’s reassuring to know my heart hasn’t been completely shattered, and that maybe I’m ready to start dating again.
‘So what’s with this carpet?’ I ask, quickly changing the subject. ‘And have you seen the state of these?’ Feeling flustered, I peer down at my legs.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say they were a state exactly. They look fine to me.’ His cheeks flush for a second and he clears his throat. I feel embarrassed. ‘Shame about the fluff though,’ he finishes, with a gentle laugh. ‘Somebody decided to splash out and re-carpet the entire shop. Staff canteen included.’
‘What a waste of money. Before you know it we’ll be closing down and switching to “online purchasing only”,’ I snort. The edgy feeling from earlier swirls around inside me again.
‘Trust you, always thinking about the bottom line.’ He shakes his head.
‘Well, I don’t see you complaining when I shift all of the high-end stock,’ I tease. But the truth of it is that my section of the shop-floor space does make the most money. The others say that it’s because I’m shameless and not averse to using my wily powers of persuasion when boyfriends and husbands rush in to buy a last-minute gift. But it’s not my fault if they opt for the biggest hobo bag after I let slip how the lucky woman will squeal with delight and love them forever on unwrapping such a gift. All the while discreetly nudging the small version to the far end of the counter, and therefore out of mind … as demonstrated by Mrs Grace herself on my induction day. Mrs Grace rocked Women’s Accessories for fifty years before retiring and handing the mantle to me. She now helps out part-time in the stock room, as she had to come back to work because her husband Stan was ‘driving her round the twist’ and spanking all their pension money on his ‘filthy birds’, which she later explained were actually pigeons.
‘True. You’re really good at what you do and that’s why I need your help this afternoon.’
‘This afternoon?’ I say, my eyes widening at the prospect of a change in routine.
‘Yep, a wealthy customer is arriving to do a spot of personal shopping and he’s expressed a particular interest in our high-end designer handbags. Malikov someone or another, I think “his people” said.’ James makes sarcastic quote signs with his fingers. ‘Six times they’ve called today demanding to speak to security ahead of his arrival. And then banging on about CCTV cameras and how we must respect his privacy.’
‘That’s right, Konstantin Malikov, a Russian businessman apparently.’ James flashes his perfect white smile at me. ‘Oh yes, it just so happens that Mr and Mrs Malikov are keen to spend some time here in the south of England whilst their only daughter is settled into Dean Hall.’ The mention of Dean Hall injects a flash memory moment of the few years I spent at boarding school before everything changed and my whole world fell apart. ‘And naturally they are looking to offload some of their wealth in our fine establishment.’
The memory is instantly replaced with excitement at the thought of my share of the sales commission. James often asks me to help him with the personal shopping customers, and over the years we’ve developed a strategy, a kind of double act that has reaped some fantastic sales. James looks as though he’s about to say something else when a pumped-up version of ‘Love Is In The Air’
pounds through the sound system, signifying opening time. There’s an old dear with a tartan shopper waiting by the door to come in.
‘Was there something else?’ I ask James on seeing his hesitation.
‘It’ll keep,’ he says over his shoulder as he strolls off towards the escalators.
fter processing a card payment for a sparkly teardrop necklace, I turn towards my customer. She’s wearing a shiny green skirt that’s the same colour as a Quality Street triangle and has the biggest static hairdo I’ve ever seen.
‘There you are.’ I’ve gift-wrapped the item and popped it into one of our special Valentine jewellery bags. Crimson with silver rope handles, and a sprinkle of limited edition Cupid-shaped confetti. ‘And thank you very much.’ I smile, making sure I maintain eye contact.
‘Thank you dear. It’s for my daughter, her thirtieth. You know, she was actually born on Valentine’s Day, just after midnight, a true gift of love my husband always says. It’s so exciting … but makes me feel very old,’ she chuckles, patting her hair-helmet before stowing the receipt safely in her purse. A lump catches briefly in my throat as I remember Mum. She loved birthdays, always got excited too. I swallow hard and smile. It wouldn’t do to crumble in front of a customer. I like to think of the shop floor as a stage to perform on and everything else can be left behind the scenes. Safe and secure. Unlike my foster home, where Nanny Jean used to sigh whenever I walked in the room and her husband would yell ‘cup of tea’ at me all the time like I was the live-in maid. And as for their brat of a birth daughter, Kimberley, who once told me it was no wonder my real family didn’t want me, given how ugly I was …
‘Well, you must have been very young when your daughter was born,’ I say warmly, shoving the memories from my head.
‘You’re very kind. And yes, I suppose I was,’ she replies in a dreamy voice, as if casting her mind back. She pats my hand and smiles before leaving.
The shop floor is really quiet, so I choose a selection of our very best bags for the Russian to browse through and take them up the back stairs to the personal shopping suite before bombing back down to my till. Carrington’s is a bit of a maze. The underground corridors down in the basement go on forever and there’s even one that runs all the way to the old music hall at the other end of Lovelace Walk, a few streets away. Rumour has it that the original Mr H. Carrington, aka Dirty Harry, had the corridor built especially as a discreet way to ‘visit’ showgirls, then pay them in kind by inviting them back for secret late-night shopping sprees. Sort of like a free trolley dash in return for sex I suppose. Mrs Grace told me all about it.
Once back, I discreetly tilt the computer screen and decide to Google
while indulging in some online window shopping. I tap the screen to bring up the Carrington’s Home Shopping site. As I select the home furnishings icon, Eddie sidles up to my counter.
‘God I’m bored,’ he says, pulling a sulky face. ‘The Heff has gone off somewhere, said he won’t be back until the end of the day, so I’ve got nothing to do. You know he can be so selfish sometimes.’
‘There must be something you can find to busy yourself with,’ I say, distractedly, as I hover the cursor over the ‘Get the Look’ tab.
‘Nope. Nothing …’ Eddie pauses and stares into the middle distance for a bit before announcing, ‘I know! Let’s go to Patagonia and flirt with cowboys.’ He widens his eyes and crosses his arms.
Refusing to be distracted, I click the mouse and take a look at a colonial-style bedroom.
‘What do you think of this?’ I ask, tapping the screen.
‘Boring!’ he says, dismissively. ‘And look at the price tag – more than two thousand pounds. Even with our staff discount card it’s still extortionate.
Sweet Jeeeesus … I’d want my whole flat
my next-door neighbour’s refurbished for that amount.’
‘Oh me too, this stuff is way outside my budget.’
‘So why are you looking then?’
‘Well there’s no harm in taking a peek.’
‘Of course there isn’t, but tell me something – why
you up to your eyes in debt?’ he says, placing the tip of his little finger at the side of his mouth and pulling a quizzical face.
‘You know why – it was hard when I came out of care, I just wanted somewhere nice to live like everyone else and got sucked in by all those adverts dishing out 125 per cent mortgages like free newspapers at the station,’ I say, remembering the sticky cold lino and thin faded towels at Nanny Jean’s house, while Kimberley kept all the big fluffy pink ones in her bedroom. And the bank didn’t hesitate in giving me the mortgage, even though any idiot knew I really couldn’t afford the payments without achieving record sales commission every month for ever and ever and ever. Those were the days when designer handbags were a must-have and my sales commission skyrocketed as a result. I just wish I’d known back then that the boom would eventually bust.
‘OK, calm down, you know you didn’t even take a breath then. And I’m sorry, didn’t mean to upset you and bring it all back.’ I pull a face, thinking about the grubby bedsit I wound up in after I was shunted from the care system, with my whole world stuffed inside a couple of black sacks and a jaded social worker to guide me. I was on my own, and the only way to eke out my junior sales assistant’s salary and make ends meet was by living on credit cards and personal loans.
‘Now, where were we?’ I ask Eddie.
‘You were just about to buy something,’ he laughs.
‘Don’t be daft,’ I say, clicking to close the Internet browser.
‘Oh, I’m only joking, kiddo.’ Eddie pats my arm.
‘So, has Smith rung yet?’ I ask, swiftly sidestepping the focus away from my mountainous debt problem. Eddie’s the only one who knows about it. He was with me when my debit card got declined in Starbucks one time – it was the day before payday and I was mortified. But Eddie swiftly stepped in and defused the situation by handing the barista a fiver before giving me a hug and a bite of his skinny peach muffin. I ended up telling him everything over a scalding chai tea latte, right back from the start.