Authors: Rosie Harris
A smart young man with ginger hair, wearing a brown coat-style overall over his dark clothes was standing behind the wide wooden counter.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I … I’ve come about the job of junior clerk.’ Vera said hesitantly.
‘Do you have an appointment?’
Vera felt taken aback. ‘No, should I have one?’
‘Didn’t the letter ask you to come at an appointed time?’ the man frowned.
Vera shook her head. ‘There wasn’t any letter. I heard that there was a vacancy from someone at school. Has the job gone already?’
He looked at her speculatively. ‘Wait here a moment.’ He disappeared into a glass-fronted cubbyhole, closed the door and picked up a telephone. She watched as he jiggled a handle up and down several times, tapping his pencil against his teeth, until someone answered.
She couldn’t hear what was being said, but when he came back out into the shop a few moments later he directed her towards a wooden staircase and told her to go on up. Mr Brown himself would meet her at the top.
She had never been for an interview before and had no idea what to expect. The grey-haired, rather portly man who was waiting for her led the way into his office and indicated that she was to sit in a chair facing his desk.
‘I understand you’ve come here straight from school, does that mean you haven’t left school yet?’
‘I am fourteen and I can leave at Whitsun,’ she told him quickly.
‘In two weeks’ time! Hmm!’ He looked thoughtful. ‘You’ve absolutely no experience of clerical work or of working with figures, or handling money?’
‘I’m good at arithmetic and I always give my dad’s customers the right change when I deliver boots and shoes,’ she said quickly.
He frowned. ‘I don’t understand.’
Vera’s cheeks burned as she explained that her father, Michael Quinn, had a boot and shoe repair shop in Scotland Road, and that she delivered to his customers.
‘Is your handwriting neat?’
She nodded. ‘If you give me a pen and a piece of paper I can show you,’ she offered.
‘Yes! Perhaps you should do that!’ He handed her a pad of lined paper and another scrap of paper that had several items written on it. ‘Now, this is an order for several tins of paint that someone has brought in. Let’s see if you can copy the items onto this invoice pad, work out all the prices, and then total it up.’
Vera found that deciphering the names of the items on the order was the hardest part. She copied them out as neatly as she could, along with their prices, and noted when they wanted more than one tin, and worked out the total cost. Then she added it all up and neatly drew a line under the final total.
‘That seems pretty good, although you’ve made one or two mistakes when it comes to spelling the brand names, but then you’ve probably never heard of them before,’ he murmured.
He leaned back in his big leather chair. ‘Can you use a telephone? We have a three-line switchboard, would you be able to operate that?’
Vera’s heart sank. She knew how to speak into one, but that was all. She wanted the job so badly that she was tempted to say she could operate a switchboard, but the thought of making a complete mess of things on her very first day stopped her.
‘No, I’m sorry I don’t know how to operate one,’ she said reluctantly. ‘I could learn, though. I pick things up very quickly if someone would show me what to do.’
‘I see. You’ve never learned to use a typewriter, either, I suppose?’
Again she shook her head. Her hope of becoming a junior clerk dwindled with every question he asked.
Mr Brown pursed his lips as he studied the invoice Vera had written out.
‘Well, you seem to have done this in an acceptable form.’ He stood up. ‘Come along with me,’ he ordered.
He led the way out of his office into an adjoining room where two people were sitting at desks. The younger one, who had straight fair hair and looked about sixteen, was tapping away noisily on a Remington typewriter.
‘Miss Linacre,’ he addressed the rather formidable-looking middle-aged lady, dressed in a neat navy blue costume and high-necked pale blue blouse. ‘This is Vera Quinn and she has applied for the position of junior clerk.’
Miss Linacre studied Vera rather critically.
‘I don’t recall seeing a letter of application from anyone of that name,’ she said stiffly.
‘No, she didn’t apply by letter. She heard that there was a vacancy so she’s called in about it on her way home from school. Quite enterprising, don’t you think?’
‘Indeed!’ From her frosty tone Vera was afraid that Miss Linacre thought it cheeky rather than enterprising.
‘Now, I’ll leave her here with you so that you can have a talk with her. Let me know if you agree that she would be a useful addition to our office staff.’
Mr Brown went back into his own office, closing the dividing door behind him. Vera felt so nervous that she was shaking, and had difficulty answering all the questions that Miss Linacre started firing at her.
‘Wait here whilst I have a word with Mr Brown,’ Miss Linacre instructed when she’d finished interrogating her.
Vera nodded anxiously.
As the door closed behind Miss Linacre, the girl at the other desk stopped pounding the typewriter and smiled across at her.
‘I’m Joan Frith,’ she grinned. ‘Don’t look so scared, she’s not nearly as vinegary as she looks.’
‘She’s probably very nice,’ Vera said quickly. ‘I’m not sure she thinks I’m suitable for the job, though.’
‘You’ll get it,’ Joan Frith told her confidently. ‘Mr Brown has shown an interest in you and he’s the real boss. That’s probably what’s making her so prickly.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, she likes to think that she makes all the decisions when it’s anything to do with the office. She probably thinks that you should have spoken to her first, and then she could have been the one to recommend you to Mr Brown. You’ve done it the other way round!’
‘It’s not my fault, the man downstairs …’ Before she could finish what she was going to say Miss Linacre came bustling back.
‘Right, Vera Quinn. Mr Brown wants to speak to you.’
Vera longed to ask if it meant that she had the job, but Miss Linacre looked so tight-lipped she didn’t dare.
‘Thank you, Miss Linacre.’
‘Run along then, he doesn’t like to be kept waiting, and close the door quietly behind you.’
Mr Brown greeted her with a smile and motioned her to sit down again in the chair facing his desk.
‘We are prepared to give you a trial,’ he told her. ‘Report to Miss Linacre on the Tuesday after the Whitsun bank holiday. Eight-thirty, half an hour for lunch, and you finish at six o’clock. Half day on Saturday, so we close at one o’clock. Your wages will be ten shillings and sixpence a week and you’ll be paid at five o’clock every Friday night.’
Vera could hardly believe her ears. She’d got a job. In less than two weeks’ time she would be working and earning money.
‘Thank you, Mr Brown.’ Her voice was hoarse with happiness, her smile so wide that her face ached.
She walked home on air. Even her father’s terseness because she was late to do the deliveries failed to upset her. As she piled the boots and shoes into Benny’s battered pram and took him by the hand, her heart was singing.
She hugged her news to herself for the rest of the weekend. She wanted to tell Rita first, since she was the one who had told her about the vacancy. After that she’d tell her mam and Eddy. She’d make them both promise to keep it secret until she actually started work and arrived home with her first wage packet.
‘You ought to tell your dad that you’ve got a job, luv,’ her mother cautioned. ‘He’ll be so proud of you.’
‘Yes, and he’ll be waiting on the door to take my pay packet off me the same as he did with Eddy when he first started work.’
‘Now, Vee, you know I don’t like to hear you talk like that,’ Annie reprimanded her.
‘Sorry, Mam, but it’s not going to be like that for me.’
Michael Quinn did find out, though. As she had feared, Vera found him waiting when she arrived home after her first week of work.
‘Hand it over then, girl,’ he demanded, stretching out his hand.
‘It’s for Mam,’ she told him quietly, holding on to her pay packet.
Grabbing her hand he tried to twist it from her grasp, but she refused to give way.
‘Leave me alone,’ she shouted angrily, her blue eyes as bright and fierce as his own.
‘If you’re earning money then you turn it up,’ he bellowed.
‘Like you do, you mean?’ she retaliated. ‘Keeping this family isn’t my job, it’s yours.’
‘So you expect me to go on keeping you when you’re working, so that you can line your own pockets,’ he laughed cynically.
‘I’ll pay my way, don’t worry,’ she flared. ‘You tell me how much you want for my lodgings and food and I’ll hand it over … to Mam, though.’
They stood glaring at each other, neither of them prepared to give way.
‘You’ll dib up every penny you earn, understand? Even that won’t cover what it costs to keep you, or repay me for all the years I’ve slaved away to buy your food and keep you in clothes.’
Vera ripped open her pay packet and shook out the money in it out onto her palm. ‘There you are then, eight shillings and sixpence.’
She counted it out twice. ‘Are you going to take it all? Every penny of it?’
‘Hand the bloody money over and let’s have less gab about it.’
Deliberately she ignored his outstretched hand and passed the coins to her mother.
‘Eight shillings and sixpence a week, every week. That’s what you want me to pay, right?’
‘If that’s all they’re paying you I suppose that will have to do. If your mother can afford it then perhaps she’ll give you back the sixpence for pocket money,’ he told her grudgingly. ‘You still have to do the deliveries every Friday and any other time when there are any to be done.’
Vera shrugged. ‘If you say so. Will I get paid for doing them since I’m only to have sixpence pocket money?’
‘Watch your bloody tongue. No you won’t get paid!’
She sighed loudly. ‘I have to hand eight shillings over to Mam every Friday night and I can keep the sixpence for myself. Is that the deal then, Dad?’
‘That’s it and if you don’t like it then get yourself another job, one where the pay is better,’ he snapped.
‘Vera, you shouldn’t have stood up to your dad like that,’ Annie remonstrated as soon as they were alone. ‘Now you’ve ended up with only sixpence a week pocket money.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Mam. I’m happy to hand over the full eight shillings and sixpence a week, and you don’t have to give me back any pocket money. Elbrown’s are paying me ten shillings and sixpence a week. This week I didn’t get a full week’s money because I didn’t work on Monday on account of it being a bank holiday.’
No one, except her mother, seemed to be interested in all the new things that were happening in her life since she’d started work at Elbrown’s, Vera thought resignedly. As far as her father was concerned, she had a job that brought in a regular weekly wage and that was all that mattered. The more money she and Edmund handed over, the less he had to provide, and that suited him fine. He made it quite clear that in his opinion it would have been better if she’d gone to work at the biscuit factory. He didn’t see the sense in a girl trying to better herself when in a couple of years’ time she would be married, staying at home with kids to look after.
‘You’d have earned a damn sight more money on the production line than you will as a junior clerk,’ he grumbled.
Her mother listened, but more often than not failed to comprehend half of what Vera was talking about. Such things as switchboards, telephones and typewriters were outside Annie’s experience, but she certainly felt proud that Vera had managed to get an office job and not ended up working in a factory like so many girls from her school.
For Vera, her job was the key to a whole new way of life. She was absorbing all the knowledge that came her way like a sponge, and revelling in honing her new found talents.
The weather throughout July and August that year was blisteringly hot so the offices at the top of Elbrown’s paint and wallpaper shop were almost unbearable. They were not only claustrophobic, but the smell of paint and varnish hung in the air, making them so stuffy that it was hard to concentrate. Everyone who worked there complained. They couldn’t wait for their midday break so that they could get outside for some fresh air.
The moment Vera had eaten her sandwiches, though, she continued teaching herself to type. To her the typewriter was a magic machine. She loved to hear the click-clack of the keys, to see the lines of words appearing, as if by magic, as she picked out the individual letters.
‘As soon as you have mastered the keyboard, and practised setting things out, you can do the invoices on the typewriter instead of writing them out by hand,’ Mr Brown told her.
Miss Linacre’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. ‘We need two copies,’ she reminded him, ‘one for the customer and one for ourselves.’
‘That’s no problem is it? Carbon paper will work equally well for invoices as it does for copies of letters, surely. In fact, I imagine the flimsy will be easier to read than when it is handwritten.’
‘In that case why hasn’t Miss Frith been typing the invoices instead of training this new girl to do them? Miss Frith is already a proficient typist.’
‘Her time is taken up with correspondence and orders,’ Mr Brown said dismissively.
Listening to their exchange, Vera was determined to rise to the challenge and, if possible, to become a proficient typist, too, before her pay review was due.
Miss Linacre was not in the least encouraging when eventually Vera told her that she felt she was ready to try typing the invoices.
‘You can’t rub out your mistakes, you know,’ Miss Linacre told her sharply. ‘If you do make a mess of an invoice then remember it means you must cancel the form and report the fact to me. Don’t under any circumstances destroy it. They are all numbered and the sequence is important.’
‘Yes, Miss Linacre, I do realise that.’
‘Well, make sure you remember it.’
Vera took her time and managed to produce six invoices that were more or less perfect. She found the hard part was keeping the extension columns in line. She was almost afraid to press the keys in case the figures weren’t in quite the right places.