This was the first novel that I wrote back in 2001 when I first moved to Spain to live. I had written short stories before and non-fiction health books, but felt the need to bring a little romance and humour into my writing.. the result was Just an Odd Job Girl.
Previously Imogen had regaled Andrew with her antics as one of the team in the Ladies Fashion department at Huntleys, and her run in with shoplifters.
Chapter Seven – The Cosmetic Department.
The time I enjoyed most during my days at Huntley’s was my time in the cosmetic department.
I was nineteen, and into make-up, as most of my generation was at the time. This offered me the opportunity to sample anything that I wanted, within reason, as I was appointed ‘roving consultant’. This meant that I would be trained by the different cosmetic houses in their individual products, and on their regular consultant’s day off, I would take her place.
For example, one of the cosmetic firms offered a powder blending service to its customers. This involved checking the skin tones of the client and then mixing a specific blend of powders for their complexion. There was a base powder and about twelve different shades that could be added. We used a giant spatula to whisk the powder over the tissue paper with little pinches of the different shades added until the perfect blend had been achieved.
The combination was noted on the client card, and would then be made up to that recipe each time the customer needed it. The variety in my new position made my life much more interesting and I loved working with cosmetics and perfume.
The three months I spent there were very happy, and relatively uneventful except for one rather unexpected development.
I had been in the position about four weeks, and was practising my powder blending technique when a rather large, red, hand stretched across the counter towards me.
‘Have you something that might tone this down a little please?’ said a rather deep voice.
I looked up, a little startled by the depth of this female voice, to be confronted with rather a bizarre sight. She was very tall with broad shoulders that were draped with long blonde hair. She also sported a five o’clock shadow. I was rather taken aback, as this anomaly was something I had not previously encountered. My upbringing took, over and I stopped staring directly at her face and concentrated on the hand still being proffered to me.
‘I think that we might have a foundation that would tone down the redness,’ I offered.
‘I can then blend you a powder to ensure that it lasts all day if that would help?’
She smiled at me and perched on the little round stool the other side of the counter. The following half-hour was both informative and enjoyable. My new customer was funny and totally unconcerned by her strange appearance. She introduced herself as Dolly and regaled me with her recent escapades.
One of these escapades involved total hair removal from most parts of her anatomy. I had just seen her hands, which were red, and raw looking, from the treatment. I hazarded a guess as to the painful nature of the removal from the rest of her body. She was very frank about the five o’clock shadow and we discussed various methods of concealing this. As I came to the end of her particular powder blend, she leant across the counter and motioned for me to come closer.
Slightly reluctantly, I leant forward until I was staring at large eyes, below rather bushy eyebrows that were considerably darker than the cascade of blonde hair.
‘My real name is Arthur’ she whispered quietly. ‘I have to dress and live like this for a year before my operation.’
He moved back and looked at me expectantly. Looking back, he was obviously looking for the usual distaste and rejection of his circumstances, but I was too young and naïve to even understand what he meant by operation. At the time, I just felt sorry for him and he looked so pleased when we applied the new foundation and powder that I only felt satisfaction.
He paid his bill and left, and when I turned back from the counter, I found five or six other consultants looking on with bemused expressions. Some were shaking their heads and muttering something about ‘they won’t like that upstairs.’ I was pleased with a very good sale and really did not think too much more about it, until the next day that is.
I was stocking a shelf at the back of the department when one of the women came racing around the corner.
‘Imogen, Imogen, come quickly you’re wanted at the counter.’
I hurried across to where the manageress of the department was standing with arms crossed and a severe look on her face.
‘Deal with it Miss Baxter and get rid of them before our other clients see them.’ She hissed at me as I arrived panting at her side.
I glanced around her shoulder at the powder blending section and caught my breath. Standing tall and proud were too extremely elegantly dressed ladies. Unlike my previous customer, these two ladies were really only remarkable in their height and breadth of shoulder. On closer inspection, I could see that their legs, finely covered in sheer nylon, were rather on the chunky side. Large hands with long, lacquered fingernails were clasped in front of them as they waited patiently for attention.
The manageress was still glaring at me, and I realised that it was all down to me. I moved behind the counter and approached the expectant pair who smiled warmly at me.
‘Are you Imogen?’ the younger of the two asked. I nodded my head.
‘Our friend Dolly recommended you for all our cosmetic requirements and told us that you were very kind and helpful yesterday.’
I could feel a distinct coolness behind me, and guessed that my every move was being watched. It was decision time. I could either be rude, and turn these customers away, or do my job, which was to sell cosmetics. I chose to do my job, and fifty pounds later had reached my weekly target in just half an hour.
As I had started to serve my new customers, I had heard the sharp intake of breath behind me. There was a further gasp, as the two ‘ladies’ departed, vowing to tell everyone to come and see me, and that they would be back every month for their own requirements.
An hour later and I was upstairs in the General Manager’s office. My manageress had already been ensconced with Mr. Baxter for some time and she sat smugly in the corner as I stood before the desk.
‘Ah, Miss Baxter. We meet again.’ Mr. Dempsey looked up from some figures on his desk.’
‘I understand from Miss Fraser that you have been cultivating a rather interesting new clientele recently.’
I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement so waited to see what would come next.
‘Miss Fraser is concerned that it may affect our figures, as other clients may not feel comfortable being served in the same department as these, how shall I put it,’ he paused, ‘unusual customers.’
He looked directly at me.
‘What is your opinion Miss Baxter?’
I must be a magnet for trouble. There were staff in Huntley’s who had been there for thirty years and never even met the General Manager let alone been reprimanded twice in as many months.
What did I have to lose? I only had two months left; I could always go temping if necessary. I had never actually been fired before and I was always open to new experiences.
‘Mr Dempsey,’ I began my unprepared speech. ‘These customers are spending a great deal of money, it would not be good business to turn them away.’
I looked across the table to determine the reaction so far. Mr. Dempsey nodded slightly, and waited for me to continue. I thought quickly before opening my mouth again.
‘How about we set up the counter at the back of the department, near the side entrance, with all the usual products that these customers require. Then I could tell them that Huntley’s has done this so that we can provide a discreet service for them, offering a private consultation area.’
I waited while my proposal sank in. I could see, out of the corner of my eye that Miss Fraser was not exactly enamoured of the idea. If looks could kill, I would have been dead and gone.
‘Interesting Miss Baxter.’ Mr. Dempsey looked back down at the figures in front of him.
‘I would certainly be reluctant to turn away such good business, but at the same time it should not be at the expense of our regular customers.’
He continued, smiling slightly. ‘Very well, we will adopt your idea for a month and review the situation at that time. I will leave it to you to persuade these customers to be discreet and I will be keeping a close eye on the department on a regular basis.’
Further sharp intake of breath from the corner.
‘That is alright with you isn’t it Miss Fraser?’ Mr. Dempsey looked over at the rigid form to his left. Somehow, his tone brooked no argument, and I knew that the prospect of my new customers and constant surveillance by the General Manager was not the outcome Miss Fraser had hoped for. That stress was no doubt going to be passed onto me, in spades, during my remaining two months, but somehow, I didn’t care. Perhaps this stuffy environment could be changed after all, which would make the store a much more enjoyable place to work.
I was right, Miss Fraser took delight in criticising me on a constant basis. Tapping her watch if I arrived thirty seconds late, insisting on counter signing any cheques I took, implying to customers that I was very much the junior, and generally making my life as difficult as possible.
On the plus side, my little department did roaring business. My ‘ladies’ used the side entrance and would perch on the three bar stools on the other side of the counter while I concocted and experimented with various products to enhance their complexions. They completed my education in the ways of their alternate lifestyle.
* * *
Two months later and my appointment with nursing was just around the corner. I have mentioned that I had met Peter during the nine months I was at Huntley’s, and he was constantly nagging me to give up the idea of nursing, as he did not want me to go away for the next three years.
He was moving to Sussex to finish his studies and wanted me to go with him. I wavered, and in the end love won out. I had to figure a way of telling my parents of my decision. They would not be happy, but at nineteen you know it all and dive straight in where angels fear to tread.
Before I left Huntley’s I had one more brush with Mr. Dempsey. He had got into the habit of visiting the department two or three times a week. But once he was satisfied that our new programme was working, and that our other business was not being effected, he cut down his visits. Friday afternoon was his walkabout day and he usually ended up in our department around three in the afternoon.
On my last day, the girls, who had become friendlier over the last couple of months, took me out at lunchtime and plied me with drinks – perhaps they we hoping to be chosen to take over my lucrative business empire when I left?
I have never been able to drink at lunchtime and was well and truly under the weather by the time I returned to work. Miss Fraser was on holiday and her deputy, a decidedly warmer individual, decided that I perhaps should be occupied away from customers. She suggested that I might dress the three glass counters that contained our perfume and cosmetic displays. I was thrilled at the prospect of showing off my artistic ability and headed off downstairs to the basement where our window dressers lived.
I was left to my own devices and by three, I was finished. Mr. Dempsey entered the department and began his tour of inspection. He ended up standing next to me as I surveyed my handiwork.
In each of the three glass counters lay a solitary, replica, tree branch. Scattered across the bottom of the counter were handfuls of artificial rose petals. There was only one cosmetic item per display. A lipstick in one, open and on its side, a bottle of perfume with the cap off and a glass bottle of hand cream leaking its contents over the felt lining of the counter. But this wasn’t the best bit. Under each tree branch lay a stuffed dove, toes up and lifeless. I thought it was hysterical and tried vainly to keep this under control.
Mr Dempsey took in the three artistic offerings and finally turned to me.
‘I understand that you are leaving us today Miss Baxter.’
Looking up at his unsmiling face, I nodded, trying hard not to breathe alcoholic fumes directly into his face.
‘I extend my heartfelt good wishes to your next employer.’ He shook his head slightly.
‘We shall certainly miss your presence at Huntley’s.’ With that he turned and left the department and I had the distinct feeling that a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
* * *
Andrew was laughing, and so was I. I had forgotten about the doves, and my efforts to interpret the atmosphere of that stuffy place, but looking back I also felt pride that I had stood up to the establishment and won some small victories.
‘It’s time for lunch and I have to get on with this damn paperwork or Elizabeth will want my hide.’ Andrew stood up.
‘I have some ideas about the sort of position that would be interesting for you and would offer you the opportunity to slip back into the work environment.’ He paused for a moment.
‘How about we get together on Friday, at midday to discuss the options?’
I was thrilled. Not only was there the prospect of a job, but I would get to see this man again. I wasn’t sure what was making my heart beat a little faster but I suspect it was not the thought of going back out to work.
He helped me on with my coat.
‘This has been a valuable exercise and I would like you to continue with the process over the next couple of days. Go through all the jobs that you held and look at them closely.’
He looked at me intently.
‘You need to understand both your abilities, and what you achieved because of them. You did a great thing for those transvestites at a time when public opinion was much more unforgiving.’
He smiled and took my hand.
‘I wish I had known that nineteen year old, she sounded like fun.’
Did that mean that he did not think that I was fun now? Somehow, the thought made me realise that it was stupid of me to think of him in any other way than as a person who would find me a job. After all, what an earth would an attractive man like him see in this middle-aged, overweight and frumpy person?
I turned towards the door.
‘I’ll look forward to seeing you on Friday.’ He opened the door and touched me gently on the shoulder.
‘Don’t forget be kind to yourself.’
Had he been reading my thoughts?
I smiled and headed out, past Elizabeth, and into the bustling high street.
I was hungry, but with new-found determination, I passed by the tantalising aroma of fish and chips wafting from the shop on the corner, and headed straight home. I was actually excited about this project and I couldn’t wait to re-live more good memories
The next position after Huntley’s beckoned. Catering Assistant at O’Ryan’s Steak House, near Peter’s college, in Sussex. First, however, there was something I needed to do.
©Sally Georgina Cronin Just an Odd Job Girl
One of the reviews for the book
Imogen was traded in at the age of 50 for a younger model or Fast Tracker in her words. I smiled and laughed out loud throughout as I could relate to much except my dress was made of tin foil and not red. Occupied at first by getting her new home in order Imogen then found herself eating and watching movies and of course piling on the pounds. Determined to make a change after seeing an advert in a local paper she took the plunge and went for an interview.
Andrew Jenkins was like no one Imogen had met and once he had put Imogen at her ease invited her to start at the beginning of her work history to put Imogen at her ease he explained that this would help him build a picture and enable him to find the perfect job for her. What followed was a joy to read and anyone who reads this is very likely to discover that they are not so very different to Imogen and the discoveries she made about herself and how it truly reflects the life story of so many women of a certain age.
The author has an easy going style which makes this story hard to put down as she goes through the many jobs she had Sally Cronin tells the tale of many and varied positions some being just downright funny. A story of a life before children and after they had flown the nest and Imogen had been discarded but how she rose like a phoenix from the flames a new woman. If you want a light-hearted read with a moral attached then this book is recommended and I will definitely be reading more from this author I loved it.
A light entertaining read with a powerful message.
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Thanks for dropping in and as always your feedback is very welcome. Sally.
I hope you will join me again tomorrow for the next chapter in Imogen’s colourful work history.