Imogen is enjoying relating her experiences along the seafront as a sales assistant and is further taken aback when Andrew Jenkins asks her to tell him more about her next job which was a little more complex than serving souvenirs to tourists.
Following a year at secretarial college, and having gained my passes in shorthand and typing, I entered the full-time job market.
My experience along the seafront had at least prepared me for working life. I was usually punctual and didn’t take liberties with my lunch hour. I had even had my first managerial position, you could say, as I had been left in charge of my kiosk during Betty’s days off and holidays. Unfortunately this had not prepared me for the interviews that I attended and I was sorely disappointed to discover that the only job that was open, to a newly qualified secretary, was that of the lowly office junior.
I had earned two and six an hour along the seafront and at sixteen worked a forty-hour week. This gave me five pounds a week, plus tips, which were divided between all the staff. Because I was a student I did not pay tax and so I usually had at least seven pounds a week in my hand. I soon discovered that office juniors were lucky to get six pounds a week and that would be taxed. I horrified my mother by suggesting that I make the seafront my career instead, and she patiently pointed out that things would get better as I gained experience.
I wondered how I would ever gain that experience. I went for about five interviews that, frankly, put me off the idea of working in an office, for life. All the women who conducted the interviews seemed dried up and humourless. I was used to the informality of the seafront, and the thought of sitting at a desk staring, at a wall, typing-up dictation all day terrified me. But then I saw the advert in the local evening paper.
PRIVATE DENTAL PRACTICE
Monday to Friday 9.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.
Seven pounds per week.
This was more like it! I rang the number and spoke to a very friendly girl who took some details and slotted me in for an interview the next day.
I sat in the waiting room with two or three nervous looking people whom I assumed were patients. There were three dentists in the practice judging by the signs on the door, and I was to be interviewed by Mr. Forsythe-Brown. I felt as if I was about to have an extraction and wondered if I was doing the right thing.
I was ushered into the ground floor surgery and found myself sitting opposite a large, leather covered desk. On the other side was a man in his sixties. Hair slicked back, little half glasses perched on a large, beaky nose and hands crossed in front of him. His hands caught my attention immediately. They had a dry, scrubbed look with very white nails. He cleared his throat.
‘Miss Baxter. I am Mr. Forsythe-Brown the senior partner in this practice. You would be working solely for myself as my other partners have their own receptionists and dental nurses. Perhaps I can ask you some questions?’
The interview passed in a blur. Mr. Forsythe-Brown fired questions at me so rapidly that I only had time to tell the truth.
‘You are very young.’ He observed.
‘However, that means you may not have had time to learn shoddy habits, and I will have an opportunity to show you the correct manner of conducting yourself.’
‘You can start on Monday. You will be paid seven pounds per week and be provided with two white coats to be worn at all times.’
Sounded familiar: I hoped that there would be no unidentifiable stains on these overalls, as I thought that this time, they were unlikely to be ketchup.
I found myself uttering my acceptance, and before I could change my mind, the pleasant girl, whose name was Sandra, was showing me out of the door.
‘Are you leaving the job?’ I asked, hoping to establish if there had been any unsavoury behaviour on the part of my new employer.
‘No, I’m his dental nurse but we are so busy that I cannot cope anymore with the reception duties and the paperwork so we needed someone else.’ She smiled.
‘Don’t worry. His bark is worse than his bite. I’ll fill you in on him on Monday when you start, but do be on time, he hates people turning up late for appointments.’
With that, I returned home with the joyful news that I was in gainful employment and would be starting Monday. My parents were relieved that yet another daughter was successfully launched into the big bad world, and I enjoyed my last three days of freedom.
Monday morning arrived far too soon. Although I had worked for three years, this was my first full time job. I arrived fifteen minutes early and found Sandra in the small office off the hall.
‘Oh good you’re early.’ She smiled and sat me down in front of the typewriter.
‘We have this month’s accounts to prepare. As we deal with the private patients, we bill them after their appointments. The other dentists in the practice deal with all the National Health patients and they pay at the time.’
So started my introduction, and I have to say that I didn’t see Mr. Forsythe-Brown, or FB as he became known, until the end of the day.
‘Miss Baxter, could you come into the surgery please.’ He called through on the intercom on the desk.
Nervously, I entered the inner sanctum and found FB at the sink ferociously scrubbing his hands. He turned and nodded for me to sit at the desk. After a few more minutes of concentrated washing and drying he came and sat down.
‘Miss Smith tells me you are doing well for your first day. Tomorrow you will begin to make appointments under her guidance. I want you to go through all the patient files and familiarise yourself with their names and treatments so that when they ring for an appointment you know who you are talking to.’
Oh my God! I knew that there were at least four hundred patients. I was never going to learn all their names, let alone their treatments.
‘I expect you to have done this within the next month, by which time you will no longer require Mrs. Smith’s attention and she can spend more time in the surgery with me doing the job she is supposed to be doing.’
He looked at me for some acknowledgement that I concurred with this ultimatum. What else could I do but nod and say ‘Yes Sir.’
That set the tone for the first three months of my employment. I was learning so much that the time went very quickly, and I took pride in the fact that I did learn all the patients’ names, and in addition I produced all the monthly accounts on time and scheduled patients’ appointments correctly. After three months, FB gave me a pay rise of another ten shillings a week and I bought the whole family a take-away to celebrate.
Then disaster struck, or so it seemed at the time. I had very little contact with FB himself. Sandra was the bearer of messages, and instructions, and apart from the occasional greeting, or request for a patient file, my dealings with him were limited.
I was completing that month’s accounts when I heard a thud from the surgery. Immediately, the door opened and FB stuck his head out.
‘Get in here quickly Miss Baxter’
I rushed in, and found Sandra lying on the floor, a patient in the chair and FB standing with an instrument in one hand and a piece of plastic tubing in the other. I of course ran over to Sandra and began to kneel down.
‘No, no,’ he shouted. ‘She’ll be alright, get over here and hold this tube in the patient’s mouth immediately.’
I was too shocked to do anything but obey. I really had not come close to blood before, but there was no time to be squeamish. I placed the hooked tube back in the patient’s mouth, and started sucking up the saliva and water that was pooled under his tongue. I could see that a back tooth was exposed, and FB set to with his instruments and proceeded to extract it. It was a lengthy process as the root was curved. I was fascinated, and tried to follow FB’s instructions as promptly as possible. The job was finished and the patient gratefully leaving the chair when we both remembered poor Sandra.
She had revived and was sitting with her head between her knees on the chair in the corner. I ushered the patient out of the door, made a follow up appointment, and carried on with my accounts.
Luckily, we had no more patients that day and Sandra went home to make an appointment with her doctor. In seventeen years of working as a dental nurse, she had never fainted at the sight of blood before.
The next morning, when I arrived for work FB called me straight into the surgery, where I found Sandra sitting white-faced at the desk.
‘Sit down Miss Baxter.’ FB invited.
Oh dear. What was coming now? Was it somehow my fault, had I made a mess up of things when I stepped into the breach yesterday? I waited nervously.
It was Sandra who spoke first.
‘Imogen, I have been married for twenty years and we unfortunately have not had any children. We had given up hope but it turns out that I’m three months pregnant and that’s why I fainted yesterday.’
Although she was white-faced, I could see that she was radiant too.
FB took over.
‘Miss Baxter. I don’t like change. Mrs Smith has been with me for seventeen years and I am used to her ways. She was the one who persuaded me to take on extra assistance, and I must say you have been most helpful.’
He paused, and I waited for the axe to fall.
‘Mrs. Smith can no longer work in the surgery and so she will take over your duties outside until she leaves to have her baby and you will take her place in the surgery and I will train you as my dental nurse.’
I sat there in stunned silence.
The very next day, I found myself standing at the doorway of the surgery about to embark on a completely unexpected career move. FB was not an easy man to please. He was a perfectionist, and young as I was, he gave me no leeway. I had to learn, and learn fast, and it was exciting and nerve-wracking. But, by the time Sandra left, three months later, I loved it. In fact, we decided that, with some juggling of appointments, we could leave Wednesday afternoons free for my paperwork and FB could go and play golf. This way we did not have to take anybody else on to act as receptionist. It was hectic but we managed and there were times when it was not necessary for me to be in attendance in the surgery and I could get on with the administration work.
* * *
I paused and looked over at Andrew.
‘Go on. Tell me about some of the highlights during those two years. It sounds fascinating.’
There he went again. Fascinating was not a word I had associated with myself for years.
‘Andrew. I don’t mean to question your judgement. I love talking about myself, but is it usual to spend so much time with an applicant?’
‘No, it isn’t.’ He studied his hands for a moment. ‘You remind me of my wife. She died three years ago, and although you look nothing like her, you have the same spark, and I suppose I am being purely selfish by wanting to know more about you.’
He smiled, and I could tell he was a little embarrassed.
‘I had left today clear for paperwork, so you are in fact doing me a favour, but if you need to be somewhere else, then please tell me and we will cut this short.’
It was a long time since a man had paid me so much attention, and had listened to every word I said. What girl in her right mind was going to pass that up?
‘I have all the time in the world.’ I assured him. ‘But please let me know if it starts to get boring.’
* * *
Right. Highlights of my job with FB.
One of the problems we had to overcome was the age difference. FB was a retired Army Colonel who had served in the desert in the Second World War. On retirement from the Army, at fifty, he had gone into private practice. He was fifty years older than I was.
It was the sixties, and FB found the whole scene far too much. He did not approve of either the dress of the day, or the behaviour of the young. He would not tolerate lateness or any evidence of nights on the town, and it was hard for a seventeen-year-old to be in such a controlled environment. The up-side was that I learnt a great deal about self-discipline and work ethics, which stayed with me for the rest of my life.
I had much to learn. In those days, although dentistry was not as sophisticated as today it was still complicated enough.
Our equipment was not exactly state-of-the-art, and some of it actually had done service in the desert. For example, at that time, in the sixties, we had frequent power cuts. This of course meant that the electric, high-speed drill was non-operational. So, out would come the ‘squeeze-box’. This powered a drill attached to a pulley. I would pump up and down on a pedal and this provided enough energy to operate the drill at a painfully slow speed. Painful enough just watching, so I can only imagine what it was like for the patient.
On one occasion we had no electricity for two days and I developed cramp in my calf muscles from too much pumping. If you have ever tried to rub your head in one direction and your stomach in the other then you can imagine what it was like to be pumping away with your leg while handing over instruments, operating the sucker, also pump operated, and mixing amalgam.
Our other piece of outdated machinery was our X-ray unit. Definitely at least ten years old, if not more. It was huge and resided in one corner of the surgery. It had a flexible arm with a large wedge shaped unit on the end. There was a nozzle attached to it and this was placed against the patient’s cheek, the button pushed and the picture taken. We used to leave the room during the procedure but I was never convinced that the machine wasn’t leaking radiation all over the place.
Another of my jobs was to develop the X-rays, and on one occasion this led to a bit of a ‘miracle’. The developing was done in a small broom cupboard at the top of the stairs. It contained two tall, narrow, tanks, one for developing and one for fixing, and I had to wear elbow length rubber gloves to handle the chemicals.
For processing, the X-rays were clipped into a metal holder which had four metal clips each side of the main central shaft. A sticker was put on this shaft showing which patient each X-ray belonged to. On this particular occasion, when I was in a hurry, I inadvertently opened the clip at the top of the holder and released all eight X-rays into the fixer tank. You have to remember that I was operating in very subdued lighting and I had to fish around in the tank with my gloved hand to find these slippery little bits of film.
At last, I got them all out and because they were now developed and fixed, I could switch the main light on. But, whose X-ray was which? I did my best, and put all eight films back in the holder to dry.
Nothing happened for about two weeks. I was doing the accounts while FB was taking impressions for some dentures when I got the call.
‘Miss Baxter, could you come in here a moment?’
I recognised that oily, smooth tone of voice. I had done something wrong.
I entered the surgery to find a lovely lady in her seventies in the chair. She smiled at me revealing her pink gums and nothing else.
I turned to FB who was holding an X-ray up to the window and examining it closely.
‘Miss Baxter, we appear to have a bit of a miracle on our hands. Perhaps you could shed some light on it?’
I had already learnt that FB could be quite sarcastic when the mood took him and he was in full flood now.
‘Mrs James as you are aware requires new dentures. On her last visit, I took an X-ray – as she was experiencing some pain beneath the gum – and I suspected that a root might have been left behind during her extractions several years ago.’
He paused for effect.
‘Imagine my extreme surprise to discover, on removing Mrs. James X-ray from her notes, that she has grown a complete set of new teeth and indeed has a whole jaw of second teeth to follow.’
‘From this X-ray I would determine Mrs. James to be about eight years old.’
Thankfully, the correct X-ray was located in one of our younger patient’s notes, but from then on, I always checked the X-rays in the notes before handing them over for the appointment.
It was generally interesting work, and although FB was a tough boss he was also fair. I now earned eleven pounds a week for the two roles I was performing, which was a lot of money for someone of my age. I had recently turned eighteen and life was good. There were still the odd times when I wished I was anywhere else but in that surgery, but looking back, even those times were amusing.
Like the time we were removing an upper molar from a rather large man. I would place my hands, laced across the top of a patient’s head during an upper extraction. This would hold the patient steady and apply pressure downwards when FB was pushing upwards. Not very elegant but it worked. In this case, I discovered that the patient was wearing a hairpiece. I had just placed my hands on his head when his hair started moving alarmingly around his scalp.
‘Miss Baxter, would you hold the patient’s head steady.’ He hissed at me, between clenched teeth.
As FB was so close to the patient, he couldn’t really shout at me.
‘I am trying to.’
Obviously I sounded a little stressed, and FB raised his eyes to my level and stopped what he was doing.
I lifted my hand, and pointed downwards at the offending article now perched precariously over the patient’s right eyebrow.
A look of irritation crossed FB’s face. We were half way through the extraction and there was no going back. He jerked his head at me to replace my hands on the man’s head, which I did with some trepidation. I found that, if I applied a great deal of pressure, I could just about hold the toupee in place and provide the leverage necessary for FB to complete the procedure.
Thankfully the tooth was extracted and the patient sent on his way a relieved man. This probably lasted until he caught sight of his reflection somewhere on his journey home which would have revealed a rather large gap at the back of his head and a lot of hair lying low over his eyebrows.
I believe that was the first time I ever heard FB laugh out loud. He waited, of course, until I had left the surgery. My hand was on the doorknob, and I was just about to return to collect a file when I heard the peals of laughter from inside.
Unfortunately, FB’s wife, who had been ill for some time, died, and he decided, at the age of sixty-nine to retire to the country. He was very generous to me, giving me a lump sum and a very good reference. I felt that I would like to take dental nursing further, and considered training as a State Registered Nurse. The Queen Alexandra Nursing Service was advertising for recruits at the time and the uniform was very attractive.
* * *
Andrew looked down at the C.V.
‘I can’t see anything here about you becoming a nurse, what happened?’
‘That is a whole different story, which has nothing to do with my employment history.’ It was also one of the more embarrassing episodes of my life and one that I had chosen to forget until now.
‘It sounds intriguing! Come on, spill the beans.’ I was obviously not going to get away with keeping this to myself. But, I was enjoying myself for the first time in ages and even if I didn’t get a job out of this, my self-esteem was getting a terrific boost.
©sallygeorginacronin Just an Odd Job Girl 2001
Next time embarrassing episodes and time for Imogen to smarten herself up a bit if she is to get another job.