A MADE UP TRUE SHORT STORY
When an unemployed graduate sees an advert to work in fashion he jumps at the chance but the reality is not quite what he envisages and he has to confront his demons.
Or read below…
Sleeves - the Shop That Comes to YOU!
In the summer of 1991, I graduated into a recession and found myself lugging a huge sports bag stuffed with shirts up and down north London’s Kentish Town Road. The job was not what I thought it would be. And certainly not what the advert in the back pages of the Evening Standard led me to believe it would be:
$$$$$$ WORK IN FASHION $$$$$$
It was the dollar signs that had caught my eye. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the small print:
My employer was a new company called Sleeves, and top Sleeves salesman Jonathon had assured me the sky was the limit financially, and the concept was brilliant. We were bringing shops to people. “Mail order was the future,” he told me as we sat in McDonald’s after my training morning. “People wouldn’t have time to go to shops”, he said, licking ketchup from his fingers as he scoffed a Big Mac, “so we were bringing the shop to them”.
I laughed to myself at this silly notion, but he seemed to be earning top dollar and even proved it as I watched him walk in and out of different shops on the high street and sell shirts from his Sleeves bag to people behind the counter. Shopkeepers had welcomed him with open arms! But it was now my second day, and thus far, I had only managed to get sworn at and told where I could shove my shirts. I feared it was about to happen again as I pushed open the door to Mabel’s Dry Cleaners.
Mabel was behind the counter, an old lady with nicotine-stained white hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. She looked up expectantly as the shop bell rang, but her face darkened as I appeared, and I instinctively knew I was about as welcome as a fart in a sauna.
I gave her a half-hearted smile before giving her the spiel.
“Hello, I’m from Sleeves…”
Mabel was not impressed, but I decided to continue.
“…the shop that er…comes to you!”
There was a clattering sound from behind the counter. Mabel had a zimmer-frame but was moving quickly as she negotiated obstacles to chauffeur me out.
“I told you yesterday..”
“Go on, hop it. Not interested.”
This was the moment to follow my instructions. Jonathon was quite clear.
‘Be firm and don’t take no for an answer. Get them to feel the fabric – ask if they have seen the summer range.’
But I could see Mabel was looking for her stick. I decided to retreat.
“Sorry, I won’t bother you again.”
I left Mabel and her not-so-beautiful laundrette and surveyed Kentish Town Road, considering my options. I had run out of shops to annoy – I was not cut out for this. The afternoon sun was oppressively hot, so I removed my Jim Morrison leather jacket and shoved it to the bottom of my already-heaving sports bag full of shirts. It was becoming heavier by the second, and my hangover from hell was not helping.
So far, I had earned the grand sum of zero pounds and zero pence. How much longer could I keep going into shops that had already said no? Was doing the same thing but expecting a different answer, not insanity? And how had Jonathon made it look so easy? Maybe it was time to return to Fitzrovia and confront my demons. Or, more precisely, Tina and Gillian.
Some pigeons were pecking away at a puddle of vomit on the pavement outside a kebab shop. What disgusting creatures – rats with wings, I would think twice about entertaining them on my head at Trafalgar Square in future. At least they were doing a clean-up job. I suppose cleaning vomit would be a worse job than my current one.
I decided to grab a table at the Brindisi cafe and order a cappuccino. I needed to make a list of everything I needed to do to improve my life. But instead, I just stared gloomily out of the window at the passersby feeling very sorry for myself. My coffee arrived, dehydrating me further and taking my hangover to a new low. Yes, currently, life could be filed in the shit column, and I needed to make some fundamental changes.
Across the road, I saw the C2 bus pull up. It would take me down to Great Portland Street in one go. Decision made. I left the cafe without paying and jumped on the bus. It felt good to dump my bag on the seat next to me and be temporarily free of my heavy load, and with forward movement, I felt confident I was making the right decision – although I was back to square one regarding paying the rent. I leant my head on the grease-smeared window and felt the rattle and roll of the bus as unconquerable London whizzed by.
Sleeves was based on the top floor of a terraced house on Charlotte Mews, Fitzrovia. I climbed the staircase upwards past several floors, home to different offices, with a sinking feeling until I reached a door at the top with a sign that read:
Sleeves – The Shop That Comes to YOU!
Directors Tina McFail & Gillian Spencer
I knocked and waited. No answer. I knocked again and then realised there was a buzzer. I pressed the buzzer. The door buzzed back, but it wouldn’t open when I pushed. I buzzed again. A stern voice that sounded like a sweary Dalek answered:
“IT’S BLOODY OPEN!!!”
I pushed again, and the door opened. I entered a stiflingly warm office that smelt of boiled sweets and body odour. Fans spun frantically, unable to shift the pong or cool the room’s temperature. In the centre of things was the large rear end of Tina McFail on all fours rummaging amongst the debris of a recent delivery of boxes. She was an impressively built woman with large buttocks like a horse.
I shuffled on my feet and coughed, but Tina took notice.
I coughed again.
“Yes, what is it?”
Her clipped accent suggested she was South African or maybe from New Zealand. I wasn’t sure whether to start a conversation until she was vertical and facing me. It felt a bit weird talking to her posterior.
“Um…” I said.
“Who is this?” said Tina’s arse.
“It’s er Andy Macleod.”
“Not who are you! Where are you?”
“Oh, er… I’m doing Kentish Town.”
“What are you doing here then?”
“Um…not having much luck.”
Tina’s backside sighed angrily and decided to give me some attention. She stood and turned, towering over me like a giant oak tree. Her face was the colour of beetroot, her hair all static like she had been on a Van der Graff generator. She looked more flustered than last time.
“What have you sold?”
“Nothing!?” She snorted. She definitely had a horse vibe.
“Jonathon grosses £200 in five minutes up there. What’s wrong with you, boy?”
“I don’t know; some of them got quite angry this morning. Maybe if I tried another area?”
“Nonsense. Did you get them to feel the fabric?”
“Well, not really, you see..”
“Why not? We’ve told you. Don’t give them the option to say no. You will have to go back up there again.”
She snatched the bag from me.
“Everyone else is selling – it must be you. What stock have you taken?”
She unzipped the bag and peered at the contents, horrified.
“Heavens! What on earth have you been doing, man? Look at these shirts! They are all crumpled.”
As Tina pulled out the stock, I stared ahead like a soldier reprimanded by an officer with bad coffee breath. I tried to explain, but my voice sounded small.
“One lady in the hairdressers wanted to see all the shirts, and I had to take all the pins out….”
“Well, you place them back and then fold everything neatly. My god! This is a dingo’s dinner! No wonder you can’t sell anything. Gillian! Gillian! Look at this. Kentish Town has gone horribly wrong.”
The dingo reference confirmed she was from South Africa as her colleague Gillian appeared in the doorway from the adjoining office, sucking a mint. She quickly scanned me and arced an eyebrow to signal she was unimpressed. Gillian was a carbon copy of Tina except older, smaller and rounder, with the same jingle jangle of over-priced bracelets and bangles. Maybe, it was a mother-daughter operation. She waddled over, the sound of her corduroy thighs rubbing together underneath a din of jewellery. She looked in the bag and pulled a face as if someone had defecated on the stock.
There was a silence, and then Tina cut back in.
“Look, I haven’t got time for this. You’re going to have to go back to Kentish Town.”
She wafted me away like a bad smell.
I looked at Gillian, but Gillian was still surveying the bag in horror. The foul stench was still under her nose. Maybe a foul stench was always under her nose.
There was no way I could go back to Kentish Town Road a third time. I had wandered up and down it for two days and was person-non-gratis.
I gulped. This was my moment. It was time to take a stand. Say enough is enough. Tell your oppressors to talk to the hand.
“Um, look, I’m not sure fashion is really for me…”
Tina raised her eyebrows, and Gillian narrowed her eyes. My voice sounded slightly high-pitched rather than angry and commanding, but there was no going back.
There was a small silence as Tina and Gillian digested this news. It felt good to take charge of the situation with these two small words. I turned to leave but annoyingly tripped over a box. I recovered, kicked the box, and pulled the door, but it wouldn’t open. I rattled it a few times as Tina and Gillian stared at me curiously like two Jersey cows. They had me trapped. But then, I realised there was an exit button to press, and mercifully the door opened.
With blood pumping and freedom beckoning, I needed to put them straight on a few things about how their mail-order business would never work – not now or in the future.
“YOU CAN TAKE YOUR STUPID SHIRTS AND SHOVE THEM UP YOUR STUPID BIG ARSES!!”
Message delivered, I fled down three flights of stairs and into the stubborn heat of the day. The sun temporarily blinded me as I took a right onto Goodge Street and ran south down Charlotte Street as fast as possible, squinting at silhouettes of oncoming pedestrians. I booted some pigeons out of the way, and they exploded with a flap of wings. They were probably the same disgusting, vomit-loving, winged rodents I had seen earlier. I hurdled over a dog, leap-frogged over an old lady and knocked a jogger into the oncoming traffic. Cars beeped, motorists yelled, and police blew whistles, but I kept running. I dared not slow down or look back, fearing I would see Tina and Gillian chasing me.
I cut down Rathbone Place, dodging more dogs, joggers, pigeons, and old ladies as I skipped from pavement to road and ran along the roofs of cars. I even threw a few starjumps and cartwheels like Kevin Bacon in Footloose. Eventually, I reached Oxford Street and played frogger across the traffic; then, once on the other side, I slowed to a jog along Soho Street and then to a walk, confident I had shaken off my assailants. I had found myself in the tranquil setting of Soho Square and sat on a bench under a shady tree as the Square filled with the lunchtime rush, my t-shirt and jeans soaked in sweat. I closed my eyes as my heart returned to its resting beat. Around me was the pleasant burble of human voices that en mass was indecipherable like bird song; if I heard actual words, I tuned out.
Burble, burble, burble, I walked down three storeys, and when I got down the bottom, he came out of the lift!
Burble, burble, burble, don’t be a fucking arsehole. Give it back; it’s mine….
Burble, burble, burble, when you said you were leaving, I thought it was for good…
Burble, burble, burble, next week we got the Isle of Wight – we set out on Wednesday…
As I began to relax, I felt a glorious seed of hunger in my stomach. Within an instance, it had flowered, and I was famished. I needed to eat. I loved being starving – a nice tangible problem with an even nicer tangible solution – food, glorious food! Pure and simple, no questions, doubts, just one definite answer. The smell of Soho was also fuelling my hunger. I could not detect its more notorious scents – the exhaust fumes, the blocked drains, the piss-stained pavements, only the mingling of different cuisines, Asian, Italian, Hungarian, and Japanese.
I knew my destination – ‘Brunos’ on Wardour Street – a Sicilian cafe only two minutes away. I would have ‘The Works’ to celebrate my victory against Sleeves and my new-found freedom – double egg, double sausage, bubble, bacon, black pudding, mushroom, beans, a cup of tea, toast and the newspaper! Life didn’t get better than that.
I stood up, but suddenly my blood ran cold. I patted my pockets.
No! No! No! Idiot!
I patted my pockets again.
Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!
I flopped back down on the bench, defeated by another realisation. Shit, my keys too! My wallet and keys were in my stupid jacket. And I left my stupid jacket in that stupid bag at Sleeves.
Soho Square began to empty as the lunch hour ended. I sat paralysed on the bench staring hard at some pigeons as they pecked away at scraps from picnics left on the grass.