By Heleen Kist-
I miss the clothes. The privilege of popping into a different outfit every morning, fresh off the racks. The satisfying, slinky slide of silk off the hanger. Oh, and that feeling of crisp cotton. You know the one, when it’s never been laundered yet. Stiff and classy.
I got to pick anything I wanted. Well, within reason. I couldn’t waltz around the shop floor in a fluffy ballgown, now could I? ‘Smart casual,’ they’d said. Plenty of choice still, within that category. And it was such a relief from the miserable, black polyester uniform.
Sorry, no offence. The blouse suits you. Really shows off your waist.
I’ve not got much of a waist anymore. That’s part of why they chose me, I guess. They were looking for someone who would blend in with the shoppers. ‘A forgettable face.’ I admit that stung slightly. I mean, nobody wants to hear that about themselves, do they? But I understood why that was important.
They probably couldn’t tell from the rosacea on my cheeks—here—but I did blush when they told me why they’d picked me: I was nicely groomed and carried myself like the kind of person whose opinion mattered. Not so old as to be uncool for the younger crowd, yet also not too green. Stylish enough, but not too on trend. Trustworthy-looking. Trustworthy full stop; it was a big secret I’d be keeping.
It was a Friday when Ms Jones called me up from Handbags and Hosiery to share the good news. What a way to start the weekend! At closing, I nipped round the Deli and splurged on a few goodies to celebrate. A half bottle of fizz for me and some of that French mackerel mousse for Poppit. You should have seen his whiskers twitch when I took the glass pot out of my bag!
Do you like cats? He’s a beautiful marmalade tabby. I’ll show you a photo when we’re done.
The first time I did it was with a man. I’d been watching him for a while, as I dawdled among the Menswear racks, occasionally picking up and putting back an item. Hoping not to be too conspicuous.
The boppy morning soundtrack was streaming from the ceiling and I’m telling you, the butterflies in my stomach were dancing along. My hand kept shooting up to my chest, hunting for my missing name tag. I said to myself, ‘Why are you nervous, you silly woman? You’ve spoken to thousands of customers.’ Yet this was different.
He was tall and his hair ended in tight curls. The back of his navy suit jacket was wrinkled, as if he’d been sitting in an office for hours. It was in the early morning though, which told me there wasn’t a woman at home to make sure he was well-presented.
He’d gone to the dress shirts first. Nothing seemed to draw him in. It was when he stood comparing two ties in the mirror that I pounced. Figuratively, of course. Wouldn’t want the poor chap to freak out! No, I meandered over and rummaged through the ties. Then I caught his eye in his reflection and smiled. Bless him, he smiled back.
‘The blue one. Definitely,’ I said. He checked himself again and nodded. Said ‘thanks.’ He looked relieved. Like I’d truly done him a favor. And that’s when I knew I’d fretted for nothing. My new role wasn’t sneaky; it was simply to be kind. It just so happened the blue tie was the more expensive one. And I genuinely thought it would look smarter with the matching pocket handkerchief. When I mentioned it, he bought that too.
I complimented twelve men that day. Twelve! I returned home on a cloud, lifted by their gratitude for helping them decide—because decisions are hard, right? And it remained unsaid, for giving them that small boost of confidence. A spring in their step. I told Poppit all about them.
There’s one wonky grin I’ll not easily forget. A skinny chap. He must’ve been mid-twenties. Had a row of angry spots he’d probably cut while shaving. After I’d frowned at the pink shirt he was considering, he’d let me come closer, and when I’d nodded at the next one, he held it high and thanked me. I said, ‘Enjoy.’ He frowned. Said, ‘Not much to enjoy’. Turns out he was needing a new shirt for a job interview. He admitted being rejected five times already, poor lad. As he left, I imagined him marching into the interview in the blue paisley with cutaway collar we picked, back straight, chin up, and absolutely nailing it. Shame I’ll never find out.
I needed to be careful not to overdo it in one department and moved to the ground floor to Hats and Accessories. Amazing how a scarf can lift a woman’s complexion. But you’d know that.
Want to hear what’s fascinating? Fascinators. Okay, naff joke. Only it’s true. You should check it out sometime on your break. You see the customers who pick the narrow headband with a quartet of feathers, usually black or beige, and go straight to the cash desk. There wasn’t much I could do for them. Once in a while, you have an almost mythical creature who sashays in and tries on headpieces only from the top shelf. No compromise. Big bows, foot-long feathers, colorful ribbon-trimmed mesh rims, brimming with confidence.
And then there’s the ones I watched out for. She would start at the top—she was buying for a special occasion, after all. Then she’d grimace in the mirror and put the piece back on the polystyrene head. Try another and sigh, her shoulders slumping a tad as she moved down to a lower shelf. And perhaps a level down again. It was heart-breaking to watch a woman be so keen to stand out, yet afraid to be seen. A subtle wink from me at just the right time, an encouraging smile and thumbs up from what she’d think was a fellow shopper, was often all she needed to rise back up and choose who she wanted to be.
About a fortnight in, Ms Jones asked me to move to Womenswear. I guess she had a point: the type of people I’d nudged had mostly come in already intending to make a purchase. Management needed me to generate impulse buys from shoppers who might otherwise be suspicious of the sales staff. It’s common knowledge they’re on commission.
I wasn’t. I wish! Not surprisingly, the girls were delighted to have me on the floor. They’d slip in to greet my shoppers by the till at the very last minute, to still get their cut. I didn’t mind. I’d had a pay rise and—this is going to sound dippy—I just loved spreading a bit of joy. I mean, it’s pretty miserable right now in the world; and if I could make a person feel better with a compliment here and there, then I was helping, wasn’t I?
The fitting rooms were my stage. I’d take a selection of clothes in and step out from behind my curtain as a shopper inevitably checked themselves out in the big mirror, where the light is brighter. You get that awkward moment when they realize you need a sliver of space too and you end up shoulder to shoulder, one a step behind the other, pretending to focus only on yourself—though your eye can’t resist wandering to the other side. Usually, I asked their opinion on my outfit and the rest would come easy. She’d need reassurance that the dress wasn’t too low cut or that canary yellow wasn’t too much. ‘Canary yellow is perfect,’ I’d say. I never lied, mind. I scrunched my nose plenty of times to discourage an unsuitable purchase. When I liked, I liked for real.
You must see this too: I find that someone who feels confident, who believes they look good, they shine. I’d watch them walk away, all radiant, and their light warmed up my insides.
I remember the two teenagers like it was yesterday. Drunk with excitement, bringing in way more items that allowed, crammed themselves into a tiny cubicle. I overheard their giggles, the rattling of their many hangers as they debated what to try on first, the curses as a girl’s hair got stuck in a zip. I couldn’t help but smile. I hovered by the mirror, looking forward to sharing in the fun. It had been an age since I shopped with a friend. Years. They came out, and I thought they looked glorious: long legs, skin glowing, hair resplendent under the halogen spots. It wouldn’t have mattered what they wore. Yet right there, in front of the mirror, they showered themselves in criticism. Their butts were too big, their boobs too wonky, their eyebrows too thin, their knees too knobbly.
My heart shattered in pieces. I remember thinking: if only they were able to see themselves like I see them. I began saying nice things. Like you do. Like I was doing all the time. Never thought twice.
And, well, you’ll have seen what happened after that. The whole thing blew up. In truth, I wasn’t surprised when you thought you recognized me when I first sat down. I even received a panicky phone call from my mum when her local newspaper covered it.
I can still see the girls’ puzzled faces, sense their discomfort building. I’d quickly left the area. Decamped to the staff toilets to make myself scarce.
I don’t blame them for pointing me out to the floor manager. Not with all the ‘stranger danger’ stuff nowadays. If only I’d gone elsewhere, not signaled I was staff…
As it stood, we had to come clean. Explain about my covert role. And like teenagers do, they took a picture and put it online. It snowballed. I’m not on social media, but it was hard to miss. House of Needham’s dishonest practices exposed. That was the Herald’s headline. Did you see it? I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. Dishonest.
I'm told you all got a memo from Management instructing you not to speak to the Press, feeding you the ‘company line’. I haven’t seen it myself; I’d been let go by then. Redundant. They treated me fairly enough. I didn’t need to work out my notice.
It’s weird suddenly staying home for weeks on end. It unsettled Poppit too; he went right off his food.
After thirteen years on the floor, I missed this place. Maybe I look familiar because I hung about a bit. I probably shouldn’t have, but I came in a few times to get a little dose of happy people, seeing them shine. Don’t worry, I didn’t speak to anyone.
I’ve landed a new job. At the dry cleaners. It’s alright. The air gets quite clammy and customers don’t really stay for a natter. There’s nowhere to sit, so at lunchtime I stroll along the High Street and park myself on the bench outside the library.
One day, a young woman sat beside me with her sandwich. She had the most gorgeous purple shoes on. 1940s style. Before I could stop myself, I’d blurted out, ‘Those are fantastic shoes.’ My stomach dropped as she turned to look at me, but she gave me the widest grin. They'd belonged to her mother. A dancer. We blethered on and when we parted, she turned around for an extra wave, the wind blowing her long, wavy hair across her face.
I practically skipped back to work, a huge weight lifted from me. I wasn’t a ‘creepy lady’. It was okay to be nice to strangers. I always knew that, deep down, but it’s hard when you’ve been accused.
Shall I tell you a secret? I have a target. Every day, when I’m out for lunch or on my break, I aim to give three people a boost. It can be the tiniest comment. A short ‘nice coat’ or even ‘nice salad’ in passing can make someone stand just that bit taller. I’m on a twenty-six-day streak.
It’s great. My headaches disappeared—though that might be from the fresh air. Not many people stop for a chat but occasionally they do, and I get the loveliest stories.
Yesterday, I met John. I sat unscrewing my thermos for my afternoon tea, and the plastic bag with my walnut slice slid from my lap onto the ground. It almost got squashed by this passing man’s enormous foot. He stopped just in time. Picked it up and said, ‘That looks delicious.’ He kept his deep brown eyes on me as he handed it back. His thumb left an imprint on the icing. A warm flush crossed my chest. ‘Would you like a bite?’ I said. I’m still in shock I did that, but I did. And he sat down! Wouldn’t believe I’d baked the cake myself when I told him.
Next thing I know, I hear my name being shouted. The boss is standing in the shop's doorway, hands on her hips. My break’s been over for ten minutes. I get all flustered, apologize to him and run.
Guess what? John called in this morning. Had memorized the cleaners. Asked me if I wanted to go for a drink after work. Tonight!
I’ve been quite anxious, knowing how busy the make-up counter gets around closing time. So I’m hugely grateful you squeezed me in, to give me a face he won’t forget.
Heleen Kist is a Dutch, formerly globetrotting career woman who fell in love with a Scotsman and his country, and now writes about its (sometimes scary) people from her garden office in Glasgow. She was chosen as an up-and-coming new author at international crime festival Bloody Scotland 2018. Her debut, ‘In Servitude’ won the silver medal for Best European Fiction at the Independent Publishers Book Awards in the USA and was shortlisted for The Selfies awarded at London Book Fair. Her feminist thriller ‘Stay Mad, Sweetheart’ was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and won third place in the inaugural Book Bloggers’ Novel of the Year award 2020. This is her first foray into short stories. You can find her on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/hkist