Saturday 13 December 2014

Day 13: Mallinson’s Angel by Ruth Cowling

There was nowhere like Mallinson’s department store at Christmas. I’ve never known such dedication to tradition. Not only because the decorations were proper ones, with fairylight angels and the correct number of reindeer—none of those inflatable Santa Clauses, or those dreadful walking stick things—but because they would actually use the very same decorations year after year. I was with Mallinson’s thirty-seven years, and the fairy lights they used in 2012 were the very same ones they used in 1975. Wonderful.
When I started at Mallinson’s, it was just the one store, in Harrogate. Something special. I worked there before the nationwide expansion. Before the wedding list department. Before the television screens beaming down on everyone with their scrolling special offers. Before the slick orange army of Clarins girls, with their heels and their nails. We never really ran into each other on the shop floor, but we would always smile when we ended up having to get in the lift together. Those girls have a special customer-service smile that lasts a bit too long. They look as if there’s an amusing tune playing in their heads that they know you can’t hear.
I know how to do a proper smile for a customer. I was trained by Ralph Mallinson himself. “Make a smile, make a sale,” he’d say, and in all those photos I had hanging in the stockroom, he had that smile of his. I don’t know what they teach them these days. Oh, they can always work the modern computer systems, do it all in seconds, as if they were born to it, but not the rest of it. Not the Tradition of All-Round Respect, as he put it.
They were nice girls, don’t misunderstand me, but it was as if there was a part of them that wasn’t really devoted.

Take Siobhan, a former Clarins girl who somehow got transferred to Fragrances. Siobhan would ask for her break when she’d only been there forty-five minutes. She would loiter in the stockroom and fiddle with her mobile phone, letting a queue build. She would watch a customer sniff their wrist and say “Ooh, that’s quite nice,” and she’d say, “That one? Mmm. Reminds me of my Nan. She’s in a home.”
Ralph—Mr Mallinson—would have shuddered in his grave, God rest him, if he could have seen how she carried on.
She didn’t mean any disrespect to him, of course. I told her all about him and his ethos when she first started, and at the end of my talk she said, “Whatever!” (That’s young people’s shorthand for “Whatever next!”, which, I’ve worked out, is the equivalent of “I’m impressed!”) And naturally, what with me being a more mature woman, there was a respect there. A regard. When I told her no, she had to wait for her break, she did wait. All she could do was slam the till drawer, and pop her chewing gum with this spitty little snap. There was no malice. When she went to the fridge and left that gum in my lunchbox, perching on my salad like a tiny grey turd, I knew it was just her way of teasing, saying Look at us, working together, sharing the same space, we share a sense of humour, don’t we? Just a bit of fun.

About the author:
Ruby Cowling grew up in West Yorkshire and lives in London. Her publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4'33" and Bound Off. She won the 2014 White Review Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, and was Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize .

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