Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Invisible Me.

My feet were soaking in a washing-up bowl of Epsom salts when Mags came calling. She plonked herself next to me on the sofa.
“Hard day then?”, she asked.
“You could say that”, I replied, wincing as the dog came to greet her and knocked the washing-up bowl, stubbing my tender tootsies inside.
“How long was your shift?, she added, stroking a very excited dog. I extricated my feet from the bowl, better safe than sorry.
“Eight hours”, I said, “And as if that weren’t bad enough, there was no bus, so I walked from the city centre back to Torpoint”.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Mags.
“My thoughts entirely. I walked pavements that I’ve never walked before”.
We were quiet for a moment, both of us trying to remember a dim and dubious past when we might, as young women, have zig-zagged home in the early hours after a dancing the night away in some Union St night club. I was relived that I could not recall even one time.
“Thing is Mags, as I walked, I had plenty of time to think and walking in the dark, in my polyester uniform, I was completely invisible.”
“You mean it was so dark, no-one could see you?”
“No, I don’t mean literally. I mean …” and I felt a little embarrassed to say the next bit.
“Go on”, Mags prompted.
“I felt poor”. There I said it.
“How do you mean?” Mags asked.
“I’m beginning to loose my identity as me, middle class mum, commander’s wife, graduate.”
“Because what we do for a living and what we wear so very often defines us. Hubby goes to work and everyone knows he’s the commander. His uniform, lest anyone has any doubt, tells them so. Similarly when I was a teacher, my clothes suggested I was a teacher because I looked professional. Students lent their respect. A white coat and stethoscope suggests a doctor. What we wear has a certain gravitas, or not as the case may be.”
“So?” asked Mags.
“So when is the last time you held any particular regard for a shop girl?”.
“Well, I’m always polite to them”, replied Mags, defensively.
“Always?”, I queried.
“Ok, not always, but some are hopeless and sometimes I’m in a rush, but Alice love, they are just sales assistants. Hardly educating the nation, or healing the sick or commanding the Royal Navy for that matter”.
“Just sales assistants? ” I said, “Which is why, as I sat rather dejectedly at the bus stop before deciding to travel by Shanks’s pony, I realised just how invisible I was. For want of a better word, I looked working class and thus not worth the time of day. Honestly Mags, I walked through parts of Devonport which were very rundown and dodgy, but I looked as though I fitted right in.
“Don’t be ridiculous”.
“Straight up. My make-up had waned, my hair was pulled back; if I’d walked into Iceland to get a few frozen provisions, the sales assistant there wouldn’t have bothered with me because I am now one of them. I can truly understand how you start believing how others perceive you. No wonder the unemployed feel so worthless. It’s how we’ve made them feel, ditto single mums and immigrants”.
“I never thought a Christmas job would have made you so political”, said Mags, sounding rather nervous.
“That’s the other thing”, I added, “I know in my heart of hearts that I’m earning a crust and busting my ass to earn some extra cash for a family Christmas, which rather ironically, because of the gruelling world of retail, I won’t even be a part of, but I’m also, after only a couple of weeks in the job, beginning to believe that I am not capable of anything more. Perhaps my colleagues and other low paid workers share that feeling”.
“But I thought you enjoyed it?”, said Mags.
“I the words of Abba, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. I love the customer service, and helping old ladies in the changing rooms especially. In fact, I think department stores should specialise in services for the elderly. Have you ever given a thought to how knackering it is for old people to shop?”
Mags assented that she had not.
“Well, it is. Exhausting. For them to buy any new clothes they have to negotiate the crowds, find the item they want, queue to try it on, get undressed, put the new thing on and then, if it doesn’t fit, well suffice it to say that they are very relieved to find me. They hold my arm and we take time gathering several items, then I carry the things to the fitting rooms and stand outside the curtain whilst they undress. In a couple of cases, where the poor dears have been arthritic, they have asked me to be in there with them to help them dress and undress. It may be a drop in the ocean compared to teaching and medicine, but I get a wonderful sense of satisfaction that I have made one old lady’s day a better one.”
There is no time for personalised customer service these days though. Much like teaching, it is all about targets. Although I am delighted to help my old ladies, I am aware that I ought to be selling, selling, selling and with every sale, offering store credit cards, which for many families, especially at Christmas, will be a descent into the ravages of debt. Hubby walked in.
“Alice, sweetheart, whilst it is commendable that you feel pimping a credit card immoral, please keep your gob shut and hang onto this job. For once in your life, just smile and say to your superiors, ‘Certainly, Sir’”. Mags looked doubtful.
It was a phrase I’d have to practise; I reinserted my feet in the Epsom salts and mulled the rather obsequious, proposal.

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