I feel utterly ridiculous standing outside in our makeshift stall, wearing a stupid outfit. All I need is a turban and a crystal ball and I will fit right in. The sun’s out, but its cold and it’s not even funny anymore. It is Saturday afternoon and there is a lot of footfall in Kimberly shopping precinct today. More people to see me in this ridiculous outfit!
“This is so stupid” I mutter. “People are passing through us like Red Sea. Nobody wants to stop”
“Hi Ma’am would you like to try our new eau de parfum, inspired from Middle Eastern heritage” Erika pushes the parfum bottle in the face of a very displeased Ma’am who wrinkles her nose in disapproval and hurries away. Erika sighs dejectedly. She puts down the bottle and starts to straighten her knee length black dress. I feel a sudden wave of envy. Why did I even listen to Patricia? Everyone else has worn normal outfits. Aileen has gone for champagne coloured skirt and scooped neckline top and a pair of low heels. Patricia has gone for sweetheart neckline knee length dress in blue (to bring out the blue in her eyes). Me, on the hand, looks like an African lady who is missing her turban.
“I am getting cold now, what time is it?” Erika shifts her weight from right to left. I see visible goose-bumps on her arms.
I look at my watch.
“We got time, it’s only 3 yet.”
“Oh flipping heck! Why do we have to be the dogsbodies today??” Erika looks over my shoulders. “Oh shoot, don’t look behind, he is here.”
“Who?” I ask, resisting the temptation to look behind.
“You know, Pavel.” She whispers as if his name is sacred.
My face breaks into a wide grin, not long before I frown, knowing my present situation.
“Good afternoon ladies” I hear a voice breathing behind me. I slowly turn around and see Pavel in his white shirt and grey trousers security outfit. He has an accent, signalling his origins from Central Europe somewhere.
“Oh hey Pavel” I respond politely. He looks at me with an expression of amusement while running his fingers through his matted brown hair. I wonder if it is matted due to the invisible September heat or if he is just naturally sweaty. I avert my eyes away from his hair. He notices this and smiles.
“What’s going on?” He enquires. I wonder if he is enquiring about the event or my stupid dress.
“We’ve got a new launch today so we are all dressed up.” That’s a lie; only I, the muggins of Fruits of Abilene is dressed up!
He nods with interest, and looks over to Erika, who is busy looking the other way. Cow! He masks his disappointment by turning his attention back on me with a cheery sigh.
“I like your dress. It’s very different. Is this your native dress?” He looks up and down at my attire.
“This dress?” I feel my face flushing red. “No it isn’t”
“This is an African dress, is it not?” He is concentrating on my dress. I wish he wouldn’t do that. I am feeling conscious now.
“I don’t know. It’s just a kaftan”
“Just a long flowing top” I explain hurriedly, trying to hide my irritation with a forced smile.
“Looks like an African dress to me” He grins to his own private joke, whatever that is. At this point, I am not interested in debating the origins of the dress with him.
“Hmm, don’t know” I reply flippantly.
“Hmm, very interesting” is all he could muster. His expression says it all. He looks over to Erika again and naturally I follow his gaze. The stupid girl is deliberately looking the other way, pretending she is busy approaching customers. I shall have words with her later.
“How is she?” He nods in her direction.
“Oh she is fine, just trying to get as many people to try our new parfum range.” Suddenly I am making up excuses for her. I hope he doesn’t see through my blatant lie.
“Hmm” He looks at our makeshift stall. “What is the fragrance like?” He enquires. Now I know he is not planning to leave anytime soon.
I pick up a bottle at random and pick up a blotter. I squirt a few times on the blotter and give it to him.
“Here you go” He takes it and sniffs hard. He purses his lips as if he has been given something to sample in his mouth. “That’s…..very nice.” Suddenly I am a part of this needlessly small talk.
“Yeah it is. Kind of nice.” I say distractedly, while looking over his shoulders. Some woman is wearing an eye catching gypsy print top in burnt orange and bronze colours. Ohhhh nice top! I feel a pair of eyes boring into my face, I look back at him. I don’t know what to do now. He is standing in my peripheral vision. There’s nowhere to look but at him. I smile politely. There is a moment of silence, which grows awkward by the second. Suddenly his walkie talkie crackles and a voice is heard. He reaches for it and makes a motion to leave. I nod at him. He walks away, answering on the walkie talkie.
“You can turn around now” I say to Erika crossly.
“Oh hey” she says with casual demeanour.
I frown at her. She is looking into the crowd, her eyes narrowing in.
“He’s gone that way” I help her. I could see a mild relief etch across her face. “Listen, I need to go use the ladies, think you can handle the fort?”
I could see Erika looking despondent.
“Don’t worry, I will be back soon; if not, Pavel is around the corner to give you company in my absence”
She pulls a face and looks around suspiciously through the crowd, scanning with her spectacled eyes for his presence.
I walk back into the shop, where Aileen is serving a customer. She looks over to me and throws me a sympathetic look. I feel like a POW who has been working in inhumane conditions outdoors. On the other side of the shop, the Pharaoh, I mean Patricia is fiddling around with a display table. She needs to be out there, then she can see how it feels having thousands of eyes on her! Irritation festers inside of me as I glare venomously at her. She is oblivious to my presence and has her full concentration on the table.
“I am going to the back, to the ladies. Do you mind if I change my outfit?” I say a little loudly for her benefit.
Patricia turns around and looks at me with horror on her face “Why?”
“Because I look ridiculous” I say with irritation.
“No you don’t” She eyes my outfit up and down surreptitiously.
“I look overdressed”
“Don’t be silly. You look the part. See, you are attracting customers”
I sigh with resignation. There is no point in arguing my case. She won’t back down.
“Anyway I will be right back”
“Don’t go changing!” She calls after me.
I take my time in the toilet. I want to let Erika suffer alone outside. I wish Pavel would come back to prey on her. Now that would be great.
I look in the mirror while I wash my hands. I notice my pearl head piece is looking a little out of place and I fix it properly so that the dangling oval shaped pearl is in the centre of my forehead. I have actually made it following a YouTube clip yesterday night. Patricia is the one who encouraged me to dress up like an Arab Princess because we are promoting Middle Eastern Parfum range. She is the one who told me everyone is dressing up in their finery. Some finery it has turned out to be! I don’t see other team members resembling Princess Jasmine or Scherezaade from a Thousand and One Nights.
It is time for me to head back out but my feet are like lead; they don’t want to go. I look at my watch. I have exactly an hour to go before mine and Erika’s shifts are over. I step back out to the shop floor and outside, poor Erika is standing there handing out blotters to rude and ignorant passer-bys. I walk out to join her.
“Ah, I need to go to the ladies now” She puts her blotters and parfum down on the table. “I won’t be long”
My eyes follow her into the shop, where Patricia is looking at me with beady eyes. Suddenly I am overcome with rebelliousness. I start fiddling around with our makeshift stall, tidying up the already tidied table. I can see passer-bys giving me a once over glance and I ignore them, pretending to be busy in arranging my table.
“Lana, you need to approach people” I hear Patricia’s voice by the entrance door.
“Yes I know!” I hiss. She leaves me alone.
“Hello, what is happening here?” Thank goodness for small mercy. A kind elderly gentleman is looking at the table with interest. Here is my moment.
“We are promoting a new unisex parfum range, inspired from the Middle East. Would you like to try it?” I speak in that syrupy voice that does not belong to me.
“Ooh yes please!”
I pick up the bottle and squirt it on his wrist. He takes a whiff and nods agreeably.
“That’s a powerful scent. Very nice, smoky, I like it”
“Thank you” I reply with hope in my voice.
“Are you an Arab?” He asks with keen interest. I sigh inwardly.
“No, I am not” I smile sweetly. Arab, African, what difference does it make anymore!
“That’s a very fetching outfit you have got on. I have visited the Middle East, about…” He starts thinking; and I am thinking oh God, please spare me your stories
” …twenty-five years ago; I went to Jordan, Lebanon and Jeddah. I worked for an oil company and part of my job was to travel to the Middle East. Have you been there?”
“No, I haven’t”
“The women are exotic and beautiful and even though they are covered, you know because they are Muslim – but you can see how beautiful their eyes are. The makeup they do on their eyes; much like yours; and the perfume they wear; it lingers on in the air. This perfume reminds me of that.”
“Hmm-mm” I reply distractedly. I am trying to be courteous by keeping my eyes on him while keeping my ears peeled for Erika’s return.
“…and now I am retired. Been retired for ten years now. I used to live in Kimberly and now we have a small cottage down in Cornwall, but my children live here. Except for David. David lives with Angie his wife down in Bournemouth. David is my eldest. I have four children and three of them live here” He chuckles proudly.
“I have come up with my missus to see them. I am supposed to meet her at Molton Brown” He looks up to our signage above the shop window. “Fruits of Abilene? Oh this is not Molton Brown?” He looks at me expectantly, as if I should whip out my crystal ball and tell him he’s at the wrong bloody shop!
“No, Molton Brown is actually on the main high street. At the top end of the high street.” I politely confirm.
“Oh sorry dear. I best get going before missus begins to worry. Thank you so much. I shall take this with me. It will remind me of the good old memories” He gives me a wink and walks away.
“Hey, I am back” I whip my head around and see Erika joining me.
“Please don’t ever leave me”
Both of us work the crowd in complete silence. Erika continues to approach every passer-by with her friendly touch and I, seek out particular individuals from the crowd – the kind and sympathetic ones. So far a young family have stopped and the little rascals are pawing through the parfums, wasting the blotters and generally making a mess of our stall. I can’t say I am enjoying the little brats’ annoying presence, but it is keeping beady eyed Patricia off my case. From the corner of my left eye, I could see her looking at us through the window. The family leaves after having their little fun. I begin to clear the stall, putting away the used blotters in the waste basket underneath the table.
“I am annoyed” Erika remarks as she dumps the parfum on the table.
“Because we are muggins!”
“And you have just found out now?” I give her a sarcastic smile.
“Girls?” We turn around to see Patricia coming out of the store with a camera in tow. “Come come picture time”
“Ugh no Patricia” Erika and I protest in unison.
“I want to send this to head office”
“I don’t want to have my picture taken” I whine. There is no way in hell am I having my picture published on the company’s weekly newsletter in this outfit!
“Come on now. Lana I want you to pick up the bottle like you are presenting it. Erika, stand on the other side of the table and hold the blotters like you are handing them out”
Begrudgingly we do as we are told. She points her camera at us and then frowns.
“You are not smiling. Why are you not smiling?” She demands.
We force a smile and the camera flashes. Patricia goes back into the shop.
A group of teenage boys saunter past us. One of them wolf whistles.
“Oh look Dan, it’s Mata Hari” the boys laugh.
I roll my eyes at them and look down to the table, pretending it’s more interesting than the boy’s comment.
“Ignore them, they are idiots” Erika soothes me when they are out of earshot.
“Did the boys say something to you?” A deep voice interrupts us. I quickly whip my head around to see Roman, the security. Roman is towering over me, his eyes knit together with seriousness.
“Roman why are you early to your shift?” Erika asks.
“Were they teasing you?” Roman asks loudly, pointing his index finger in the direction the boys went. A few people have slowed down and are looking at us. I can feel my face turning a shade of embarrassment.
“No they weren’t” I lie. Roman interrogates my face for a few moments. I hope he doesn’t see the sweat beads trickling down the sides of my face and take that as an admission of my lie. He has all the qualities to make a good KGB officer. Interrogative and fearful. I remain composed, as if I am giving a lie detector test.
“I am fine” I speak quickly and turn back to the table, reorganising the parfums. I am aware that his murky green eyes are burning through the back of my head.
“Yes, I was called to come in early to cover Pavel” He answers Erika’s initial question.
“He has to be somewhere. Anyway ladies, you are all fine?”
“Yes we are” Erika looks at me carefully before answering. I just want him to leave.
Okay I will see you all around” He leaves and I sigh with relief.
“He’s really sweet” Erika sighs happily.
“Yeah papa bear he is” I reply dryly.
“You are so conscious about your dress, aren’t you? You needn’t be. You look so creative and wonderful. I love your pearl headpiece. It’s so 1920s and Arabesque at the same time.”
“And Mata Hari, lest you forget” I add, sardonically.
“No, not Mata Hari. Oh God no” She gives me a look of disgust. “Anyway she wore less clothes than you.”
“You’re right” I sigh, despondently. She cocks her head to one side giving me a sympathetic look.
“Do you want to go inside? I can take care of the fort?”
“No no, it’s fine.” I force a big merry smile on my face. “Let’s ride this bloody thing to the end!” I grin. She rolls her eyes and grins back.
“At least Pavel’s gone, so that’s a good thing.”
“Ah you know he tries hard with you, but you are a tough work bambina!”
“I wish he wouldn’t” She looks the other way.
A group of Chinese tourists stop in front of our stall and begin clicking away.
“Ohh!” Erika is startled. She is blinking from the camera flashes. “Hello?” Recovering from the jolt, she greets them, while pulling up her hand in front of her face to fend off the flashing lights. I am past caring now and let them take pictures of my scowling face.
I pick up a random bottle from the table and squirt in their direction.
“Nice, no?” I ask
They giggle among themselves and then gesture, pointing the camera at me.
“You want to take a picture of me?”
They nod enthusiastically. Suddenly a woman appears next to me and the camera clicks away. They don’t even give me a chance to fix my face.
“Hello!” A voice appears from behind me. I turn around to see Patricia gracing her presence by the door frame. I notice that she has readjusted her sweetheart neckline to give her the added oomph. Her blond chignon has been smoothed to perfection, making her look every inch an Italian starlet of yesteryear.
“Welcome, come, come in” She welcomes them with open arms. She has a glint in her eyes, which is usually reserved for special customers (read: high spenders). “Aileen come out here” – she inches forward out of the shop as if she is a predator taking tentative steps towards her prey. “Hello, welcome” Her arms still spread out. “Aileen!” She yells into the store.
“I am coming! I am coming!” I hear Aileen frustrated response.
Erika is busy squirting parfum on their wrists and is giggling away with them. “This is our new parfum, inspired from Middle East” She accentuates her words slowly for their benefit.
“Oh, oooh” They have huddled around her, looking at her in awe.
Then one member of their group, presumably a leader of this tour group, yells out loud in Mandarin or Cantonese. He points his hand to the opposite direction and they get prepared to leave.
“Aileen, hurry up, they are leaving” Patricia yells. “Don’t go, we have special offers on hand creams. Special offers”
Aileen comes running out, only to see the tourists have already moved away.
Patricia sighs in frustration and flaps her arms in the air.
“They’ve headed back to the coach park. I don’t think they had time to shop” Erika explains, looking back and forth at Patricia and Aileen.
Patricia skulks back into the store and leaving Aileen slightly annoyed.
“Patricia should learn Mandarin” I comment. “Maybe you could teach her” I wink at Aileen.
“Yeah right” she rolls her eyes. “How is it going out here?”
“Not great” I pull a face.
“This is silly” She comments, assessing the footfall in the precinct. “The company chose the worst weekend to have this launch – the last weekend before schools start” She tuts.
“What time is it?” Erika asks, rubbing her arms.
“Right, I am telling Patricia to call you both in. This is ridiculous. I am not having both of you freezing your backsides off” And with this, she storms back in.
Erika and I quickly turn to look through the window and see Aileen having words with Patricia. Patricia looks out of the window and we turn away quickly.
“She won’t budge – not until our shift is over” I remark.
True to her words, Patricia lets us in ten minutes before our shift finishes. We bring the table inside and clear the contents. Aileen is relieved to see us.
I take off my kaftan and put on my tee shirt and trade my Satan’s heels for my converse. I whip off the stupid head jewellery and throw it alongside my clothes and shoes into my bag. Never again, will I be wearing this! Erika waits for me on the shop floor. I come out of the back office, feeling exuberant that our shift has finally come to an end.
“Lana, I need you to dress up again like this tomorrow.” Patricia speaks from behind the till counter, where she is checking out the sales figures. I take it from her concentrated look that we haven’t done good today.
“What? I thought that was for the launch today”
“No, it is for the weekend”
“There is no way in hell I am wearing the stupid outfit again. Tomorrow I am wearing my shift dress. My normal shift dress” I tell Erika as we make our way out of the shopping precinct.
© This work belongs to Kakul Ehsan Butt (2015)
This wouldn’t have been possible if my friend Alexandra Smart hadn’t encouraged me. Thank you Alex for encouraging me to write this and for encouraging me over the years since uni, to write.