On the book tour for the fourth book in ‘The Shop Girls’ series by Joanna Toye, sit back and enjoy the first chapter from the book called ‘Christmas For The Shop Girls’
‘Look at it!’ said Lily. ‘You’d think the bomb had dropped yesterday!’ Ladies’ Fashions, Model Gowns and Suits and Coats were in uproar.
Gladys darted her friend a look – only Lily could say that! Gladys wouldn’t have dared, in case it brought that awful night flooding back. But Lily had been so strong, coming back to work when the memories must still have been so vivid and evidence of the destruction was still all around. Now, though, three months later, it looked as though the demolition squad was in again.
The first floor was in chaos – and all because there was going to be a fashion show.
Harassed porters were assembling a catwalk under the supervision of the Model Gowns buyer: beside them the store’s carpenters sawed and hammered. In the middle of it all, the buyers from the other two fashion departments were taking dresses and suits on and off a rail, evidently in dispute over what should make the final cut. Juniors scurried to and fro offering more garments for inspection, which were scrutinised and mostly rejected. If not, they scuttled off again to iron out the sort of creases visible only to a buyer’s eye.
A potted palm wove its way uncertainly towards them and beneath it, Lily recognised Jim’s suit trousers. Along with Peter Simmonds, the first-floor supervisor, Jim had been charged with getting the store back on its feet after the bomb and the fashion show was going to act as a sort of relaunch for Marlow’s as well as highlighting the new spring and summer Utility styles. There was no doubt about it, Jim was on the way up. He was also – the thought still made her smile, inside and out – Lily’s boyfriend of a few months’ standing.
‘Jim!’ She hissed him over. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Let me put this thing down.’
Lily helped him to rest the pot on a little plinth where a plaster baby was displaying a smocked romper suit and waving a rattle. Jim’s tie was askew and his shirt untucked, not the sort of appearance Marlow’s usually required of Mr J. Goodridge, second sales on Furniture and Household.
‘If you really want to know,’ Jim began, ‘it’s hell. Suits and Coats and Ladies’ Fashions are at each other’s throats over who gets to show more items and Model Gowns is sulking because she wanted her stuff to go out all in one block – a “tableau” she calls it – and not mixed in with the others.’ He gave a despairing sigh. ‘And they say never work with children or animals. I could add to that!’
‘It’ll be fine!’ Lily tried to reassure him. ‘It’ll all come together at the last minute, you’ll see.’ His eyes were deep-set and brown; his hair was sticking up where he’d pushed his hands through it in the way Lily loved and she had to stop herself from reaching up to smooth it down. Her boss on Childrenswear, Miss Frobisher, tall, blonde, and ever-elegant herself, was a stickler for smartness in appearance, but even on a day when the usual rules didn’t apply, Lily didn’t think she’d approve.
Jim pushed his fingers through his hair again, making it stick up even more.
‘I don’t see how. I knew we should have got more done last night – at least got the catwalk built!’
‘Hah!’ Lily retorted. ‘You and I stayed late to finish off the Christmas grotto, didn’t we, and look what happened!’
Gladys winced, but that was Lily for you, and the measure of Lily and Jim’s relationship. They struck sparks off each other, but they both seemed to thrive on it. As if in proof, Jim was grinning and Lily was smiling at him with a sort of ‘Well? I’m right, aren’t I?’ expression. Even so, Gladys tactfully jumped in.
‘Are the models here yet?’
Before the war, Marlow’s had had its own models, but now they were in the WRNS or turning out shells in a factory somewhere.
The models for today had been booked through an agency in London, and to Gladys were invested with an air of almost filmstar glamour. ‘That’s another thing.’ Jim looked at his watch. ‘They should have been here three-quarters of an hour ago.’
‘You know what the trains are like.’
‘That’s why I wanted them to come yesterday, but would You Know Who hear of it? Decided to scrimp on expenses.’
You Know Who was Cedric Marlow, the store’s owner, notoriously careful with money.
‘It doesn’t really matter, does it?’ Lily pointed out. ‘There’s nothing for them to prance up and down on yet.’
‘Thanks for reminding me.’
In a further reminder, there was a monumental crash as a tower of gilt chairs tumbled from a trolley and hit the half-built catwalk.
‘I’d better get over there.’ Jim moved to pick up the palm, but before he could, Mr Simmonds approached. Tall and spare, he always moved at a lick, but this was speedy, even for him. He nodded to the girls and addressed Jim.
‘They’ve had a telephone call upstairs – the models haven’t left London yet. And I’m not sure they will.’
‘There’s an unexploded bomb at Harrow-on-the Hill. No trains leaving in our direction at all. I think we’d better face it, they’re not going to get here.’ Mr Simmonds sounded remarkably calm, but then he was ex-Army, invalided out with a dodgy shoulder. ‘We’re going to have to regroup.’
‘What does he mean, regroup?’ asked Gladys.
Miss Frobisher had sent them both off to dinner early, saying she’d square it with Mr Bunting, Gladys’s boss on Toys.
‘Think of something else, I suppose,’ shrugged Lily. ‘I don’t know.’ Gladys looked worried. Lily persevered with her rissole but chewed cautiously: bits of bone weren’t unknown. ‘Maybe the salesgirls from Fashions could model them, they know the clothes.’
‘They’re all so old though!’
It was true: with all women between nineteen and forty-three conscripted into some kind of war work, Marlow’s, like other shops and stores, was staffed by younger girls like themselves and, to put it politely, the middle-aged. ‘Salesgirls’ was a courtesy title: many of them had been brought back out of retirement.
‘There’s always the juniors.’
Gladys didn’t look convinced.
‘I can’t see the juniors on Fashions swanking up and down a catwalk – they’re like frightened rabbits! I’d be the same with their bosses.’
That was true as well: the fashion buyers were a fearsome bunch. Miss Wagstaff of Model Gowns was a tightly permed, tightly corseted martinet. Miss Drake (Dresses), petite and pretty, looked more approachable, though anyone who’d ever witnessed her beating down a wholesaler on price would have swiftly reassessed that opinion. Miss McIver of Suits and Coats was originally from Aberdeen and was a chip off the old block of that so-called granite city. All in all, Fashions was known to be the toughest department in which to work: Miss Frobisher had started there and survived, which was one of the reasons Lily admired her so much.
‘Anyway, it’s not our problem.’ Gladys pushed her plate away and pulled her jam turnover towards her. Lily was quiet. It was still a setback for Jim. His problems were her problems; she’d help him if she could. In fact, she often intervened when her help wasn’t required – or desired.
‘Gladys!’ she exclaimed suddenly. ‘It is! We’ve forgotten about Beryl!’
If you liked this wee taster of the book, you can buy ‘Christmas For The Shop Girls’ from Amazon and is available to buy from other good bookshops.