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Chapter 9

WHEN I GET HOME that night, there’s a pile of post in the hall for me—but I ignore it because my package from Fine Frames has arrived! It cost me £100 to buy, which is quite expen-sive, but apparently it will give you a return of £300 in only a few hours. Inside the package there’s a leaflet full of photographs of people who make fortunes from doing Fine Frames—some of them make a hundred thousand a year! It makes me wonder what I’m doing, being a journalist.

So after supper, I sit down in front ofChanging Rooms and open the kit. Suze is out tonight, so it’s nice and easy to concen-trate.

“Welcome to the best-kept secret in Britain . . .” says the leaflet. “The Fine Frames home-working family! Join other members and earn £££ in the comfort of your own home. Our easy-to-follow instructions will aid you as you embark on the biggest money-making enterprise of your life. Perhaps you will use your earnings to buy a car, or a boat—or to treat someone special. And remember—the amount you earn is completely up to you!”

I’m utterly gripped. Why on earth haven’t I done this before? This is afantastic scheme! I’ll work incredibly hard for two weeks, then pay off all my debts, go on holiday, and buy loads of new clothes.

I start ripping at the packaging, and suddenly a pile of fabric strips falls onto the floor. Some are plain, and some are a flowered pattern. It’s a pretty hideous pattern actually—but then, who cares? My job is just to make the frames and collect the money. I reach for the instructions and find them under a load of card-board pieces. And sure enough, they’re incredibly simple. What you have to do is glue wadding onto the cardboard frame, put the fabric over the top for that luxury upholstered effect, then glue braid along the back to hide the join. And that’s it! It’s completely simple and you get £2 a frame. There are 150 in the package—so if I do thirty a night for a week I’ll have made three hundred quid just like that in my spare time!

OK, let’s get started. Frame, wadding, glue, fabric, braid.



Oh God. OhGod. Who designed these bloody things? There just isn’t enough fabric to fit over the frame and the wadding. Or at least you have to stretch it really hard—and it’s such flimsy fabric, it rips. I’ve got glue on the carpet, and I’ve bent two of the cardboard frames from pulling them, and the only frame I’ve actually completed looks really wonky. And I’ve been doing it for . . .

I yawn, look at the time, and feel a jolt of shock. It’s eleven-thirty, which means I’ve been working for three hours. In that time I’ve made one dodgy-looking frame which I’m not sure they’ll accept, and ruined two. And I was supposed to be making thirty!

At that moment the door opens and Suze is back.

“Hi!” she says, coming into the sitting room. “Nice evening?”

“Not really,” I begin disgruntledly. “I’ve been making these things . . .”

“Well, never mind,” she says dramatically. “Because guess what? You’ve got a secret admirer.”

“What?” I say, startled.

“Someone really likes you,” she says, taking off her coat. “I heard it tonight. You’ll never guess who!”

Luke Brandonpops into my mind before I can stop it. How ridiculous. And how would Suze have found that out, anyway? Stupid idea. Very stupid. Impossible.

She could have bumped into him at the cinema, whispers my brain. She does know him, after all, doesn’t she? And he could have said . . .

“It’s my cousin!” she says triumphantly. “Tarquin. Hereally likes you.”

Oh for God’s sake.

“He’s got this secret little crush on you,” she continues hap-pily. “In fact, he’s had one ever since he met you!”

“Really?” I say. “Well, I had sort of . . . guessed.” Suze’s eyes light up.

“So you already know about it?”

“Well,” I say, and shrug awkwardly. What can I say? I can’t tell her that her beloved cousin gives me the creeps. So instead I start to pick at the fabric on the photo frame in front of me, and a delighted smile spreads over Suze’s face.

“He’s really keen on you!” she says. “I said he should just ring you and ask you out. You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“Of course not,” I say feebly.

“Wouldn’t that be great?” said Suze. “If you two got married. I could be bridesmaid!”

“Yes,” I say, and force myself to smile brightly. “Lovely.”

What I’ll do, I think, is agree to a date just to be polite—and then cancel at the last moment. And hopefully Tarquin’ll have to go back to Scotland or something, and we can forget all about it.

But to be honest, I could really do without it. Now I’ve got two reasons to dread the phone ringing.



However, to my relief, Saturday arrives and I haven’t heard a word from Tarquin.Or Derek Smeath. Everyone’s finally leaving me alone to get on with my life!

On the slightly more negative side, I was planning to make 150 frames this week—but so far I’ve only made three, and none of them looks like the one in the picture. One doesn’t have enough wadding in it, one doesn’t quite meet at the corner, and the third has got a smear of glue on the front, which hasn’t come off. I just can’t understand why I’m finding it so difficult. Some people make hundreds of these things every week, without any effort. Mrs. S. of Ruislip even takes her family on a cruise every year on her earnings. How come they can do it and I can’t? It’s really depressing. I mean, I’m supposed to be bright, aren’t I? I’ve got a degree, for God’s sake.

Still, never mind, I tell myself. It’s my new job at Ally Smith today—so at least I’ll be earning some extra money there.

And I’m quite excited about it. Here starts a whole new career in fashion! I spend a long time choosing a cool outfit to wear on my first day—and eventually settle on black trousers from Jigsaw, a little cashmere (well, half cashmere) T-shirt, and a pink wrap-around top, which actually came from Ally Smith.

I’m quite pleased with the way I look, and am expecting Danielle to make some appreciative comment when I arrive at the shop—but she doesn’t even seem to notice. She just says, “Hi. The trousers and T-shirts are in the stock room. Pick out your size and change in the cubicle.”

Oh, right. Now I come to think of it, all the assistants at Ally Smith do wear the same outfits. Almost like a . . . well, a uniform, I suppose. Reluctantly I get changed and look at myself—and, to tell you the truth, I’m disappointed. These gray trousers don’t really flatter me—and the T-shirt’s just plain boring. I’m almost tempted to ask Danielle if I can pick out another outfit to wear—but she seems a bit busy, so I don’t. Maybe next week I’ll have a little word.

But even though I don’t like the outfit, I still feel a frisson of excitement as I come out onto the shop floor. The spotlights are shining brightly; the floor’s all shiny and polished; music’s playing and there’s a sense of anticipation in the air. It’s almost like being a performer. I glance at myself in a mirror and murmur, “How can I help you?” Or maybe it should be “Can I help you?” I’m going to be the most charming shop assistant ever, I decide. People will come here just to be assisted by me, and I’ll have a fantastic rapport with all the customers. And then I’ll appear in theEveningStandard in some quirky column about favorite shops.

No one’s told me what to do yet, so—using my initiative, very good—I walk up to a woman with blond hair, who’s tapping away at the till, and say, “Shall I have a quick go?”

“What?” she says, not looking up.

“I’d better learn how to work the till, hadn’t I? Before all the customers arrive?”

Then the woman does look up and, to my surprise, bursts into laughter.

“On the till? You think you’re going to go straight onto the till?”

“Oh,” I say, blushing a little. “Well, I thought . . .”

“You’re a beginner, darling,” she says. “You’re not going near the till. Go with Kelly. She’ll show you what you’ll be doing today.”

Folding jumpers. Folding bloody jumpers. That’s what I’m here to do. Rush round after customers who have picked up cardigans and left them all crumpled—and fold them back up again. By eleven o’clock I’m absolutely exhausted—and, to be honest, not enjoying myself very much at all. Do you know how depressing it is to fold a cardigan in exactly the right Ally Smith way and put it back on the shelf, all neatly lined up—just to see someone casually pull it down again, look at it, pull a face, and discard it? You want to scream at them, LEAVE IT ALONE IF YOU’RENOT GOING TO BUY IT! I watched one girl even pick up a cardiganidentical to the one she already had on!

And I’m not getting to chat to the customers, either. It’s as if they see through you when you’re a shop assistant. No one’s asked me a single interesting question, like “Does this shirt go with these shoes?” or, “Where can I find a really nice black skirt under £60?” I’d love to answer stuff like that. I could really help people! But the only questions I’ve been asked are “Is there a loo?” and, “Where’s the nearest Midland cashpoint?” I haven’t built up a single rapport with anyone.

Oh, it’s depressing. The only thing that keeps me going is an end-of-stock reduced rack at the back of the shop. I keep sidling toward it and looking at a pair of zebra-print jeans, reduced from £180 to £90. I remember those jeans. I’ve even tried them on. And here they are, out of the blue—reduced. I just can’t keep my eyes off them. They’re even in my size.

I mean, I know I’m not really supposed to be spending money—but this is a complete one-off. They’re the coolest jeans you’ve ever seen. And £90 isnothing for a pair of really good jeans. If you were in Gucci, you’d be paying at least £500. Oh God, I want them. Iwant them.

I’m just loitering at the back, eyeing them up for the hun-dredth time, when Danielle comes striding up and I jump guiltily. But all she says is “Can you go onto fitting room duty now? Sarah’ll show you the ropes.”

No more folding jumpers! Thank God!

To my relief, this fitting room lark is a lot more fun. Ally Smith has really nice fitting rooms, with lots of space and indi-vidual cubicles, and my job is to stand at the entrance and check how many items people are taking in with them. It’s really inter-esting to see what people are trying on. One girl’s buyingloads of stuff, and keeps saying how her boyfriend told her to go mad for her birthday, and he would pay.

Huh. Well, it’s all right for some. Still, never mind, at least I’m earning money. It’s eleven-thirty which means I’ve earned . . .£14.40 so far. Well, that’s not bad, is it? I could get some nice makeup for that.

Except that I’m not going to waste this money on makeup. Of course not—I mean, that’s not why I’m here, is it? I’m going to be really sensible. What I’m going to do is buy the zebra-print jeans—just because they’re a one-off and it would be a crime not to—and then put all the rest toward my bank balance. I just can’twait to put them on. I get a break at two-thirty, so what I’ll do is nip to the reduced rack and take them to the staff room, just to make sure they fit, and . . .

Suddenly my face freezes. Hang on.

Hang on a moment. What’s that girl holding over her arm? She’s holding my zebra-print jeans! She’s coming toward the fitting rooms. Oh my God. She wants to try them on. But they’re mine! I saw them first!

I’m almost giddy with panic. I mean, a normal pair of jeans, I wouldn’t bother about. But these are unique. They’remeant for me. I’ve mentally reorganized my entire wardrobe around them, and have already planned to wear them at least three times next week. I can’t lose them. Not now.

“Hi!” she says brightly as she approaches.

“Hi,” I gulp, trying to stay calm. “Ahm . . . how many items have you got?”

“Four,” she says, showing me the hangers. Behind me are tokens hanging on the wall, marked One, Two, Three, and Four. The girl’s waiting for me to give her a token marked Four and let her in. But I can’t.

I physically cannot let her go in there with my jeans.

“Actually,” I hear myself saying, “you’re only allowed three items.”

“Really?” she says in surprise. “But . . .” She gestures to the tokens.

“I know,” I say. “But they’ve just changed the rules. Sorry about that.” And I flash her a quick smile.

“Oh, OK,” says the girl. “Well, I’ll leave out—”

“These,” I say, and grab the zebra-print jeans.

“No,” she says. “Actually, I think I’ll—”

“We have to take the top item,” I explain hurriedly. “Sorry about that.”

ThankGod for bossy shop assistants and stupid pointless rules. People are so used to them that this girl doesn’t even question me. She just rolls her eyes, grabs the Three token, and pushes her way past into the fitting room, leaving me holding the precious jeans.

OK, now what? From inside the girl’s cubicle, I can hear zips being undone and hangers being clattered. She won’t take long to try on those three things. And then she’ll be out, want-ing the zebra-print jeans. Oh God. What can I do? For a few moments I’m frozen with indecision. Then the sound of a cubicle curtain being rattled back jolts me into action. It’s not her—but it could have been. Quickly I stuff the zebra-print jeans out of sight behind the curtain and stand up again, a bright smile on my face.

Please let the girl find something else she likes, I pray fever-ishly. Please let her forget all about the jeans. Maybe she’s not even that keen on them. Maybe she picked them up on impulse. She didn’t really look like a jeans person to me.

A moment later, Danielle comes striding up, a clipboard in her hands.

“All right?” she says. “Coping, are you?”

“I’m doing fine,” I say. “Really enjoying it.”

“I’m just rostering in breaks,” she says. “If you could manage to last until three, you can have an hour then.”

“Fine,” I say in my positive, employee-of-the-month voice, even though I’m thinkingThree?I’ll be starving!

“Good,” she says, and moves off into the corner to write on her piece of paper, just as a voice says,

“Hi. Can I have those jeans now?”

It’s the girl, back again. How can she have tried on all those other things so quickly? Is she Houdini?

“Hi!” I say, ignoring the last bit of what she said. “Any good? That black skirt’s really nice. I think it would really suit you. The way the splits go at the—”

“Not really,” she says, interrupting me, and shoves the lot back at ............

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