Today is no ordinary day. Well, actually, today is relatively ordinary, but something happened today that has got me in a state of excited anticipation for tomorrow, which will be no ordinary day.
It’s almost 3.45pm, and I’m trying my utmost to stay focused on the task at hand – dressing one of the women’s fashion windows at Muirhead’s, the biggest department store in town. It’s right on Sauchiehall Street, which is probably the most plodded shopping street in the whole of the city, so this window is a pretty big deal.
I like my job. It’s the first full-time job I’ve had since I left school – all of eight weeks ago! At the very least it gives me the chance to showcase my creative talents. I take a blank canvas (or in this case, a mannequin), and on it I create an enticing ensemble to tempt the bargain hunters as well as those who can afford to have many more outfits than they really need.
Is this the job that I dreamed of stepping into when I joined the big, bad world? Not exactly. I dared to dream that I could be an artist, but when you come from a working-class family from Drumchapel and your mum has to work three jobs just to keep the household going, aspirations like that are unfortunately unrealistic. Whatever happens though, career-wise, my love for art will never dampen.
We just clicked, art and me. Like Romeo and Juliet. Like Batman and Robin.
There was something about those great works we studied in class that made my heart soar in a way that I never experienced when we learned other things. Trying to get my head around the fact that the Statue of David was carved entirely by hand, or how the sheer beauty that adorns the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel could actually be real and not an honest-to-God miracle, was far more perplexing to me than the most complex mathematical formula – not that I ever felt much fervour solving those.
Seeing what the great artists had produced made me want to give it a try, and when I did, something amazing happened: I had real talent.
I heard something once about left-handers being more artistically-gifted – something about ‘right-side brain’, or something – so I suppose that could have something to do with it. My left-handedness though, is sadly no longer entirely in tact. A child of the 1920s, my Mum believed in some crazy myth being left-handed is a sign of devilment, or something equally as ridiculous, and took it upon herself to ‘change me’. I was never allowed to hone my natural southpaw tendencies, and she eventually succeeded in making me into a right-hander (technically). Whatever the reason for it, left or right-handed, I have to admit that I’m pretty damn good with a pencil or a paintbrush.
Mrs Hayden was my biggest champion during my latter years in school, always exaggerated in her praise of my work. I still feel a twinge of sadness when I think about the last day I spent in her class.
‘Won’t you at least consider going to art school, Jean?’ she asked for the final time. ‘You’re more than worthy of a place. You know what I think of your work.’
‘Yes, miss,’ I lied. ‘If I can.’ I smiled my best fake smile, knowing that neither one of us was fooled by it. I had long since realised that going to the Glasgow School of Art was never going to be an option for me. Mrs Hayden gave me a kind smile in return, with only the slightest hint of pity, which I took to mean that she understood. ‘Well, good luck, Jean.’
I walked out of her class with my impressive portfolio under my arm, knowing that Mrs Hayden was watching me, giving the slightest shake of her head in resignation at how my talent would likely not be realised to its full potential.
But that’s just life, isn’t it? You can’t always get what you want, as my mum always says.
But anyway, enough dwelling. Back to today, and I’m currently dressing the window with the newly-received autumn/winter collection. Muirhead’s does sell some lovely clothes, and I’m in full creative swing, making sure that my window has much to offer the fashionable 1970s gal around town.
And while I’m doing that, I’m feeling giddy with excitement about the stroke of luck that befell me earlier today. By far the most wonderful item that the store has to offer, the coat that I’ve been salivating over for weeks, has been placed on offer at £9 – finally within my budget. And tomorrow, I’m going to buy it!
I cannot tell you how much I love this coat. It’s an absolutely gorgeous stone colour, suede; not too heavy that I’ll look laden down by it, but just perfect for my trim figure. I’ve already plotted out in my head exactly the outfits that I’ll pair with it when I finally get my hands on it.
I know for a fact that they have one in my size. Bree in hosiery has been trying to wind me up, saying that she’s going to buy it, but to be fair I don’t think I need to worry about her nipping in and stealing the size 6. She’s a bit of pain, that Bree. She’s a bit older than me, has worked here longer, and fancies the boss something rotten. Maybe it’s in her personality to go after things she knows she can’t have. Regardless, nothing and no-one is going to stand in the way of me buying this coat – lovely May in outerwear has agreed to hold it for me until tomorrow.
£9! It’s been £35 for as long as I can remember, which is way out of my league, but today the Gods of fashion have smiled upon me and I’m already imagining how it will feel to slip it over my shoulders for the first time.
Even though I’ve been working full-time for nearly two months now, I haven’t had much opportunity to save money. Mum has been stressing the need for me to earn my keep as far back as I can remember, and now that I am actually earning, she is teaching me how that process works in reality. I may not be able to spend frivolously, like forking out 50p on a pair of Charnos tights every week, but I know for a fact that I’ve got £10.25 in my super-secret safe, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend it on.
It’s 4pm now, and I’m finalising my window and getting ready to leave.
I’m seeing my Alan tonight and I can’t wait to tell him my news. But actually, there’s a part of me that wants to try and keep all the excitement just for me, and then I can do the big reveal tomorrow once I’ve actually got the coat. But maybe then I’ll act all nonchalant about it, and wait until he realises it’s new and asks me about it, and then… Oh, who am I kidding, I won’t be able to hold it in that long!
I see my Alan most nights. He worked with my Dad in the church, so thankfully he didn’t have to go through that mortifying interrogation thing that dads do with potential boyfriends. Both Mum and Dad seem satisfied that he’s worthy of going out with me, so now he’s officially my ‘chap’, as Mum calls him.
Tonight we’re going to the cinema to see Big Jake – Alan loves big John Wayne films. They’re not exactly my thing, but I love the whole experience of going to the cinema, and I’m so thrilled about the prospect of getting my new coat that I think I’d happily go and sit through A Clockwork Orange.
I check in with May one last time before I leave the shop, to make sure she’s going to keep my coat (yes, my coat) for me, and she smiles and tells me of course she is, clearly amused at just how much I adore this garment.
It’s August and still quite mild, but this being Glasgow, home of inclement weather, I wrap my soon-to-be-redundant raincoat around me and head off for the bus.
As strange as it may sound, this time of the day doesn’t usually hold much appeal for me. There are the girls in the shop who moan and whinge all day about how they would love nothing more than to be at home, and who subsequently race out the door when their shift ends, but for me that’s not quite the case.
Life at home can be… overwhelming, at times.
Mum, having lived through the war and played her part by feeding the troops, has a rigidity to her routine that I imagine exists nowhere else than in the armed forces. She is obsessed with the house being in order, which means she seems to have very little time in her life for anything other than cleaning and generally maintaining, when she isn’t at work, doing more of the same.
Dad is just… Dad. I love the bones of him, and rightly so because he is a diamond of a man, but his flaw is that he drinks, which doesn’t make life easy on any of us.
Mum likes to think she rules with an iron fist and to a degree Dad is happy for her to believe it, but sadly there is nothing she can do to curtail his habit.
I’ve often wondered whether they aren’t just on some illogical, dysfunctional vicious cycle – Mum nags, so Dad drinks. Dad drinks, so Mum nags him some more. I don’t know if there’s a solution, so all I can think of to do is try to stay out of the way. My Alan understands all this, and he tries to take me away from it all as much as he can. Hence the cinema tonight.
Completing our family unit is Anne, my older sister, by 5 years. By my assessment, she has ‘oldest child syndrome’. Clearly, she did not appreciate being dethroned as the important, only child when I came along, and wasted no time in adopting the ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine’ philosophy.
She is 21, and while gone are the days of Anne getting the only bike in the family and me having to wait until she was finished with it before I inherited it, she retains an acute skill for making herself the centre of everyone’s universe.
Currently the drama in her life revolves mostly around her husband-elect and his considerable family issues, but in order to maintain all focus on her, she also likes to invent medical conditions that she may have . This has been an ongoing facet of Anne’s personality for a number of years, becoming more pronounced when Emergency Ward 10 started airing, introducing her to a whole new medical vocabulary she had never encountered before. It would not be unusual for me to be awoken in the night to cries of ‘Muuum! I’ve got polio!’, and Anne seemingly hyperventilating, convinced she was dying. She did not have polio. Nor was she dying.
I’m on the bus now, and I should be home in around twenty minutes. The walk from the bus stop to the house is my least favourite time of day. Memories of the day when I walked the same route, little over a year ago coming home from school, and found the house on fire, loom large in my head every time the bus turns onto Kennishead Avenue.
Dad had tried to cook something, or heat something, while drunk, and although he wasn’t hurt in the fire, the image of the house eschewing smoke and flames is forever engrained on my brain.
Then there was the time that a creepy little pervert jumped out from behind a bush and exposed himself to me. Although it upset me, and I ran the rest of the way home that day, I’ve managed to let that image drift out of my memory, for the most part.
I’ve made it. No fires or creepy perverts have dampened my spirits today, and I’m home.
Mum is in the kitchen, as expected. Dad isn’t home yet, and Anne may either be still at work or already out with her own ‘chap’.
The first thing I do is go to my super-secret safe to take out the money for my coat. It’s genius. Uncle John gave us this stylish bookcase for the living room, and a few months back I saw this amazing book which isn’t really a book – there are no pages, but inside the book is a safe! I thought this was a great idea, and I’ve been hiding my savings in plain sight on the bookcase ever since.
I open the safe and see 25p. That can’t be right, I had £10.25 in there, I know I did. I may be still coming to terms with the crossover to the decimal system but I know that £10.25 looks a whole lot different from 25p!
Mum is, naturally, cooking, whilst also washing dishes and overseeing a tub full of laundry.
She looks round to see what my pained scream could be about.
‘Mum! My money’s gone! I had £10 in here and it’s gone!’
I show her the agonising emptiness of the safe.
‘Oh, that’, she says, turning back to the hob. ‘Your sister borrowed it.’
In that instant I feel my anguish turn to sheer unbridled rage.
‘Anne took it? How dare she steal my money!’
Mum’s annoyance is evident. ‘Oh come on, do you really grudge your sister borrowing some money?’
This is not a new experience for me, but this time it hurts. A lot.
‘But I need that money, for tomorrow. There’s this beautiful coat in Muirhead’s and it’s down to £9, and May said…’
‘A coat? You’re making all this racket about a bloody coat?’
Tears stings in my eyes. I drop the book/safe down to my side, as my shoulders have stooped with resignation and no longer feel capable of supporting the weight in my arms.
A flurry of things I want to say races through my mind:
‘No, Mum, it’s not just about a bloody coat! It’s about the fact that it was my money, not Anne’s! It’s about the fact that I would never dream of taking anything of hers without asking, and it’s not fair of her to do it to me! It’s about me always being second best in your eyes, just because I came along second. And yes, Mum, I’m 16, and that coat was important to me, and I worked hard for that money, and considering you take almost all of my wages as it is, I feel entitled to spend it on me, so I am indeed making such a racket about a BLOODY COAT!’
Those are the things I want to say, in my rage, but I don’t. I know that nothing I say will make my money re-appear in time for tomorrow morning, so I decide to keep my temper in check and my pride in tact.
I sigh, holding onto the tears. ‘Forget it,’ I say. I don’t even know if she is still listening.
I only cry when I’m in my bedroom, lying face down and sobbing silently into my pillow. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to buy myself nice things? It’s my bloody money! It feels like 16 years of feeling like I have to play second fiddle to Anne and her passive-aggressive bullying have bubbled up to the surface and I’m making a decision, right here, right now, not to be put upon again. Not by Anne, not by anyone.
I sit on my bed for what seems like ages, ignoring Mum’s invitation to go through and have dinner. Dad might be home now, for all I know, but I must have drifted so far into my disappointment that I couldn’t say whether I’ve heard him come in or not. Being a man’s man, he won’t want to get involved anyway.
When I finally break from my reverie, I notice that it’s almost 6.30pm, and my Alan will be here shortly to pick me up.
A quick glance in the mirror confirms my suspicion – that my mascara has run and smudged and I now look like that bloody Alice Cooper. I do my absolute best reparation exercise and in five minutes I’m ready, and the only hint of my upset is the tell-tale redness in my eyes which will take more than a quick wash of the face to remove.
Right on cue, I hear Alan’s signature knock at the door, and I grab my things and put on my smile.
‘Hi, toots,’ he greets me with a comforting smile, and I instantly feel a little bit better. He notices my eyes, and despite my best efforts at projecting a genuine smile he asks, ‘What’s wrong?’
He puts his arm around my shoulder and searches my face for answers, and what I really want is to break down and tell him everything that I’ve been feeling over that last hour or so. But I don’t.
‘Just the usual,’ I say. He accepts this with a knowing nod, understanding that ‘the usual’ could cover any manner of things when it comes to my home life, and preferring to take me away from it all than urge me to talk about it and dwell.
‘Come on,’ he says, and we head for the bus.
Tomorrow is going to be no ordinary day, I think as I walk, holding his hand. Tomorrow, for the first time, I am going to be the Jean that doesn’t allow her super-secret safe to broken into. Tomorrow, I am going to be the Jean who buys the stone suede coat, metaphorically speaking.