Stumblin’ outta bed and staggerin’ to the kitchen . . .

By Catriona McPherson, Guest Blogger

In In Place of Fear, we meet Helen Crowther the day before she begins her new job – her first job. She’s steeling herself, deciding what to wear, and still trying to persuade her parents that she’s not making a big mistake, biting off more than she can chew. Her daddy, Mack, works at the local slaughterhouse; her mammy, Greet, works in the bottling hall of the local brewery. The fact that Helen is going to put on heels and a hat and go to work behind a desk in her own office at a doctor’s surgery is blowing their minds. The scandal has many features: her husband should be providing for her and forbidding her to go out to work; she shouldn’t be spending her days alone with two unmarried male doctors; she shouldn’t be so ungrateful as to get above her station and show her parents up like this . . .

It’s a big moment for Helen. It’s a big moment for anyone. I still remember it after many years. My first job was as a Saturday shampoo girl at a hairdressing salon in Edinburgh in the 80s. I loved it! I liked chatting to the clients while I worked on their heads, washing and drying warm fluffy towels, making tea and coffee just how people liked it (and balancing tiny biscuits in the saucer), going on the bun-run to get the hairdressers’ hangover-curing baked goods, even sweeping up hair (it sweeps up so easily compared with the fluff and dust you get in houses). Best of all, I liked hanging out in the staff room eavesdropping on the stylists’ conversations. I’d never met anyone like them before. They were so . . . I would have said glamorous and witty. Now, I realise what I mean is “camp”. Which to be fair, is basically glamorous and witty.

As I say, it was the 80s, so one of them looked like a lost Bee-Gee, one of them dressed like a figure-skater minus the blades, and one of them was a dead-ringer for a Dexy’s Midnight Runner. The women? Ra-ra skirts, mad make-up and the bubbliest bubble-perms possible. In fact, such was the power of the perm that we had a whole stylist doing nothing but perms all day every day. Her name was Joy and she could get a perm rod into a crew-cut.

These happy Saturdays completely misled me about the nature of a real full-time work-place though. When I left school and embarked on the world’s most boring pre-university gap year – in a bank – I expected it to be the same as the salon except with money instead of hair. Ooft.

I still made the tea, but I made it for the manager, assistant manager, head of securities (no clue what that means), and chief accountant, instead of for chatty ladies getting their hair done. And I made it in a dungeon and carried the tray up stone stairs and into the offices through hidden doorways (think Downton Abbey, without the servants’ hall) instead of in a cosy staff-room ringing with laughter. The bank staff-room never rang with laughter. It made a sort of dull, scraping noise from people eating their home-made lunches out of Tupperware. (No bun-runs at the bank; it didn’t make economic sense to buy food from outside).

Also, it turns out, money is less easy to manage than hair. You can’t sweep it up and forget about it; you have to “balance” it. I couldn’t “balance” it. Whether I was putting four fifty-pound notes into bundles of one hundred pounds each and handing them out (see the problem?), or forgetting postal orders when I was adding up all the different kinds of ch-ching to prove I hadn’t stolen any, or trying to type a long list of numbers into “the computer” – just the one, for the whole branch – without missing any out, I was a disaster.

I could file cheques into drawers and I could take them back out again once a month and put them into envelopes with people’s statements. But that’s not a whole job even in a big bank in a big finance city like Edinburgh. And even when I was filing and unfiling, I got distracted by what the cancelled cheques revealed about people’s lives. I made up stories about wild weekends and last-ditch attempts to save marriages, all based on where the cash had gone.

All in all, when I resigned to go to university as I had always meant to, the manager, assistant manager, chief accountant (and head of securities, for all I know, depending on what that is) gave hefty sighs of relief, but they were mere whispers compared with mine.

Still, I enjoyed revisiting the memories of being nervous, ignorant and ever-so-slightly out of my depth as I sent Helen Crowther out into the world in the early chapters of In Place of Fear.

I’d love to hear your memories of your first jobs and how you felt on that once-in-a-lifetime, knees-knocking day.

Edinburgh, 1948. Helen Crowther leaves a crowded tenement home for her very own office in a doctor’s surgery. 

Upstartungratefulout of your depth – the words of disapproval come at her from everywhere but she’s determined to take her chance and play her part.
She’s barely begun when she stumbles over a murder and learns that, in this most respectable of cities, no one will fight for justice at the risk of scandal.

As Helen resolves to find a killer, she’s propelled into a darker world than she knew existed, hardscrabble as her own can be. Disapproval is the least of her worries now.

Catriona McPherson (she/her) writes preposterous 1930s detective stories about an aristocratic sleuth, darker (not difficult) contemporary psychological thrillers, and comedies set in the Last Ditch Motel in fictional (yeah, sure) California. She has just introduced a fresh character in June’s 1948-set IN PLACE OF FEAR, which finally marries her love of historicals with her own working-class roots.

Catriona is a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime.  www.catrionamcpherson.com

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24 thoughts on “Stumblin’ outta bed and staggerin’ to the kitchen . . .

  1. My first full time job was as the duplication chief at Cory Sound Studios I’m San Francisco. It was owned by George Cory who wrote I Left My Heart in San Francisco. I never met him..Cable car art everywhere. I had to work 60 hours a week to net $100 so I could survive. I was the only non-Spanish speaking person in my little workroom. My three coworkers listened to Spanish radio all day. Then one day after 6 months, I suddenly understood what they were saying and I asked a question in response to one of the ladies. And they all stopped talking around me after that.

  2. Catriona! I wish I had been able to go to that salon in the 80s. In addition to loving everything Scottish (despite being 100% Eastern European), I just thought everyone in the UK at the time was absolutely the coolest. You all got to wear Doc Martens before any stores over here even sold them! The music was better!

    I had quirky first jobs. My first was organizing and filing microfiche for the UN (of all things). My second was color separating designs for screenprinting at a children’s clothing factory. BY HAND. As in, put a sheet of mylar over a lightbox and color in all the yellow shapes. Put another sheet and color in all the red shapes… etc. I did this in the summers while I went to art school. One very hot day (no AC in this place) I was taking the subway with a man who worked in the factory itself, and he thought I also worked in the factory itself. He said, you need to go to school and get an education. You can’t do this job. I thanked him. And then I worked for a book binder and bound antique books in veal skin (which, is where good leather comes from, in case you’re wondering). And I got to make an archival box for a page of the Gutenberg bible.

    1. I think you might have won this, Emilya! Your bookbinding job sounds fascinating – I handeld many of those calfskin (as I’d call it) books when I worked in a history library in the late 80s/early 90s – wearing Docs!

      1. Well yes, calfskin, but I figure that’s almost a euphemism now. People don’t blink when you say calfskin and go running when they see veal. When you work with it, you can see the pores…

  3. My first job was selling costume jewelry at Fortunoff’s and I got into trouble for wearing hot pants. I was only 14 and I was staggered to get into trouble for being too sexy and I think I’ve worn black sweaters ever since. But it was a fun job, full of drama, because people were always wishing they could be going to the real jewelry department instead of the costume one. Also, in order to get the job I had to take a lie detector test.

  4. So it was my second job. I was sixteen and worked as the cashier at the quick checkout at a major grocery chain. I had to join the Amalgamated meat cutters and Butchers Union and made a fabulous hourly wage for a high school junior. I was a wiz at my job. Fast with the cash register and green stamps and no one ever got through my line with more than six items!

  5. I begged my parents to let me work in the family restaurant and finally the summer I was twelve, they agreed. We worked long hours (9 am – 4am, though they forced me to go to the neighborhood swimming pool for several hours every afternoon) and worked hard but I loved it.

    My first “real” job came after I graduated college–a statistical analyst at a market research company. It was a whole new world. I spent my first morning alone in a conference room with a stack of company manuals, then the department manager and the woman I would work for took me out for lunch. They ordered cocktails so I did the same. I’d never had a cocktail in the daytime and when I went back to the conference room I struggled to stay awake. After that it was white gloves and hats on the way to work, cocktails everyday with the ladies, talk of weekends in the Hamptons, boyfriends, office gossip, and me and my manual adding machine calculating. I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it.

    But then my best friend convinced me to take a class with her husband to learn about these new office tools that were becoming popular, computers. And I fell in love. A year later, I had a new job focused on bits and bytes, no lunches with cocktails, but I’d found my niche. I loved programming.

    1. In law school, I worked as a typist at a university. Just typing all day long. At lunch we would go out for wine. Sometimes I took a nap on my Selectric II in the afternoons.

  6. Welcome, Catriona! A new series is cause for celebration where you’re concerned. I literally cannot wait to meet Helen. If you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan.

  7. First real job was summer time during college when I worked as a bank teller. It was very white collar (my world) and yet I was scared stiff during the interview. Literally scared stiff… the bank manager had to do a few minutes of its going to be okay… relax. And as boring as it sounds, there’s a lot of drama in everyday banking. As Catriona knows! Loved hearing this bit of character backstory. Now I’m even more excited to read In Place of Fear.

  8. “Nervous, ignorant, and ever-so-slightly out of my depth” describes every first day on every job I’ve ever had. Most of thebtime the feeling goes away. Most of the time

  9. I love this, Catriona, and all the comments, but the real message was that you were eager to get out of that bank and into college. Jobs like yours and like my son’s college summer job in the Yoplait factory – where one of the ‘career’ workers told him quite sternly that he needed to go back to school and not stay on the factory floor – show some young people what real working life is like and that they might want to aspire to something more interesting.

    But I also love that you were already making up stories about the people who wrote the checks!

    My first non-babysitting job was as a Fuller Brush Girl summer after my junior year in high school. I had to visit every house on my route, hand them a catalog (IF someone answered), and then come back later to take their order. I HATED it, and to this day refuse to do election canvassing.

  10. My first part-time job was as a student librarian at my junior high school. I was 13 years old & in grade 7. My duties started off with shelving returned books & going through the stacks to re-shelve any misplaced books. I eventually got to do more advanced tasks such as working in the back room to process newly arrived books (i.e. put in security strip & clear protective cover on the book jackets) & manning the check-out desk. All great fun for a book nerd like me.

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