Stumblin’ outta bed and staggerin’ to the kitchen . . .
- June 7, 2022
- Keenan Powell
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. |
Upstart, ungrateful, out 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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