With a sigh of relief, I followed the satnav’s instructions and indicated right, swinging the van into the side road off London’s Oxford Street.
“You have reached your destination,” remarked the posh voice coming from the machine.
“Thank fuck for that,” I shot back, removing the device from the windscreen, then wiping at the telltale ring it left behind on the glass with my sleeve, hoping to remove any temptation for potential thieves. No doubt they swarmed around this area, tourist Mecca as it was. I didn’t want them to catch me out.
I stowed away the satnav, switched off the van’s ignition and grabbed all my stuff. Hopping out onto the road, I then locked the van and pocketed the keys. Then, wiping my damp palms on my black work trousers, I approached the rear door of the shop where I was to work.
Come on, get a grip, Jessie! You may be new at this, but you know what you’re doing. You’ve got this.
I wasn’t totally insane to be nervous. I’d been working for the shop-fitting company for just over a year now, and it was great. I really enjoyed the work, the variety. But this was the first time I’d been sent out on a job by myself. It hadn’t been intentional, either—the job was last-minute, and the client had made it worth my employer’s while. Normally there would be a team of two coming here, but there was another big job, one that needed the more experienced fitters on board. Therefore, I’d been pulled off that task, in order to do this one. Alone.
Adding more worry was the warning one of my colleagues had given me on finding out where I was being sent. ‘You watch out for that Edith woman, Jessie. She may look like a pixie, but she’s actually more of a dragon. She frightens the bloody life out of me.’
The warning ringing in my ears, I took a deep breath and pressed the doorbell. I could do this. I could. I’d made it all the way from Leeds to London, navigating busy motorways and the complete insanity that was England’s capital city, venturing right into the heart—the craziest of the crazy. Fortunately, by the time I’d hit the West End, the traffic wasn’t too bad, given that the shops were closing and rush hour had been and gone. There were still morons galore, naturally—honking taxi drivers, swerving, lane-hopping cyclists, oblivious rickshaw drivers, suicidal pedestrians—but I’d kept my cool throughout, telling myself I was so close to the end of my journey that I could almost touch it. Taste it.
And here I was, at the back entrance of the flagship store of the world-famous fashion chain, ready to change over its window display in time for when the shop reopened in the morning. I glanced at my watch, relaxed a little. It was ten p.m. Eleven whole hours until opening time. No problem, even for a relative newbie like me.
The door opened a crack and a sliver of a dark face peered out at me. “Yes?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Jessie—from the shop-fitters? Here to work on your window display?”
The woman—the voice had given it away, as she was still peering through the crack between the door and its frame—eyed me up. The black trousers, black T-shirt, black fleece—the latter two bearing the name of the company I worked for—clearly weren’t enough. Turning her attention to the van behind me—emblazoned with the company name in huge letters—she now seemed convinced.
“All right,” she said, opening the door wider and stepping back to let me through. “Come on in.”
“I’m Jacqueline. Edith’s already in the window. She’s the one in charge.”
I nodded. “Okay—lead the way.” I followed Jacqueline through the dimly lit storeroom. I’d known instantly she wasn’t Edith, because she looked nothing like a pixie. More like a goddess. She had a curly black afro, curves you could lose yourself in for days and a wiggle that would have turned me instantly if I wasn’t already into women.
Blinking as we emerged into the blazing lights of the shop floor, I continued in Jacqueline’s wake, adjusting my ponytail and fixing a smile on my face as we grew closer to the window…and Edith. She was the big cheese—when it came to the window design and execution, anyway—so I needed to make a good impression. Hopefully she’d give good feedback to my boss, and I’d get more projects like this in future. Maybe even a raise—a girl could dream, right?
“Hi,” I said as we came within a couple of paces of my soon-to-be workspace. “I’m Jessie. Pleased to meet you.”
After a brief pause, the pixie took the hand I was holding out and shook it. Firm, confident, but brief. She was no-nonsense, this woman. But I’d known that already.
“Edith,” she replied coolly, then jerked her head in Jacqueline’s direction. “I presume you two have already introduced yourselves? Jacqueline is my number two—she’s going to be helping us this evening.”
“All right!” I said, rubbing my hands together. “So, do you want to go through the plans, then we can crack on.”
Edith’s green eyes narrowed, sending a chill down my spine. “Haven’t you already seen the plans?”
I tried not to gulp. “Y-yes, of course. But I thought it’d be useful to outline everything, make sure we’re on the same page. Avoid any potential problems.”
“You foresee problems?” Hands on hips, she raised her eyebrows, which were the same golden color as her cropped hair.
Fuck. I’ve riled the dragon already. “No,” I said, more confidently than I felt, “absolutely not. But I haven’t worked at this store before, or with you, so it makes sense for me to get to know the place, discuss the plans with you, before we begin.”
A bored look on her face, Edith bent to retrieve a clipboard that sat on a pile of boxes next to the window. “All right.” She thrust the clipboard at me. “Here are the plans, my notes. I hope this won’t take too long, we’re on a tight schedule here.”
Eager not to get burned by the flames billowing from the dragon’s mouth, I took the clipboard with a smile so forced it hurt my face. “I’m a quick reader.”
“Good. I am going to use the bathroom while you’re reading. Then I will go to the kitchen. Would you like a drink?”
As long as you don’t put arsenic in it. “Yes, please,” I said brightly. “Tea, milk, two sugars, please.”
As soon as her attention shifted from me to Jacqueline, I started reading. No way was this stuck-up bitch going to catch me out. I hadn’t lied to her—I had studied the plans, inside out, in fact. But although I was relatively new to all this, I’d very quickly learned just how often clients made ‘little tweaks’ to the plans without telling us, which could fuck up everything entirely. The last thing I wanted was to start sawing wood and building everything to the original specification, only to be told I was doing it all wrong.
Thankfully, Edith’s notes and plans still seemed to match what I’d been given. She hadn’t yet returned, so I turned to Jacqueline with a smile and said, “Okay, this all looks to be in order. Would you mind helping me to start stripping out the existing display while we wait for Edith to come back?”
The girl’s generous lips curved up into a smile. “No problem. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can finish, right?”
“Precisely. Once we get going it’ll all be pretty straightforward, I should imagine.”
Famous last words.