We Close At Five
Jenny Sinclair (University of Melbourne, Australia)
We close at five; it says so right there on the door. But at ten minutes to there’s always one customer left, piling up clothes like her house burned down and she needs a whole new wardrobe full right now.
When I turn the window lights off and lock the door, she always looks surprised: “Oh, are you closing?” and I tell her yes, we close at five. Then she makes a big show of trying everything on really quickly, which of course only leaves me a bigger mess to clean up after she leaves without buying anything. It’s the pressure; no one likes to make decisions with only five minutes to think about it, and a stroppy salesgirl hovering.
It’s never the same customer twice, of course. One night there were actually two of them, a teenage girl and what I guessed was her mother. There are two kinds of teenage girls – the ones who think they’re it and a bit, and the ones who are so hung up on their bodies that they never think they look any good in anything.
This girl, she knew she was it. And she was. I couldn’t stop looking at her. She had a weird face really, like all her features had been blown up by ten per cent – a wide mouth, slanted green eyes, upturned nose and the most amazing cheekbones, sprinkled with freckles. I still don’t know if her hair colour was real, but that suited her too – kind of strawberry blond, but all frizzy and soft. She had a few strands tied back in a green Bakelite clip in the shape of a bow, with tiny diamantes around the edges. Nice.
They knew what would suit her, too. We’d been flogging horrible shapeless cardigans and layered hippy skirts, but she went straight for the faded green velvet jackets and took down one that was a size too small. When I told her I thought she’d be a ten, not an eight, she just said “Yes, I’m a ten” and buttoned up the eight over her white shirt, really tight, and it looked sensational.
I couldn’t help myself. I never flatter customers, they see through it, but I said “You should be a model.” Her mother just laughed and said “She is.” Should have known. Then they actually bought the jacket and a pair of size six red heels that were the last of the range, and I made the daily sales target.
I don’t look too bad with makeup on. When Tamara was sharing the flat with me she showed me how to use it properly – she used to do makeovers at DJs – and in 15 minutes I can be ready for work. But straight out of bed I know I’m no model. My nose is too long, my lips lack definition and I have almost no eyelashes. Luckily I get my clothes at cost from work, and what I save on those, I spend on makeup.
So the next day at lunchtime the girl’s mother came back in and gave me a business card. Turned out she wasn’t her mother at all – she’s an agent. For a crazy minute I thought she might have been scouting me to be a model, and then I got it.
“You mean, like a stylist?”
“Well, an assistant to the stylist,” she said. “Your displays are very unusual and you know how to use makeup.” In other words, I scrub up well.
The photo shoot was down on the river that Friday night. They had a barge, covered in lilies and pink ribbon. It was a Homecoming Queen theme, only set in the city at night. On a river. Anastasia – that’s her name, the model – had to lie right on the edge of the barge, trailing her hand in the freezing filthy water, looking “dreamy, distant, thinking of poetry, fantasising, elsewhere” – or that’s what the photographer said. I just ran around rearranging lilies and refilling hot water bottles.
Afterwards there was champagne and coffee and sushi. I asked her how she got into modelling.
“I didn’t really, I’ve always done it,” she said. “My Mum entered me in one of those Beautiful Baby competitions when I was one. I did catalogue shoots most weekends when I was at primary school.”
“So you always wanted to do this?” I asked, thinking of her hand turning blue, but also of the Paris shows starting next week.
“Not really. I kind of prefer gardening.” Her eyes turned up a little more at the corners, like she was daring me to laugh. “I wouldn’t have minded being a landscape gardener, but –”
“But she’s too pretty for that,” Anna finished for her. “And so tired, aren’t you sweetheart? Come on, bedtime.”
So much for all night cocaine-fuelled fashion parties. Anna kept a close eye on Anastasia at every shoot I went on. It was a good idea; she was only 19 and even the catering assistants seemed to want to hit on her.
One day, when the spring collections were over and I was ripping the arms out of a $2000 dress for an editorial shoot, I started telling her about Petro, how his mother had called my Mum and warned her to keep me away from him, how she’d said he was going to be a doctor and I was just a shop girl, and how his older brother had turned up at my place that Sunday morning and punched him and shoved him into his car and I hadn’t seen him since.
“Are you over him now?” Anastasia asked. All this was more than two years ago.
“Not really. Like, I think I am, but I haven’t had a boyfriend since then.”
“I’ve never had one.”
“Oh, I just don’t think it’s a good idea while I’m working.”
Anna was listening on the other side of the stables.
“Good girl, that’s the way. I keep telling her, another year and she’ll be on the cover of Vogue.”
And it was true; Anastasia was getting huge amounts of attention. I’d stopped working in the shop, except for Saturdays, and I was getting used to Beautiful People, but of all Anna’s models, Anastasia was still the one who stopped people in the street. I felt invisible when I went out with her. We didn’t party on, not ever, but I took her shopping for props for our shoots – she wanted “creative input”, she said.
I learned a lot about presentation while I worked with them. I learned how to set lights to catch Anastasia’s cheekbones, leaving big dark shadows underneath. If you lit her right, you hardly needed makeup at all.
After six months, the call came: New York. Anna couldn’t go with her, and wanted to send me.
“You’ll have an agency apartment,” she said. “I’m sure we can find some work for you somewhere. And Anastasia really likes you. It’s only for three months, to start with.”
But I couldn’t go. Mum’s not that well, and Josie has offered me a manager’s position with training if I go back fulltime. And last week, Petro sent me a birthday card from Athens, hearts and kisses all around the border. He’ll be home at the end of summer, doing his internship. He’ll be moving out of home for that.
When I told Anastasia, I saw her lips press together like they do when she’s mashing on lipstick.
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think I’d like America,” I said. “I’ll miss you.”
“We’ll never get another chance like this, Kerry.”
“No, probably not. But it’s not my chance, is it? It’s yours.”
“I might not make it over there. It’s very competitive.”
“You’ve really got it, Anastasia, you’ll be OK. And if you don’t, you can come back and landscape our place for us.”
But she won’t. She’ll be on the cover of Vogue in three months. She’ll be the new face of something-or-other in six. She’ll be a supermodel in a year. She has to, with that face.
First Monday back in the store, Petro’s sister came in. She doesn’t know me, but I’ve seen her. It was 4.45 and she started piling up stuff on the counter to try on: the most godawful white flouncy dresses and a yellow cardigan that just killed her complexion. I let her buy them. Why should I care?
We close at five.
Jenny Sinclair is a Melbourne writer of short fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published in Best Australian Stories,Verandah 20-23, Island, Wet Ink and other magazines, and broadcast on ABC Radio. She is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing degree at the University of Melbourne.