The Interview

The Interview

            The fortnight she had been away had left the shop musty and damp.  As she pulled the key out of the lock and slipped it back into her jacket pocket Marcia sniffed in disgust.  She flipped the light switches behind the door and one by one three fluorescent tubes flickered into life.  A thin layer of dust lay everywhere, masking the furniture, making it uniformly shabby.

            Outside in the street the blazing August sun was already reflecting back from the pavement.  The gentle mist which had clung for a moment around the trunk of the apple tree on the neatly-mown lawn at six o’clock this morning when she had leaned dreamily from the window of her bedroom had dissipated and been replaced by a slight haze. 

            Geoffrey had felt energetic this morning and set off on foot for the station, scorning even to carry his briefcase.  She knew the symptoms.  Sometimes when they had set off together they had compared the urge to skip and run.  Once she had had pigtails to swing.  Now she just shook her head and revelled in her own skittishness.  Poor Geoffrey was too stout to be skittish.  He just had to pretend.  She smiled fondly at the thought of her husband.  Dear boring Geoffrey.  She did love him, but sometimes she could wish he hadn’t opted for middle age quite so soon. 

            On the floor behind the door lay a pile of letters and circulars.  She scooped them up and went slowly to the back of the shop.  She had vowed she would not put the kettle on for one whole hour after her arrival, but the dust and the damp had already worked their way into her bones and she found she was shivering after the heat outside.  She went into the washroom at the back of the shop and filled the kettle.  Then she pulled on the thin cotton gloves she used to preserve her nails and went to work with a duster and the polish.

            It was some time before she realised that someone was standing in the doorway watching her.  The sun had slipped around the side of the pub at the corner of the street and shone in behind him, surrounding him with a strangely beautiful halo.  Dust flew in the sunbeams and danced round his golden hair.  He looked, she thought irreverently, like a latter-day Angel Gabriel.

            ‘Can I help you sir?’  She threw down her duster, and peeling off her gloves pushed the hair out of her eyes.

            ‘Your kettle’s boiling.’

            His voice was strangely melodious, in keeping with his visionary entrance.  She laughed.

            ‘So it is.  I didn’t see you through all the dust.’

            She went to unplug it.  When she turned back to him he hadn’t moved.  He seemed reluctant to leave the sunshine and come into the cavernous shop.

            ‘I believe you are expecting me Mrs. Harvey?  Perhaps I am a little early?’

            ‘I am?’  Marcia stared at him again.  It was hard to see his features, standing as he was with his back to the light.  ‘Forgive me.  I’ve just returned from holiday and I’m still a bit disorganized.’

            ‘I’ve come for an interview Mrs Harvey.’  He left the doorway at last and walked towards her.  He was tall and ungainly, moving cautiously through the shop like someone who knows their limbs are too large.  Out of the sunlight his hair was an ordinary faded mouse.

            ‘An interview?’  She looked at him aghast.  And then she remembered the notice in the News Agents.  It had been there only half a day, then Geoffrey had told her to take it down.  ‘You can’t afford an assistant, you silly girl; your overheads are already too high.’  He had ruffled her hair affectionately, ‘Just close the shop when you need to go out and leave a notice saying when you’ll next be open.  If anybody is interested in buying something they’ll come back.’

            So she had told Mr Hawkins to take the notice down, and he had embarrassingly, meticulously, insisted on giving her back her £2.

            ‘You saw the notice in the shop?’  She looked at him vaguely.

            He nodded.  ‘I wrote to you Mrs Harvey.  I explained everything.’  His melodious voice was beginning to sound the smallest bit aggrieved.  ‘Surely you got my letter?’

            She glanced at the pile of dusty post on the desk, feeling very guilty.  She should have opened it, but some of the letters looked suspiciously brown-enveloped and billish.  He eyes followed her gaze.  ‘Don’t you ever open your letters?’  With two strides he was at the desk, shuffling through the post.  His eyes, she had glimpsed were strangely dark – burnt umber – and his face was handsome, tanned like leather.  He smelt of aftershave.

            Triumphantly he extricated an envelope – a brown economy envelope, she noticed in mute self-defence, and held it out to her.  ‘Perhaps you ought to read it now?’  He had a very pleasant smile. 

            She took it from him.  The letter was brief; she looked first at the signature: Joshua Wilson.  His writing was rounded and a little immature, but he had used a fountain pen!

            ‘The thing is, Mr Wilson,  I’m afraid the job is no longer there.  I withdrew the notice almost as soon as I had put it in the window.  I am sorry.  I’ve been away or I should have written to put you off coming.’  She glanced down at the sheet of paper in her hand.  There was no address at the top.

            ‘You’ve already engaged someone?’  He sounded so genuinely disappointed she felt she had to tell him the truth.

            ‘No Mr Wilson.  To be quite honest I found I couldn’t afford to pay an assistant after all.’  Marcia smiled at him, wishing he wouldn’t look quite so crestfallen.  ‘I truly am very sorry.’

            He glanced round the shop.  ‘Would you …’   He hesitated.  ‘Would you let me work here for nothing?  Perhaps you could just give me a little commission if I sold anything?’

            She had read about men who had eyes that could plead like those of a spaniel.  Just for one minute Joshua Wilson looked like that.  Then his face cleared.  He smiled broadly.  ‘I’m sorry Mrs Harvey, I’ve embarrassed you and I didn’t mean to.  Forget it.’  He reached out and took her hand in both of his.  She wasn’t sure if he was shaking or just holding it to add to his plea but after a moment, reluctantly, he let go, and turned back to the door.

            ‘Mr Wilson, wait.’  She could have bitten out her tongue.  She didn’t want him to wait.  She wanted him to go.  ‘Are you working at the moment?’

            ‘I’m a student; it’s in my letter.’

            She looked at him doubtfully.  He looked a little too old to still be a student.

            ‘It’s the long Vac.  I don’t really need the money, but I’m bored.  And I’d love the experience.’  He grinned widely, paraphrasing for her.

            ‘What do you study?’  He hadn’t mentioned that.  She was holding the letter tightly in both hands, like a talisman, to her chest.

            He hesitated.  ‘Engineering, actually.  I know it’s not very good qualification for antiques, but I’ve read about them a lot.

            He didn’t look all that much younger than she was, in fact, when he was serious.  It was his smile that was so youthful and engaging.

            He took a step nearer to her.  ‘I’d be a great help to you Mrs Harvey.  I really would.  I could mind the shop whilst you were out looking for more things.  I know I’d be a good salesman. 

            She was painfully conscious how near he was to her.  She could feel his breath on her cheek, but if she stepped back she would knock into the table with the gilt French clock.  She couldn’t dodge sideways either; it would look undignified.

            ‘Can you give me any references, Mr Wilson?’  Her voice seemed to have slipped up an octave. They were being ludicrously formal.

            He smiled gently, his eyes holding hers for the first time.  ‘Character references or scholastic?  I’m afraid I can’t give you one from the trade.’

            ‘Character will do.’  She licked her lips, nervously, aware that her mouth had gone dry.

            ‘How many would you like?’  She could see barely veiled amusement in his eyes.  He was laughing at her.

            ‘‘Three is usual, I think,’ she said frostily.  She glimpsed a heavy silver St Christopher nestling against his chest inside the half-buttoned denim shirt.  She dared not raise her eyes to his again.  She could feel his breath on her hair.  He seemed very muscular so close.  She could see the faded material straining across the broad shoulders.

            It crossed her mind suddenly that he was a criminal on the run; of no fixed address.  She swallowed.  If only someone would come into the shop.

            ‘Perhaps you would make the coffee, Mr Wilson?’ she said with sudden inspiration.  ‘While I quickly go through the rest of the post.’

            The telephone was within twelve inches of her hand.  She had only to dial three numbers and give her address first, before saying police.

            ‘Ah!  The practical!’  He moved lightly away from her. 

            ‘I beg your pardon?’

            ‘Making coffee.  You can’t have an assistant who can’t make coffee.  It’s the practical part of the entrance exam.’  He grinned at her and winked.

            Two women came into the shop whilst he was stirring the two steaming mugs, but she didn’t tell them to call the police or run for help.  Instead she watched as he carried their purchase out to their car for them.

            When he came back inside Marcia was sipping her coffee.  She smiled up at him.  ‘Why do you want to work here so badly Mr Wilson?  There must be a reason.’

            He looked at her for a moment, his head a little to one side, as if considering what to tell her.  Then he laughed.  ‘Well, I’m not casing the joint.  That I promise you.’

            She could feel herself blushing, but doggedly she kept her eyes on his face.

            ‘Perhaps you’re casing someone else’s?’  She kept her voice light, but she glanced involuntarily though the window at the jeweller opposite.

            Joshua Wilson burst out laughing.  ‘No not that either.  Now if I were Irish I could say I wanted to work here just to be near your beautiful eyes, and get away with it.’

            She raised an eyebrow.  ‘All the better to see through you with, Little Red-Riding Hood.’  She tried not to smile back at him.

            ‘I can also appreciate a well-turned leg?’

            In spite of herself she crossed her ankles and tucked them out of sight beneath her chair.  ‘You will have my furniture blushing as well as me, Mr Wilson.’  She had to admit she was beginning to enjoy this.  It would be fun to work with Mr Wilson.  She giggled quietly and stood up.  ‘Hadn’t you better go off and look for those references while I get on with some work?’

            He set down his mug and glanced at her sideways.  ‘I’m pretty good on a chaise-longue too so they tell me.’  He looked at her archly.

            She knew she should order him out, but she couldn’t be angry.  She was sure he could see right through the severely repressive frown she tried to adopt as she drew herself up to her full height.  ‘I’m sorry Mr Wilson, but I’m afraid you must have got the wrong impression.  I think you had better go.’

            He put on his crestfallen look again.  ‘I was only trying to remember all my good points.’  He stuck his thumb in his belt and smiled, suddenly jaunty.  ‘One must try and think of everything at an interview.’  He paused hopefully, his head slightly to one side.  She forced herself to keep a straight face, starting hard at the buckle of his belt, and after a minute he shrugged good-humouredly.  ‘Okay I’ll go, but I’ll be seeing you.’

            She sat down again as soon as he had gone and groped for her half-drunk mug of coffee.  The impudent man! Who did he think he was?

            She glanced around at the little mirror standing on a table near her.  The freckled glass had tilted on its stand and showed her as she sat on her chair.  He cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled, but in no way did she look even remotely angry.  The whole shop was suddenly brighter, as though the sun had at last managed to get beyond the doorway.

            Opening a cupboard she took out a shawl.  Embroidered in bright silks she had always thought it a little vulgar.  Now suddenly reckless she threw it across the chaise-lounge and watched as the deep fringe slipped gracefully across the shabby upholstery and settled on the dusty floor.  It made the old piece of furniture exotic, even exciting.

            Suddenly she remembered the bunch of roses in her basket.  Red roses she had cut before breakfast for the centre display in the window.  As she arranged them lovingly in the bowl she thought again of Geoffrey.  What would he say if he heard about Joshua Wilson? 

            Of course he wouldn’t come back.  That was out of the question.  Or would he?  She bent and sniffed at the fragrant damask petals, closing her eyes for a moment in their coolness.  Then she opened them suddenly and stared hard at the silk shawl.  It was a dreadful thing to admit, but she hoped he would come back.  She hoped it very much, references or no references.  Poor Geoffrey.  He’d be so shocked if he knew!


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