A tale of two chemists (1)

IT was the stuffy September of 1973 and I’d finally married Mr Wrong. We’d moved into a stuffy flat in Folkestone, an uncomfortable place with high ceilings, a broken gas fire and a hole in the kitchen wall through which we could spy on the roses in our neighbours’ gardens and the Triffid tomato plants rampaging through the nettles and uncut grass in our own.

The previous tenant, a Czech lady called Mrs Sedalacek, had done a moonlight flit leaving a mound of unpaid bills on the doormat and a carpet with underlay so rotten we had to shovel it up. We found spilled children’s sweets in amongst it, congealing round the edges. There was also an assortment of armchairs, full of mouse-droppings and possibly mice. I longed to get rid of these but Mr Wrong, who was an artist, had paintings to paint, so we stacked the furniture at one end of the living room and draped blankets over them.

On the plus side, the flat was on one of Folkestone’s longest and broadest avenues, a relic of the good times when the town had been able to advertise itself to holidaymakers as ‘spacious and gracious’. A footpath flanked by a double row of trees ran along the centre of the avenue and all year round the trees contained long ropes of fairy-lights which lit up in the evening. We were on the third floor and from the back window we could conduct conversations with the baby seagulls dotted about the chimney-pots – well, I could – Mr Wrong didn’t go in for anything so fanciful. The sea was not far off. Mr Wrong taught himself to swim that year, and photographed me on the beach in a bikini for the first and, as it turned out, the only time.

I was twenty-one when we married, but in no way a grown-up. My first expedition to the launderette, in the course of which I managed to empty a whole cup of Omo washing powder into another woman’s shopping bag, had so unnerved me that I’d taken to washing everything in the bath, trampling it barefooted.

I had just completed one of these washing-treading sessions when there came a knock at the door. Shuffling his feet on the landing behind the frosted glass was one of my future employers, though I didn’t know it yet.

Mr LaFayette was thin – pigeon-chested and octopus-eyed – a man who had somehow managed to combine a French surname with an Indian complexion and a sing-song Welsh accent. Nowadays, when I picture him, he seems to be wearing coat-tails and a dusty top hat with crêpe streamers, but of course he wasn’t, actually.

‘About the job,’ he began as soon as I opened the door. ‘If you’re still, um, that is, the job with Morgan & LaFayette?’ He was standing in the hallway by this time, eyeing the psychedelic skirting-boards (another of Mrs Sedalacek’s legacies), the shrouded furniture and the dripping tie-dye tee shirts with polite anxiety. I was too flummoxed to invent a reason not to take the job, and the following Monday saw the beginning of my short, inglorious career as a shop assistant with Morgan & LaFayette (Chemists) Ltd.

The very first thing I learned was that God had not intended me to be a shop assistant. Mrs Moyle, my fellow assistant, took the measure of my shortcomings in a single glance. To give the woman her due, she did not attempt to train me. Hot flushes pursued one another across her already pinkish face as she explained yet again that change was to be counted backwards into the customer’s hand – ‘Fifty, seventy-five, one pound’ and that one was supposed to sidle up and enquire, ‘Can I help you Sir/Madam?’ as opposed to hiding behind the display stands pretending to dust.

The most useful qualifications for someone who works in a chemist’s shop is gravitas, of the kind that once enabled Mr LaFayette, in my hearing and without so much as a flicker of an eyelid, to inform a constipated customer that he could recommend one particular brand of laxative because he had tried it himself and ‘…it softens the motions beautifully.’

Alternatively, one could intimidate. Mrs Moyle, perhaps wisely taking into account the hot flushes, had opted for intimidation. When chaps came in for condoms I tended to wave them in the general direction of a small drawer labelled ‘C’ and retreat into my hide-and-dust routine. Mrs Moyle, observing my cowardice, took to intercepting all nervous-looking young men at the door. Her stage whispers I am sure could have been heard in the Post Office over the road.

            ‘And then we have the purple ones, from Sweden, with the knobbles on.’

I made no attempt to master either technique.

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