A tale of two chemists (2)

However, it was in the matter of floor-mopping that I really disgraced myself. Every morning, trying in vain to think of higher things, I would have to manoeuvre the slimy remains of a mop around the counters and display stands, pausing at intervals to wring out the ghastly thing (rubber-gloveless) in a pail of foetid water.

‘You’ve missed a bit,’ Mrs Moyle would inform me. ‘Over there by Corn-plasters,’ or ‘that bit by Curlers and Combs.’

Eventually Mr LaFayette took pity on me and allowed me to assist him in the dispensary. I passed many a peaceful afternoon counting out fifty of this and one hundred of that. Luckily Mr LaFayette had a Perspex gadget for doing this. You just slotted in a shelf with fifty or one hundred holes in and sprinkled the tablets on top, like feeding goldfish. When you were ready you pulled the solid shelf from underneath it and the tablets fell through. Insert paper funnel in neck of bottle, turn the gadget edgewise, tip up, and voila! After that came writing out the label in tiny, neat letters; this involved coming to terms with the eccentric handwriting of half a dozen local doctors, not to mention airy commands like ‘Mitte 2 q.d.s.’.

In spare moments I would read the manufacturers’ drug contra-indication cards; then when somebody posh came in for their prescription I could take a secret pleasure in thinking Piles, is it? or This may well make your gums bleed and cause greenish patches to appear on the soles of your feet.

Even more fun was weighing senna pods on miniature brass scales, using tiny brass weights, then packing the pods into white boxes; or funnelling bags of powder into brown glass bottles full of liquid, stirring the resultant potion for ages with a long, glass rod. The names of the mixtures were more attractive than their aromas – Mist Ammon & Ipecac, Mist Kaolin & Morph. I would recite these names like a mantra to make the stirring-time pass. Mr LaFayette worked beside me in peaceful silence, grinding up pastes with his pestle and mortar and surreptitiously checking everything I did.

Mr Morgan was the senior partner. He was semi-retired but not nearly retired enough for me or, I suspect, for Mr LaFayette. Mr Morgan was in charge of The Books and would sweep in like a shower of sleet at unpredictable intervals. He would be carrying his briefcase under one arm and The Books under the other, and he would never be in a good mood.

Mr Morgan made no secret of the fact that he regarded me as one of Mr LaFayette’s mistakes, a lazy, gormless, addle-witted hippie, in every way unsuitable to the task at hand. The very sight of me irritated him to such an extent that he would bark commands at me. Finally, one afternoon, he barked so loudly and so unwarrantedly that he managed to make me cry. He stood in the doorway of the dispensary for some considerable time, watching me sobbing over a tray-full of large, expensive orange capsules I had been in the process of counting. His expression of disgust only deepened as the capsules began to melt into a gluey mixture of orange dye, tears and late afternoon sun.

‘Sack her,’ he snapped. ‘Can’t have the blasted female ruining the stock.’

Mr LaFayette had no choice. He wished me good luck in his sing-song, melodious way, showing no signs of the relief he must have felt. Perhaps, once upon a time, he had had his own dreams – dreams in which elastic stockings and TCP did not feature. Perhaps Morgan & LaFayette was just the pebbly beach on which life had cast him up, and all these years he had been waiting for another high tide to free him.

Since then life has taught me a great deal about pebbly beaches, the infrequency of high tides and the unattainability of freedom. But from Mr LaFayette I learned that it was possible to be at ease in a man’s company and that, very occasionally, a man may be kind to a lady, not because she is of any particular use or value to him but because he is a gentleman, and that is what gentlemen do.

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