It was the autumn of 1970. After four years studying Interior Design at Napier College of Science and Technology In Edinburgh l had won a design prize, had letters after my name and the best pieces of my design work contained in a portfolio that had the dimensions of a small dining table top. I now needed a job.
When not laboriously writing application letters I would cold call on the architectural practices in the region in the hope that an architect with time on his hands would take pity, look through my portfolio of college work, be amazed and offer me a job; but the 1970s were just round the corner and optimism and employment were thin on the ground in equal measure. Then on night I met up with a college friend for a drink. He suggested trying some of the large furniture stores who might need the services of an interior designer.
I started with one of the biggest, Robert Frost and Sons in Shandwick Place known locally at Frosts. Uncomfortably dressed in the smart suit bought for the prize giving ceremony I manhandle my portfolio through the elegant polished hardwood doors, wiped my feet on the mat and asked a vigilant sale assistant if I could speak to the manager. I followed him as he sashayed through the displays of colourful fabrics to arrive at an office door with a couple of seats against the wall.
“Please wait here and the manager will see you shortly.” He said in an unctuous tone.
I sat and waited, inhaling the smell of furniture polish, carpet fibre and curtain fabrics while I mentally rehearsed my pitch. Then the door squeaked opened and a small portly man appeared with a military bearing, a generous moustache and a shiny bald head.
“Good morning.” He said, then with a sense of urgency commanded. “Follow me please,” before he set off at a quick pace and vanished into the forest of colourful fabric displays. I was hindered my portfolio which I could just carry under my arm if I walked hunched over like Quasimodo. When I eventually emerged I found the small man standing waiting at the lift doors his eyes silently tut-tutting. We ascended several floors, the creaking of the cables and hum of the lift motor the only sounds. The lift stopped, the door slid open and I followed the small man into the landing. He tapped carefully on a door.
“Enter.” Said a voice from the other side.
The small man opened the door and I followed him into a spacious wood panelled boardroom. Three men, probably in their late thirties or early forties, sat at the far end of a table the size of a small aircraft carrier.
“This is Mr…em..em….” The small man was flustered.
“Wilson.” I said helpfully.
As one of the men at the table searched through a pile of papers it dawned on me that I was an unexpected guest at the party. When I had walked into the store as a speculative job seeker I had been mistaken for an invited candidate for an actual job interview.
The man at the stern of the aircraft carrier stopped pointlessly leafing through the application letters and looked up at me. One thing Robert Frost and Sons valued above all else were good manners. “Do please take a seat Mr Wilson.”
I sat down and the small man left the room, and in the manner of a butler, turned to soundlessly closed the door.
The three sons of Robert Frost introduced themselves and I began my impromptu interview for the position of apprentice salesman. They were suitably impressed by my qualifications, the black and white photograph of me being presented with the Edmund Hudson Quaich and by the contents of my portfolio which I spread out across the table top. Then, after answering a lot of questions and asking a few I was instructed to wait in the corridor outside. Leaving the room I propped my portfolio against a cast iron radiator and sat down on a chair and listened to the muffled conversation in the boardroom and the occasional hum of the lift motor.
The door opened and the eldest of the siblings asked me to come back into the room. The position of apprentice salesman was mine. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do after four years studying Interior Design but as I was short of any other offers and short of cash I accepted. Robert Frost junior shook my hand and told me that I was to report on the following Monday to Mr Tice, the head of the curtains department where I would start my apprenticeship.
I arrived home from my interview to find my mother at the dining room table wrapping raffia around a wire lampshade frame: she and my recently retired father had taken up a wide range of hobbies. Mum was into arts and crafts while dad was fermenting a deadly range of potent wines.
“Och, Well, that’s grand Sandy,” she said as she rammed the lampshade’s plastic connector into the neck of a wine bottle. Then added philosophically. “At least it a job, son”
She was obviously thinking that at least I would cease being a drain on their depleted retirement finances.
“Where’s that going?” I asked looking at the garish pink lampshade sprouting precariously from the dark green wine bottle.
It wasn’t exactly my bedroom. Since moving to this house I shared a small bedroom with my elder brother. My parents were obviously not expecting both of us to impose on their hospitality for too long. Willie had left the agricultural college the year before and was employed a sales representative for a fertiliser company. The position came with a company car and a four drawer filing cabinet. The car stood on the driveway and the cabinet stood between our two beds; a sort of high level bedside cabinet. My mother’s recently completed arts and crafts project would stand on top of the cabinet.
On the Sunday night I had the bedroom to myself. I closed my book intending to get a good nights sleep before starting my new job in the morning. I reached up to turn off my mother’s hideous lamp high up on the filing cabinet. The light switch clicked and the room became instantly dark. In that brief instant I was aware that I was holding only the lampshade and that it had become detached from the bottle. I was just wondering where the bottle had gone when it hit me in the right eye with a meaty thud. In the morning as I carried out my ablutions I looked in the mirror. The face of an unsuccessful pugilist stared back. I thought, “For fu….!”
“….cks sake whit ye done tae yer face son.” Said my new boss. A small dapper man in his late fifties with wavy grey hair Mr Tice had an alter ego. I later discovered that when a customer appeared in front of him he would slip into an obsequious voice and servile manner but when in front of his staff his use of language was so colourful it spanned the full chromatic spectrum of a rainbow.
I explained the unlikely story of my mother’s home made lamp which sounded so far fetched it was almost believable. But I could tell by the raised eyebrows that he was hearing a ‘Walked into the door’ tale. “Well, if I were you I’d get yer mum one o’ those rug making kits.” He advised drily.
Before the store opened for business Mr Tice introduced me to my fellow members of staff who had just walked into the department: Mr Lowe and Mrs Alsop. Ernest was a tall fleshy man with a bald head and a genial disposition. He favoured loose fitting baggy clothes a fashion style I had seen in old black and white photos of my dad taken in the 1930s. Betty, a cheerful woman, was married but childless. If you didn’t know her you might assume her to be a prim member of the Free Kirk. She wasn’t. Betty was a laugh.
“Aye, well ye cannae face customers lookin’ like that” said Mr Tice. I followed him down to the basement and he gave me a sort of stock taking task, probably fictitious, to hide me away.
Two days later with my eye a muted shade of yellow I was released from the bowels of the store and allowed to face the customers. At my surprise interview the one thing that the directors failed to ask about was my arithmetical ability. At college I concealed this black hole in my education; slouched over a drawing board I had time to laborious do any necessary calculations, but standing in front of a customer while working out the drop and fullness of curtains was daunting. Then, once the calculation had been made a bolt of the chosen fabric had to be brought up from the basement. I had watched Mr Tice emerge from the basement a bolt of fabric across the shop floor and throw it onto the counter, like a wrestler slamming an opponent onto the canvas, then roll it out across the table and measure the the required length. A pair of scissors would magically appear in his hand which he would spin like a cowboy’s revolver before making a small nick in the fabric. He then deftly slid the scissors across the fabric with a soft hiss to slice the cloth in a straight line. When I tried this in front of a customer the fabric would embarrassingly ruck up to produce a jagged edge. So, even if I had miraculously calculated the correct length the piece would invariably end up in the remnants pile. Even the wrapping up the fabric was a consummate performance. Brown paper would be creased and folded with origami exactness and string tied with knots that would have qualified for a Boy Scout badge. Mr Tice was an artiste, a magician of his trade: Mr Tice was David Nixon I was more Tommy Cooper.
The scissors, measuring tapes and other tools of the department were kept in large, deep drawers beneath the counter. When the process of wrapping the fabric the simplest way to close a drawer was to thrust it shut with your thighs. One day I watched from the counter opposite as Mr Lowe completed a sale. He dropped the scissors and ball of string into the drawer. As pushed it closed his polite expression of gratitude to the customer turned into a whimper, a low moan and his face turned a reddish purple. I thought he might have been have a heart attack. So too did Mr Tice who rushed over, grasped him by the elbow and led him through to the partitioned area behind the counter. I assured the concerned customer that Ernest would be fine. Betty, who was showing another customer a sample book looked across and swivelled her eyes in the direction of the enclosed work area telling me to go and find out what was going on. So I did.
Ernest was slumped in a chair with his hand between his legs still quietly moaning and Mr Tice, was leaning against the partition with his hands on his knees. He was stifling a laugh as though someone had just told him a terrific joke. He looked up as I walked in.
“What’s up?” I said taking in the strange scene.
“It’s Ernest… Ernest….he’s…he’s nipped his cock in one o’ yon drawers….. “ he spluttered, stifling his laughter. I winced feeling the pain. Ernest had firmly pushed the counter drawer closed with his thighs and this action combined with his penchant for the looser Oxford Bags style of trouser and, presumably complementary loose fitting underwear, had resulted in the painful and embarrassing injury.
As I walked out of the storage enclosure Betty’s face appeared from behind one of the curtain fabric displays.
“What’s up with Ernest?” She asked discretely. Embarrassed, I self consciously mimicked the injury and Betty’s mouth became a pursed round circle. “Oooo! Is he alright?”
“I think so.” I said uncertainly, although I was feeling a bit queasy myself.
“He won’t be feeling cocky for a while, then.” Said Betty as she disappeared giggling into the forest of fabric display stands.
Robert Frost and Sons was a retail business from bygone age. David Croft probably visited Frosts on a holiday in Edinburgh and thought of the idea for the BBC comedy series ‘Are You Being Served’.
One day a young professional couple oozing new money came into the department and selected curtains and blinds for the house that they had just bought. It would have been a substantial sale. But, they wanted, expected a discount. Mr Tice was having a day off so I went to seek the advice of the store manager with the moustache and shiny domed head. At the word discount he visibly blanched. “Discount? This is Frosts! We do not offer discounts. If one offers discounts, every customer will ask for discounts. Then where will be be!” Profitable, I thought as I left his office to break the news to my bemused customers.
A week later a gaunt tall man dressed in a tweed suit marched through our department towards the entrance doors. The carpet department apprentice escorting the man stepped forward smartly to hold open the door and gave a slight bow as the gentleman left the store. The customer was some Lord from some island off the west coast. Later that day Mr Tice leant conspiratorially on the counter beside me. “Y’ken that Laird. He’s bought a wee Persian rug and because he’s a laird they’re going to send a van and two men a’ the way up to Skye and back. But they’ll no give yon customer o’ yours a discount. No way tae run a business these days.”
The the upper class nature of the clientele was probably part of the reason that the apprentices had been, like the Brothers Frost, educated at Melville College, one of the Edinburgh public schools.. The other apprentices could socially connect; I couldn’t. As a product of a comprehensive and four years at a Technical College I had a socialist mind set. I refused to address customers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ and struggled with the plummy accents. One day a couple placed an order and the paperwork required an address.
“Could you spell that, please.” I asked after several failed attempts to understand.
“Gellaine!” The lady said impatiently in the sort of voice you use when speak speak to foreigners. “On the coast near North Berwick!”
I realise then that she lived in Gullane which I had always assumed, as it was by the seaside, was pronounced the same as the ‘gull’ in seagull. It is much the same in Yorkshire where I now live. The stately home Harewood House is pronounced Haaarwood House by those of the higher echelons of society. But for the rest of us a hare is pronounced hare.
A few days before Christmas we were asked to stay late.
I asked Mr Tice what it was all about. “Och, it happens every Christmas. It’s a waste o’ fuckin’ time but y’ll hae a laugh.”
And sure enough it was. We all stood beside our respective counters as the ancient stooped figure of Mr Frost senior flanked by his sons shuffled slowly passed. He waved his walking stick in the air croaking, “jolly good show, well done!” It was a ‘Grace Bros’ comedy moment.
Our department was the first stop in Mr Frosts tour of the shop. As the cortège disappeared into the carpet department Mr Tice nudged me. “Thank the Lord that ower. Let’s get away home, son.”
After Christmas I decided a career in a retail mausoleum was not for me. I managed to get a job in Leeds with John Colliers – ‘the window to watch’ – tailoring group. Not on a shop floor but in the Architect’s department designing shops. I think my resignation letter was received with relief; I was a failed experiment. One lunch time during my last week after a heavy night out with my college friends I retired to the furniture department and fell asleep in a comfy chair. I slowly came round to hear voices approaching. It was the furniture sales apprentice with a customer. Too late to do anything I kept my eyes closed as the amused customer made some joke about ‘sleeping on the job’ and the apprentice muttered “how awfully sorry he was.” On my way down the stairs the apprentice confronted me. He told me I was a disgrace and that he would jolly well report me. I told him I was leaving on Friday.
That Friday as I left the store I turned to look back at the shop front and the new discount store next door. Then behind me there was a dull clunk. I turned around to see a man standing outside the discount store with a can of emulsion paint at his feet, the handle in his hand and a splash of turquoise paint covering his shoes and his left leg of his flared trousers up to the knee. He cursed, then turned to me.
“See that pal.” He said. “Cheap shite. They dinnae make things right nowadays.”
Yes, I thought: as Bob Dylan had sung “Times they are a-changin’”
It was the start of the decade that would bring power cuts, strikes, three day weeks and cheap shite. Frost and sons, purveyors of quality furniture, would face an uncertain future.