I know what the famous amorphous “they” have to say on the subject of self praise (it’s no recommendation!). But I have to say it – when it comes to textiles and design I know what I’m doing it. Folk say I have an “eye” for it, and there’s some truth in that, but having the “fingers” or it is just as important. I’ve been working for Modestine Modes for nearly six years now after a spell in a Call Centre and a spell as a waitress after I graduated with my degree in Fashion and Design. I didn’t mind those jobs as such, and the waitressing certainly came with good tips, but I minded because though most people were too kind to come out and say it in as many words it rather proved the warnings that this particular degree wasn’t likely to be useful.
Well, in the end it came good. Modestine Modes is what people call a “secret tip” when it comes to clothing that’s a bit different, a bit left-field, but not silly. You won’t see a crinoline or a pair of boots with bells on or a pseudo-spacesuit on any of our clients. We go in for colourful but not flashy. Oh, and we’re called after a donkey. The one in RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey that was a favourite book of the founder, 80 odd years ago. All of our ranges incorporate a donkey into them somewhere. At times it’s quite blatant – we did a lovely Christmas jumper! – but often discreet, part of an optical illusion, the kind of thing that’s obvious – when you know where to look!
I was very much the backroom girl, and though I’m not especially shy, that always suited me fine. I even had the nickname of Becky the Backroom Girl. Not that original, but I could live with it.
Let’s put it this way, we were never going to rival Gucci (or even M & S, come to that!) but things were ticking over very nicely.
That was until Fayette Fashions came to town. You could argue that they bucked the trend. Though of course they did have an website, they also had what tends to be called a Presence in the High Street. Modestine Modes never had, even in the beginning, though some of the favoured customers were invited into the workshop at times. For decades it was mainly mail order of course, and we did still have a mail order catalogue, though every year the Marketing Manager, Anthony, said it would probably be the last.
We all made out we were very laidback about Fayette Fashions. We could stand the competition. There had been other clothes shops in town before. I felt rather treacherous as I looked in the window and on the website and decided that I rather liked some of their ranges. Not that I’d buy them, of course.
Anthony’s suggestion still caught me totally off guard. “Becky, I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m sure there’s nothing not quite the thing about that lot.” He was given to throwing expressions like “Not quite the thing” into his conversation. It was endearing most of the time. He also nearly always referred to Fayette Fashions as that lot or simply them. So far as I can remember, he never actually used the words “A cunning plan” – but thought he had one. “They’re advertising for a part-time vacancy, Becks.” I didn’t like being called Becks, but let it pass. “Let’s be frank, we’re not exactly pulled out at the moment. How do you fancy seeing if you can get it – with no drop in wages here, of course – and being a spy in the camp?”
“Anthony, that’s ridiculous!” I exclaimed.
“Why? It wouldn’t been the first time someone’s done it. Industrial espionage, I believe it’s called.” He knew perfectly well that it did, and (though I don’t want this to depend into pantomime territory) knew that I knew.
“You’re our secret weapon.”
I wanted to tell him not to be so melodramatic, and I wanted to tell him we’d never get away with it, but it was growing on me.
“They’ll recognise me.” But I wasn’t so sure.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, armed with my degree certificate and a now somewhat ageing reference from the University, plus ones from the Call Centre and the Cornerhouse Café attesting to my good timekeeping and willingness to pull my weight, was taken on as the new part-timer. I was referred to as The Apprentice, and the Head Honcho (that really was her official job title – pretentious or what?) Dorine, whose name I suspected was originally spelt Doreen, told me that older apprentices were all the rage. Come to think of it, she did have something of the Alan Sugar about her, though she never said, “You’re hired.” But hired I was.
I still was sure I would be recognised, but it turned out that most of the staff had been imported from another branch of Fayette Fashions in a neighbouring town. I did get (and returned) the odd “I’m sure I know you from somewhere” look but it never went beyond that.
This particular apprentice decided to act the part. To hide my light under the proverbial bushel. It amused me. Oh, I didn’t make it look silly. I never pretended I didn’t know the difference between silk and viscose, or that I thought the Empire Line was an old colonial rail network. But they wanted an apprentice, and they’d got one.
The weird thing was, I began to half believe it! It was almost as if I took on another persona who genuinely didn’t realise that it was never a good idea to put those two colours together, or that flared trousers were NOT set for a revival. I put fabrics together that made oil and water look like Darby and Joan, and though I never made out I couldn’t use a sewing machine, before very long my slightly crooked seems came entirely naturally and I didn’t have to make a conscious effort. I never went so far as to admit I didn’t know the difference between taupe and ecru, but prided myself on my vague face.
But my “mission” – to find out something iffy about Fayette Fashions – was proving decidedly unsatisfying. True, you could argue that not doing more recruiting locally was not ideal, but Dorine said that as they expanded they probably would, and I had no reason to disbelieve her. I was no expert on the subject, but it seemed they were entirely above board on matters such as tax and VAT. I discovered (though I made sure our paths never crossed!) that they employed a local accountant called Ingrid Patterson who had a reputation for being as straight as a dye. I was never quite sure what dye meant in that context, though of course I knew all about it in the other. Working conditions were good and they paid above the living wage – frankly, though my own pay was lower than my salary at Modestine Modes, it was higher than they’d have paid for an “inexperienced newcomer”. I got on well with my new colleagues, and discovered that though Dorine had her affectations (come to that, so did Anthony!) and could be a tad waspish, she was a good-hearted woman, and the atmosphere in general was, well, that much maligned word, nice! There also seemed to be an unwritten rule about never bad-mouthing other firms – Modestine Modes included.
Anthony was patient at first, but over time his requests to “dish the dirt, Becks!” became more insistent and less humorous. I could only tell him what he didn’t want to hear, that – so far – I had found precisely zero dirt to dish. Instinct told me that he was on the point of telling me to make something up. He didn’t, but I got the idea he wouldn’t have probed too deeply if I had.
I was becoming increasingly ill at ease about something that had started out as fun and a bit of a challenge. I was beginning to tire of the “inept game” and though I’ve never been an angel, my conscience was pricking me, too. The demon of divided loyalties had reared its head. I had been treated very well at Fayette Fashions, and not only was I deceiving them, I was doing deliberately shoddy work and not giving my best.
I won’t say it gave me masses of sleepless nights or sent me hurtling to Confession, but I was increasingly wishing I had never got involved in it in the first place.
So I was almost relieved when Hannah, who was known as The Treasure came over to have a word with me. She was a kindly woman, but no pushover. It would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she did Dorine’s dirty work for her, but it wouldn’t be true. Dorine was capable of doing her own dirty work. If anything, it was the opposite, and Dorine recognised that she had a more tactful way about her and was better at the “touchy-feely stuff”.
“It’s about your work, Becky,” she said. There are various possible responses to that comment, ranging from the defensive, “I thought it might be” to the entreating, “I’ll try to do better.” As it was, I held my peace and let her speak first again. “We like it. Dorine has spoken very highly of it. At first we weren’t sure, but you dare to be different – to mix things folk say you shouldn’t, but you can pull it off, and we think you should be given your head more. There’s that naïve quality, too. Those hems that look uneven but actually dip and flare in just the right places. Would you be interested in taking on a full-time position and a promotion?”
Well, I won’t pretend I didn’t feel bad about it, and I did have a few sleepless nights, but in the end I accepted.
If I were being mean I could say Anthony should never have called me Becks.
After all, who’d have thought my namesake would ever have left Manchester United?