At the offices of Grace the daily hubbub of magazine activity was well under way. The half a dozen ladies of the classified advertisement department on the ground floor were responsible for taking the small ads that appeared at the back of the publication for domestic staff, nannies, au pairs. They also dealt with the wide range of country cottages for holiday rentals in the more popular counties, so were all either on the phones or doing paperwork. Two were logging in the cheques received into the huge, leatherbound ledgers that recorded every single penny that entered the building whether by way of coin, note, cheque or by credit card.
The introduction of a credit card advertisement booking service was a somewhat recent innovation causing as much consternation and confusion among the loyal readership as it had with the staff. “Does this mean that you will be keeping all my financial details on your files? You see I have no wish to be cloned… Is that the correct term?” or “Will you be able to let me have ninety four pounds a week from my account like my son does so that I can buy Snuffy his treats, only he does get awfully cross if he doesn’t get his treats after walkies? Snuffy I mean, not my son. He buys his own treats and I don’t have to take him on walkies any more, he’s nearly fifty-five now, or is it fifty-seven?” were just two of the more confused telephone queries received by the ‘classifieds’ as they were known. In the beginning they had been as worried as the callers were, but slowly over the past few weeks they had got the hang of it and were able to offer calm-voiced, surprisingly confident reassurance and advice to all who called, some of which was as close to accurate as could be reasonably hoped for.
They were a happy and close knit bunch, the ‘classifieds.’ For many this had been the only job they had ever had, having joined Grace as fresh faced school-leavers. Some desks were now covered with stuffed animals, pictures of children and grandchildren and faded photos of beloved pets, some still living but many ‘no longer with us.’ The tumuli of personal desk detritus had been accumulated over such extended periods and reached such volume that many of them had been forced to conduct their daily work duties from a motley selection of card tables, occasional tables and rickety trestles set up next to their desks rather than the desks themselves. As with all workers who have reached a facility of acceptance over years of habituation, something of a uniform dress code had evolved. From the waist up most wore smart lambswool twin sets in a variety of pastel shades, set off with either strands of cultured pearls or necklaces featuring a wide range of semi-precious stones. In fact, on the rare occasions that they were all seated behind their diverse collection of work places, it looked a little like a Lucy Clayton outreach program for the more senior ‘gal,’ straight backed, smart women who thought about their appearance and were familiar with the concept of decorum and decency. You could imagine that they were all familiar with the techniques of exiting various types of motor car. It was only when they stepped out from behind their secondary desks that one felt the side was slightly let down. The assumed imagery of sensible skirts, proper hosiery and well made pumps or court shoes in smart, polished business black or somewhat more schoolish navy blue hiding behind the work surfaces was dispelled by the hideous reality of grubby, threadbare fluffy or furry carpet slippers, many with ears, embroidered eyes and jokey faces representing the more popular breeds of dogs and cats. One pair represented a reindeer – complete with brown flock, stuffed antlers - another seemed to evoke a fox’s snout and ears, carefully fashioned from a material that appeared to have once kept the real animal alive, let alone warm, and each slipper even sporting a now horribly ratty tail-like attachment. While skirts were the favoured manner of preserving decency, rather than crisply pressed blacks and blues in smart fabrics or tasteful tweeds, the classifieds seemed to have agreed among themselves to favour whatever came to hand resulting in a range of colours, fabrics and styles more diverse than any charity shop rail could offer. What was worse from the aesthetic perspective was the accumulation of stains, crumbs and spillages that adorned the front of each skirt, evidently resulting from consecutive days of messy desk-top lunching, and looking as though Jackson Pollock had woken to a bad day coupled with an appalling hangover resulting in loss of vision and just thrown random pigments around in a fabric factory.
They were in short, an eclectic group of wonderfully vibrant women who considered a day without a good group cackle resulting in a noise abatement order, was a day wantonly wasted. They were also quite deliciously mad in the way that nice, sensible people over the age of crippling self-awareness often are, especially when group psychology allows them the luxurious freedom of joyous juvenility.
‘Ere, Bernard, we’ve got another one of those bonkers messages again.’
One of classifieds rose from behind a circular rosewood table, a table so high that her ample bosom was able to take rest on its edge while she was working. Her faded lavender twinset was set off with a rather fetching amethyst brooch, but the ensemble was ruined by its twinning today with an early Laura Ashley floral print skirt bearing stains of what were hopefully nothing more sinister than tomato soup and peppered with the pastry shrapnel of a pasty that had served as that morning’s elevenses. Although her high-pitched exclamation had seemed to be shouted out randomly, a deeper female voice answered from behind a partition, in a tone that melded mild irritation with vague intrigue.