On Tuesday last, a woman went into the fitting rooms, in the leading department store in Dublin, with five items of clothing. There was a Ted Baker dress, over the top, full of starchy lace. There were Salsa jeans, on offer, two pairs, and two blouses from Warehouse. She was wearing one of the blouses, green and floral, one shop assistant said, but the sales assistant standing in the fitting rooms, on duty, swore it was navy, and she should know. She was there when it happened. She liked to tell people this.
The woman left the fitting rooms, bare foot, wearing the Salsa jeans, and the blouse, the one that was either green or navy, and said she was getting a size. The girl who was doing her job so well said that was fine – she wasn’t supposed to leave the fitting room you see – and there were several other customers that could potentially need her help. The woman was grateful, she thanked the girl several times, one time too many, the girl thought, and off she went, slowly, and then very quickly.
The woman had entered the fitting room with five items of clothing. She’d also entered with a buggy, and subsequently in that buggy, there was a baby.
On Tuesday last, a woman went into the fitting rooms with five items, a blouse that may or may not have been green, and a baby in a buggy. She did not come back, with the extra size, or for her shoes or socks, or, more importantly, for the baby.
The floor manager was fuming of course. The sales assistant, who had allegedly been doing her job so diligently, who knew the top was navy, and not green, had been very foolish to let the woman leave.
“What if she had been trying to rob the clothes?” the floor manager asked, the lines in her forehead thick and wiggly as worms. The woman had been gone now for forty-five minutes.
“She left her baby, I hardly thought I needed to worry about that,” the sales assistant responded, more cheekily than she had intended.
“Why didn’t you go out for the size?”
“Because there was no one around to stand in for me. We’re not meant to leave the fitting room,” the sales assistant said, her voice scratching like metal skates on ice.
“When it is customer service, you always can leave. That should be really obvious,” the floor manager replied, answering her phone and turning without looking back. The girl shook her head in disbelief. She knew from training that the fitting rooms were never to be left unattended, under any circumstances. How was she to know this was the one time they could be? She made a mental note to try and anticipate such a situation in future while simultaneously taking the clothes from a different customer, who had draped six pairs of Topshop jeans over her arm for the sales assistant to retrieve, holding the hangers in a different hand.
“Sorry, I’m just awful leaving you here to tidy these,” one customer said, daring her to agree, if only slightly, as the sales assistant scrambled to hold all the jeans, whilst also taking the number tag and the hangers. A price tag had been ripped off one of the pairs, which was the customer’s parting gift as she left the fitting room – she wasn’t buying one piece of clothing. It was only after the sales assistant saw a brown stain on one of the pairs of jeans that she remembered the customer had come in with a takeaway coffee cup and departed without it. Upon second inspection the assistant saw that, said coffee cup, had tipped over and was leaking all over the floor.
She was calling the cleaning service when the floor manager returned, face like thunder.
“Don’t bother, call security and get everyone out of here. This fitting room is now closed.”
The sales assistant called out to the remaining customers, who had been oblivious to the whole fiasco and grumbled as they evacuated the crime scene.
“I really needed to buy a new pair of jeans today, this is such an inconvenience,” one lady mumbled, wearing an impeccable pair of jeans that couldn’t have fit better if they’d been stitched onto her legs that morning.
“I’m really sorry, we’re just having a bit of an emergency,” the sales assistant replied, her brow furrowing with apology. She hated to disappoint people.
“There’s not a bomb or terrorist scare is there?” another woman asked, her nose beak-like, her eyes beady and black like a pigeon’s.
“No, nothing like that,” the sales assistant replied sheepishly as she took the number tags from the few that brought them out. She heard a low gurgle coming from inside the fitting room – the baby had been asleep until now.
“Hmmm, I’m sure you just don’t want to cause a panic but you really should let us know if our lives are in danger,” the pigeon lady replied, just as the floor manager returned for the third time.
“We’re very sorry your experience with us today has been disrupted. If you email customer service, we will surely accommodate you with one of our money off vouchers,” she said, her face plastic in a wide smile. “In the meantime there’s another fitting room on the other end of the floor you can go to.” The customers seemed to be pleased at this notion and stumbled off in a happy daze at the thought of having extracted a discount. The second they were gone, the floor manager’s lips sucked into her mouth, and she opened the fitting room with the baby, staring at it like it was a rat. The baby babbled nonsense, producing bubbles from its tiny mouth, unfazed that its mother had just done a runner.
Hung up was the Ted Baker dress, one of the pairs of Salsa jeans, crumpled in a heap on the floor, and a green blouse. With no floral print.
“You’re sure she was wearing the other items?” the floor manager asked, eyeing the plastic number tag “5” that was hung on one of the hooks.
“Yes, she was wearing a pair of Salsa jeans and a navy…”
“Yes, yes, I know, you’ve told me already.”
The sales assistant was beginning to get nervous. This was her first job and she was still on her probation period. She’d moved to Dublin hoping to be paid more, and she was, but it was all going on her rent in a tiny apartment in Rathfarnham, which she shared with three other people. What if she had to pay a fine, or was fired? For incompetence? She’d never been called incompetent in her life – she’d always been top of the class in school, achieving 615 points in her Leaving Cert and had just left college with a First-Class Honours. She was only working here for the time being; finding a job had been more difficult than her guidance counsellor in sixth year had said when she learnt she wanted to study business. This had not been in the five-year plan, and all her money haemorrhaging into rent, food and uniform was not what she’d been expecting when she moved to Dublin.
A few sales assistants from different concessions had gathered around by then, in the wake of the floor manager’s departure as she had to take yet another important phone call. A few of the girls dared to peek into the fitting room, one or two sticking their tongue out at the baby. It only blew more bubbles in response.
“I just really want one, you know,” one girl said, young, nineteen, her eyes filling with tears. “I think it’s my calling to be a mother.”
“Ah it’d be such a pain though, wouldn’t you want to have it and then give it back until it was eighteen and could take care of itself?” another said, wrinkling her nose as if the baby had released gas, which it hadn’t.
“I hate this dump,” another said, twirling her lanyard around her finger, “minimum wage, minimum effort right?”
The other concessions that were on minimum wage too hummed in agreement, while the few lucky enough not to be remained silent.
That said, the girl who had made the complaint was dressed immaculately, wearing bright cigarette trousers and a Bardot blouse that fell delicately off her shoulders and somehow never bunched up when she moved her arms. The sales assistant guarding the fitting rooms, now with only a baby as a customer, moved awkwardly inside her shirt which was scratching her skin – she knew she’d have a rash later when she got home at around 10PM to apply for other jobs while eating baked beans straight from the tin, cold.
“Did you get an interview? For the HR position in town?” one girl asked another, all now ignoring the small child in the fitting room, who seemed like it couldn’t care less. It was now waving its arms like it was doing aqua aerobics. The sales assistant felt a shot of pure jealousy in her heart at the carefree, unaware gesture.
The girl in question shrugged.
“Nah, didn’t expect to though. Never mind I graduated from the best college in the country. It’s an Arts degree – they want someone who is overqualified for the job.”
“Such bollocks,” the girl who’d asked said, biting some skin off her thumb. “I’d love a cigarette right now.”
“What do you think the mother is doing?” the sales assistant said, almost by accident, feeling an instant rush of embarrassment as the words left her mouth.
“What you on about?”
“The baby? Its mother?”
“The reason we’re all standing around?”
“Oh, yeah, that. Bit off topic though, no?”
The sales assistant felt an urge to scream but resisted and turned back to the baby. It was beginning to cry, finally aware that its mother was gone. It screamed with the blood-curdling tenor of someone who had just realised they were suddenly, and desperately, unbearably hungry.
“Oh shit,” the girl said, “What the fuck do we do now?”
“Why is there never a bloody floor manager around when you need them?”
“Don’t swear, you don’t want to put ideas in the baby’s head.”
“Are you thick? It’s barely more than a foetus, it’s not going to remember anyway.”
“Well my first memory is from only days out of the womb so…”
“Oh fuck off….”
The commotion continued, and the sales assistant looked at the baby’s crumpled face with guilt. Little fists punched the air, and the child’s legs were flailing beneath a blue woollen blanket – it looked hand knit.
“Something awful must have happened to the mother, no one just leaves a baby behind,” the sales assistant said but she doubted any of her colleagues heard; they were bickering over the likelihood that someone could actually remember something from within the womb.
The sales assistant sympathised with the baby – its not like her mother had abandoned her, quite the opposite, she’d been so overbearing that she’d fled the county – but the way the child was crying tugged something deep inside her and she knew if she could react this way to her money problems, she would.
She was just about to stop fighting the urge to pick the child up when the floor manager returned and the other girls scattered, like birds at the sound of a gunshot.
“Don’t you dare pick that baby up. We don’t want a lawsuit on our hands.”
“But she’s crying, we have to do something,” the sales assistant plead, her arms feeling large and helpless as the child wailed, her gums absent of teeth.
The floor manager threw her poker straight straw hair over her padded shoulders.
“Rock it maybe – I don’t know, but you’re not to go back to your concession, you’re to stay here until I say otherwise.”
The sales assistant rocked the pram slightly and eventually the baby calmed down, but they spent the next two hours in awkward intervals of crying and then silence. Security were called, burly over-sized men in black slacks and black shirts arrived with buzz cuts who looked more like they were prepared for an army than an infant, and made a report, but otherwise helped not at all to look after the child. The shopping centre that the department store was situated in had its own security, and they came too, in full black suits, looking almost like the security for the President – they did much the same but also called the Gardai.
The sales assistant stuck by her story that the woman had left in a navy top and indigo Salsa jeans, with no socks or shoes, and had seemed a little nervous but certainly not like a woman who would run out on her child. She had left her purse and handbag behind, along with all the clothes, her footwear, and of course, her baby – the security were able to find a number for her husband and three and a half hours after the woman had darted, the husband came to collect his child, while the sales assistant relayed for the fourteenth time everything she knew, even though her shift should have ended by now.
The husband was about to go, looking understandably shaken, when the recognisable sound of bare feet slapping against the floor, and there appeared the mother, wearing the indigo top, the sales assistant noted smugly, with two massive wet patches over her breasts. Altogether the store security, the shopping centre security and the staff all looked baffled at the woman, and each of them tried, and failed, not to look at her soaked shirt, realising very gradually what had happened. The sales assistant caught her floor manager gazing forlornly at the price tag, no doubt realising the shirt could not be resold, and this woman was highly unlikely to make the purchase, given the palaver that had ensued in her absence.
Eventually, her husband spoke.
“Denise, where have you been?”
The woman – Denise – began laughing, breathlessly and hysterically, her chest heaving up and down.
“Oh, I just went to the bathroom darling, that’s all,” she said, her voice high and floaty, as though she hadn’t a single care in the world. “Really, I was only gone twenty minutes, I must have just lost track of the time, scrolling through Instagram, you know yourself…” her eyes drifted around the group, hungry to latch onto someone who would agree.
“You were gone nearly five hours ma’am,” the head security guard stated, consulting his clipboard knowingly.
“What? Five hour…. No, no that can’t be right, it was only half an hour, one-hour tops...” the woman said, but the words felt like charcoal coming out of her mouth and broke apart before she could deliver a line that made any sense. The baby, in the meantime, was fast asleep, hiccupping softly in the pram.
The sales assistant wanted to pitch in – she’d witnessed the whole thing after all – but it seemed like everyone else got a word in except her, and just as she was about to pipe up, the floor manager dismissed her with a wave.
She hesitated for half a moment before leaving the party of people that had gathered. Outside it was dark now, and the other concessions were closing up for the night. The sales assistant wanted to message her manager, let her know what had occurred, and also to ask if she would be compensated for the unplanned overtime, but she didn’t. She passed a chipper on her way to get the bus home, and tried to reason that she had earned it, she could spend an extra fiver on her dinner; but she didn’t do that either.
The next morning, on a small Irish news website, there was an article of about only one hundred words, about the incident. The facts were wrong, and there were no names mentioned, not even the department store. There was no mention of a sales assistant who had stood by the baby for five hours, but there was a comment from the floor manager saying she had handled the situation as best as she was able, personally overseeing the safety of the child. There was no explanation as to what happened to the mother, of the soaked shirt, of her dishevelled appearance, but there was a heavy hinting that she was not mentally stable, maybe there was a touch of post-natal depression. The sales assistant thought it was nice that they hadn’t included her name, Denise, although she was sure that legally they weren’t allowed to. She picked a piece of mould out of her toast and forced herself to keep eating as she clicked out of the article and back onto the jobs page, a page she now frequented, and reassessed the ever-expanding list of jobs she had recently thought there was no way she would take.