Stella was judgmental and righteous from the very beginning. The man was here for the job interview and as she greeted him at the door he moved in close to her body. He made eye contact in that certain way that you connect with a man at the pub on a Saturday night when you just know he fancies you. He said his name was Reginald Firth.
“Just plain Reggie,” he said. “I’m not one for airs and graces.”
He looked like a Byronic hero, dark and brooding, with a slightly turned up lip, Elvis style. This man didn’t know it yet but we were at war.
The job on offer was to manage the shop, Lenton’s Best Books, where Stella had turned up for work for going on five years. It was the variety that kept her interest. That and the opportunity to slouch off for a couple of hours every day into the back corner and do her real job – reading as many books as she could. She could stack a shelf while reading a four hundred page Stephen King. If she needed to concentrate on a Georgette Heyer, she might save the book ‘til tea break. Stella and the computer held a truce of sorts, and she wrote her Blog each Friday to share her week’s literary nourishment. Organizing and promoting her choice of writer’s workshops and signings every now and then was a piece of cake, and she made sure Mr Lenton’s Petty Cash was kept topped up enough to buy the odd Black Forrest cake too.
Stella had expected that she would be offered the higher position, even without a formal interview, she already did the work after all. She wanted to be the Manager, she really wanted it. She needed the extra money, but more than anything she wanted to have the title to the job. “Stella Raymond, Manager”. She envisaged the little brass plaque on her desk. It would be something to show for all her years learning the business from the ground up. It came as a total surprise to her that the job had been advertised, that she wasn’t the first choice of the boss Old Mr Lenton. Mr Lenton had never once in all that time offered her the use of his first name, which was Harold.
Stella took Reggie to the Office, knocked and was told to, “Fetch our Reggie some tea.” She heard Mr Lenton say to Reggie, “Take a seat Lad, call me Harold,” as the door shut.
Huffing to herself, she set up the kettle. Well, she’d never been asked to make tea for anyone, ever, in all that time, not even for Mr Lenton or his wrinkly old wife Vera who pottered about the shop from time to time. Stella was more than a little put out she had to admit. It wasn’t her style to pander to the self-labelled upper class. She stewed a bit as I made the tea with tepid water.
“Who does he think he is?” she wondered. Hmm, who she was most upset with, Mr Lenton or Our Reggie?
She contemplated how much more stressful it would be to come to work every day with Reggie on board, ordering her about. He was decidedly good looking, but he was the enemy now and she mustn’t let that influence me. Perhaps she could engineer a takeover bid of sorts. Yes, she could find a way to enjoy the gentleman’s attractive face and make a play for her own promotion.
Her time spent reading the novels on the shelves might just pay off. The mysteries, the tales of the supernatural, the romances, all were giving her clues and guidance towards her secret goals. She lived vicariously in whatever fantasy took her in the moment. It was the ideal lifestyle. But it would be best if she was still in control of the day to day running of the shop, to continue ordering the books she wanted and rejecting the others with a flick of the wrist. Oh, she lived to fill her reading time with promises of eternal love and tender caresses!
Perhaps Mr Lenton valued Reggie over her now, but with a little argy-bargy she could reverse the situation. She needed to convince Reggie in the near future to endorse her own promotion and make sure he resigned from the Manager’s job.
If ever there was a need for a Men’s Liberation Action Group it was now, for she had decided to undermine everything Reggie said or did by applying a kind of reverse gender psychology. This was something she invented in the moment and she enjoyed the idea so much that it became the exact mechanism with which she planned to pull off her coup.
Several weeks went by while she engineered the details of the scenario that would be most effective. It seemed Reggie needed an inordinate amount of help with his job, and every day she did the same old things she did before he came. This was in fact useful because she had still had access to the Accounts on the computer and with her old password, she organized her scheme. Stella had the Spreadsheet open for this month.
“Oh, Reggie, could you come here please?” she asked in what she felt was her come hither voice. She batted her eyes and flashed a smile up at him. “There seems to be a mistake. Have you ordered these girly magazines as a personal request, or has someone paid you extra to do so?”
He turned a peculiar shade of purple. It spoiled his looks and that helped her act her part, as she was not as distracted as she usually was by his Heathcliff-like features.
“Wha, wha what?” he blurted. “I don’t know what you mean. We don’t ever sell any sort of magazines here at Lenton’s!”
Stella picked up the pile from the floor beside her and triumphantly plonked the dozen or so plastic wrapped magazines on the desk.
“Oh, Reggie, it seems we do now, and this is your name on the invoice. See, here is your signature in that funny green ink you always use.”
“There’s been some mistake!” Reg kept insisting. “I loathe such things. I have never even read one in my life.”
“As if,” Stella scoffed. “I don’t think people actually read them. I wonder what Mr Lenton will think of this? I wonder should I tell him now or wait for him to notice when he checks the books on Friday? What do you think, Reggie? It’s really your decision to make.”
He stood beside her with one hand shakily holding the bill of sale, the other palm down on the magazines as if to hide the title and the barely dressed lass on the cover.
“Keep your voice down Stella. I have to think about this. It’s a mistake, it has to be. Someone forged my name!” Reggie hissed.
“Who would do such a thing?” she said sweetly. “Let’s see, who else works here. Mmm, well there’s the boss, Mr Lenton. Oh, I forgot, you call him Harold don’t you? I don’t think he’d be ordering naughty books, even if wrinkly Mrs L has lost all appeal. There’s little me. Tea maker and shelf duster extraordinaire, but I have no responsibility for the business at all, do I? Then there’s you. You’re the Manager, in charge and responsible for all that happens under this roof. You’re the one who orders stock, and signs the cheques, aren’t you?”
Reggie’s complexion was now grey and pasty. If Stella was a kinder person she might have offered him a seat.
“Why are you doing this to me? I’ve only ever treated you with respect and kindness.” He puzzled over the implications. “You’ve set me up, but why?”
Stella didn’t bother with the smile, or the lashes.
“You stole my promotion.” There, it was said. Short, sharp and succinct. Agatha Christie would be proud of her. She had just pulled off a blindside move worthy of her complex plotting. “Now, you’ll be sacked, and this time I will insist on an interview with Mr Lenton, and then I’ll be Stella Raymond, Manager, as I was meant to be all along.”
“You’ll be gone is what you’ll be. I’m not taking this from you. Who do you think Old Harry will believe? You or me? He personally picked me over you for the job, he headhunted me from my job at A & R. I’m not letting you get away with this!” He was speaking with a low tone, and he repeatedly glanced over to the glass fronted office where Mr Lenton was sitting.
“Delete all this from the computer right now,” he insisted.
“Can’t.” Stella sat back with a smugness her whole face enjoyed. “Don’t you know the hard drive holds lots of secrets, and it’s not possible to delete anything permanently? Also there is what is called a paper trail. So, Reggie, what’s it to be, today or Friday?”
Reggie screwed up the docket, and then smoothed it out again. He was making a decision and she learned what it was when grabbed her arm roughly.
“Hey,” she protested, unable to free myself. “Let go or I’ll scream.”
“Too late, you’re coming to see the boss with me, get moving.”
She gave up the fight. This was what she wanted all along. Reggie couldn’t prove she’d done it, this was a ‘he says she says’ case. He was on the back foot already. By the fact of him being the one to complain to the boss it would look more likely that he had ordered the magazines. It would look like he was using Stella as his scapegoat after being caught out. She’d been here the longest, her loyalty was unquestioned, and Mr Lenton would believe her over this upstart. She smoothed her hair and straightened her outfit as Reggie frog marched her to the back of the shop. Reggie beat her to the door and knocked once. Hard.
Mr Lenton looked up. The frown across his brow was a measure of his surprise at the unusually noisy intrusion. He covered the paperwork he was engrossed in with a manila folder. “Well?”
Stella took a breath and waited. Let Reggie talk and trip himself up. Okay smooth talker, sell this. Ha, practice for the unemployment line.
“Mr Lenton, I’m afraid I have some rather bad news,” began Just Call Me Reggie. He passed over the invoice that looked more like a used tissue than a major piece of evidence. “Ms Raymond has some questions to answer. You see she forged my signature on…”
“What the heck is this?” Mr Lenton barked as he stood up and Reggie stopped talking. “This is scandalous. I’ll not have this filth in my shop. Who do you think you are?”
This was directed not at Stella thankfully, but at the “guilty party”.
She didn’t need to say anything. She just watched as the sparks flew. It wasn’t long before Reg got his marching orders. He glared at her as he brushed against her shoulder.
“I can’t believe you did this to me. I really liked you.”
Stella heard this with the heighted clarity of the adrenaline rush she was experiencing. Success! The takeover was half way to completion. Next on her agenda was her long dreamed of promotion.
“Could I make you a cup of tea, Mr Lenton?” she asked sweetly.
She sat on the bench in the kitchenette wondering if she should wait to broach the topic of the new vacancy. Oh, now or never.
Backing into the Boss’s office, holding out the tea and two Anzac biscuits balanced precariously on the saucer, she took the plunge.
“Mr Lenton, about the Manager’s position, I was wond….”
“Oh, Ms Raymond, it’s such a pity. This mess with our Reggie makes everything so difficult you see.”
He was putting files and papers into a cardboard box.
No, no she didn’t see.
“Um, see what?”
“Young Reggie is the son of an old family friend, and I gave him the job as a goodwill gesture. He really wasn’t qualified, I found out he lied about working as Manager at Angus and Robertson. He worked there alright, as a night janitor. Turns out he did a fabulous job here, though. I was right to trust him with the Manager’s job. So good in fact, he doubled our sales in the first month.”
He rubbed his forehead. She’d mentioned the frown already hadn’t she?
Stella knew it was she who was making the bookshop money, she had spent the last few months doing Reggie’s work and her own and it hurt to hear him given the credit. If Mr Lenton knew that she had covered for Reggie would that hinder her case? She told him.
“So with all that as background, I did wonder if perhaps you would consider me for the position of Manager,” she said with another of her beauty pageant smiles. The light bounced from her teeth.
“No, Ms Raymond, I think not. The accounts were looking so good this last Quarter that I have accepted an offer from an interstate chain store to take over the firm lock, stock and barrel. This business with those distasteful magazines has helped me make up my mind. I’m afraid your position is terminated from Friday. The new owners have their own staff. Well, that’s all.”
She was dismissed, from the office, from the job. This was her whole life. She stood outside the front door, leaning back against the wall, afraid to move in case her legs gave out. How had this happened? She went from winner to loser in five minutes flat. She drew strength from her books, how could she rewrite this ending and come up trumps?
As she stumbled from the bookshop, she saw Reggie waiting for a taxi across the street. It was just starting to rain. The street lights flickered on and made an aura of light around his face. He was beautiful. He glanced up and waved. Stella crossed the street. If she can’t have the books, then she will make her own, true love story, happily ever after.