The new bloke’s name was Roper. Soon as I set eyes on him I knew he’d never make a salesman. He was about twenty-four and not very tall, and he’d a pink face with a long pointed nose and blond hair slicked straight back with the pink puckered skin of a scar running up into the roots of it. The scar looked odd on him somehow: he didn’t seem the kind of chap who’d have a scar like that. You’d never think he’d been to sea. That’s how he got the scar: a lascar with a bottle in Marseille.

He always had a book poking out of his pocket, did no end of reading. It was reading Joseph Conrad that first made him run away to sea. Later an aunt died and left him money. With this he set up as a bookie, in Brighton. Damn silly idea, as he’d no head for business and his partner ran the whole show for him. But Roper didn’t mind because he’d met this girl the partner introduced him to and they got married right away. Then came the dawn and they woke to find the partner had welched with all the dough. So Roper had to close down and take this job trying to sell vacuum-cleaners instead. 

That’s how I met him; I’d been at it about a month. 

It wasn’t much of a job. Two quid a week less insurance, and commission – if you could get it. After the first fortnight I gave up all hope of getting it, myself. For one thing it was the wrong time of year: Easter just over and the summer not begun: all the big boarding houses down by the seafront closed until the season started. Then again all this talk of war put prospects off. You’d think women’d jump at the chance of having their carpets cleaned buckshee, but no: even demonstrations were hard to get those days. We’d start out canvassing at nine in the morning and be lucky if we finished teatime with four or five apiece. You were supposed to get fourteen. A hundred calls, fourteen dems, three sales. That’s what they taught you at the school. But you didn’t have to be in the game long before you found out that was all a lot of cock


One morning we were in Woolworth’s, drinking ersatz coffee, two-pence a time. It was lousy weather outside: rain in the air, a cold damp wind blowing down from the sea. I thought: oh to be in England now that April’s here. After five years out in Madras the British climate takes a bit of getting used to. Couple of blokes in bowlers were sitting further down the counter, looked like commercial travellers. One of ’em said: ‘Old Hitler’ll have a go at Poland next, mark my words.’

‘Not he. That’s just his bluff.’ 

‘Don’t you believe it. The bastard means business.’

‘D’you reckon there’ll be war?’ Roper asked me. 

‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘Why not.’ 

‘It doesn’t worry you?’ 

‘Why should it. Things couldn’t very well be worse.’ 

The bowler-man said: ‘Look what he done to the pore bleeding Czechs. I tell you he’s a bastard. Means business all right.’ 

‘Take it from me, won’t be no war,’ his pal told him. ‘Come Christmas we’ll all be in it.’ 


‘But then you’re not married, are you?’ Roper said to me. ‘No,’ I said. 

Now he was going to start on about his wife. Sure enough: ‘Being married makes a difference,’ Roper said. ‘A tremendous difference. You’ve no idea. I don’t mind anything now. This job, anything. I can take it.’ 

‘Good for you.’ 

I remembered he hadn’t been married very long. Then he asked: ‘How many dems d’you get today?’ 

‘Five. Two of ‘em duds.’ 

‘Mine were all duds.’ 

‘There’s always the directory,’ I told him. `You know, take a street, any address, just stick it down in your book. Ferdie’ll never check up, hundred to one against.’ 

‘But I’ll never make any sales that way,’ Roper said. ‘Naturally not.’

The girl in the tall chef's cap came along the counter with two more coffees, and Roper paid, although it wasn’t his turn. Paying for someone actually seemed to give him pleasure: he brightened up at once. Then he looked at the time. He’d been looking at it off and on for the past half hour, and I asked him: What’s up? Got a date?’

‘I’m meeting Sukie later on. For lunch.’ 

Sukie was his wife. She’d a job in the cash-desk at Morecombe’s, dress shop down by the Arcade. Sultry-looking piece. Spanish type. Black hair, dark eyes, lot of lipstick on. Hell of a temper, you could see. We’d never actually met, but I didn’t like the look of her at all. 

So when Roper said: ‘Look, why not come and have lunch with us. The wife and me. I’d like you to meet her,’ I said I’d a dem on at 11.30 and probably wouldn’t be through in time, which was true enough and made an excuse as good as any. 

Roper’s face fell. He was dead-set on showing-off his wife to me. He said: ‘What about this afternoon then? It’s her day off, Wednesday. We could meet and have some tea.’ 

Didn’t seem any way out of that one, but just then I felt a clap on the back and it was a couple more boys from our team, Barrington and Hall. So I was saved. I said: ‘I was just coming to look for you two. Thought you might give me a lift in the car.’

‘Anything to oblige,’ Hall said. ‘A sausage roll, please, Miss.’ 

Hall looked more like a salesman than any of us. Baggy blue suit, brown shoes, fuzzy fair hair standing on end. And, of course, a raincoat. We all had raincoats. Sure sign of a salesman. Spot ’em miles off. Same as gangsters. Barrington wore a blue suit as well, but his shoes were black. Big fellow, about my build. You could see his biceps bulging under the blue suit. Had a wife that he sometimes talked about but didn’t live with. 

‘On to anything good?’ he asked me. ‘Some old girl in the Crescent. You never know.’ Hall said: ‘D’you get a letter this morning? From the firm?’ 

‘I didn’t bother to read it.’ 

‘You ought to’ve read it. It’s a personal message from Mr Playfair. To all supervisors and salesmen. There’s a new contest on.’ 

‘I don’t give a damn.’ 

‘Shame,’ Barrington said. Where’s your team spirit? Don’t you care if the South East wins the cup?’ 

‘Not a damn. Do you?’ 

‘No,’ Barrington said. 

‘Talking of team-spirit; Roper said, ‘it’s time Ferdie came over.’ 

‘He’s due in today. Two-thirty.’ 

Which made me look at the dock: gone twenty-past already. I stopped Hall ordering another sausage roll and we got out of there. Hall’s old Morris was parked at the kerb, the back full of cleaners for demonstration purposes, my own included. Roper waved goodbye good luck as we climbed in. Then we were off’ along the parade: spray splashing up over the rail by the empty bandstand, rain on the windscreen, a recruiting poster: YOUR COUNTRY EXPECTS YOU . . . snatched back out of sight as we shot past. 

© the Estate of Julian Maclaren-Ross

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