Sink or swim – 31 days of writing prompts!

Tell us about a time when you were left on your own, to fend for yourself in an overwhelming situation — on the job, at home, at school. What was the outcome?

When I came home from university after my first year, I had a much longer summer break than I was used to. There was no student grant to cover any expenses during the summer, although I was living with my parents, I still needed some walking around money. I’ve never had pocket money – an allowance – from my parents. As soon as I hit twelve I started working as a Saturday girl for my aunt in her hairdressing salon. I babysat when I was older, and when I was sixteen I started working in a clothes shop on the weekend to make more money than my aunt could pay me. Asking my parents for money just wasn’t something I was used to, so it was natural for me to look for a job for the summer.

I lived in a town on the coast, so there would always be work during the tourist season in cafes, pubs or fish and chip shops but I really didn’t fancy dealing with the public that much. I really hated working in the clothes shop as I don’t really care that much about fashion, but the thought of being in a smelly pub (no smoking ban then!) or around messy food was worse.

I ended up seeing an advertisement in the window of a charity shop in the main shopping street. It was for the lowest paid member of staff possible – I think the title was part time junior assistant – but I reasoned that if I had to work in a shop, at least I was helping to raise funds for a charity. The British Heart Foundation does a lot of excellent work helping to research and develop cures for heart conditions and supporting families of those who suffer.

It wasn’t a bad job, as they went; they let me control the book cupboard, which when I got there nearly killed me with an avalanche of donations that came shooting out! I threw away every Jeffery Archer on general principle, but soon learned that donations of Mills and Boon books were one of our best sellers! Lots of grey haired grannies slyly sliding the racier ones across the counter and furtively hiding them in their shopping bags.

I also had to open the donation bags and sort the clothes into three piles: red, which were the quality items; green, which were the cheaper items and finally the unsalable items, which we re-bagged and sold to a rag merchant per kilo. I then had to hang the items and steam clean them, which got rid of any creases and killed anything that might have been lurking there. The hardest part of the job was lugging at least 200 items of clothing a day down from the sorting room upstairs and onto the shop floor. The stairs were steep and awkward to manoeuvre with trailing garments, which were heavy.

I then had to rotate the stock – each item’s sales ticket was dated, so anything past a certain date had to be removed from the shop floor, put in bags and sent off to another store to try and sell there. The same went for the bric a brac – the plates, statuettes, vases etc. that people want to get rid of but can’t bear to just throw away.

The donation van would call a few times a week, and we’d have to unload it and carry everything up those blasted stairs, just to sort it, price it and carry it back downstairs again. I’d do a shift on the shop floor when we didn’t have any volunteers to do it: working the till, cleaning the shop, changing the window display to reflect the colour order from head office, vacuuming and at the end of the day, getting the ancient till to produce a report and cashing up.

I was kept busy, as you could tell, but it was a job and it kept me from being bored. I didn’t have to bother my parents for money and it made me feel independent.

Of course, the good times didn’t last long. The assistant manager, who often turned up to work reeking of alcohol, quit after a few weeks and while another person was being looked for, I took over her duties. Before they could find a new assistant manager, the actual manager quit too! That left the shop with an average of two volunteers a day, which is really not enough, and me. The volunteers could sort through the bags, but only paid staff could price items. The volunteers could work the till, but only paid staff could cash out, do the books and bank the money.

Safe to say, I was in a panic! However, the area manager begged me to hold the fort for a week until they could hire a new manager and get her trained, and then hire an assistant manager and get her trained!

So, for one week only, a nineteen year old was left in charge of the branch and was responsible for everything related to the running of the shop. It could have been a major disaster, but everything went smoothly enough. I couldn’t clear 200 items a day, though, which the training manager who arrived with the new hire got a bit sniffy about when they finally arrived. By that point, though, I was fed up of the job and so I told her exactly how little help I’d had and how if I hadn’t taken on the responsibility, the branch would have been forced to close for a week, losing the charity their revenue. Perhaps I was a little short with her, but I’d had a pretty stressful week for someone whose only responsibility before that was getting her essays in on time!

I couldn’t have hated the job that much because I was asked to come back the next summer, where I was sent out as a roving manager around the South Wales branches to give paid staff a day off if they didn’t have the full compliment of paid workers there. I coped with a leak in the roof in one branch, and a full electrical failure in another!

It was very much a sink or swim experience, and I like to think that I swam!