This is a true story.
You know when sometimes you’re in a meeting, or on a bus or at a funeral and you remember something so, so funny that your eyes start watering and you have to try and stifle the snorting noises? Or when you’re having a drink and you remember something funny mid swallow and end up huffing espresso martini out of your nose. Possibly even years after the event? There was this thing that happened once…
Almost two decades ago now, I worked in a shop. It was the poshest shop you’ve ever been in. It was too posh for the likes of me. The female staff (so, all the staff) had to wear skirts and high heels, because it was the mid-nineties. We were given a clothing allowance and manicures and expected to exist somewhere between primped and preened. If you know me in real life you will understand that I found this somewhat torturous. Polished I am not.
What did we sell? Was it high-end jewelry? It was not. Was it boutiquey fashion sold to expensive ladies? Nope. Little diamond doggy collars for anthropomorphised animals? Please, credit me with a little integrity.
No, lovely reader, we sold chocolate. I should make it known though, on behalf of my former employers, that we’re not talking about Dairy Milk here. We’re not even talking about Thorntons or Hotel Chocolat or Ferrero Rocher. The chocolates in question were the poshest chocolates in England. They were imported from Belgium and could be bought in the UK in two places – our shop and the Harrods food hall. Most people who came into the shop didn’t know this and nor did they care. They just wanted to stuff their faces with delicious pralines and champagne truffles and who can blame them? That’s what we did most days upstairs in the stockroom. Ah, the fast moving metabolism of youth.
The day in question was a Saturday. I know this because we were busy and because one of the owners of the shop, known here only as M, was in attendance. M is lovely, I would like that to be clear from the start. She was hovering around the point of retirement and was in the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose her hours of involvement in the shop, wafting in at the weekend and serving, sweetly, a handful of people before wandering upstairs and having a leisurely lunch. She was also immaculate. Elegant and classic, twinset and pearls, glasses hanging from a delicate gold chain around her neck. Beautifully spoken and undoubtedly comfortable in polite company. Not like the rest of us, clonking around in our heels and swearing about the customers as the door tinkled shut behind them.
Saturday lunchtimes were, of course, busy and when we had a sudden influx of customers, M was always happy to be called down from her classy lunch to dive into the breach and elaborately serve a few customers. On this occasion, M floated out onto the shop floor and made a beeline for a woman as poised and elegant as herself; for M knew that the lady in question was none other than (of course!) the mayor of the town. How M’s face came alive as she realized the caliber of the lunchtime clientele. The actual service was involved and attentive. As M carefully dropped handcrafted confectionary into a tiny gold bag, she explained the provenance of the chocolates. She described each item in detail, discussing flavour balance and cocoa content before ringing up the sale and enquiring after the mayor’s current engagements. Eventually, after the pleasantries, our lady mayor bid us farewell and M turned to us, beaming and proud.
And as M reveled in a job well done, we saw an offending article. For there, lovely reader, sandwiched between M’s flawless cheek and the rim of her gold-framed spectacles, was a prawn.
You know, like the little pink crustacean?
An actual prawn, which had found itself on that fateful day, at the end of its journey, from water to sandwich to the gold-framed spectacles hanging around M’s neck during her lunch. With the tiniest of head tilts, my colleague said what none of the rest of dared – “M, there’s a prawn on your face”.
The rest of the incident has gone, I have no memory of whatever came next. How did M react? What did she say? I think I must have laughed so hard I blacked out.
I’ve told this story a lot of times and never felt bad for M before but now, written down, I do feel a little bad. I can’t imagine the level of mortification she must have felt as she peeled that little fellow off her cheek. But it’s ok, I think, because she’ll probably never read this and even if she does, I said she was lovely (which is absolutely true). Who knows, maybe two decades later she can laugh at it and with a bit of distance, maybe it occasionally makes her huff espresso martini out of her nose too.