Extract From Untitled Novel

Dorothy Johnston (Creative Writing: University of Glasgow)

I did my training in the mountain towns around Rieti. We did a lot of walking, up steep slopes, Vicky did a lot of talking, and she did a little selling. That she didn't sell a great deal didn't surprise me; it seemed astonishing that she sold anything at all.

It was January, chilly, and I shivered in a thin black jacket I'd bought in a back street in Rome. Vicky was resplendent in a trench coat, high heeled knee length leather boots, and matching lemon coloured scarf and leg warmers. Once more I wondered what it would be like to her. At least it would be warm.

She told me the story of her life, in fact, she told me several different versions, stumbling over words as she tried to insist that she belonged to a county horsy set when she was back in England. In the next sentence she'd switch to a tough, intimidating Manchester accent.

Her face was conventionally pretty, features small and symmetrical, apart from big pillowy pink lips. Yet, now and then, something spoiled the pale peaceful blue of her eyes. An expression would suddenly come, serious, troubled, as if a recurring, unpleasant thought nagged at her insistently at unexpected moments.

She never hesitated. When wrong she was completely wrong, but from her, this seemed admirable, like foolhardy courage. What would that be like? I wondered, to have conviction. When learning Italian it wasn't getting the grammar right that made people understand you. I'd been dismissed as a babbling foreigner although I'd known that every word and conjugation was correct. No. It was the force of your delivery which broke through. Confidence.

One late afternoon in an electrical goods store, at the end of a successful sale, I shook a woman's hand over the handshake Vicky was giving her husband. This made the sign of the cross, causing bad luck. At the time Vicky mugged the Italian gesture to the couple of biting her hand, but afterwards, when we'd got out, she thumped me on the back. It wasn't particularly painful and I surprised myself by how little offence I took. It seemed a normal release of pent up irritation. I didn't hold it against her.

Most of the time she was encouraging. "I'll make you good, Mattie" she'd say, as we walked from one shop or office to another, up and down the cobbles, the hills, "you wait and see if I don't. Now Bridget, you know? That shy little girl what works for Bibi's group? well, she's a two to four sales a week girl. Now that's bread and butter business, we need that, it keeps us going and them girls always keep it up, they slog away, but you'll be better. You'll be good, yeah? but you'll never be a star. And that's what I need. A star."

It was a girl called Patty who was, apparently, going to be a star. "She has a big day, then she'll blank for a week," said Vicky "but if I can make her repeat the big one every day, she'll be the best. And Bibi won't get her for her own group, not this time. Patty'll be the biggest star we've had, and she'll be all mine."

We went to shops and offices and factories and asked to see the boss or manager, "il capo". These were known as 'calls' and intensely boring. Vicky would involve the person in a conversation and a 'spiel.' In any language she talked as if this were her last chance on earth, relating minute details about previous jobs and her life back in England. Her Italian was bad, but she wasn't aware of that and it seemed to make her more endearing.

I always missed the moment. Sometimes it never came. On those occasions we'd politely wind up the conversation and go on our way. I had only the vaguest idea of what she was actually selling. Vicky would lecture me as we walked to the next call as to what had gone wrong, as if she'd lost it on purpose to give me this example.

At other times, the moment came, as if something alchemical had taken place, mysterious. Some of the people we spoke to were visibly miserable, wearing their coats, working in cold offices. There was some sort of energy problem and the government had passed a ruling about heating being turned on only at certain times.

Often the first expression we saw on their faces as we walked in was of refusal. 'What do you want!' But in the midst of Vicky talking, the tired, cynical, irritated, or downright resistant person we'd walked in on underwent some kind of transformation. They sat up, a light came into their eyes, they responded to questions eagerly. They followed every motion of Vicky's face as if afraid that she might disappear. As if they'd been enchanted.

It was not the same Vicky they then saw, not the woman who'd walked in, no longer the person that I knew. While they gazed at her with veneration as if she were an ikon, she'd have her hand on my back as though leaning on it. Her long sharp nails would be digging in, sharp enough to be felt underneath my jacket, because I was stumbling and stuttering over what was called the 'certificate page.' I had to read out to the person what was written on the front page of a sort of portfolio we carried about. And I had to go through these motions, because of course, Vicky was training me.

And some of this enchantment was absorbed, as if a reflection of the image these people were seeing glanced off, ricocheted and struck me too. While she spieled them, making them look at her with different eyes, so too did I.

And as the days went on I determined I would find a way to do this, I would do it well, and more, I would do it for Vicky.

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Dorothy Johnston 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.