Charlotte, Part 1 – Relishing Opportunities

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The first part of the Charlotte’s Fresh Beginnings trilogy

Prologue

In the vibrant aisles of the department store, I revelled in my respected role as a beauty consultant for the most desirable and expensive brands.

For five years, I had the privilege of enhancing women’s beauty and confidence, guiding them towards flawless makeup and captivating fragrances. And I enjoyed the challenge of making equally large sales to their husbands and boyfriends, keen to seek favour with their loved ones on special occasions.

For someone without formal qualifications, the generous salary, hefty bonuses, and exclusive store discounts made it a dream job.

Tragedy

My world crumbled when our beloved store closed its doors. The job market for beauty consultants in my hometown proved barren. Desperate to maintain my affluent lifestyle – complete with a chic flat and a sleek sports car – I begrudgingly considered serving tables, or similar demeaning job, as a temporary solution.

Hope

One day, a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of an advertised job vacancy for an assistant at a hairdressing salon. I knew it was not a terrific opportunity, but it was employment in a broadly related field. Given my excellent sales skills, I saw it as a stepping stone to something better in the future.

The job advertisement made no mention of qualifications, a beacon of relief for someone like me who had invested heavily in experience but lacked formal qualifications. I quickly messaged the salon, my heart pounding with anticipation, summarising where I had worked and providing details of my background.

To my surprise, I received an immediate response inviting me for an interview. Along with directions to the premises, the invitation was brief.

See you at 10am, Charlotte Hawkins. Ask for Cassie

As a professional communication, it felt abrupt and casual, but it was timely and that was all that concerned me.

Anticipation

Donning my chicest suit and styling a perfectly coiffed updo, I made my way to the given address. However, as I approached it, a sense of unease crept over me. I found myself in a rundown part of town, vastly different from the bustling shopping centre where I had spent so many years.

My expensive attire and groomed appearance made me stand out from the scruffy and unsmiling men and women rushing back and forth around the narrow lanes. Disapproving stares were plentiful and, unbelievably, one slob of a man disparagingly grumbled ‘posh tart’ as he swept past me.

My earlier optimism about the job soon dissipated when I eventually reached the given address. I checked it three times, assuming there had been a mistake, but the details were accurate. A small, grimy, and unassuming men’s barbershop greeted me. Its name etched on the window – Clippers by Cassie – sent a shiver down my spine.

This was not the glamorous women’s salon I had envisaged. I quickly decided there would be no role for me in such a place, given my abundant experience. I considered simply turning around and heading back to the more salubrious part of town and enjoying a cappuccino. Then I reminded myself that, given my financial predicament, such luxuries would be an unnecessary expense.

Despite my own difficulties, I accepted that I must not drop my personal standards when dealing with the public. I decided that I should go inside and politely listen to what they have to say. However, eventually, I knew that I would need to decline any offer of employment and apologise for wasting their time.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed the door hesitantly, a bell tinkled overhead, and I stepped inside.

Interview

‘I’m Cassie,’ barked a tall imposing woman, by way of introduction.

Cassie was the only person present, leaning confidently against a tall reception desk as if anticipating my appearance. I quickly surveyed the rest of my surroundings. It did not take long as the interior was disconcertingly small. A pair of worn barber’s chairs faced large mirrors, while a tired-looking vinyl bench for waiting customers rang along one wall.

‘You’re Charlotte Hawkins,’ she promptly snapped when I did not immediately respond to her brief and impolite greeting. She said it in such a way that it suggested she might have recognised me, or that she knew me. I had no recollection of her, but I liked to think that my family and I were well known about town. It would have been extremely unlikely we knew each other on a personal level. Cassie’s clothing and appearance strongly indicated that she was someone outside my wide social circle.

Although clad in a cheap black short-sleeved top and cotton leggings, Cassie still managed to exude an air of authority by the way she held herself. The abundant black curls that tumbled over her shoulders, the bold makeup that accentuated her unsmiling lips, and her dark piercing eyes, all contributed to her imposing appearance. Surprisingly, despite her lowly social status, she caused me to stumble over my words.

‘Yes, that’s me,’ I piped up, sounding foolish, akin to an eager schoolgirl wishing to answer a question in class.

Cassie nodded. Whether it was because she recognised me, or I had confirmed my identity, I was unsure. Her odd behaviour was disconcerting and unsettling.

When Cassie remained silent, I launched into a bumbling apology for my erroneous application and wasting her time. The most I could expect to sell to the type of customers that I imagined frequenting Clippers by Cassie was a pot of Brylcreem and “something for the weekend”.

She lazily held up a palm to suppress my mumblings. ‘I know who you are, Charlotte … and why you are here,’ Cassie stated ominously, her voice devoid of any emotion. ‘A trial as my assistant.’

Her intonation made it unclear whether she was offering me employment or stating an undeniable fact. Worryingly, if I had had to choose what she meant I might have gone with the latter. Cassie’s words puzzled me but, despite that, earning much needed cash overrode my fears.

Taking her words as a job offer, I replied, to avoid any doubt about my willingness to work for her. ‘Thank you, Cassie, I accept.’

She indicated a wage that, as expected, compared very unfavourably with what I earnt in the department store. However, it would help to pay the bills paid in the short term. And as I intended to prove myself invaluable and learn new skills, I was confident Cassie would soon be keen to increase that meagre amount.

‘Fine,’ she smirked, the first sign of any amusement on her part. It was an underwhelming “welcome to the team”. ‘We open at 8am but I want you here half an earlier tomorrow so I can sort out your appearance. Do not be late!’

I was annoyed by Cassie’s forceful command. Punctuality had always been a watchword of mine, although she did expect me to start far earlier than I would have liked. I made a mental note to seek greater flexibility with my hours once I had proved my worth.

‘Thank you, Cassie,’ I said, my voice trembling slightly.

‘Everyone calls me Cassie,’ she snapped, fixing me with her piercing eyes. Adding, in an almost threatening tone, ‘But you will call me Cassandra.’

Initiation

The following day, I arrived earlier than Cassandra ordered but I noted that she was already inside the shop and preparing for the day ahead.

Not knowing what she had meant about sorting out my appearance, I had dressed in the same elegant suit that I had worn for my interview. My tailored black and white checked blazer and matching skirt that sat modestly just above the knee, fitted me perfectly. I had eased my long hair gently back into my signature soft and full updo. It was the overall style I had perfected over the last five years, and I hoped my appearance would not need to change too much.

‘Good morning, Cassandra,’ I politely greeted my new boss, remembering her instruction regarding the use of her full name.

‘On time,’ was the way Cassandra acknowledged my greeting and promptness. I seemed a strange way for her to welcome a new employee to her organisation.

As I stood awkwardly by the door waiting for further instructions, my new boss finished laying out a collection of shiny cutting tools and electrical devices on the shelf below one of the mirrors. Their clinical appearance and unquestionable purpose made me shiver.

Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I was about to speak when Cassandra spun around to face me. She looked me up and down a couple of times, then smirked. She was about to speak, but I got in first.

‘I was wondering, Cassandra, if you supply a garment to cover my outfit. It was expensive and, should it become dirty, I would need to send it to a dry cleaner, and -’

Cassandra lazily raised a palm to interrupt me, in what I learnt was a characteristic and frequent gesture. From the back of a chair, she grabbed a flimsy item of white clothing. She tossed it over to me and I could feel that the material was a ghastly man-made substance. ‘Strip off those rags,’ she smirked, ‘right down to your underwear, and wear this. It will be too tight to wear over the top of that lot.’

‘Pardon?’ I questioned, not believing she was being serious, but I looked around for a changing room anyway.

She noted my furtive glances around the small shop, and chuckled. ‘Over there, in the corner of the shop. No one should be able to see you from the lane, just me. But you better be quick as the first customers will start rolling in soon.’

Ambling over to the indicated corner, I turned my back to Cassandra. I slipped off my jacket and skirt and unbuttoned my silk blouse. Folding them carefully on the vinyl-covered bench, I tried to forget about all the sweaty male bottoms that might have sat there.

I unfolded the garment Cassandra had thrown at me and I saw it was a white nylon dress that buttoned up the front. I had serious misgivings about it but, with no other option, I slipped it on.

As I did up the buttons, it hugged my figure closely. The buttons only went as high as my cleavage but what was more worrying was the ridiculously short hem that barely covered my thighs. I forced myself to remember that I was doing this so I could keep my flat, my car and my lifestyle.

Although inappropriate work clothing was unacceptable, I decided not to make a scene on my first day.

‘Do you have some hangers, please,’ I asked politely, presenting my neatly folded suit and blouse.

Cassandra cackled and pointed to the coat rack by the door, with a multitude of pegs but that was devoid of any hangers. Smelly old men’s coats would cover my expensive suit, so that option would not do at all.

Although having no safe provision for staff’s possessions was unacceptable, I decided not to make a scene on my first day.

I strolled over to the opposite corner where I had seen a tiny kitchen area with a kettle, mugs, and jars. I found a discarded carrier bag from a fashion store, put my clothes inside and hung it out of the way from a door handle.

‘You can make me a coffee – black no sugar – in ten minutes or so. But first, you need to get over here right now, Charlie,’ Cassandra ordered.

No one had called me “Charlie” since primary school. It had been a constant battle in my teenage years to stop people shortening my name. Once I started work and I could afford to look stylish, my name tended not to get abbreviated. As my best friend always said, ‘Dressed like that you look far more like a Charlotte, than a Charlie.’

Although shortening my name was unacceptable, I decided not to make a scene on my first day.

However, with the growing number of objections that were unacceptable, I decided to make a stand.

‘I prefer Charlotte, if you don’t mind, Cassandra,’ I asserted.

‘Oh, that’s what you prefer is it?’ she said in haughty tone, and then giggled. For a moment I thought she was mimicking me sarcastically, but I doubted any employer would act that way.

She waved a duster over the seat of one of the barber’s chairs. Then, holding out her palm invitingly, she bowed deferentially. ‘Please take a seat, Lady Charlotte.’

Although my employer’s sarcasm was unacceptable, I decided not to make a scene on my first day.

Without thinking, I perched on the chair as instructed. As soon as I had done so, a heavy black cape billowed out in front of me and settled over my body, the ends gathering on the floor. Cassandra tied it securely around my neck. Yanking a large lever on the side of the chair, she laboriously cranked up the seat so I that I was much higher from the ground. If Cassandra’s intention was to make me feel vulnerable, then she had succeeded.

Induction

Without any discussion, Cassandra began unpinning my artfully crafted updo that took thirty minutes to fashion each morning. I had thought that it was the most appropriate and practical hairstyle for conducting manual tasks around the barbershop throughout the day. As she began running a large comb through my long locks that fell well below my waist, I felt the need to speak out given she had remained stubbornly silent.

‘Cassandra, I -’

She stopped combing through my hair. I looked in the mirror and saw a palm raised to stop me. ‘I assume you didn’t believe you could work in a barbershop with your hair like this,’ she spat as she ruffled my glorious thick and shiny hair.

That is why I wore it up you idiot, is what I nearly said. ‘Ah, well, no. I -’

‘Good,’ she stated plainly. With incredible speed and dexterity, she withdrew scissors from a pouch on her belt and, using the comb as a guide, she severed all the hair framing my face on my left side. The ends finished in a blunt line between my chin and shoulders. The loose tendrils slithered like a snake down the cape, gathered momentarily in my lap, then slid to the floor.

I was shocked. ‘What the -’

But this time the repeated clicking of the scissors was sufficient to stifle my horrified words as Cassandra’s scissors kept chewing through my hair. Continuing the line she had started on the left, she moved round the back and very soon I saw the blades appear on my right side. A flowing waterfall of hair was flowing down the cape, falling heavily in my lap before continuing its final journey to the floor. What remained on my head was a remarkably even, but totally unflattering, blunt bob that simply hung down and making look like a scarecrow.

Her action was unacceptable, but my throat had gone dry. I struggled to find any words that could be meaningful in the horrific situation I had found myself in.

Just when I thought it could not get any worse, she combed each side at the front straight down over my forehead, covering my eyes. I felt the cold steel of the scissors against my forehead, resting above my eyebrows. I heard the menacing click as the blades closed. With my view unimpaired, I witnessed that for the first time in my life I had a fringe. Not just a fringe, but an absurdly short fringe.

‘Lovely, Charlie,’ she mocked with a cruel smirk, just as the bell over the door tinkled to mark the arrival of the first customer of the day. ‘I’ll leave things as they are for now, but I may consider cutting it shorter in due course … after all, your hair will now be the perfect shop window for my services.’

‘Be right with you, sir,’ Cassandra called out to the new arrival, who smiled his acceptance before resting on the waiting bench and unfolding a grubby newspaper.

Cassandra turned back to the mirror, her piercing eyes locking on to mine. She lowered her head to whisper by my ear. ‘Today you will greet each customer politely, take their coat, return it when they leave, sweep the floor as soon as someone gets up, ensure there are always clean towels when I need them, keep the place spotless and, most importantly, always be nice to the men … even if they are rude to you.’

It was vastly different from my relaxed days spent behind the beauty counter in the department store. A place where my colleagues and I could admire the stylish fashions worn by the more affluent women and giving marks out of ten to the well-groomed and smartly dressed young guys that passed by.

‘Yes, I understand, Cassandra,’ I hissed through gritted teeth, as I jumped to my feet after she had removed the cape and lowered the chair.

Ideally, I needed time to calm myself down. However, I wondered if I would get the opportunity with the intense schedule that Cassandra continually foisted upon me. Turning to the old guy who had just entered, I made a considerable mental adjustment and then cleared my throat. ‘Good morning, sir. Please may I take your coat?’

Absently, I tugged on the ridiculously short hem of my dress, an action causing one of the man’s bushy eyebrows to rise high up his creased forehead. When he glimpsed my cleavage, he grinned broadly, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

I heard Cassandra chuckling. ‘Oh, and, Charlie, don’t forget my coffee.’

Patience

How I got through that first day, I will never know. Unlike my previous job when I could relax from time to time, Cassandra ensured that menial tasks kept me occupied for every minute of the day.

The customers seemed grateful for the help I provided, and I appreciated the modest tips I received but the total value was insufficient to keep my car on the road. Even the grudging appreciation that Cassandra offered before I left did not significantly contribute to job satisfaction on my first day.

When I got home, I immediately opened the last bottle of my favourite, but expensive, Chardonnay that lurked at the back of my wine fridge. After glugging two large glasses, I promptly fell asleep following my day of arduous work.

Preparation

The next morning, I was fortunate to wake up early, despite having not set an alarm. It gave me more than enough time to get ready for another day in the sweat shop. Looking in the mirror, the dreadful sight of my brutally transformed hair jolted me back to reality. The mid-length bob just flopped around my face like a spaniel’s ears. It was just too long to be practical, but it was just too short to tie back neatly. I suffered an overwhelming sense of heartbreaking loss once more as I caught sight of a photo on the wall. It showed a beautiful woman tossing her gorgeous long hair in the breeze, without a care in the world.

After shedding futile tears, I recalled the moment that Cassandra had chopped off my long hair the day before. I wondered why I had not demonstrated my characteristic assertiveness and had the presence of mind to stop her. Looking around me, I observed my surroundings and surveyed my possessions. For now, if I wanted to afford to stay in my luxurious home, I needed to keep the only job anyone had offered me. I had no choice other than to follow Cassandra’s instructions.

I showered and blow-dried my hair as best I could, although it still looked terrible. Slipping on the ghastly short nylon work dress, I shuddered with revulsion at its look and feel. I had decided there was no sense wearing nice clothes o work and then changing when I arrived. Covering the horrible garment with a long coat for my journey, I prayed that no one I knew would see me.

I hopped on a bus that morning, figuring that I would save money by not using my car. It would also stop the lowlife from stealing or damaging my pride and joy when parked in the less salubrious part of town.

I could not remember the last time I had travelled on a bus. As I expected, it was hot, stuffy, slow, and uncomfortable. People kept pressing up against me, whether on purpose or not, I was unsure, but it was horrible and demeaning.

I was mentally and physically exhausted before the day had even begun.

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