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Torfaen Tales

I Smell a Rat

Jenkins and Tibbett was a proper old-fashioned department store. A uniformed doorman stood by the main door, greeting customers and generally keeping an eye on things. Straight through the main doors with their gleaming brass handles and you were in Bountiful Beauty: immaculate glass display counters showing off a cornucopia of creams, perfumes and make-up. Behind the counters stood a superior-looking array of sales assistants. all groomed to perfection and bearing testament to the efficacy of the creams, perfumes and make-up they sold.

To the left of the beauty department was Gifts Galore, a treasure trove at all times of the year but most particularly at Christmas.

Next port of call on the ground floor was the Shoe Store, beyond which was the Luggage Locker.

All the departments had corny names. The funny thing was that when you’d been working there awhile you began to find them less corny and began to believe in the store’s philosophy of excellence in all things, the watchword of Mr Jenkins and Mr Tibbett whose offices were on the second floor. They were protected by a brace of snooty secretaries who looked down their noses at us mere shop assistants.

Up the grand, sweeping staircase to the first floor and you were in ladies fashions, which was of course named Fashion Flair. Beyond the acreage of dresses and suits the café issued forth the tempting scent of freshly baked cakes and percolated coffee. The sign above the gleaming counter read ‘Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe’.

The part of the second floor not taken up by the offices was devoted to home furnishings and known as Home Beautiful. And that department was my home from half past eight in the morning until half past five at night. Each morning I would arrive promptly, hurry up to the staff room, open my locker, and pin my name badge on my chest: ‘Cariad Roberts, Sales Assistant’.

On the third floor was the staff cafeteria and locker room, less grand than the rest of the store but the prices in ‘the caff’ were at least more reasonable than in the Coffee Shoppe.

In our town in south Wales, which was much like any other moderate sized town anywhere in the U.K., Jenkins and Tibbett stood out as something different from the usual generic gathering of shops which were part of amorphous nationwide chains. Jenkins and Tibbett had its own style. The shop front hadn’t changed that much in fifty years. There were photographs in the Coffee Shoppe which bore testament to the fact. The windows were framed with elaborately carved wood varnished in green. Other shops in town had large, brightly lit windows, but Jenkins and Tibbett’s windows were quaint and old-fashioned. The motto above the front door read “Welsh for Excellence”, which could be interpreted two ways: if you wanted to buy something excellent you’d better buy something Welsh, or that the store’s name somehow translated to mean excellence.

I’d been working at Jenkins and Tibbett for over two years when I realised things weren’t going terribly well. We were noticeably less busy, and Mrs Williams, the manageress of Home Beautiful, would suck her teeth and pull a long face on Saturday afternoons as she filled in the end of week statistics. She said it was the same in most departments.

“The only exception is the Coffee Shoppe,” she informed Melissa and I, her underlings.

“Everywhere else the story is the same, from ladies fashions through to cosmetics. Mr Jenkins and Mr Tibbett don’t know quite what to do.” She made it sound as though she had a hotline straight through to the top.

What they did a few weeks later was to bring in an expert, a brisk, bossy man from London by the name of Mr Carmichael. He wore a natty pin-striped suit and had black patent-leather hair slicked back with something slimy. He was probably only about thirty-five but his stern demeanour made him seem older.

Mr Carmichael went through each department like a dose of salts. He ripped the displays to shreds with his sharp tongue, and watched everyone with his dark, darting eyes. He made me feel clumsy and inadequate. Whenever I felt his gaze upon me my fingers would turn to awkward bunches of bananas and I’d drop anything in my grasp. My tongue would also cleave drily to the roof of my mouth causing me to utter all sorts of gibberish.

Laura Roberts-Rhodes, the Manageress of Fashion Flair, walked out after four days under Mr Carmichael’s scrutiny.

“She was in floods of tears in the ladies,” Melissa informed me. “She reckoned Mr Carmichael was going to kill this place stone dead.”

It seemed we’d got off lightly in Home Beautiful - so far. Little did we know there was worse to come.

It started in Gifts Galore. I overheard Shelley telling Gareth from the Luggage Locker what she’d found.

“There was bits of candle wax all over the floor this morning when I came in. At first I thought a couple of candles had fallen on the floor and smashed, but it looked more like they’d been broken deliberately. I reckon someone’s got a grudge against this place.”

Gareth stirred his cup of tea, round and round. “Carmichael. It’s got to be him. He’s a nasty bit of work.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” replied Shelley. “He’s supposed to be here to turn this place around, not to destroy it.”

The Flower Bower was next. Gillian came in to find a terrible mess of shredded artificial flowers the following morning. She reported it to Mr Jenkins’ secretary, who implied that either Gillian or her assistant, Bron, had neglected to clear up properly the night before.

“Snooty cow,” muttered Gillian. “You know, I’ve never seen her do anything that resembles work. She just sits there admiring her claws.”

I chuckled. Grace Leadbetter’s nails were indeed red-varnished claws, and it seemed highly unlikely that she could manage even to switch on her computer with them, let alone type anything.

I wasn’t quite so jolly two days later when it was our turn. Mrs Williams asked me to fetch some more packs of sheets from the storeroom. As I walked along the corridor with my laden trolley an unpleasant smell assailed my nostrils.

“Phew!” said Melissa, holding her nose as I stopped by the till. “What’s that dreadful smell?”

Mrs Williams frowned and turned over some of the packs. “They’re wet,“ she mused, sniffing tentatively. “It’s like … urine,” she said, lowering her voice. “Oh my God! I think these are mouse droppings!”

Mrs Williams in turn reported her findings to Grace Leadbetter.

“She didn’t dare dispute the facts this time!” said Mrs Williams when she returned from the office. “Ugh! I’ve washed my hands four times and I can still smell it!”

Two security guards had already whisked the trolley of soiled sheets away.

At two o’clock that afternoon all heads of departments were called to a meeting in the staff canteen. Mrs Williams took Melissa and I aside when she returned.

“We’re infested with rats,” she said, pursing her lips. We both gasped.

“They’ve been found in most parts of the store, the only exceptions being the Coffee Shoppe, the staff canteen and Bountiful Beauty. Gloves are being issued for staff to deal with, er, soiled items. Pest Control are working in the storerooms already, trying to find the source of the problem. Mr Tibbett and Mr Jenkins want us all to do our best to keep it from the customers. It was suggested that each department should have a different code word for rats. Well, Cariad,” she said, turning to me. “Any ideas?”

I thought for a moment. “What about Roland?”

Mrs Williams looked blank.

“Roland Rat. He was a TV character.”

“I like it!” said Melissa. “I remember Roland Rat. I just hope it isn’t too obvious.”

However nobody else could think of anything better, so the rats of Home Beautiful were henceforth to be known collectively as Roland.

Mrs Williams was already hard at work when I arrived the following morning. She had taken the displays apart and was surrounded by piles of towels, sheets and curtains.

“Any signs of a visit from Uncle Roland?” I enquired.

She shook her head. “Better to be safe than sorry. Can you put the green towels over there please, Cariad?”

I was on my way back from lunch that day when a strange thing happened. Coralie Bowers, one of the cosmetics consultants from Bountiful Beauty, leapt right over her counter. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Despite the shortness and tightness of her skirt and the giddy height of her heels she executed a gymnastic feat worthy of an Olympic trial. She landed, pale and shaken, in front of a customer who was testing perfumes.

“Are you all right?” asked the customer, noting Coralie’s pale face and trembling hands.

“Oh ….f-fine.” stammered Coralie. “I just need to go … over here,” she added, forcing a smile and tottering away from her department.

Her supervisor, Mrs Worthington, appeared as if by magic. “Was it Mr Rathbone?” she enquired of Coralie in a whisper.

Coralie nodded, trying to control her trembling body. “Ran out from behind a box of Flawless Perfection Foundation.”

“Good girl for not screaming,” said Mrs Worthington, a lady of indeterminate years with a lavender rinse through her silver hair and a bosom that sailed forth like a galleon. “Nobody much seems to have noticed your incredible dive over that counter. Slip off to the canteen for a cup of tea to calm your nerves, dear. I’ll get the security fellows to deal with Mr Rathbone.”

That afternoon the canteen was abuzz with news that the rat problem had spread to Bountiful Beauty. Some bright spark had stuck a cartoon on the notice board of Coralie Bowers pole-vaulting from behind her counter with a caption stating that all departments would be issued with vaulting poles to get staff out of sticky situations.

It was around this time that we realised Mr Carmichael had disappeared. We’d all been a bit preoccupied with our four-legged foes. I asked Mrs Williams what had become of him, and she said he’d finished his work and handed in his report to Mr Jenkins and Mr Tibbett.

“That seems to be it,” she said, tweaking a display of curtains.

Michael was a lad who’d been employed some time ago by Mr Tibbett to sweep the floors. He was somewhere in his twenties but had the mental abilities of a boy under ten. He was a happy soul who took his job seriously and did his best to keep the floors clean. Mr Tibbett knew his mother through the Church and felt it was his Christian duty to provide Michael with employment.

Several days after Coralie’s Leap (as it came to be known) Michael was busy sweeping the main aisle near the Flower Bower. I heard the story from Bron Jones that night while we waited for the bus.

“Oooh, look what I found!” Michael had cried.

To Bron’s horror he had put his broom to one side and was holding a rat aloft by its tail. It was struggling like mad to get free.

“It’s a mousie! I like mousies! I want to take him home with me. I’ll call him Mickey, he can come and live in my bedroom!”

With that the rat sank its teeth into Michael’s hand, but he still hung onto it by the tail.

“Don’t bite me, Mickey. I’m your friend!” he shrilled.

Bron said the security guards landed on him like a ton of bricks and whisked him and the rat off into the nearest back room as quickly as they could. The only customer within earshot in the Flower Bower was old Mrs Parry, selecting silk lilies for an arrangement on her sister’s grave, and fortunately deaf as a snowdrift.

Somehow Michael evaded the security guards while they were dealing with Rosebud, the Flower Bower’s code name for rats.

Bron told me they searched high and low for Michael. He had to be found and taken to the doctor as he’d been bitten by the rat.

“He could have caught Wild Disease or something, they said. It can kill you apparently. Anyway, they found him up the street in the pet shop. He was looking at cages, said he wanted something to put Mickey in. Luckily he didn’t tell the pet shop staff what Mickey was. They frog-marched him off to the doctor where they stuck him full of injections. He’s been given the rest of the week off on full pay, and he’s under strict instructions not to tell a soul that we’ve got rats in the store.”

We both agreed the store had had a narrow escape from public exposure, and we only hoped Mrs Parry was as deaf as she made out.

“The problem is,” said Bron, fishing in her purse for her ticket, “keeping Michael quiet. I just don’t see how he can be made to understand that he mustn’t tell a soul about the rats. I mean, even if he tells just his Mam, she’s bound to spread the word. And next thing, Jenkins and Tibbett will be closed down by the health authorities.”

I nodded sadly in agreement as our bus came round the corner.

“We’ll just have to see what happens.”

As the late summer drew on into autumn, sightings of Roland and Rosebud and Mr Rathbone and all their friends became fewer. Somehow our fears about Michael telling the world and his wife about the in-store rodent population came to nothing. The general buzz of concern among the staff faded away to a low murmur. The focus turned towards Christmas: stock ordering, departmental displays, and the overall plan for the store’s Christmas theme. Sales even picked up a bit as the Christmas stock came in. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Jenkins and Tibbett was on a roll once more.

Sadly, our relief was short-lived. In January Mr Jenkins and Mr Tibbett called all heads of departments to a meeting in the staff canteen.

Mrs Williams came back tight-lipped.

“I can’t say anything yet, girls, but the news isn’t good I’m afraid. There’s to be a meeting of all staff tomorrow morning at ten.”

I couldn’t really believe the news could be anything that bad, but our two leaders regretfully informed us that the store would be closing at the end of January.

It was very sad. I’ll never forget the last day, as all the staff drifted away. The gregarious Gillian had tried to organise a gathering at the Wheat Sheaf, but it had all fallen a bit flat. It was truly the end of an era. Sentimental soul that I am, I’ve still got my name badge after all these years. I keep it in my jewellery box. From time to time I see Bron and Melissa and some of the others about town, and we reminisce about the good old days at Jenkins and Tibbett.

The store stood empty for over a year, and was bought up eventually by a well known chain of public houses. The first thing they did was take out the old-fashioned windows and replace them with chrome and acres of stripy mirrored glass. Shortly after the new bar opened I went to a friend’s hen party in the same part of the building which had been Home Beautiful. It was quite unrecognisable. I found it hard to believe the place had once been a gracious department store with traditional values of customer service as a spotty young lad slopped a jug of cocktails on our table without even offering to wipe up the mess. Still, by that time we’d had sufficient cocktails not to care a great deal.

I now work in a large, amorphous supermarket. I have a pension and generous staff discount, but I’d give anything to turn the clock back to those times we had at Jenkins and Tibbett.

By Karenne Griffin

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