“Now LOOK, young ladies,” the florid-faced man said carefully. He held before us a small, U-shaped brush, about two inches across, with a short wooden handle. “You will note that this fits the inside of your teeth. You place it in your mouth—” he suited action to word—”and rub vigorously up and down. That’s all there is to it.” He was demonstrating a novel tooth brush that reached the backs of the teeth as no other on the market could do. With a dozen girls I stood in a half-empty loft watching him with great attention. We had all come in answer to the advertisement in the Daily Telegraph
WANTED, GIRLS WITH GOOD TEETH. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. TO DEMONSTRATE NEW TOOTH BRUSH.
Leslie had shown me the advertisement in the terrible week of my mother’s funeral. He had been my rock and anchor, comforting me because now I had no one.
I was alone and felt sorry for myself. Yet with my sorrow came a subterranean excitement that almost broke to the surface .despite my shame that I could feel this way. / was free! There was no one now to stop me from doing what I wanted, going where I wished.
Leslie had said, “I ought to marry you now so you’ll have someone to look after you.” But to be married to Leslie meant the end of adventure, and I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Leslie, I was sure, would always be there if I wanted him.
It was obvious I must find a job. My mother had left not a penny. My only inheritance turned out to be a small, faded snapshot found in her purse. It was of me, taken when I was about two. Dressed in a high-necked apron, and wearing little black boots, I was seated on a table, a woebegone expression on my face. My right hand was clutching a wooden spool. When I looked at it, I cried. My mother must have carried the photograph with her all the time.
I had set out a few days after the funeral wearing my siren hat and a coat Mildred’s sister had made for me— a knee-length black satin with beaded fringes trailing from cuffs and elbows. I swished when I walked and I thought it the height of elegance.
I was not seeking a job as a skivy. If I had a good brain, why not use it? I would find a good job—and directly I found a job I would leave Leslie. I would leave the East End. I would leave the sweetly sickening smell of the brewery, the sight of the drunken men reeling out of the pubs. I’d leave the sound of people fighting and screaming at each other, the cries of women being beaten by their husbands, all the frightening, depressing, horrifying, shameful sounds of poverty. Oh, how gladly I would leave the East End!
I chose Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping district, and summoned up courage to try one shop after nother. But I had no sales experience; I had no employment references; I could not bring myself to admit that my only other job had been as a skivy. At the end of two days without success I was in tears when Leslie, faithful Leslie, found the Daily Telegraph advertisement. “Lily,” he cried, “it’s perfect for you. You have wonderful teeth!”
Leslie was right. I had excellent teeth for an English girl. I could thank the orphanage for looking after them and for raising me on a diet of few sweets and no candy.
I kissed Leslie gratefully, washed my face and answered the ad.
Now, after solemnly examining our teeth, the florid-faced man had weeded us down to six. We were hired on the spot. He was dispatching us to six fine shops, he explained. We were to start next morning. Each of us was to stand at the shop’s cosmetic counter and demonstrate this amazing new tooth brush. Salary was a pound a week—five dollars—and commission. We were given a counter display showing a beautiful girl using our tooth brush. Our employer rehearsed us carefully in a little sales speech, which, he assured us, would make our stock melt away in a few hours.
I had my job. It was at Gamage’s, a department store in Holborn, not far from the West End. I wasted no time. That afternoon I found a room in a once-fashionable section of the West End. It was small and musty, overlooking a narrow side street; bed and breakfast was ten and sixpence a week, more than half my salary—a room in the East End could be had for one-third as much. But I took it. Though it wasn’t Mayfair, the heart of the West End, it was far from the East End. I was content.
I said nothing to Leslie. I said nothing to Mildred. I simply vanished. I cut off the East End with a knife as sharp and ruthless as I could make it.
Next morning before Gamage’s opened for business I was at my post. I set up my cardboard display on a comer of the beauty corner, and practiced my sales talk. ‘‘Good day, sir, or madam.” (Smile.) “Have you tried this new and different tooth brush that cleans the backs of the teeth and prevents decay?” (Wide smile.) “If you examine it, you will see that it is altogether different from ordinary tooth brushes which never reach the backs of the teeth.” (Place tooth brush in prospect’s hand and smile.) “We have a special price during this demonstration period, sir, or madam.”
I turned, still smiling, to find a very thin, elderly woman with frizzed hair standing behind the beauty counter, watching me. She laughed.”Must you go through all that to sell a tooth brush?” she asked in friendliest fashion. She extended her hand. “My name is Ruth Houghton and I’m in cosmetics, so I’m your neighbor.”
I said, “I’m Lily Shell.” Miss Houghton was so outgoing I couldn’t be angry. She immediately began calling me “Sheilsy,” and lent me her little black feather duster to dust my wares.
The doorman unlocked the front door and the store’s first customer of the day, a woman with a large handbag, bustled in. I stepped forward two paces as she approached—”You must not be too aggressive,” the florid-faced man had warned us—planted myself in her path and beamed at her. “Have you tried this new and different tooth brush—” I began. She swept past me. My confidence suddenly rocked. I thought, maybe this will be harder than I think.
A middle-aged man strode in. I waited, took two paces forward, smiled brightly and launched into my speech. He stopped and listened—a grin on his face— to every word. When I placed the brush in his hand he took it.
“Well, my dear, how much is this?” he asked.
“Two and six, sir.” I added hurriedly, “But it’s so much better than the others and you’ll really save in dentist’s bills.” Most tooth brushes, I knew, sold for half the price.
He said, “All right, I’ll take one.”
I returned to my post flushed with triumph. Miss Houghton winked at me. I winked back. I could sell!
Two women entered, deep in conversation. They seemed annoyed when I interrupted them. They did not buy. Then a man entered. He bought a tooth brush. A second man bought one, too. It was clear that men were more concerned about reaching the backs of their teeth than women, and I pondered this for a little while. As the morning progressed I sold five brushes—to men. By the end of the day I had sold nine—to men. I decided next day I wouldn’t even try to sell to women. Let their teeth decay. It would serve them right.
I learned how to banter with my customers, but I was wary. When one well-dressed gentleman in a bowler hat said, “My dear, a beautiful girl like you is wasting her time selling tooth brushes. Wouldn’t you like to work for me?” I dimpled and smiled but I wasn’t taken in. Yet time and time again men paused to talk with me when they made a purchase. I was pretty, they said; they could make use of a girl like me. They would leave me their business cards. I’d look at Miss Houghton, smile, and drop the card in a cigar box in which I kept change.
One rainy, gusty December morning the door swung open and a man dashed in. He was slim, in a trenchcoat and soft hat. He came in briskly, almost as though the wind and rain had blown open the front door and blown him in. He hurried by me and I ran after him—he was the first customer in an hour—and almost shouted, “Sir, have you tried this new tooth brush that cleans the backs of the teeth?”
He wheeled around and stared at me. His eyes were deep blue, his skin was tanned, and his dark hair grew low on his forehead. He seemed about forty. His face suddenly broke into a beautiful smile. “By Jove!” he exclaimed. “You’re a damned pretty girl!” I was struck by his voice, so low, so musical. Without waiting for another word he took the tooth brush and examined it. “By Jove!” he exclaimed, “this is a weird thing—if you can sell this you can sell anything.” He turned to me and said with almost boyish eagerness: “I’m in iron and steel but I have a fancy-goods department and I could find a place for a girl like you. Why, you’re so pretty you’d sell everything I have!”
I’d heard all this before. I didn’t propose to be cheated out of a sale. “Sir, it reaches the backs of the teeth where decay—” He wasn’t listening. “Splendid,” he said. “Splendid. I’ll take one. Just the girl I’m looking for. Here—” He gave me a pound note and extracted a visiting card from his vest pocket—”Here’s my card. Now, telephone me, you will remember?”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” I said triumphantly. I wrapped the tooth brush and gave him his chance. He pocketed his purchase and hurried out, apparently completely forgetting what he had dashed in to buy. I glanced at his card, winked at Miss Houghton, and dropped it into the cigar box.
That night I studied myself in the mirror, as I had done so often before. Was I really so pretty? Could I believe the compliments men paid me? The face that looked back at me was no longer round, but heart-shaped. My ash-blond hair,’ always so straight and dull, had taken on a natural wave. My nose had evolved from a tiny snub into a feature of respectable length. With gray-green eyes, a mouth that was a fashionable cupid’s bow, and a perfect English complexion, creamy, pink and white. ... I was pretty.
I began to clothe myself in the belief that I had that mysterious quality—whatever it was—that lured men. The other girls on the floor didn’t quite have it. Miss Weymouth, in stationery, was pretty but somehow she didn’t have it. Women, not men, spent their time talking to her. Miss Knight, in gloves and bags, was attractive and petite and wore her hair in provocative bangs, but she didn’t have it. Whatever it was, it was something I had and I was grateful that I had it.
Three weeks passed—and my job ended. The florid-faced man, looking doleful, appeared unexpectedly one Monday morning. The company was going out of business. The cash commissions which were to be calculated at the end of each month could not be paid, although I had done well. He could manage a week’s pay. He was terribly sorry.
I was shattered. My voice trembled when I told Miss Houghton. “What are you going to do, Sheilsy?” she asked. I didn’t know. How would I eat? Pay my enormous rent of ten *and six? In my hand was my week’s wages of a pound, in my purse a few shillings I had saved. I must find another job. My heart sank at the prospect of going through that ordeal again. Yet the thought of returning to the East End, perhaps to be the wife of Leslie who worked in a shirt factory, terrified me.
Then I remembered the man in the trenchcoat. “By Jove—” he had said. His voice had been so gentle, his smile so boyish. He had seemed sincere. Now which card was his?
With Miss Houghton’s help I went through the contents of my cigar box. I fingered each card, reading the name aloud, pondering: is this it? Then I remembered what he had said, “Fm in iron and steel but I have a fancy-goods department—” We rummaged through the cards, perhaps ten of them.
Here it was:
THE JOHN GRAHAM CO.
Iron and Steel Manufacturers
Major John Graham Gillam, D.S.O.
On the other side had been scribbled a telephone number. I waited two days before calling Major Gillam. Miss Houghton, most impressed, had told me that D.S.O. meant the Distinguished Service Order—second only to the Victoria Cross, England’s highest decoration for military bravery. His Majesty, George V, himself, had pinned the medal on Major Gillam at Buckingham Palace! I couldn’t quite believe that a D.S.O. would want me to work for him. When I called, a girl’s voice said excitedly, “Miss Shell, he’s been trying everywhere to find you. He even got in touch with the tooth-brush company.” A moment later I heard a low, musical voice: “Oh, Miss Shell, I went to Gamage’s yesterday and they said you’d gone and left no address. You promised to call—why didn’t you?”
I blurted out, “Do you still want me?”
He laughed. “How long will it take you to get here?”
An hour later I was sitting opposite him in his office. By Jove, of course he’d meant his offer. He wanted me to work for him.
I tried to be businesslike. “What are the wages?” I asked primly.
How much had 1 been getting at Gamage’s?
I lied. “One pound, ten.”
“I’m give you two pounds and comission.”
“That would be fine,” I replied sedatdy, but my heart beat fast. Two pounds—and commission! Commission that would be paid! He looked at me for a momettt, tbeai jumped up from behind has desk. “Let me show you the office.”
The John Graham Company occupied two large rocxos and a storeroom. In the storeroom were his fancy goods —lacquered trays, polishes and cleansers, costume jewelry, travel kits, clocks for automobiles, stamp boxes and wallers. And, against one wall, carton after carton c^ f oot-h^ tafafe }MBg&.
“It wast yon to look at these,” he said, and brought one out. “This is a Lite-o-lamp. Watch.” He lifted the lamp—it lit—and put it down. “Very simple,” he said, •To” turn it off, lift it again. Tweewinos, isn’t it?^ I was iBpcessed.
“This wil be one of die major items FTl want you to sefl. m give you a list of stores to call on,” he ex-fisrnpi^ ~bf course Fm just stardng to distribute these, bat you are rn charge of this division. This is your de-Pretty soon yooH have other people working yam. Yo” sfaooid do very well for yourself.” I frft pangs d conscience. “Major GiUam, I really haven’t h?d too modi experience—”
He waved that aade. “I told you anyone who can sell that absard toodi brash can sell anything. I’m not worried aixsot you. Miss SheiL” He led me to the door. “All right?” he said. His face briditened. “^y Jove, Fm so glad you called! Now. you’ll be in early tomorrow morning?^ I Miakil aad nodded and kfL
I walked back to my room thrilling. If this keeps up, m be in Mayfair before I know it. Here I am getting twice as much as before. I looked about my room—always daik, a sleazy yfMom fcast opcr d^ sofa to hide a y&ggpd tear, a racked little wast basio— I marched dowiBtairs said knocked on my bnnfafH’s door. “I want a front room.” I said. She gave me one at twelve and ax, with a window overlooking the avenue. I moved my belongings into the new room, thinking, aD her life my mother had never ptanagpiH to live in the front, whrae ifae sun came. I had done it in three weeks.
That evening I sat in an armchair and looked out of the window at the traffic. How gentle Major Graham been, how kind his manner, how sweet his smile! Tnis -was not a man who wanted to dutch and gr^. He ^rri^ed me with respect and courtesy. And he was a grc not a Ginger or a Leslie—a man of the world. 1 .^^.^ ^^ ¦: by the elegance ol his clothes, the courtliness with whicfa he had led me to the door. I thought, he is handsome, brave, charming—^he is the most attractive man 1 hsvs ever known!
Published as Beloved Infidel by Sheilah Graham and Gerold Frank (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1958).