I stumbled upon Ritu's delightful short story, The Bag Lady, and asked her if she would be a guest on the Scribbler and share her story. Much to my delight, she said yes!
Ritu Bhathal was born in Birmingham in the mid-1970’s to migrant parents, hailing from Kenya but of Indian origin. This colorful background has been a constant source of inspiration to her. From childhood, she has always enjoyed reading. This love of books is mostly credited to her mother. The joy of reading spurred her on to become creative with her own writing, from fiction to poetry. Winning little writing competitions at school and locally gave her the encouragement to continue writing.
As a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and teacher, she has drawn on inspiration from many avenues to create the poems that she writes.
A qualified teacher, having studied at Kingston University, she now deals with classes of children as a sideline to her writing!
Ritu also writes a blog, a mixture of life and creativity, thoughts and opinions, which recently was awarded second place in the Best Overall Blog Category at the Annual Blogger’s Bash Awards.
Ritu is happily married and living in Kent with Hubby dearest and two children….and not to forget the furbaby, Sonu Singh.She is currently working on some short stories, and a novel, to be published in the near future.
Discover more about Ritu, her social media contacts and her books by visiting her website
(Copyright is held by the author. used with permission)
The Bag Lady
“Come on Penny, let’s just cross the road here. There you go, good girl, we can see the shop window so much clearer from here.” Penny looked up at her mother and glanced back to where they had been standing, outside the huge department store Willards. It had become something of a family custom that whenever there was a big reveal of the new Christmas shop window display, Penny and her mother, Charlotte, would come and marvel at the inventiveness of the designers.
Just to the side of the window this time, though, there was a small pile of bags, carrier bags, reusable shopping bags, even an old handbag, and they were all stuffed to bursting. Sat among them was a person. An elderly lady.
“But mother, why is that lady sitting there?” It didn’t seem right to Penny to leave an old woman sitting outside, on such a cold day.
“Don’t worry about her, Penny. She’s just a bag lady. Nothing to concern yourself with. Just keep your eyes ahead, and stop staring, otherwise, she might think we’re about to give her something.” Charlotte held her hand out to her daughter, a gold bracelet on her wrist glinting in the light as she did so.
Accustomed to listening to whatever her mother said, Penny obediently continued in the direction her mother had indicated, but she couldn’t help taking one last glance back. As she did, the woman caught her eye, winked, and gave her a wave.
Penny started, and turned forward, following her mother as quickly as she could.
Milly smiled to herself.
She was used to that moniker. And not just because of her present situation.
Oh, many years ago, there were those that called her that, for a very different reason.
Fifty years ago, she had been a young, eager to learn shop assistant at Willards. She had started right at the bottom, running around, fulfilling the commands of the head sales ladies. She became an expert at deciphering their strange, short code to describe all manner of items, so a customer was not waiting too long to get what they desired.
She was soon given a chance to step up in the hierarchy and began to wrap the bought items when someone noticed her careful handling of merchandise, and how she folded scarves and clothing with such reverence.
It was during one of her wrapping sessions though, that her true skill was discovered.
Lady Palmerston had been choosing her Spring wardrobe and had accumulated a huge pile of beautiful clothes, which Milly had to wrap. As she did so, Milly found herself mentally matching various accessories to the myriad outfits scattered on her counter.
She looked over at Mrs Walker, the Head Sales Lady, who was deep in conversation with Lady Palmerston. They were discussing jewellery. That was Mrs Walker’s area of expertise. Milly knew they would be a while so she slipped from her place of work to the Handbag counter, and started rifling through the stock there. Finding the items she required, she went back to her counter, and began to arrange the clothes, and placed the chosen bags by each outfit. “They look pretty good!” she thought, and after a quick glance back, to see if Mrs Walker was still occupied, she nipped over to the shoe counter.
Content with her choices of footwear, she made her way back to her counter, to complete the outfits, before actually doing her job of wrapping the clothing in the delicate tissue paper Willards was famous for.
But she stood stock still as she realised that there were people by the wrapping station. Not any old people, but Mrs Walker and Lady Palmerston. Good grief! There would be trouble now!
One of the requirements of her job was to have the customer’s goods ready to go before they came to her, and she hadn't even started! This didn’t bode well.
“But I insist, Mrs Walker! I wish to speak with her right away! The one who did,” and Lady Palmerston indicated towards the clothes, “this!”
“Very well, Lady Palmerston, I shall go and locate the girl right away. I am so sorry for causing you any inconvenience…” Mrs Walker was decidedly flustered and turned around to find that blasted young girl. Really! To leave her post with all these clothes left scattered atop her workstation! And handbags strewn all over the client’s purchases!
She caught sight of Milly, just as Milly thought she should do a quick u-turn and disappear to the store room.
“Millicent! Come here this instant!” Mrs Walker’s voice carried across the shop floor and reached Milly’s ears.
“What in the world is going on here, young lady?” Mrs Walker shrieked as Milly approached. Reddening, Milly searched her mind for an appropriate answer. “Well, I…”
“Please Mrs Walker, may I?” interrupted a bemused Lady Palmerston.
“Pardon? Oh, of course, Lady Palmerston. May I just say, I apologise profusely on behalf of Willards…” The Head Sales Lady flustered.
Lady Palmerston turned to look at Milly.
“Dear girl, did you do this?” She swept her arm in the direction of the pile of clothes on the wrapping desk.
“Yes Lady Palmerston, I’m sorry Lady Palmerston” Milly glanced down at her shoes. This was it, she was going to lose her job now. Why couldn’t she have just done what she was meant to?
“Sorry? But I love it!”
Milly looked up, slightly confused, as did Mrs Walker.
“You have matched these bags to my outfits perfectly! And if I’m not mistaken, you were carrying shoes when you came over here. I can only guess they were to complement the handbags. Mrs Walker, this girl has something of a talent!
It didn’t take long for the word of Lady Palmerston to spread.
Her acquaintances made a point of coming to the wrapping counter and requesting that Milly accompany them to accessorise them.
Soon, ladies from far and wide were asking for “The Bag Lady” to assist them.
The management at Willards soon realised they were onto a goldmine here. Women were choosing outfits, and with Milly’s careful selections, they were spending double the amount on bags, shoes and scarves.
Would it be a good idea to move her to Jewellery, where the merchandise held all the more value?
Many years went by, and Milly passed her knowledge and skills onto some of the younger, eager girls working on the shop front. Teaching them which colours complemented others, which materials suited partnership with others, there was soon a team of ‘Purse Girls’, headed by the original ‘Bag Lady’.
Even with all her successes, she had lived a meagre life. The wages she earned kept a roof over her head. She had never married, or had children, so devoted to her job, was she.
The time came for her to retire.
They gave her a wonderful send off. Old clients of hers, as well as new, came to wish her well. Even Mrs Williams was wheeled out of her own retirement to come and gloat about how she had ‘discovered’ Milly’s talent. She was presented with a very expensive black Chanel handbag, as a token from the store.
She thought of Lady Palmerston that day very fondly. The woman had given her the step she needed to leave wrapping, and make a name for herself. It was sad to think that she was no longer with them, having passed away around ten years previously, but Lady Palmerston’s daughter had come to the store, on the eve of her funeral, and requested that Milly choose the shoes and bag that her mother would be buried with.
Milly recalled a girl with her on that day, Charlotte. Lady Palmerston’s granddaughter. She had looked keenly at the various glass-topped counters, marvelling at the sparkly items encased within.
A few years, they met again. Charlotte was getting married, and she came with her mother to choose some accessories for her trousseau. Milly found her a beautiful bracelet, with tiny diamonds studding the clasp, something that would set off most outfits on her delicate wrist.
As kind as life had been to her whilst in employment, things took a down turn in retirement. With not many savings, and no family to fall back on, Milly fell behind on her rent. Paying bills, and even buying food became a juggling act.
Sadly, she lost her home, and with nowhere to go, her belongings stuffed in the bags around her meagre home, she wandered the streets. She took pleasure in finding a spot near her old workplace around Christmas, to see the windows that always gave her such pleasure.
And today, seeing that little girl had been the icing on the cake. Penny was the spitting image of her great grandmother, Lady Penny Palmerston. She knew it was her. And the fact that her mother still wore the bracelet, after all these years… It didn’t matter if she didn’t recognise her anymore, the fact that Milly’s choices were still appreciated warmed her heart.
She hugged her handbag tightly to herself and smiled.
The headline read “The Real Bag Lady”.
It detailed the history of the well-known Millicent Cooper, who had started the trend for personal shoppers, fifty years previously. At the time she was paid a basic wage, and the happiness of her customers was more than enough of a bonus for her.
And the sad news that even though her example paved the way for many younger women to charge exorbitant amounts, doing, essentially, the same thing, she died, homeless, curled up outside Willards, the very store she had found fame in.
Clutching her Chanel bag.
Thank you Ritu for being our guest this week and for this story!