How I got fired from my first ever job because I wasn’t very good at it
My first job was selling carpets on a Saturday market stall in my hometown of Cookstown, Mid-Ulster. Cookstown is famous for being a market town. I’m using “famous” here like you might use “spicy” to describe a particularly assertive bell pepper, but renown, however small or dubious, is something you grab with both hands in Northern Ireland. Consider the Titanic.
For hundreds of years, this town hosted stalls selling linen and livestock. Flaxen goods and working beasts changed hands through Charles I’s wobbly reign, Irish rebellions, and the white-hot onset of the Industrial Revolution. Seized, planted, captured, re-captured, razed; the town eventually built and bred itself into permanency, settled there beneath Slieve Gallion, a mountain doing its best impersonation of an arse.
By the time I arrived on the scene, linen had evolved into high viz jackets and knock-off cassette tapes, but the livestock remained. The auction market was slap bang in the middle of the town; a huge yard that stank of dung and heat and hay, where big bulls were led sullenly in a circle, wet noses foaming. The pulse of the town on a Saturday was driven by the auctioneer’s pauseless drawl. We’d march along the street outside doing our own turn, “Nine, nine-ten, nine-twenty, nine-thirty, your da’s wee cock is smelly and dirty.” Youthful preoccupation with the genitalia of each other’s parents was not unique to Cookstown, but a social ritual shared across Celtic culture. Like torcs or burial mounds.
But carpets. I was 11 or so. Old enough that my brother was already earning money collecting glasses in a bar, and this new, unmonitored source of income was a thing of great envy and allure to me. I sniffed after glass collecting jobs, ducking my head into dark bars and asking if any help was needed, but they did not need help, or not the help of an 11-year-old in a wolf howling at the moon t-shirt. Other kids, older and able to work legally, tended to do a stint in the local pork factory (where my brother would eventually end up, scraping pig spines for a spell before ejecting himself to Belfast). But that was out of the question, again on the grounds of my age and the fact that I was currently experimenting with vegetarianism. Retail was also off limits on account of me not being able to pay tax on account of me being a child. So, me and a friend decided to go the route of so many pioneering Cookstown pre-teens before us: making black money on the stalls.
The stalls stretched the length of the town on each side of the road; white canvas ceilings, trestle tables, the occasional sound system playing minor gods like Philomena Beagley or Garth Brooks. The carpet stall was the first stall as you entered the town from the south. It was run by two men. And it didn’t really sell carpets, more rugs, but we didn’t say rugs back then. Everything was a carpet or a mat, even the little plasticky ones in the bathroom. “Rug” was the preserve of Americans or it referred to the coarse hair in the immediate vicinity of the pubis. Your ma’s, for example.
When my friend and I approached the Carpet Men with our proposal that we help them sell carpets in exchange for ready money, their bewilderment was quiet and amused; the kind of expression you might have if you saw a little dog with a Sherlock Holmes hat and pipe. It didn’t really occur to us that they might be taking us on for the craic, or that getting a couple of wee’ans to mind the stall while they sat on the back step of the van and drank tea was worth a quid or two.
We were delighted of course: first by their secret conference as they decided whether or not to take us on, and then by the fee: a pound an hour, split down the middle, like we weren’t two separate entities but a disassembled pantomime horse. We didn’t negotiate, which if you think about it, is already pretty good work experience in terms of being a woman. We shook on it, which felt very adult. It’s only now through the scope of over twenty years I realise they were hamming it up on our behalf. I can’t remember if they gave us a goal of ‘sell this many carpets’, but I knew I wanted it to work out because even fifty pence an hour was money in the pocket and me on my way to financial independence.
I was very bad at selling carpets. I had a nervous quality that put buyers off before they even made their way under the tarpaulin. I tried for friendly and captivating, but social clumsiness and desperation landed me somewhere between Frank Spencer and Hans Grüber at the end of Die Hard when he’s falling off the roof.
My friend was great. She had this easy carpet banter about the weave and the pattern. Maybe she even mentioned marbling, which is a beef thing and not a carpet thing, but it doesn’t need to be a carpet thing if you’re confident enough. She’d slap one of the hanging carpets like it was the hide of a big glossy mare and look into the eyes of uncertain buyers like, ‘You’re really going to walk away from your dreams like this.’ She had this Artful Dodger energy I wasn’t aware she had until then and I felt ambushed and immensely jealous. She was already good at sports and hair. Master carpet seller seemed criminally indulgent. A triple threat.
It started to rain. You know what’s really hard to sell? A wet carpet. When I tried to emulate my friend and slap the fabric, a halo of droplets would leap off it with a noise like an over-boiled potato hitting linoleum. Any buyer brave enough to venture in would cast mournful glances at the stall owners before sloping away again. My cheeks burned with shame, which only made things worse: who could trust a feral scarlet-faced carpet seller who was wet and also a child in a moon wolf shirt?
One of the men took me aside. ‘It’s not working out.’ I froze, cloaked from my gawping friend by the wash of drizzle. I was getting fired from my first job with not a single carpet sold.
‘I can do better,’ I said.
The baleful look of a troubled man. ‘You can’t.’ He dropped a pound into my palm, the sum of two hours’ work.
The Carpet Men had looked into my soul and saw that I had not the heart of a stall person. A young overthinker, I’d let the pressure get to me. I was too caught up in the details. Marbling is a beef thing.
‘Come on,’ I said to my friend. ‘Let’s go home.’
She turned to the carpet men. ‘Is it still a pound an hour, aye?’
A silent consultation between them, then a nod. Apart from the child labour, it was pretty decent of them. She really was very good at selling carpets.
I left my friend with a quiet goodbye and stepped out of the theatre of commerce, that square of tarmac beneath the white canvas roof. The drizzle had coaxed itself into a full rain storm. It was being driven into my eyes and ears by a nine-iron wind, and I had nowhere to go but home. I left the market behind me, not even enough money for a burger from the burger van in my pocket. A ruin.
The stalls appeared every Saturday morning with the same pre-dawn inscrutability as Christmas presents under the tree. They disappeared the same way; you’d maybe catch a stall owner collapse one of the supporting poles or you’d spot a box of off-brand desert boots disappear into the back of a van, but otherwise it was a ‘blink and you miss it’ affair. You’d glance up one moment and the stalls would be gone and the main street would suddenly seem so wide and empty, void and ready for the Saturday night pukers and brawlers, only a few cabbage leaves left to show for the market having been there at all.
That’s how the shame went. I dismantled it that Saturday evening, and by the time I was into my pyjamas I’d done the kind of accounting essential for surviving such humiliations: I didn’t even like carpets, I’d be quicker making money by picking it up off the streets, the lotto was on tonight and It Could Be Us. I would be fine. This was no reflection on me, but only my ability to sell carpets. There were other things to be better at, and in a few years I’d be old enough to apply for the real big hitters: Toymaster, Xtravision, the leisure centre, and the town’s solitary music shop where I’d work shoulder to shoulder with the tanned and be-jawlined object of teenage affections, ‘the Music Shop Boy’. I would be absolutely fine. This wasn’t failure, it was instruction.
My first job did what I suppose a lot of first jobs do; it educated me. I learned that I am a terrible salesperson; that I have neither the chumminess nor the chutzpah. I learned that standing around and being rejected by nameless customers is a headfuck, and that time is a construct where one hour can be an eternity if it’s measured in unsold carpets. I learned, and I’m glad I did, that good marks at school were a bit like fairground tokens: their utility limited, their value a construct everybody had to buy into for them to work. I learned that friends doing well is all well and good so long as they aren’t doing well directly beside me when I am visibly doing so very unwell, and that this was something to watch out for in myself. And I learned that it doesn’t matter if a carpet has marbling or not, you just have to sell it like it does.