Canada 2007. On my granddaughters fifteenth birthday I'm thinking back to my own very different fifteenth birthday. Halifax, Yorkshire 1958.
"No Mum, please don't." My heart pounds in my chest. My breath catches in my throat. Why is she doing this?
"You will do as I say. We will go together. You will sit quietly and I will do the talking."
Head down against the stinging November drizzle, I trudge behind her feeling crushed. A touch of anger percolates through my misery. I wrote the letter. I didn't need her help with that. It was me they replied to setting an interview for this Saturday morning at ten o'clock.
"But Mum, everyone goes on their own, no one takes their Mummy with them."
"Well I don't intend for them to take advantage of you by offering you less money than you deserve."
"But I know how much office juniors get paid."
This is going to be a disaster, I know it. No one is going to give me a job if they think I need mummy with me.
The pretty young secretary asks us to take a seat and introduces herself. "I am Miss Green, Mr. Robinson's private secretary. I will check if he can see you now MissWebster."
The metal screws in her stiletto heels click and echo as she makes her way across her office to the Manager's door where she knocks gently before entering.
Mum leans over and whispers, "See how nicely she is dressed. Smart black pencil skirt and whiter than white blouse. You can see she isn't one of those mill girls in their dingy flowered overalls wrapped tightly to cover their skirts and blouses. Their hair up in curlers under their head scarfs."
Miss Green returns and shows us into Mr. Robinson's office. He looks confused. "Which one of you is here for the interview?"
I open my mouth to answer. Mum is faster "Deirdre is." She smiles at him.
He turns to me and tells me I wrote a very nice letter. "As you probably know, we usually only interview grammar school girls to work for our Ada washing machine division, but we made an exception because we were impressed."
"Thank you." Mum says. "Now, I have some questions."
Oh no, she isn't going to let me open my mouth. I'm going to be sitting here silently stupid. By the time she is through grilling him, I can tell by his face that he's none too pleased. Yet Mum goes on and on. When she stops to take a breath, he quickly stands up.
"Thank you for coming."
"When would you like her to start? Her birthday is on Friday, she can start then." Mum says.
"We will be in touch."
I can't get out of there fast enough. My face is burning with embarrassment and humiliation.
Mum smiles, "Well I think he knows where we stand. Maybe you should write some more letters in case he wasn't impressed with you and you don't get the job."
I didn't get to open my mouth. How could he be impressed with me. I could cry, I really wanted that job. Everyone says it is a good place to work. I'm not telling Mum that I got two more interview letters in the post. I will go to them after school on Monday. On my own. I'll just have to go in my school uniform. She'll never know the difference.
The next interview at Mixenden Mills General Office goes well and I am hired to start on my birthday, Friday. I will have my last day of school on Thursday. I can't believe I have to leave school. Mom won't let me stay on to take the new government school leaving certificate exams. She says she's supported me long enough, its time I earned my keep. Mr. Keenan my wonderful math teacher came to our house last week to try to get her to change her mind. She told him to mind his own business and my stepfather Ted threw him out. I can't believe he did that to my favorite teacher.
I still didn't get a letter from my first interview. I wish they had told me no, instead of leaving me in limbo. I'm know they won't offer me the job, but I wish they would. There isn't much time to turn down the Mixenden job and I haven't told Mum about it yet.
----It's my first day at Mixenden Mills. I hate it. The two other women are nice to me, but the office is dark and gloomy. The furniture is old fashioned. I feel like a character in one of Charles Dickens' novels as I sit on a high stool at a ledger desk that runs along the wall under grimy windows that I can't see through. But worst of all, I only get to copy someone else's answers into the general ledger. There is nothing to think about. This is my worst birthday ever. By five o'clock I'm so bored I could scream.
The walk home takes quite a long time and its six thirty by the time I turn onto Gibbet Street. I'm surprised and pleased to see Miss Green, the manager's secretary from my first interview.
"Hello Deirdre, I heard you were starting a new job. Do you like it?"
"No its boring."
"Well then, can you come back to our office, without your Mum, for another interview?"
My heart flutters, "Yes, I only work half day on Saturday, I can come in then."
"I'll set it up for you to be there at 2:30 pm. Mr. Robinson was disappointed that he didn't get the opportunity to talk to you last time."
"Thank you." I'm ecstatic, and run the rest of the way home.
Mum is home before me and says, "Well you look happy, you must have enjoyed your first day. Tell me what you did."
"Oh, I just write numbers into a ledger."
"Well that's right up your alley, you always were good at math."
"I don't do any math. I just copy someone else's answers, Mum. It's not the same." I don't mention my new interview.
I got the job!
I proudly wear my first brand new shop bought dress with my lace up school shoes when I start my new three-pounds-a-week job as office junior. I still don't know why Mum wants me to be a secretary, there isn't much laughing or joking here. All the women have very busy jobs so I don't get much chance to ask questions.
The girl whose job I am taking over has been promoted to a different desk. She tells me she doesn't have time to train me, she says she hated being office junior. She makes me feel stupid when I try to explain that I've never used a telephone before. It is scary, I can't tell what people are saying.
Customers call from all over England from places that I've never heard of. The callers have strange accents that are distorted further by the static crackling and popping on the telephone line and I can't understand them. I can tell they are cross because their washing machines have broken down. They get annoyed when I ask them to spell out their address. I wish I didn't have to answer the phones. I'm not very good at it. But I like filing and retrieving all the warranty cards and the piles of letters that arrive every day from customers without phones who want us to repair their broken washing machines.
I wish Mum had let me go to work at Crossley's Carpets in the mill where I would have earned a lot more money. Each morning I walk slowly past the mill and breath in the hot oily smells and feel the exciting throb of the machines right up through the soles of my feet. In the evening on my way home, the men and women stream out of the gates laughing and joking. I wish I was one of them.