While not indulging in wonderful music-making as a “Clayton’s University Student” I needed a Cambridge “Day Job” to keep me out of mischief and pay the rent, and so I was employed part-time by “Iceland”, my first foray into retail. [“Iceland” is a UK Supermarket chain with an emphasis on frozen food]. My role had the lofty title of “Home Economist” but that basically translated to “Salesperson in Appliance Showroom”.
Yes, I was to convince mainly elderly ladies – and students on a budget – that they really did need a new microwave oven, fridge or freezer, and especially to take out an Extended Warranty, paid by Bank Direct Debit over the next 5 years. The white goods were pretty cheap, therefore the main profit margin was in the Guarantees, and we were encouraged to “Hard Sell’ these, as well as ”Sell up” the appliances. (Some of the suggested tactics for this, such as copying a customer’s Bank Account details from their chequebook onto the Direct Debit Authorisation, I felt a bit “sharp”)
After a while it became apparent that my tactic of chatting to the senior ladies and sending them home with a basic £50 Microwave (invariably without an extra paid-for warranty, as I tended to cheerfully tell them that the only two things which would likely go wrong were an easily replaced light bulb, or the whole thing would die) paled in comparison to the efforts of the other part-timer, Katie, who talked up the merits of the £250 all-singing, all-dancing heat/grill/bake Microwave models.
I finally further sullied my already poor reputation, by trusting a family’s hire-purchase application while the phone lines were down, and therefore not receiving all the necessary authorisations. This was the ammunition management needed to “let me go” and unceremoniously escort me from the premises.
Yes, I had proved “Too Honest” to be a decent saleslady.
Still, the experience was quite educational, as I learned the inner workings of a supermarket such as “Milk Rotation” (to this day, I always take refrigerated goods from the back of the shelving). And I also take the time to read the fine print on documents while loftily being instructed, “Just sign here….”
And that the exchange rate, at the time, was 200 Czechoslovakian bar-fridges (at £99, a student favourite) per one English tractor. And that the egg-racks of said Czech fridges were too close to the top of the door, so slamming such would result in a lot of breakages…
Subsequently another opportunity arose at “Forbuoys Newsagency” in “The Grafton Centre”, a covered shopping mall on the eastern edge of the City Centre. The upside was it was more and better hours (though still part-time), the downside was I had to work Tuesdays, which clashed with my Orchestra Rehearsals.
I was thrilled when the Cambridge University Music Society was really understanding and invited me to join the “First Orchestra” instead, which practiced at a more suitable time. And, what’s more, I was seated in my all-time favourite orchestral position – Front Desk of the Second Violins. (String Players are notoriously hierarchical, but my preference is more to see, hear and be literally in the front and centre of the proceedings). Therefore I spent my final term in Cambridge rehearsing and performing even more marvelous repertoire with top-class musicians.
My main job at Forbuoys was on the front counter at the busy “Coffee Break” shift around 10am. (Other times I helped stock shelves, tidy and so on). After a while I recognized the regular customers, including an elderly Indian gentleman, with limited English vocabulary, who only ever bought two items – a tube of Polo peppermints, or a small packet of 10 Silk Cut cigarettes. He always proffered the correct change, so I was soon able to interpret from the coinage which item he wanted, before he asked.
Another regular was a gentleman, probably in his early 60’s who came in, just like clockwork, at 10.15am to purchase a “Daily Mail” Newspaper to read with his morning coffee (I surmised he was on a break from his work). I tended to make conversation with him and looked forward to this daily encounter.
One morning he arrived with his takeaway coffee and a bakery bag, and asked me if I liked Doughnuts? (What a silly question!). It transpired that the local bakery had a special morning offer of Free Doughnut with Coffee. However, the guy (whose name, it turned out was actually “Guy”) didn’t really like doughnuts. But yet it seemed mad to refuse the bakery offer. So I accepted the superfluous doughnut gratefully, while he disappeared to enjoy the coffee and the daily news. Soon this became a regular routine – I would put aside for him, and then sell him, the paper, he would leave me the doughnut, and so we gradually became friends.
I was very well informed during this period, as working in a Newsagency the staff break-room had a variety of papers to read, so I was across the serious broadsheets as well as the trashy tabloids. This fed my unhealthy fascination with the Royal Family in general and the, at the time, semi-detached Diana, Princess of Wales in particular.
So I was also aware that Britain was gearing itself up for “Cheltenham” – a “National Hunt” steeplechase event with race prize money second only to the Grand National. (The festival takes place annually in March at Cheltenham Racecourse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.) With a horse or two owned by the Queen herself.
So on the Friday, Guy comes into the newsagent, all excited. It appears he knows somebody, who knows somebody, who is connected to some racing stables and has a “Hot Tip” on the race. Along with the customary doughnut he presses into my hand a pink slip of paper explaining, “You are my good luck charm, so I’ve put a bet on, in your name”. Slightly confused, I pocket the slip as he leaves, his eyes shining.
Saturday dawns grey, rainy and unpleasant. Without any plans, housemate Helen and I flick on the television. There’s “nothing to watch”, only the horse racing, where the horses are being paraded around the track by their owners. Suddenly I spot a familiar name. “That’s my Horse!” I exclaim to Helen, and then explain why I am suddenly interested. So we sit down to watch the race.
In absolutely textbook fashion, the starter pistol fires, the jockeys take off, and as they circle, they jostle for position, first one; and then another is in the lead. Eventually we reach the “Final Straight” and one surges ahead as the corner is turned. “It’s my Horse!” I shout, bouncing up and down on the sofa. “It’s my horse!”. My horse comes in, a clear winner.
Monday Morning, Guy arrives and requests my Ladbrokes slip. He reappears 10 minutes later and insists on giving me the £20 payout because “I put the bet down in your name”.
Fabulous as this was, I did feel rather uncomfortable about accepting money. Free doughnuts were one thing, but cash? So I arranged to meet with Guy one day after work…and we both had a cup of coffee. “I’m not sure I can accept these winnings, Guy, when I’m not the one placing the bet”, I started. “I mean, I’m not even putting in the stake here, so it’s not really fair that you pay me out”.
He thought about this for a while and then offered a solution. “Kylie, you are my friend and you bring me good fortune. How about if I get a good tip on a race, I will place a £5 bet in your name, then if you win, you can pay be back the £5 stake, yes?” Well, it seemed an answer, although one which definitely was still in my favour, but he was insistent, so we agreed.
Over the next weeks and months, Guy had a number of “Hot Tips” on various races (from his secret source) and placed several bets under my name. And many of them came in. And each time I was most careful to return to him the £5 stake.
And over the months we shared a number of cups of coffee and conversation, during which I learned some fascinating things about him and his life, including that he had little family. He was unfailingly generous, but asked so little in return. Eventually I came to realise that he simply valued me giving him time and making him part of my life. However, throughout this unlikely friendship, Guy never divulged exactly what he did, or where he lived.
During my final term in Cambridge, the Cambridge University Music Society [First] Orchestra combined with the renowned Chorus of King’s College Chapel, under the baton of Stephen Cleobury. On the program was “Hymn to the Senses”, written especially for C.U.M.S. by Robin Holloway and Verdi’s “Requiem” to be performed in King’s College Chapel. This was quite the unreal combination for me, as I had, each Christmas, from the other side of the world, watched on television the presentation of the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” Service from King’s featuring these very same musicians.
The concert was imminent and each performer had two complimentary tickets. Neil was to go, of course, but who else to invite? I took a chance and asked Guy would he like to come with us. Would he what! He was so excited! We arranged to meet outside the Chapel and he (very smartly dressed) and Neil went into the audience together, while I slipped around the back with the performers.
What an incredible experience to perform with such a collection of class musicians in such a wonderful, historic venue! Afterwards Neil and Guy seemed equally thrilled to have been part of it. Guy was beaming like a proud uncle.
And so, all too soon, my year in Cambridge was at an end.
Back in New Zealand, Neil had presented me with a WIN-WIN plan…
“Come to Cambridge, stay the year. If you like the country and the people, stay. If not, you’ve had a year away, seen a bit of the world, what have you got to lose?”
And…”If the Relationship works out, we’ll get married….”
On 19th January 1991, I had received an incredible proposal.
On 19th July 1991, I got on a plane and traversed the world.
A full year had passed.
The 19th July 1992 beckoned.
We booked the church, and started making plans.
Next, I would indeed be a Bride.