GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS SHORT STORY PRIZE 2018/19

LAURA KAYE
‘Girls’

THE GIRLS STAND in a line at the front of the room. We will call them girls, though they are old enough, old enough for anything really. But even so, nobody in their right minds could call them women. They will be girls for a while yet, these young things in their short black skirts. Short but not too short. Definitely above the knee. Smart heels and flesh-coloured tights please. No flat shoes. Tops to be supplied at the briefing.

The girls – in various states of hangover – are waiting further instruction. Their backs are slumped, their arms folded over their chests, their expressions bored and contemptuous. Fuck this shit, their faces seem to say. They could be in bed fucking their boyfriends right now if it wasn’t for this shit. He could be ramming his big, hard cock up inside them right now if it wasn’t for this shit. They look down and inspect their nail polish, which has chipped in several places.

The girls, eleven of them, wait in the bare grey meeting room with its atmosphere of despair and shattered dreams. There is a white board, still smeared with the red and black marks of ideas that seemed great at the time. There are tables, pushed against the walls. On one of them there are two burnished metal urns with press-down tops, one for coffee, one for tea. Next to them, a stack of polystyrene cups and a basket of pink sachets and white plastic stirrers. Those of the girls who went for the tea, bitterly regret it. The tea was like water from a peat bog. Coffee was the only option and they should have known it. Coffee with at least two of those milk pots emptied into it and some sugar, even if they don’t usually take it. That would have been the only way to deal with this whole situation.

There is a woman standing in front of the girls with a clipboard, pen lid in her mouth as she flicks through the pages. What a pathetic creature, the girls think. What is she, like forty-three? No wedding ring. Bet she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Probably hasn’t had sex in years. There’s no way they’ll be here in twenty years’ time. They’ll be long married to some hot rich guy. No, if they were that woman, they would literally kill themselves.   

Brown, the woman says looking down at the clipboard and one of the girls who is scraping the rest of the polish off her thumbnail, lifts her head and says, Yeah. A brief look of displeasure flickers over the woman’s face as she writes a tick next to the girl’s name. Clarkson. The woman looks around. A girl with a high blonde pony-tail says, Yeah. This goes on. After the seventh name, McGuiness, there is a silence. McGuiness? The woman says again. Still silence. The girls look vaguely guilty, as if they might be McGuiness and are now choosing to deny it. But McGuiness isn’t here. McGuiness must have a hangover so extreme it could not be moved from its bed. The woman raises an eyebrow and makes a cross on the paper. She really could do without a no-show. Does anyone actually think that she enjoys this either? Prideux, she says. A girl with long blonde hair says, Yeah.

Let us look closer at the girls. They are all subtly different from one another. They are varying heights. Their hair is on a spectrum from the palest blond to the darkest brown, almost black, though seven out of the girls have what would be called simply, long blonde hair. The rest of the girls have long hair, except one whose hair is mousy brown and is cut bluntly below her ears. It is already obvious from the way that the woman looked at this girl when she entered the room, that she does not like her, but we will return to that later.

The girls then, are mostly blonde with long hair. What else can we say about them? They are all slim. That is important. Some are what you might call skinny, some are slightly curvier. But none of them are approaching anything that might be called large. No way. Their breasts are varied in size and shape but this is less important because let’s face it, all breasts are nice at the end of the day. Bigger is most definitely better in this line of work but then the prettiest girl in the room, easily the prettiest, with the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen and thick pouty lips, has small breasts and she cannot be said to be anything but absolutely lovely. The best of them all. Too good to be here really. She could do better for herself. She could easily be a model. Not catwalk, she’s too short for that, but she could do catalogue work for sure. So, you see, if they had been too proscriptive about breasts they would have ended up without her, and she is one of their top assets.

What else? Well, they all have white skin. That is also important but not something we should really be talking about. Though their skin tones vary slightly, some more pink, some more sallow, one definitely an olive tone that is nothing like an olive, they are all what you would call white. Is this a mistake, you might ask, and the answer would be, no, this is no mistake. But of course, nobody would ever, ever confirm that this is true. Sometimes we have a pretty Asian girl come in, they will say, and another one whose mother was a princess in her country, what was it? Morocco was it? And anyway, the woman reading out the names is not in charge of hiring. It is not her fault. Someone else up high does the recruiting and that person can usually tell from a girl’s name what her skin colour will be. It’s not always a failsafe method. But those that slip through can be quickly eliminated after their first assignment. When they ring up to ask when they will be needed again they are told that there is currently no work for now, someone will be in touch again when there is. But was there, you want to know, ever a moment in which someone else, even higher up, told the recruiter to do this, when they sat on the edge of the desk and pretended to fiddle with the stapler, trying to find the words, whispered, um, you know, well? There might have been. There might not have been. Really it is something that doesn’t need to be said because it’s pretty bloody obvious to everyone involved what the girls should look like.

Now that we examine the girls in this light, it seems that really the girls are not so different from one another after all. That is when you consider all the girls in the whole world, all the shapes and sizes and colours, abilities and disabilities. When you think of it like that, these girls standing here in this meeting room are all basically all the same.

Waters? The woman says. Yeah, a girl with long straw-coloured hair says. The woman nods in satisfaction – she has come to the end of the list. She heaves out a clear plastic laundry bag from under the table. Pressed up against the sides in zigzag strata, are folded pale pink cotton t-shirts. The woman opens the top of the bag and tells the girls to come and get their top. Nice and tight, yes? That’s how we like it. Nice and tight.

The girls come forward and root around in the bag, holding up the t-shirts to see if they look like the right fit. If they will be nice and tight. Then they take their chosen shirt over to a corner or wall where they turn around and flash their backs and the straps of their bras as they take off their tops and replace them with their new uniform. When they turn around again they look like new girls in their new tops. The woman could almost feel proud, if she cared. Look at them! The girls in their nice tight tops. Now you can really see their breasts. Really imagine what they look like under the clingy fabric. Sometimes, if you’re lucky you might even see nipples, especially if it’s cold. The men like that, they do.

All the girls have turned around again and the woman can see that one of the girls’ tops is not nice and tight. It is the girl with unattractive short mousy hair. She has deliberately gone out of her way to choose the biggest size, which is loose and baggy on her, especially with the way that she stands hunched over, making her chest concave instead of pushing it out in a way that might be attractive. The woman stares at the girl and the girl looks resolutely at the floor. When she looks up again, the woman is holding out another, smaller top towards her with her arm outstretched, as if it smells. The girl sighs and takes it, turning around and peeling off the old one and pulling down the new one. She turns around again and the woman nods. There, now you can see her breasts, which are lovely, as all breasts are, but actually these ones are surprisingly really lovely, high and firm. Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to hide. Why is she rolling her shoulders over like that, putting her arms in front of them to obstruct the view of them? She should be proud of a pair of breasts like that. Some people would kill for breasts like that. She’s going to be a problem, that girl. The woman knew it as soon as she came in.

It is time for the briefing. The woman puts the girls into pairs. She does this by making a scale in her mind of the prettiest girl down to the ugliest – though of course none of the girls are ugly. They wouldn’t have an ugly girl. Never. Those girls are not asked back. All the girls here are pretty. Even the one with short mousy hair is pretty, even though she is trying her hardest not to be.

After she has made the scale in her mind, the woman pairs the prettiest girl with the ugliest, the second prettiest with the second ugliest, and so on. This is so that all the pairs will have an even distribution of allure. The girls huff and sigh loudly as they shuffle around to stand next to their partner. The ones who came with a friend huff the loudest. Being with their friend was the only thing that was going to get them through this hideousness. Was it really too much to ask? They look sideways at their new partner, sizing them up, trying to predict whether they are the sort of girl who will be up for a laugh and bending the rules a bit here and there, or whether they will be the sort of girl who will actually care and be really tedious about it all.

The woman gives each pair a location. They are directed to the samples and the literature. Most of important of all is The Script. They must learn the script and must not to deviate from it. Now, bright smiles. All together now. Good morning. How are you today? Say something nice. Start out by giving them a compliment. I really like your hair. That’s a nice coat. People like to be flattered. Everyone wants to be seen. The woman makes the girls practise on their partner. Some of the girls put up their hands and ask facetious questions. What if someone says this? What if they do that? The woman smiles patiently – she is used to this kind of thing – and tells them what to say by way of reply. She acts it out, wearing the same facial expression that the girls must wear all the time: an expression of pure simpering blandness. A bit dead behind the eyes. Like an eager to be loved cyborg. Unchanging, vacuous, always awaiting further instruction. The girls internalise this expression. They must wear that smile all the time, never let it slip. All the day long.    

It is nearly time. The girls have half an hour to do the most important thing of all, which is to put on their make-up. The girls know the drill. They know what to do. They take some more of the vile coffee and go and find a chair at one of the tables at the side of the room. Out of their giant black handbags they take huge make-up bags. Some of them are stained with foundation and lipstick, others unroll smartly to reveal clear plastic compartments. Bottles, tubes, lotions, pencils are put out on the tables. Wayward lipsticks roll around and are set on their ends. Compact mirrors are opened up and wafted around the girls’ faces whose features are constantly distorting into strange shapes. Lips stretch over teeth, then turn outwards into pouts; eyes open wide as if in surprise, eyelids are pulled out, eyeballs look up, look down; eyebrows arch, cheeks turn. More and more make-up is put on. Layer upon layer of the stuff until that just caked-on effect is reached, a beige powdery desert of skin.

But one girl doesn’t know the drill. She doesn’t have an enormous make-up bag. It is the girl with the mousy hair again. She is in the corner of the room, facing the wall, a mascara and a tube of foundation on the table in front of her. She puts a little foundation on the tip of her finger and rubs into her nose. The woman watches her. She knows what the girl is trying to do and she’s not going to get away with it. The woman goes over to the girl and stands over her with her hands on her hips. The girl looks up slowly like a bad dog, full of dread. The woman tells the girl that she knows the rules. Full make-up it says as plain as day. Full make-up. Does the girl understand what that means? The girl looks like she is deflating slowly, a punctured air-bed, folded in the middle. The woman carries on. Full make-up means eye shadow, it means lip liner, it means blusher, not to mention foundation, mascara and lipstick. It means the whole works. It is regulation, part of the uniform. Has the girl got any of these things? The girl shakes her head slowly. Well no matter, the woman says, the girl is in luck because there are plenty of spares for occasions such as this.

The woman goes over to the other side of the room and brings out a plastic shopping bag from under the table. She dumps it on the table in front of the girl with the mousy hair. There. Everything is in there. There’s no escaping now. The woman tries to make this a joke but the girl doesn’t laugh. She peers into the bag, puts her hand in and pulls out a round black shape like a pebble. The woman nods at the girl and she opens it up to reveal a sponge pad, once white, now stained a dirty beige by the layer of thick oily paste it sits on. The girl wipes the pad on the surface of the oily paste to pick some of it up. She looks at it. The woman nods more vigorously now. Yes that’s right. That’s a good girl. Keep going. Bring it up to your face. Smear it on. All over. Never mind the musty smell or the cloying feel of it on your skin. It is making you beautiful, smoothing you out, all nice and even. There we go. That’s good, yes more. More at the edges of hair. You’ve got a bit of a line there along your jaw, where the thick beige paste ends and your pale neck begins – just rub it with your fingertips to blend it in a bit. Good. Good! Well, it’s a start at any rate. Now open up that silver compact. Yes that one. See that lovely dark dusky pink circle. Take the brush and swoop it over your cheeks. Upwards. Like a comet. And the other one. Yes, you’re really taking shape now. Now for a little black liquid eyeliner. Top and bottom. Just give it a little nick out of the side of your eye so that there’s a little point. Like a cat. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. Some blue eye shadow next. Sweep it across the eyes. That’s it. Now lips. Lip liner first. A nice deep cherry red. First stretch your lips like that. All the way around. There we go. It always looks a bit strange at this stage, but lip liner is crucial for keeping a neat line. Don’t want it bleeding all over your face, do we?  Ha ha ha. Now fill in the insides with the lipstick. More, yes more. A bit more. Rub your top lip over your bottom. There we go. Now you are ready.

Satisfied, the woman goes back to the front of the room. The girls line up once again. Now that they are in their nice and tight tops and full make-up they really do look more or less the same. Like lovely blond, beige dolls. But that, of course, is the point. The woman’s eyes travels along the line. They look really pretty. Who wouldn’t want to stop and talk to any of these lovely girls and find out about a fantastic new product? Women or men. Anyone would want to stop and talk to one of the pretty girls. That’s why they have girls for this job. Nobody – neither man nor woman – wants a strange man coming up to them in the street. What a horrible thought. It must be girls. Like these lovely girls. How lovely their breasts look in those tops. And the make-up really accentuates and brings out their features. It’s amazing what a bit of make-up can do. Except for the mousy girl. The woman’s eyes stop and rest a moment on the mousy girl who is standing hunched over at the end of the row. It’s funny, the woman thinks, but with all the other girls, the make-up really seems to bring out the best in them, but on this one it doesn’t seem to work. Why is that? The girl is wearing the same make-up as all the others, but while they look beautiful, she looks terrible. Now that the woman looks at the girl again, really looks at her, she sees that the girl looks really quite horrifying. Like a clown in a scary film. Nobody is going to stop and talk to that girl. It’s a complete waste of a day’s wages. She might as well go home now. Oh well, the woman thinks. It’s not my money. It’s only one day and then the girl won’t be asked back. No, she will definitely not be asked back. But thank god, the rest of the girls are so really very pretty. They are ready. Go, the woman tells them. Go out there and sell. Sell your little socks off. And remember, don’t forget to smile.

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