It's tough in a recession; all the jobs at the top of the food chain get squeezed so the most skilful of employees take jobs they are overqualified for. This then cascades down the ladder until you get to my level: a supervisor at engineering plant. When I was made redundant and went looking for work, it was almost impossible to get a similar job. After all, who is going to employ someone to be a supervisor when they could get a skilled manager or even a deputy manager for the same money?
Fortunately, my redundancy pay more than paid off my small mortgage, so all I needed to earn was enough to eat – at least until the economy picked up – and found a part-time job in a small "boutique" that specialised in exotic ornaments and furniture as well as the largest scented candle section I've ever seen!
The pay was reasonable and I got plenty of hours; I could work until the closing time of 7pm as I didn't have a family, and it was only the photography student, Sara, and myself that didn't mind the unsociable hours.
Sara was a bright and vivacious girl, and worked most evenings after her University lectures; the photography kit she required (or wanted) was expensive and her part-time employment enabled her to buy the best lenses for her costly Canon camera. We got to talk most evenings, as while the shop would have a flurry of customers at around 6pm, by half-past it was deserted. We laughed and joked and forged a good relationship – despite the fifteen year age gap
"I need your help," she asked me as I watched a young mother leave the shop with two metal tea-light holders. She smiled sweetly at me and played with her long red hair that rested on the top of her bosom. The first two buttons on her flowery yellow blouse were undone, and her soft, pleading eyes begged me into compliance. "I'm doing a portfolio for Uni and I need some subjects." Her voice wavered slightly as she spoke and she gulped nervously.
"Right ... ummm..." I was thrown by her anxiousness and watched her trembling hands; she was a confident woman and I had never seen her nervous about anything!
"It's a nude portfolio," she admitted. "And I need naked ... people!" I laughed at first, but she was serious and more than a little upset that I had found her request amusing. I just didn't see what was appealing about a slightly overweight, completely undesirable and almost unemployable man in his mid-thirties. There are loads of us around and she only needed to approach any rugby player on a Friday night to get all the nudity her camera lenses could handle. "It needs to be structured and ... well, a bit classy," she replied to my suggestion; I laughed again, this time more out of nervousness. Did she really want me to strip naked for her?
She was deadly serious, and despite her "regret" that she could not pay me for access to my naked body (!) I agreed to it before I got time to think it through. I am a sucker for a damsel in distress and Sara was begging me for assistance; I just said "yes, OK" before I had had time to consider the request. "Just no full frontal!"
"No, sure," she sighed and bit her lip. "We'll just have to be creative then."
Twenty-four hours later we were together in the shop, the location of the "shoot," and Sara had brought one of her cameras to work. She allowed me to see her camera bag as she walked past me with a cheeky smile at 4pm and then said nothing, but as our colleagues departed to go home, until it was just us two, she gently reminded me. There was a playfulness about her and as she went to the till, I felt her hand rub me on my sides; nothing much, but just a reassuring and slightly affectionate touch.
I'm no exhibitionist, and as the customers started to dry up and the clock needle approached 7pm, I began to get excited and nervous at the same time. Sara rubbed her hands with glee. "Can we get started?"
"It's not 7pm yet," I replied indignantly and pointed at the clock behind me. "Well not quite." She tutted; I had seconds to go and she shook her head, before retrieving her camera from the staff room. The wait was agonising and my heart pumped angrily in my chest. My fingers tingled in anticipation and every thud on the stairs from the staff room to the shop echoed loudly in my mind. I half-wished that she got upstairs and found that the batteries weren't charged or that she didn't have the right memory card, but the beautiful student appeared in the doorway to the shop with a wide grin and a large camera.
"Guess it's time," I murmured, and she didn't disagree with me. "What do you want me to do?" I robotically asked and gulped; the air was thick with my anxiety and she seemed to be oblivious to my nervousness.
"I want some bottomless pictures first," she told me, with a grin. "Make a statement against all the topless pictures that are so pervasive in our society, don't you think?" I nodded, not able to disagree with her artistic assertion, but was glad that there was a counter between us. I found myself smirking broadly like a creature from Alice in Wonderland, but inwardly screaming at the same time. What if our boss appeared unexpectedly? What if the Police turned up? What if... ? "You having second thoughts?" She asked with a wry grin.
"No!" I spluttered. "Not at all." Her eyes watched as I kicked off my shoes and slid my trousers (and underpants) down to my ankles; I was still behind the counter but she saw me lift them onto the wooden top and she scooped them into a big bag. "Oi," I argued.
"I don't want stray underpants in the background of my pictures!" She countered and licked her lips. "And Mickey Mouse boxers?"
"They were a present. From an ex."
"I can see why she's your ex," Sara teased coldly and wiggled her finger for me to come out onto the shop floor. I hesitated and looked across the shop, as the door to the boutique slowly opened. "Sorry!" My friend called as my heart leapt in my chest. My knees bent instantly as a regular customer entered the small boutique. "We're closed."
"I've just come to collect my special candles," the bustling woman called. "I've been waiting for two weeks and I got a call that they had come in." She stepped into the shop and must have seen the alarm on my face. "You there, don't just stand there like a lemon, get them for me!" Sara murmured something but just looked at me, willing me to say something, but I froze in panic: I could not go and get the candles as I was bottomless but "special orders" were normally kept underneath the till and I instinctively reached under the cash machine with my trembling hands.
The awkward customer glanced at her watch. "And it's not even two minutes past. Honestly, two weeks I've been waiting for my Eucalyptus and Ginger candles, and..." Her annoyed voice trailed off as I put a bag containing a dozen candles on the counter and she strode over to me, glaring at Sara. I was glad Sara's initial awkwardness had attracted the ire of the woman, as her attention was not focused on my lack of clothing behind the serving counter!
I clenched my buttocks: blind terror seized me and I gripped the side of the wooden top; Mrs Higginbotham was not going to see a half-naked man in the shop and not tell the manager. I pushed my body as close to the side of the counter as I could and bent my knees, so my T-Shirt covered every part of me that I thought was visible. The middle-aged woman checked the bag and then nodded towards me, fanning out a few banknotes on the counter.
I glanced over at Sara smirking behind the customer, mentally guffawing at my predicament. I checked the receipt on the bag and then turned my waist, but not my body to the aged cash register to my left. I felt the white heat of her stare on my fingers as I tapped away uncomfortably at the keys, before passing her a few coins in change.
I took a few deep breaths as she left the shop and turned to see Sara laughing uncontrollably, her hands pressed together as if she had prayed for that moment. "Oh, how did she not notice you?"
"Or maybe she did!" I moaned, hyperventiliating. "And..." I was interrupted by the young lady who strode across the shop and locked the door firmly. My nerves were shot and appearing naked in the shop window suddenly felt a much bigger risk but Sara soothed my objections and raised her camera expectantly. After all, I had just served a customer half-naked, everything else would be a doddle!
The student raised her eyebrows as I stepped out from behind the small counter and she licked her lips. "Stay there," she cried and snapped the first half-naked photograph of me since I was a mere toddler. I gulped, but my waist was hidden by a table-height candle display.
Sara put me at ease with her calm voice, and nonchalant expressions, and used most of the props in the shop. The heaters had long since been turned off, and the cool evening drafts were not welcome against my exposed skin, but she always made sure there was something between my genitals and her camera, which helped me relax, before showing me the pictures on the back of her camera. It was gentle reassurance.