When Violet headed to the Commercial center at Sharq, she was dumb struck. Sharq, was no doubt a very busy commercial area. There were huge buildings more than ten storeys tall in the area. All the airline offices, banks and museums were located in the vicinity. The souks here were full of people, window-shopping, purchasing and simply being there. At the heart of Sharq, was a souk, which was like a complex of buildings. Though not very classy in its look, it was crowded enough to ensure Kuwaiti’s had double and triple parked in the entire parking lot. The buildings looked ancient; there was no indication in its looks as to the magnificence it held inside. There were basically six different blocks of one storey buildings, with tailors occupying the first floor. The ground floor of all the six blocks of the center, sold only cloth. Lots and lots of it. There were so many different colors, textures and fabrics in the hundreds of shops and boutiques below. Each shop had mannequins in the front, dressed with the most beautiful material, draped in various combinations and styles to lure women into buying. The prices were quite a bomb, some materials, were twenty dinars, for a meter. Talk about extravagance, well not in oil rich Kuwait.
The Commercial center was a cloth hub, for distributors, sellers, merchants and shoppers alike. Cloth was sold retail and wholesale. The price range varied, some cut pieces were cheaper than others while some were really expensive. They were selling saree materials, salwar- kameez suits, dress materials, curtains, bedspreads etc. In short you could shop for all sorts of cloth for all occasions or reason at this center.
Violet walked slowly behind her boss wide-eyed at the silken luxury she just witnessed. She was surprised her jaw didn’t sink to the floor as she took in the luxurious fabric on display. Sabah entered a large store in building number three. This was Madam’s cloth store. Violet was disappointed at how dingy it was and not as beautiful as some of the other shops in the same building. She tried really hard to hide her disappointment. Or disgust.
Her Madam looked at the maid behind her and said, ‘I close ze shop today, you clean all ze place. Okay? My staff iz absent today. If you need anything, I send Abner back after two hours; tell him, he will get for you.’
To ensure her safety Madam gave her the key and locked the entire shop, leaving her do the chores. Today Violet had to clean up the shop instead of the house. It was a welcome change, because the third floor of their residence was spic and span. There wasn’t really much left to clean. After settling into the normal cycle, Violet had been sincere with her work, without having to be reminded week after week what had to be done.
Violet looked at the whole shop. It was messy and disorganized. The materials were just stacked one on top of the other. The cut ends all loose and stringy. A huge rack sat in the center of the room occupying two thirds of the shop.
How could anyone stand in this place let alone shop in it?
When she was sure her boss had left. Violet went to the racks to look for some spare cloths to wipe, apart from the broom. As she opened one of the drawers, she noticed huge registers, with hundreds and hundreds of counterfoils in them. She was a finance major, it didn’t take her long to figure out her boss was being cheated. She kept the registers for later, deciding that there were other ways to make her boss rich and one of them was by getting this place in tip top shape.
Violet first studied all the racks. She made labels, with names of different materials. Then she fixed those labels along the racks. Emptying all of them she segregated the materials according to the type of fabrics. Then she piled all the chiffons, georgettes, satins, suede’s, lace, tissues, cotton, polyester and taffetas in different parts of the room. She sorted out materials that she didn’t know. She had never seen such gorgeous fabrics in such rich colors before, let alone touch them. The central rack in the middle was occupying a lot of space, making it difficult to move around the place. So she wiped the rack and pushed it against the wall opposite the main door. She wiped all the white racks clean and turned on the fans to air dry the place.
After cleaning the racks she rolled all the large materials on their rods and sorted the materials according to color. She didn’t know how they did it in shops, so she relied on the VIBGYOR pneumonic for the colors of the rainbow, something she had learnt at school. Placing all the cut pieces of materials, inside the rack that she had pushed against the wall facing the door she noticed the room seemed larger, with more room to move around.
After putting the materials back in their place on the shelves, Violet settled to wipe the fans till they returned to their original white color.
It looked like this place had not been cleaned since the Stone Age. It was no wonder Madam wasn’t selling anything. Even as a maid, I would never want to shop here.
She then turned out the lights and removed all of the bulbs and waited till they cooled. She was an electrician’s daughter and had learnt her father’s trade as she observed him while he worked at the shop. Now she was grateful, that he always took her with him on his outdoor errands. At the time she was furious and always complained that he was just wasting her time. Today she realized how much it paid off.
I guess it always pays off. Nothing we do ever is without purpose.
She then wiped the bulbs and replaced them so the whole place looked white and bright.
She turned off the air-conditioner, which roared when it was switched on. Removing its filter she washed it; air dried it under the fan and then replaced it. There was less noise and the place cooled down much quicker because of the newly cleaned filter.
She took some of the used cloths and wiped the floor, which was marble, but had never been cleaned and so looked like a cheap mud floor. She used some of the detergent in the lavatory at the back to scrub the floor till it was pristine. She rested her arms every few minutes tired as the grime off the floor was hard to scrub. After somehow managing to clean it up, she watched the marble gleam in the light.
Then she went to the windows which usually opened out to the front of the Center, where people could see the materials. While other shops had mannequins, her Madam’s shops, just had some cut piles of cut pieces lying on top of each other.
Hardly what a customer would want to see.
Didn’t her Madam have any common sense if not any business sense at all?
Was she really doing business this way and still blowing three hundred dinars a week on food?
Violet took out the old newspapers from the corner, and scrubbed the glasses clean. Then she removed all the remaining cut pieces and sorted them out placing them in the rack she had pushed. Then she thought about what everyone else had done in their shops, they had chosen a particular fabric and used color combinations to draw attention. Almost all the windows of other shops had used the same ploy to draw customers.
Violet wanted a brighter effect. So she picked the color yellow and chose three different materials, in different shades of yellow for the left side window. She chose a beautiful lemon yellow lace, that had embedded crystals, a sun yellow satin and a yellow ochre chiffon.
After sweeping the floor of the window gallery, she took out the light bulb, cooled them and wiped them till they were white adding to the brightness in the galleries. Then she laid out the newspapers on the floor, so as not to dirty the material. Selecting a few yellow cut pieces, she folded them into rectangles and shaped them into a fan.
She went to her purse in which she carried her hawaya (ID card) and found a needle and thread. Her mother always said for safety or for need, it helped to have a needle and a thread. Using them, she made long loops of thread three cords strong and used them to suspend the material.
The commercial center was a cloth market, so most shops already had hooks at the top, bottom and sides of the window display. But these were expensive and she didn’t want to damage them so forming a fan at the bottom she passed the needle into the edges suspending them from the hooks.
The three primary yellows she used to cover the top half of the window, the lace and satin entwined and the taffeta forming a bow around the two.
She then selected rich purples of shiny lace in magenta and simply hung them loosely from the top hooks, running all the way down to the floor on the other side. Picking some purple chiffon she looped it around the three materials. The effect was regal. She then wiped all the counters, squeaky clean, not one stain or pen mark on any of them after she was done wiping. The sack she was using as a dustbin was now almost filled to the brim. She used a pair of shears to trim all the ends of materials and made them look uniform. After rolling them onto rods, she stacked them in different racks sticking to her pneumonic; the effect was a clean, organization of the entire shop.
Then Violet headed to the racks below with all the registers and bills. There was no cash in the shop, just countless bills.
Violet found a register that was half used.
She proceeded to draw lines on them with columns for receipt number, items brought, price list and date.
She piled all the registers and put asterisks on the receipts and entries made in one of the registers. She then hung two pairs of shears along the hooks on the racks, one for each side. Following that she arranged the pens in an empty Styrofoam cup and placed the registers and the receipt books on the table. Dusting the three chairs she piled them up behind the counter. Standing against the main entrance door which had been shuttered, she looked around at the work of her hands. And she knew it was perfect,
When Violet thought she would sit to rest, the shutters opened and Abner eyes opened wide beholding the windows. He was fumbling with the keys at the door, when Madam who was behind him said, ‘yalla. Surra, surra ya Abner’ (hurry, faster, faster Abner)
She looked at the windows and realized why he was fumbling. For a moment she was confused, was this HER shop? Did they come to the right place?
Indeed the girl behind that glass door was her maid Violet, but this wasn’t the place she had left her in this morning.
The windows looked inviting, the neat racks of cloths all organized in the same color code; bringing some much needed order to the place. The floor was gleaming and the whole shop was bright. It looked like a different place. It looked like one of those shops Madam loved to shop at. She broke into a huge smile, so did Abner. Madam looked at the rack pushed against the wall. Sabah ran her hands lightly over the materials in the rack, feeling their cool finish against her skin. She felt the fabrics come alive in their neat racks and quietly muttered, ‘zain,’ meaning good.
Violet was happy that her mistress was pleased with her work.
Sabah looked at the main counter and sat down on the chairs stacked behind it. She slowly went to one of the registers sitting on the counter and opened it casually, only to find hundreds of receipts that were neatly sorted into dates and with asterisks across them.
A first she just looked at all the figures, numbers and dates, clearly not registering what she was reading. But then she grew suspicious, reading all those receipts in Arabic, so she quickly opened the other register, and another and another, where she saw the asterisks marked there. Sabah was shocked.
Apparently on various dates, there were no sales entered at all. But the receipts’ counterfoils all indicated that purchases from her shop had been made. Fabric was sold, but there was no sign of it on the register.
What her manager was doing, was selling the fabric and pocketing the money while reporting few transactions on the main register, not all of them. As a result, she was under collecting from her shop which according to the counterfoils was doing satisfactory business, if not very robust. Since Madam only came to the shop and checked the registers ignoring the counterfoil book (and the shop in general), he had managed to swindle her of thousands of dinars. Knowing that she would never personally clean up the place, and anybody who cleaned up the place would never really know the difference, he had just stashed all the counterfoils, in one of the cabinets.
She turned page after page and started seeing red. She was getting angrier by the minute and Abner noticed his mistress’ reaction turn sour. Then she finally reached the page where Violet had drawn lines on the rest of the book.
She slowly lifted her eyes to Violet, large and cruel, filled with red rage. Her cheeks were flushed against the backdrop of her abaya, shaping her heart shaped face.
Violet had already made up her mind as to what to say to her boss, though she was petrified to say it.
Madam spoke up, ‘You do this?’
Violet knew her boss was hurt, not only because she was swindled, but because a maid was smart enough to know the difference.
Violet began, ‘I…I studied finance in college, I majored in that field.’
But Madams’ eyes were still large and unrelenting, seething with horrible disgust, so Violet mustered courage to try again. ‘Let me explain, my father had an electrical shop for decades; the people who worked for him always told us the shop was doing great. My father always said the same thing, “business is great.” There were orders every day for electrical work in homes, shops, buildings. Many contracts were done for buildings, repairs and small jobs too. When my father died, there was no money in profits, neither in the drawers nor in the registers. There was no money at all. We had been cheated. The workers, his colleagues and everyone else cleaned up the money, but my father had no books for us to hold anyone accountable. I sold my fathers’ shop and mother’s gold to pay the electrical companies from whom fittings and appliances were taken on credit. I am still repaying that debt, which is why I came here to Kuwait.’ She paused for a moment and then went on.
‘My education could not help my father, but if it can help you, then so be it. I am sorry if I overstepped my boundaries in cleaning up this place. But because you’re my boss, and you put food on my table, I want to see you prosper and become even more successful than you are now. You can deduct my pay, but please don’t send me back.’
Madam looked hard at the register and pointing to the columns said, ‘what’s thiz?’
Violet explained, knowing that the current guy would soon be fired, ‘when you hire your new manager, you ask him to put the date, the price and total number of goods he sold for each receipt. The receipt has numbers. He must write down the receipt number in this column,’ pointing her finger to the column.
Then when you check the register, you must check the counterfoil, and make sure that all the foils are accounted for in the register. Then at the end of the month, do an inventory. Usually an inventory is done at the beginning of the month when goods come in and at the end of the month to see how much is sold. The fabrics sold must tally with those that are less in quantity. In that manner we kill two birds with one stone.
‘How can we do that?’ Madam asked interested in what Violet had to say.
‘Whichever fabric is less, is probably very popular, so you can order more of it in the future, however, if a fabric is constantly stuck here and is not moving in the market, stop wasting money buying it. It’s no point buying cloth people don’t want to buy.’
‘And the other one?’
Violet thought it would be obvious, but didn’t want to anger her boss with apparently zero business sense.
‘It tells you if the manager is selling without receipts, thus cutting into your profit. With the inventory, you can match the sales on the registers, with the actual quantity of goods that has moved out from your shop.’
Even Abner, looked very interested, though, he could not fully understand what the concept of market and inventory was, it seemed like the ladies were really chalking up some great plan. Abner was happy just seeing Sabah’s anger slowly dissipate.
Madam then put down everything she understood in Arabic in the columns. She silently thanked her maker for sending Violet to her home, because if this girl weren’t here, she would have probably gone on for another decade being cheated just like it had been for all these years. As they shuttered the shop, Sabah Dashti turned around to look at the windows with the bright yellows and royal purples lining them, she had a good feeling about this project. It might just work after all. And only she knew how badly she wanted, no needed this to work.
As they rode back home, Madam Sabah felt grateful, so she pulled out a five dinar note from her purse and gave it to Violet. ‘You clean very well, my shop, zis is a gift for you.’
Abner felt happy for Violet. He knew Madam was a nice person, but he also knew that she was really happy today with the shop and Violet.
Violet thanked her and repeated her thanks when they came up for lunch. Since Violet had been out, Tintin had made lunch which was a chicken stew and yellow pilaf.
Madam quickly ate and went off to her boutique. She also called her lawyer that very day, in a bid to fire all her previous employees at the shop and hire new ones.
Aliya came home all fired up in the afternoon, ‘do you know what happened today?’
‘Go ahead, tell me,’ Violet replied while laying out a helping of the stew and pilaf, before heading to the dining table.
Aliya pulled the plate from Violet’s hand and sat on the high stool near the kitchen counter.
‘Let’s stay here and have lunch,’ remarked the young lady, even before Violet could take the pickled turnips to the dining room.
‘My English teacher, said okay to the debate thing but the topic is more complex; she said she will give me the pro team. She also told me that there would be no need of any accent check or whatever, so I’m in.’
‘What’s the problem?’ Violet asked, knowing there was going to be a catch to all this.
‘Basically the debate is about the response to the Iraqi invasion. There was a special meeting for the debaters, today. We were told that the pro team had to support the response of military liberation by America and the con team would argue against it, citing negotiations and democracy and all that crap.’
‘So isn’t that a good thing, because in reality that is what brought you freedom, right?’
‘Yeah, but at what cost. I may not actually agree. So many lives were lost, so much damage to the environment, not to mention the oil that was set fire to. Do you know it took more than a year to put out the oil fires? We lost more than thirty million gallons of oil. My own grandparents and uncles were shot to death, not to mention our Prisoners of war. Their probably still out there dying in Iraq. Besides, the other team has more participants, mainly because the war was not very popular among the American students.’
‘How does that affect you? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the war is popular among the Kuwaitis. By negotiation and moderation you would just end up becoming like South Korea, hunkered down by the North. Today you’re free, because of the Americans. I think most Arabs celebrated the fact that America helped you defend your nation. We can work your own personal loss into the speech. This is actually really good news, if you still want to participate, that is. Did you speak to the sports department?’
‘Yeah I did,’ she said hastily spooning in her pilaf. ‘They said I could take a month for trials, they’re having trials for the whole school, there’s some championship coming up in December, they want to finalize a team by June before the school closes. During the summer vacation they said they want all athletes to join some training workshop.’
‘Okay that’s good, so now we have to get your gear.’
‘You need a racquet and a shuttle cock.’
‘Yes, so do I get one today?’ she said all excited.
‘No, lets first get your movements intact, and then you can buy them from the jamiya on the weekend. I remember seeing them sold at the toy store.’
‘Jamiya?Toy store? Yew’ she said making a face. ‘Shouldn’t I buy one from Adidas; they have a showroom at Souk- al- Wataniya at City,’ Aliya said hoping she was going to get hers from there.
‘Yeah I saw it while going to church the other day, but you don’t need that one now, trust me it’s going to break a lot of times, before you buy the real thing.’
‘Ok,’ she said a little disappointed, ‘so what do we do now?’
‘How did you do on your history test?’
‘I did okay; teacher will grade our papers tomorrow.’
‘I’ve got laundry to do now, why don’t you take a shower and rest for a while. After tea time let’s do your homework and then practice some badminton moves.’
‘What about my debate?’Aliya asked as Violet was leaving the kitchen.
‘I’ll compile a working speech for you; just get some books from your library tomorrow. Get any of those great speeches books by American presidents, try Kennedy, Martin Luther, see if there’s any book on them and bring them home. We’ll add something from there to the speech. What’s your time limit?’
‘They told us five minutes of speaking time and thirty seconds before a warning bell.’
‘So you have to finish before the bell. Alright we can work with that, five minutes is a long time for a speech.’
Aliya didn’t seem to be moving from her high stool. She stared at the wall, her bottoms fixed to the stool.
Violet who was exiting the kitchen stopped, turned around and asked, ‘Do you have a problem with the librarian now?’
‘Not really, I’ve never visited the library before, do you mind telling me in which section I should look for these particular books?’
Violet smiled and told the young lady which sections of the library could possibly house her books. Ten years of school and she had never been to the library. Wow.
After doing all the laundry work, Violet was tired, the work at the shop and now this was taking its toll on her. Nonetheless she persevered.
When Aliya was done with all her lessons and homework, Violet gave her a fruit shake and had one herself. It was going to be an uphill battle getting the girl to lose weight. Then they both headed out to the back garden. Since it was surrounded by a tall hedge, the girls could easily go about their practice without being seen.
Aliya changed into track pants and a shirt. She looked like a giant Coca Cola bottle, especially those one liter ones.
Violet looked at her top to bottom and wondered.
Was this really going to work? No harm trying.
At first she put Aliya in the center of the garden and then asked her to imagine.
‘Imagine this is your side of the court, and the net is here, near this hedge,’ she said tapping lightly on the leaves.
‘Now the first thing you always do in badminton is stand in the center of your court and from the center, you should be able to reach each of the four corners, in two steps.’
Demonstrating what she said, she moved quickly two steps, to each corner. Aliya practiced that, but she needed more than two steps to reach the corners.
‘So we need to work on that, once you get that fifty percent of the work is done, half of badminton is played on your feet rather than your hands. So Aliya struggled for one hour, till she could get to one corner in one fluid motion.’
At the end of the hour she collapsed on to the grass and said, ‘This feels good. I’ve never been so tired my whole life, not even while shopping.’
And the girls both laughed loudly, Violet found it amusing. Shopping and badminton was no comparison at all.
On the second floor, behind the curtain, the girls were bring watched intently, but little did they know of it. A pair of eyes darted back and forth, as they practiced basic exercises and badminton strokes.
When Madam walked in, she saw her daughter lying in the grass laughing like a child. Sabah Dashti had not heard her daughter laugh ever since Jassim left home. What she wouldn’t have done to return that laughter to her daughter. Yet here her lovely daughter all but fifteen lay on the grass laughing like a five year old with the new maid.
The mother smiled, she could not believe her blessings. The shop, her daughter’s education and now this. Violet was changing her household and the change was coming fast.
Three days later, as Violet was vacuuming the rugs, Madam came back earlier than her usual time. Tintin was still making lunch, while Violet cleaned the place.
‘Taali, ya Violet,’ she said, her finger pointing to her bedroom.
Violet was a bit scared, wondering if she had done something wrong, but followed her mistress into the bedroom in humility, as her boss sat on the bed.
‘Close ze door,’ she said softly.
After shutting the door for an expectedly private conversation, Sabah spoke, ‘Today I get new person for ze shop. But zey are all same. I do not trust zem. One person knows, to do inventory like you said, but don’t want to do accounts. Ozer person know accounts, but don’t want to do anything elze. What must I do? Which studies must they have to do both? I think putting ad in the newspaper like that for job can help get ze right person. What do you think?’
Violet didn’t hesitate, ‘Madam you must get someone with sales and marketing education. When you put your advertisement say, that you want a sales manager. But I’ll tell you a trick. Don’t hire people with lots of experience; hire somebody who is new maybe just six months to one year.’
‘Why do you say that? Is it not good if zey know zeir job well before?’
‘Madam, if they are experienced, they will also be experienced enough to cheat, you. We want somebody who will be honest. So if you find somebody with less experience, tell him that you like his qualification and you will give him a chance to work for you. Sorry to ask but how much do you pay rent for the shop?’
‘I pay three hundred dinar why?’
‘Okay tell him in the first fifteen days of the month, you want a sales target of about four hundred dinar. If he does that he can work for you. And if he can make another four hundred dinar for the rest of the month, he can get ten dinar on every hundred over that.’
‘Will this work?’ Sabah asked, cocking one eyebrow at the suggestion.
‘If he’s a new man he will want to make the store profitable, because he can earn more. If it does not work you can always try someone else.’
‘Okay I will inform my mudir,’ she added as an afterthought ‘and don’t tell zis to anybody okay?’
Violet nodded and exited the room. The mudir or the lawyer who gets most of the legal work done in Kuwait was someone even Violet trusted a lot. When she had submitted her passport and signed her contract he was the man who spoke to her and told her that Madam Dashti would not trick her as far as wages were concerned. He had been nice to her, kind and helpful even though she had been a stranger.