Mr. Humphries was a good person. It was a statement of fact as true as saying the sun rose every morning, or that water was wet. It didn’t take long for Mr. Lucas to realize this when he started working for Grace Brothers. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Humphries, Mr. Lucas knows that he would’ve been sacked years ago.
In many ways, Mr. Lucas admired his kindness. Mr. Lucas kept around three-quarters of his sarcastic remarks in check throughout the day (he had to let loose some or else the tedium of his work would drive him insane), and he knew that Mr. Humphries had the same grievances with the job, but somehow never said an unkind word to anyone. Even with the comments from Captain Peacock, Mr. Grainger, and himself about Mr. Humphries’… personality, he never seemed bothered by it.
That is, Mr. Lucas had never noticed.
It started early on a Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Lucas was putting away other samples of black leather gloves he just managed to palm off to a customer, when he saw a customer milling around the counters.
Captain Peacock approached him with authority. “Are you bring served, sir?”
“I’m looking for trousers.”
“I see, sir. Mr. Grainger, are you free?”
Mr. Grainger emerged from a behind a rack. “Not at the moment, Captain Peacock. I’m quite busy with this purchase of outerwear.”
“Very well. Mr. Humphries, are you free?”
“I’m free!” came the ever-shrill reply. He met the customer in the middle of the floor with his usual gait.
“This gentleman is interested in purchasing some trousers,” said Captain Peacock.
“Of course. What kind of trousers did you have in mind, sir?”
And thus the typical script went on. Mr. Lucas tried not to feel bitter about it as he tuned out to return the gloves to their place in stock. After all, he was the junior of the department. He had to make commission on gloves and ties and handkerchiefs. Trousers, jackets and suits were usually handled by Mr. Grainger or Mr. Humphries. It was his lot in life.
It was also for this reason that Mr. Lucas became so shocked when Mr. Humphries summoned him again many minutes later: “Mr. Lucas, could you come here a moment? The customer insists on hearing your opinion.”
“Right away, Mr. Humphries.” Mr. Lucas furrowed his brow. The customer? The only reason to bring him in was to clinch a sale through a false second opinion.
The customer stood in front of the full-length mirror, a pair of blue checkered pants held to his waist. “They’re rather bright.”
“I assure you, sir,” said Mr. Humphries in his best placating voice, “that this color is very in fashion for sports enthusiasts.”
The customer ignored him and looked to Mr. Lucas. “What do you think?”
“I think that they look less like golfing pants and more like a NASCAR flag.” Mr. Lucas exhaled, his daily moment of brutal honesty took a lot out of him.
“Yes,” the customer said with a pleased smile, “that’s what I thought. Could I see something else then?” He held out the pants to Mr. Lucas. Mr. Lucas hesitated, and looked to Mr. Humphries. Technically, this was stealing his commission. Mr. Humphries only nodded and left discretely to his counter.
Mr. Lucas felt a small warm glow as he fitted the customer to his new trousers. For once, he didn’t actively hate the customer he was servicing. The two chatted about football and golf, and when he rang up the trousers on the till, he didn’t feel the need to tell him that the trousers would ride up with wear. It felt miraculous.
As the customer left with his bag, Mr. Lucas saw Mr. Humphries wishing him a good afternoon. Mr. Lucas couldn’t hear the reply, but he thought he saw Mr. Humphries frown.
Maybe he was imagining it.
Mr. Lucas never thought he’d have a regular customer in his entire life. On the one hand, he didn’t think he’d have this department store job long enough to get a regular customer. And on the other, he never thought he’d have the patience or charisma to keep a customer happy for more than the twenty minutes required to take them on the Grace Brothers journey.
Yet, three weeks after their first encounter, Mr. Lucas had made sales with this customer – Jack – five more times. Jack came in for a cashmere sweater, authentic rabbit-skinned gloves, and once for a new raincoat, among other things. Each time he insisted to Captain Peacock and Mr. Grainger that only Mr. Lucas would attend to him.
The look on old Peacock’s face was priceless.
Mr. Lucas was so happy about this development, in fact, that he wanted to tell his confidante about it while they were waiting for customers in their free time. But now Mr. Lucas was starting to think that Mr. Humphries was ignoring him. Every time he started a sentence with Jack’s name in it, Mr. Humphries left, apparently called elsewhere.
However, that Thursday was different. Mr. Lucas had come back late from his lunch break when Captain Peacock gestured him forward.
“I know I’m late, Captain Peacock,” Mr. Lucas began. “But you see, it was one of the serving ladies in the canteen. She reminds me of my elderly mother and – ”
“Never mind that, Mr. Lucas,” Captain Peacock said sternly. “You are wanted in the changing room.”
“The same customer wishes to see you.” Peacock’s frown threatened to consume his face.
Mr. Lucas chuckled. “Don’t worry, Captain Peacock. Success comes to everyone. Eventually.” He left the floorwalker angry and gob-smacked in the middle of the department, exactly how he liked it.
Mr. Lucas entered the changing room to find that Jack had come in asking for a new suit. He could tell immediately that the atmosphere was strained. Jack had his arms crossed over his chest, and Mr. Humphries looked unnerved, which was quite out of character for him when dealing with a customer.
When Jack saw Mr. Lucas arrive, his demeanor suddenly changed. “Dickie, my boy, at last! I need a new suit for Sundays, and I thought you could help me.”
“Certainly, sir,” said Mr. Lucas.
Jack turned to Mr. Humphries. His gaze was harsh. “You can go now.”
Mr. Humphries left without a word, and his walk had less of a spring in his step as he went. Mr. Lucas tried to piece together what might have happened, but knew he had to take care of the customer first. He’d ask Mr. Humphries later.
“I’m glad you got back when you did,” said Jack. “If I had waited five more minutes, I would have left.”
Mr. Lucas took his jacket. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. You caught me on the end of my lunch break.”
“That’s alright. Let’s get this started. I’m afraid I don’t know my size.”
“Didn’t Mr. Humphries take your measurements?”
“He offered.” Jack snorted derisively. “But I didn’t fancy myself being touched by that fag.”
And suddenly everything came crashing into place in Mr. Lucas’ mind.
Jack was on the floor of the fitting room in the next second, clutching his jaw. Mr. Lucas unclenched his fist and walked out of the changing room, past his counters, and straight to the floorwalker.
“Captain Peacock, I thought you might like to know that there will be an angry customer coming out of the changing room at any moment.” Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
“Wait, Mr. Lucas!” Peacock called after him. “Where are you going?”
“To Mr. Rumbold’s office.”
The rest of the day was a blur of sounds. First, Peacock’s exasperated yelling while Jack threw around threats to sue everyone in the department, followed by Rumbold’s monotone droning about staff protocol and regulations. He managed to make out that he would be staying in Mr. Rumbold’s office while the matter was investigated by staff, and if necessary, the police.
Mr. Lucas winced as he stretched and unstretched his hand. It had been a while since he punched someone, and even longer since he punched someone in the face. He’d forgotten how much it hurt.
He was so deep in pain and thought that he didn’t even hear the door open. It was Captain Peacock, undoubtedly to yell at him again.
“You’re free to go, Mr. Lucas.”
Mr. Lucas bolted upright in his chair. “I am? How?”
“You are very lucky,” Captain Peacock stressed, “that the gentleman decided not to press charges, after a heated discussion with me.” Mr. Lucas then noticed the blemish on Peacock’s usually pristine face, and that his tie was disheveled. Had Jack hit him in his rage? Did Peacock fight back – and he missed it?
“Mr. Grace kindly offered to pay for a new suit and damages, before security removed him,” Captain Peacock continued. “The customer is no longer allowed at Grace Brothers.”
“Obviously, the damages will be paid for from your wages, but Mr. Rumbold is currently in Accounting, trying to find the most cost-efficient way of paying him, I’m sure.”
And that was it. Mr. Lucas was amazed at how easily that went, considering he assaulted a customer and admitted it. When he left to get his hat and coat, Mr. Grainger and Ms. Brahms had stayed behind to inquire after him. Even Mrs. Slocombe seemed concerned. But Mr. Humphries was nowhere to be seen.
Unusually, Mr. Lucas was the last one to officially leave. The day’s events had made him tired. As he made his way up the stairs to the elevator, he heard a voice behind him.
“What did he say?”
It was Mr. Humphries, sporting a pale-yellow jacket and pink gloves. He looked like he had been waiting for him.
Mr. Lucas shrugged and pushed the button for the lift. “Does it matter?”
“Not really,” Mr. Humphries chuckled. He joined him on the landing. “I can guess. He’s not the first person to say something, you know.”
“No, even Mr. Grace said it,” Mr. Lucas muttered, recalling the old man’s eightieth birthday, when it was revealed the Mr. Humphries almost didn’t get his job until his mother begged Mr. Grace for him to reconsider. Stupid old coot.
Mr. Humphries laughed again. “Yes, even young Mr. Grace. What I’m saying is that you don’t have to hit anyone for me.”
“I shan’t be doing it again,” Mr. Lucas replies earnestly. “I promise. I don’t even know how I got off scot-free this time.”
“You didn’t, your pay’s been cut.”
The lift bell rang and the doors opened. Mr. Lucas sighed.
Before he could take a step into the lift, Mr. Humphries briefly took hold of his arm. “Thank you, by the way.”
Mr. Lucas smiled for the first time that day. “Whatever you say, mate. Fancy a drink?”