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Black on White in Marks and Spencers HQ, Baker Street, London
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

Throughout my earlier life our family in Liverpool always had a connection with people who supplied or worked for M&S.

'Uncle' Phil, my father's best friend, was a self made millionaire through textiles and had a collection of Lowry paintings in both his home in Liverpool and his flat in London, near Baker Street where M&S's HQ was located. Every Christmas, without fail, his chauffeur Fred would drive up our modest suburban drive in the Bentley bearing the same gifts every year. Pale pink and blue quilted house coats for me and my mother and a huge casket of expensive Terry's of York dark rich chocolate in drawers and some individually wrapped in gold foil. The posh beige box had a brown monogram and a historic date. Perhaps when the company was founded. This casket is no longer made today but Terry's still make an orange chocolate ball and possibly almonds enrobed with dark chocolate. Those were the days. The 1950's.

I recall being ill as a teenager and created some hair combs with colourful velvet ribbons and bows glued on to the combs. 'Uncle' Phil thought the idea was interesting and took all my 'samples' to London for a presentation. I didn't dare to ask for them back and I never saw my craft work again. I did not like or trust 'Uncle' Phil from that moment on.

Then my parent's best friends fled from Apartheid South Africa. Somehow Sonny David landed a top job you know where as did my relative Theo Helfet who settled in Leeds in Yorkshire, the textile centre in the old days of England. He too supplied textiles to HQ.

When I moved to London my cousin Jack's best friend Harvey welcomed me. On arriving at my flat to take me out for dinner, he happened to go to the bathroom. He returned quoting all the stock numbers of my flat mate Helga's panties hanging up to dry!

Later one of my Portobello Market clients Bill Blackburn turned out to be the food manager for the large food hall in the Oxford Street branch and the Israeli Paldi brothers supplied all the tropical fruits to the food hall, also my clients in Portobello Road where I had my stand for 25 years.

One day the art department at HQ phoned my company Retrograph Archive. They wanted inspiration for new soap packaging. How they heard about me and my vast collection of sophisticated packaging and labels from Paris, I never knew. Eventually I sold them some designs and was invited to the design studio to see their artwork and to meet the head designer.

I then remembered that Nigel Colne was on the board of directors at HQ. He was the nephew of my favourite Aunt Eileen originally from Swansea, who had at one stage of her young life lived with her second cousin, my mother, so in fact she was my third cousin, not my aunt. But I adored this intellectual woman who had been married to a South African politician from Durban. When she was widowed she moved to London to be close to her brother in Hendon, Nigel's father. Over the years, she would talk about her nephew who I think was in marketing and had worked up the ladder in HQ. I had met him once as a child so I though why not visit my cousin while in the same building? I had to make an appointment because he was a VIP up on the fifth floor with the red carpet so I discovered. A big mistake!

The day came and I was warmly received in the design studio. After, they took me for tea and biscuits in the canteen. I was very familiar with M&S's excellent biscuits and scoffed quite a few! Then later I was accompanied up to the fifth floor no doubt for security reasons and suddenly found I was walking on a red carpet. Was I a VIP too?

Nigel was unfriendly, stiff and formal asking about Aunt Eileen. I could see in a flash that this was going to be a brief meeting but unfortunately I took off my red and black Spanish poncho and rested my large wet brolly against my chair. I noted he had a fluffy white carpet and wondered if anything ever got spilt on it. White is not exactly a practical colour in an office. The poor man didn't know what to say or ask me. He immediately rang for his PA to bring the coffee. An attractive slender black woman arrived carrying a silver plated tray with an elaborate silver plated teapot, bone china cups and saucers and top of the range Belgian coated chocolate biscuits from their deluxe range on a decorative plate.

I don't recall what we spoke about. I was bored out of my mind and no doubt he had one eye on the clock. Time to depart. The PA was unfortunately called in to remove the tray. Why oh why? Just the exact second I was lifting my arms to put my poncho over my head, crash. My descending arm must have caught the girl carrying the tray! Black on white. I can still see Nigel's pained expression. The poor girl rushed out to get a cloth but the damage had been done.

Worst was yet to come. It must have been a wet day because I was carrying a big brolly. Nigel ushered me into the lift eager, no doubt, to get his unwanted guest off the premises. Somehow my brolly got stuck into another executive, already in the lift, straight into his balls!!!! I mumbled my apologies with a Po face. Nigel was clearly exasperated. Bill Blackburn seemed to be waiting for me downstairs to sign me out and remove me off the premises. I don't recall Nigel saying goodbye, a pleasure to have met you!!!! He was gone from 0 to 5 in a flash.

But all these Marks and Sparks ghosts are dead and buried including my magician husband's old conjurer friend John Salisse, who was a Magic Circle director and on both boards.

Written in Hotel Las Casas de la Juderia. Santa Cruz, Seville. October 2015.