The Rivals

Nina had walked straight into a trade war where no one was winning. Would it take a miracle to fulfil her client’s brief and turn things round?

It had been so much easier in the Eighties, Nina thought as she stood in front of her mirror.

Back then everyone wore huge shoulder pads and if you didn’t look like a character from Dynasty, you stood out from the crowd.

Nina wasn’t much interested in fashion usually, but when she was on a mission it was important to get the details right.

Otherwise she might be found out. That would never do.

And this particular mission called for more of an interest in dress sense than most.

Having decided the shawl she’d draped artfully around her shoulders would do in the absence of power-dressing, she checked her notes.

Being undercover as an operative was hard work and required absolute attention to detail. This was her final mission before retirement and she was determined it would go perfectly.

Her first port of call was a high street boutique called Tricia’s Togs. Tricia was the person she was after.

“Good morning,” said the woman behind the counter as she went in.

“Hello,” said Nina, taking in the scene around her. “I see you have a sale on?”

“Won’t find better prices than here,” the woman said, as she folded a cashmere sweater and added it to a pile on the counter next to a display board declaring 50% Off.

Despite the woman’s confident tone, as Nina looked around the shop all she was picking up was a sense of despair.

It wasn’t just all the drastic price cuts – it was the worn carpet and the scuffed fittings. This looked to Nina like a business that was well and truly on its uppers.

“So I see,” said Nina. “Are you Tricia?”

“Yes,” said the woman, suddenly wary. “Who’s asking?”

Nina handed her a business card.

Negotiations and Reconciliations?” Tricia read aloud. “What does that mean?”

“Can we talk somewhere else?” Nina said. “Somewhere more comfortable?

“There’s a little café down the road. How about you meet me there for coffee and cake when you close?”

The woman looked undecided.

“I might have something that will be to your benefit to tell you,” Nina said, then left with an airy wave of her hand.

Nina walked a little further along the street. Where was the next place she was looking for, she wondered.

Then she saw the sign. It was a bit scruffy, and one of the letters had fallen off, but Nina was fairly sure that although the sign now said “Clare’s Cloth s” it was in fact Clare’s Clothes.

Noting the closing time on the door was the same as Tricia’s, she took a deep breath and went in.

This place was even worse than Tricia’s Togs, she discovered.

Many of the racks were empty, for a start. And those that weren’t were stacked with random garments in a way that seemed to defy logic.

Again, everywhere she looked were signs saying 50% OFF, Rock Bottom Prices, Never to be repeated Sale.

Nina approached the harassed and exhausted-looking woman who stood behind the counter.

“You must be Clare,” she said. “You look as though you could really do with my help.”

Then she handed over her card and made her the same offer that she’d made to Tricia.

Nina ordered a pot of coffee and three slices of cake then went to sit on one of the squashy sofas in sight of the door so that she could wait for the two women to arrive.

While she waited, she consulted her notes again.

Yes, there was no doubt about it – Tricia and Clare were quite deliberately and recklessly putting each other out of business.

Nina’s client was expecting her to sort it out and bring the two women to an amicable agreement that would allow both their businesses to flourish.

How on earth was she going to achieve it, though?

Nina smiled at the waitress as she deposited the tray on the table, then checked her watch.

Nearly time. Both women were due to close their shops at 5pm, so they’d be along any minute.

She looked up just in time to see Tricia and Clare walking into the café.

Clare spotted Tricia first, and Nina could tell she was seriously considering turning around and walking straight back out again.

Nina stood up and waved.

“Come and sit down, Clare,” she said firmly.

Reluctantly, both women joined her at the table. As Nina poured coffee, the other two pointedly ignored each other.

“Now then,” said Nina. “I’ve visited both of your shops today and I couldn’t help noticing that things aren’t going well for either of you.”

“Well, that’s her trying to put me out of business, isn’t it?” said Tricia.

Clare said nothing.

“It seems to me that you are both equally to blame,” said Nina. “You’re each trying to put the other out of business by undercutting them and constantly selling things at rock bottom prices.

“The trouble is, as I see it, in doing so you’re each wrecking your own business as well.”

“What’s it to you?” asked Tricia.

“We at Negotiations and Reconciliations work on behalf of clients who want to see people succeed. I am not at liberty to reveal who my client is on this occasion, but rest assured, it is someone who has both your best interests at heart.

Now – are you willing to let me help you?”

Clare finally spoke.

“I can only keep going for another fortnight at most the way things are going,” she said quietly.

“What about you, Tricia?” Nina asked.

Tricia fiddled with her coffee cup.

“A month or so.”

“Why are you doing this to each other? Or, more importantly, to yourselves?”

“She always steals my customers.”

“She puts things on half price every time I put new stock out.”

“She tells my customers that my stock is shoddy.”

The two women flung bitter accusations at each other until they were red in the face and breathing hard.

“But why?” questioned Nina. “I bet neither of you can even remember what started it all, can you?”

“It doesn’t make any difference who started it. This street’s just not big enough for two ladies’ clothes shops,” Tricia grumbled, looking sulky.

“Not the way you’re doing it, no,” Nina said firmly. “But maybe there is a solution to be found.”

“Like what?” said Clare, looking interested for the first time.

“Well, what about if one of you specialised in formal wear and the other offered casual and sportswear? Or what about if one of you aimed at the teenage and young twenties market and the other aimed more at the more mature lady?”

“Well – I have wanted to branch out into sportswear for a while. I just can’t,” Clare conceded grudgingly.

“And I’ve been thinking of diversifying into accessories,” Tricia admitted, with a sideways glance at Clare.

“There you are then,” said Nina. “If you stop attacking each other and trying to undercut each other, you could probably both make a profit.

“Who knows – you might even be able to help each other out a bit by referring customers across.”
They both looked thoughtful.

“So,” said Nina, smiling encouragingly at both of them. “Are you going to work together in future and stop trying to put each other out of business?”

Tricia hesitated for a moment.

“Yes,” she said. “You’ve made me realise I was being a bit silly.”

“OK,” said Clare. “I suppose it would be better if we cut each other a bit of slack. After all, we are sisters.”

Nina raised her cup of coffee and toasted them. “Here’s to both of you and your future success.”

Back at home, Nina could finally relax. She kicked off her shoes and flexed her toes in the soft carpet.

Then with a sigh of relief, she unwrapped the shawl from her shoulders, took off her sweater and let her wings unfurl.

Being a guardian angel was hard work, but today’s mission had gone even better than expected.

She hadn’t even had to reveal that her client was Clare and Tricia’s late grandmother, who had given them both the money to start their shops in the first place.

Revealing that sort of thing was always a last resort.

It was better if people could be led to think they’d resolved their own differences without supernatural interference.

Nina flopped down onto the sofa and heaved a sigh of relief.

She reached for the television remote control and put her feet up on the coffee table.

Now she could enjoy her retirement in peace and never have to hide her wings again.

Our My Weekly Favourites series of feel-good fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.

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