Retail Therapy

Oikpic

By Kenn Taylor

“Bdumm!” The satisfying sound of the long-suffering warehouse doors being whacked aside once more by my roll-cage. The thought of damaging company property is incredibly satisfying, though it does little to alleviate the aches that presently swarm across my body with every movement. Somewhere inside this drink-battered carcass there is a healthy, sober man trying to get out.

Onto the shop floor proper and into that light that penetrates your skull. The uniquely awful combination of fluorescent lamps bouncing off shiny, nearly all white, surfaces with the constant, dizzying hum of innumerable refrigeration units thrown in for good measure.

A gratifying, but ill-judged, hard swing of the cage to the right sees me manoeuvre into a cardboard display stand.

“Shit.”

Still early though, no one about to bollock me, so I re-fold the thing vaguely back into shape and start to pick up all the sweet packets. In this state, even bending down is enough to send me close to collapse.

What was I thinking? Another ‘It’s-not-ilegal-if-you-don’t-tell-anyone-and-we’ll-give-you-time-and-a-half’, finish at 10pm back in for 6am shift. But then I need the money, I’ll just have an early night. No problem. Okay, just one drink. One fucking drink.

And so at 3.55am I make it back home. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes’ sleep later the clock goes off and, after cursing the guy who assembled it to eternal damnation, I drag myself up and put on yesterday’s crumpled uniform. After all, I’m the only gobshite on shift.

So here we are. Ankle deep in fucking Toffos.

I drag the cage round to my respective shelf, past a solitary, early-bird shopper and Hannah pushing the floor polisher. Big lass, but I would.

Not now though. Onwards and upwards and one step-ladder later, I’m rearranging tea bags so they’re all ship shape and Saveco fashion. You get a good vantage point from here. Up with the gods you can see right across the shop, row after row after row, after row.

I feel fucking sick.

It’s quiet. I lay down next to the ladder. Just collect my head, clear the muck out of my throat. Didn’t even have time for a shower this morning, old sweat sticks to my skin, made all the better by the Bri-Nylon crap that constitutes work-wear around here. To add insult to injury, the clown on the Music and Video Desk has turned up and decided ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman is ideal 6.45am listening.

I pick myself up slowly and return to the job. Keep going old son, an English breakfast is but two hours away. Ah, but it’s Thursday: Pension day. All the old folks turn up to buy their small loaves and small cartons of milk and tell you about their exciting day in the Post Office queue and then how their children just don’t come around any more. It really comes to something when the only place old folks can get company is chatting to weary shelf stackers in a tin barn built over the sites of the old factories they used to work in.

Mind you, they’re not all innocent old dears. Karim nabbed one the other day with two bottles of vodka, 3 tins of cat food and a cucumber hidden in her coat. Now that’s a party I wouldn’t have minded going too.

“Excuse me…” Despite the hangover, my retail ninja training kicks in. Quick as a flash I turn and say:

“How can I help you?”

And straightaway alarm bells begin to ring in the back of my mind. The prejudice that comes from long tours of duty in the aisles gives you a nose for the worst beasts to handle, and here’s a prime example.

Woman in early middle age, smartly but cheaply dressed in a stiff trouser suit. Designer glasses that she probably couldn’t afford and already possessing a stern look in her eye the moment I turn around. It doesn’t look good.

“See the items in these trays?”

“Aye.”

“Well the label on the side says there are reduced but none of the items in here have been reduced.”

“Oh yes, sorry, madam, but someone goes around in the morning and takes everything off the shelves that needs to be marked down and puts them there. Then they mark them all down a bit later when they get chance.”

“Well?”

“Well…what?”

“I want them marked down now. I don’t have time to wait, some of us have to get to work,” she says with a pout and a hint of a rough accent creeping in behind the restrained tones. It’s worse than I thought, she’s an ‘I’ve-conqured-the-male-world-of-the-office-and-I’m-not-going-to-get-told-what’s-what-by-a-lacky-shop-monkey’ sort. No doubt works in an estate agent, or something similar; bit thick but has got where she is today by kissing ass and taking shit and she aint going to do it no more. Too brassy and prim to have had kids, and the faux-continental, shite-for-one in her basket backs this up. She’s probably divorced. No doubt lies at home alone every night and masturbates vigorously to a mental image of Daniel Craig.

Sweeping generalisations? Well all she sees is a dopey cunt in an awful shirt, and that’s only because she wants something; most of the time they don’t see you at all. You learn much when no-one sees you. If you want to learn about people, work in a supermarket. All human life is here, from smackheads to plasterers to barristers to struggling mums and bitches like this, and they barely notice you in the corner, beavering away.

But we’re there. We know. We know who people are shagging and who’s pregnant and whose kids are going to the grammar school and who’s going down for a stretch. Usually we couldn’t give a fuck and would rather talk about the football and last night’s CSI: Miami. But we still know.

Anyway.

“I’m sorry but I don’t have the facility to mark them down. You need to get one of the computer guns signed out from the office and I’ve got to get this job finished before 7am. The guy who does the mark downs will be along in just a little while.” I offer a genuine smile, but it gets rejected. She twists her nose, straightens her back and moves off.

Just the fact that I’d managed to wind her up over such a stupid thing would normally have given me that rare sense of superiority that you’re not as small-minded as they are. Not when I’m in this state though, I only hope she’s the one bad customer of the day.

But I’ve barely got back on my step-up when I see Ms Valued Fucking Customer coming back around the corner with an unimpressed-looking Sarah in tow.

“James, did you just give this customer cheek?”

Cheek?! What the fuck?!

“I served the lady to the best of my ability, Sarah.” I shoot the shopper a mild look of sweet inquisitiveness. REMEMBER, SMILE THE BASTARDS TO DEATH. “As I explained, I have no facility to mark things down. Ash will be along in a minute with the terminal.”

“And as I explained to your employee, some of us have to get to work. If,” she talks at Sarah like I’m not there, her well-shod foot tapping with tension, “it isn’t to be marked down yet it shouldn’t have been put out on the display rack. I’ve got a good mind to call Trading Standards.”

“Look, James, just take the lady’s item and mark it down in the back, twice. Then, take the rest of this rack out to the warehouse. You know you shouldn’t leave this out.” Sarah speaks in her best, ‘you’re-a-naughty-boy’ tones, which may wash with her kids, but not with me. She turns to DragonBint. “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, madam; James will sort that out for you now, and let’s see if we can get you a complimentary voucher.” I go to protest, but stop when I realize the futility.

DragonBint hands over the goods, one pack of bagels.

All this over ONE. PACK. OF. BAGELS.

I could, then, have gone straight into how of all the grand, horrendous, horrific crimes and injustices that goes on every day in this world – children dying after they’re born because of inadequate medical care, whole countries kept in poverty because of the underhand dealings of international conglomerates, young girls running away to London because they’re scared they might be pregnant because their boyfriends forced them at the party they shouldn’t have gone to and ending up as crack-whores on the streets of Kings Cross – and this woman chooses to get angry about 25 pence off A PACK OF FUCKING BAGELS.

But I don’t. Use your customer service warrior training, my son. Maintain the poker face and grit teeth. DO NOT LET THEM WIN. “Sorry madam, I’ll sort this out right away.”

I hold in my righteous indignation. And I could have coped with it, happens dozens of times every day. It’s just another petty injustice of retail life. But then as Sarah turns, DragonBint flicks her taught face into a self-satisfied sneer and grins at me.

RIGHT! I turn around before I get chance to do some severe damage and release my internal flames through my eyes and the slow, firm pressure I give to the pack of Bagels. So lady, you think you’ve won. Revenge is a dish best served cold, madam, that’s our culinary tip of the day.

“Bdumm!” I let a little bit more out by giving those doors a whack with so much enthusiasm that they bounce off the sides and come back at me. Terry is going the other way with a job lot of TVs.

“Eh Jay, you look well rough.”

“Cheers, el tel,” I say.

“Ah you young ’uns,” he says with a wry grin, “I remember when I used to be out every night.”

Terry’s jovial words pacify me a little and I let a little more of the pressure out. But I feel even weaker than before with the rage gone, just a shell again, a sweaty, smelly shell. Terry moves forwards towards the light of the shopfloor and I descend into the bowels.

And behind the pretty pictures of shiny fruit and the gleaming white tiles lies where the real work is done. As I emerge out of the corridor into the cavernous, dank warehouse, a chill hits me from the loading bay. It’s still dark outside. I can hear the forklift humming in the yard, so I walk over and wave to Paul. The bite of the early morning air cuts deeper into me and, looking out across the yard to the blue-black sky, the deserted road and the still-strapped newspapers, I feel a vague sense of satisfaction that I am up and at ’em before most people are out of bed.

To business, though. And I wander over to the trolley with all of Ash’s other mark-downs on it and the pricing gun. Simple enough job. But first some extra, personal service for a valued customer

I slip the wee yellow tag from the top of the bagel packet, they’re always loose, and tip out the contents straight onto the lovely, mucky concrete. A multitude of sins reduced to unidentifiable rubbery black stains welcomes them as they hit the deck.

A quick glance around to check no one is coming, nothing but the sound of the box-crusher straining in the distance. Two bagels go up my Bri-Nylon shirt for a wee visit to my sticky pits, with their moisture courtesy of last night’s dancing and the other two go a darker, more hazardous journey down the sweaty crack of last night’s boxers.

I take them all out and examine them again, no real visible damage. Looking at them closely they have achieved a new sheen and a few hairs, but the dark bits are nicely masked by the raisins and sesame seeds. Mmm, the recipe is not yet complete. It needs some…dressing!”

Ah, out of cheese are we. I’ll get some of my own. Swing my head back, one big hawk and Pppthsh. Nice big green and cream one on the flatbed trolley. Eeeuigh. Well, that’s what 20 Lambert and Butler does to your insides, kids. Now, easy does it, just a slight dab around the fringes of it with the baked goods, nothing so you’d notice, just enough of the green stuff to taste. Now, back in to your lovely hermetically-sealed packaging like new. Let’s go for broke. I’ll give her 35p off not 25p. Just to show that we CARE.

I wander back through to the shop floor. My still throbbing head thankfully helping to keep the massive fucking smirk I feel inside from coming out. DragonBint is waiting by the swing doors, arms folded, face like a punched kitten. I hand her the bagels with a polite smile. “Here you go, all nicely discounted.” I’m about to feel a little sorry for her as she takes them from my grasp, but then she purses a lip and snorts before turning around. As we begin off in our separate directions along the long, white thoroughfare I shout back to her:

“Have a nice day now!”

I know I will.

This piece appeared in the Summer 2014 editon of The Crazy Oik.

As Ever the Phoenix

As Ever The Pheonix Image


His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.

He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.

The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.

The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.

He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.

When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.

Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.

He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.

As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.

The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.

He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.

As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.

The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.

The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.

And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.

Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.

It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.

He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.

All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.

Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.