by Cath Holland
THE AIR CONDITIONING system mumbles to itself here inside the supermarket tonight. Temperatures are temperate and still. But in the main aisle, smaller narrower ones threading from it, twenty-three year old Carl is itchy and hot and fed up. When he first started working here and lived at home, he was minted and made up. On 12p an hour more than minimum wage, got paid more than his mates. Gave his mum keep every fortnight because for some reason that’s when supermarkets pay wages. He still had loads left for the fourteen days, out in town every Friday and all the next day and went to the match too. Moved in with his girl twelve months and six days ago, she’s well fit is Chloe, but no one said how much nappies, rent and bills cost. Being the breadwinner sounds miles better than it is. Carl’s always skint now. But not like the losers waiting for him this very minute in his eyeline. He knows the face, gaping mouth and twitching hand of a girl, pretty not long ago, worry lines slashing her cheeks and forehead. A little old man not two years old, muddy grey circles under his eyes grips the hem of her t-shirt. The lad who took off with the Angel Delight, he’s back. Pupils like pinpricks. Carl makes out a box outline through his jacket. But Carl’s no grass. The older women smell like vinegar. He can tell just by looking.
Armed with acid yellow stickers and an attitude, Carl drew the short straw when he clocked on.
He marks the fruit and veg down first. Heat rises in bodies in response, stomachs tense, annoyance bubbles and stews. Carl zones his audience out and works methodically with bagged salad unnaturally green and avocado nowhere near ripe, tomatoes too soft on the vine and sweaty mushrooms. The waiting resent the food they will never peel and chop or taste, and don’t even know the name of. They’re here for the readymade and microwavable, the chiller cabinet the Holy Grail of marked-down foodstuffs.
Carl hears the advice from when he first started. Legs apart, elbows out. Don’t let ‘em rush you. You’re in charge. Get on with it. Show you’re weak and they’re right in there. Carl reckons he should get paid twice as much per hour, three probably, for doing this part of the job. But won’t ever say to anyone out loud. He strips off yellow stickers one by one, slaps them on each product, presses with a firm thumb, so none get peeled off and switched. The stickers are thin on purpose, impossible to remove. But you never know with these people. They got skills, and pounce before he’s finished. He tastes the sour tang of desperation in breaths, two deep now, double the density, intensity. Bends forward to push bodies back but an elbow bangs his ear, a groin presses against his spine as a stranger stretches right over to get at the reduced chicken, bags of miscellaneous meat, boxes of fakeaway takeaway. Knuckles against flesh not punching him but pressing close and hard, bone against bone. A multi limbed beast in urban sportswear clamped on his back, grunting and stripping the shelves clean. Carl pulls himself free, sorry and sore.
In the bread aisle it’s another world. Bright and dry. Cool. Wet evaporates from his cheeks and forehead. He closes his eyes in sweet relief. ‘Excuse me’ spoken mildly and low, opens them. A woman smiles bland thanks as he steps aside. Dips down by his feet in an almost curtsey. Plucks an unsliced wholemeal loaf with a fancy seeded crust from the bottom shelf. She’s old enough to be Carl’s nan, in an anorak zipped right up, shoes with identical butterfly bow laces, neat figures of eight. She squeezes the loaf with her fingers. A worried frown creases her forehead. Maybe she wonders if it’s fresh, after sitting on the shelf all day wrapped in plastic. Fair question. She pauses and for the length of her sigh he gets ready to say, wait luv. Give us a minute. I’ll yellow sticker that for yer. Save 90p, how’s that? But the words stay in his throat. He watches her walk away with footsteps as tidy as she is, the bread in her careful hands. Hears the soft soles of her feet whisper against hard tiles. Listens to them quieten to nothing, sees her disappear past the soft fruits 60% off. He turns his back and looks at a spot on the ceiling, as far away from the woman as possible. Maybe she was never here at all! The air conditioning burps out a pocket of cold air, right into his left eye. Makes it sting and water. He blinks his vision clear, pulls on his collar and stretches his spine long and tall. For a full five seconds and with two hours and twenty-three minutes of his shift to go Carl feels like a winner.
Cath Holland is a writer of fiction and fact based on Merseyside. She is published in Mslexia, Know Your Place – Essays on the Working Class (Dead Ink Books), Story Cities (Arachne Press), NFFD anthologies, Fictive Dream, Spontaneity and lots more beautiful places in print and online. Twitter: @cathholland01.