For once I’ve been writing blind. I normally get an idea and pursue it but this time I just wrote and let it go wherever it wanted to go. The piece started out with a small idea called “Despair is Contagious” about my time working in a local supermarket. I had many of these types of jobs, and like all of the other ones it started with excitement but over time I contracted the despair of the full-time workers. It always took the same amount of time, 18 months, before I was miserable. I would then leave and find another store to work in, the cycle continuing. This is quite a long one and it was suggested I post it in installments. So here it is, Part One of my next not-so-short story. I also changed the title.
Enjoy, I shall be posting often.
We Grow Up in the Strangest Places – Part One
I had seen other members of staff do it, the full-timers. I just never thought I would.
Two weeks earlier I had been promoted to the lofty position of pro-rata shelf packer. I got a green pinstripe shirt, slacks and a tie. I even got a name badge. I was solely packing shelves, no other miscellaneous jobs, and I was treated better. You could almost call it respect. Packing shelves was to be my specialty and I was assigned a section with a responsibility–nappys and bog roll (diapers and toilet paper). A day after my promotion I got to watch them take down my headshot that hung high above the carpark-based shopping cart retrieval station. That awful snapshot of what I used to be was coming down and I would never have to stand under it again. I would never have to collect shopping carts again. I would never have to do anything other than pack selves ever again. Oh the joy. No removing gum from the store entrance with a hammer and chisel in front of my neighbors, no climbing into the trash compactor to fix a blockage, no vacuum cleaning the car park with a giant industrial asphalt vacuum cleaner and definitely no mopping the butcher’s storeroom clean of frozen blood amongst the hanging pig carcasses. I would pack shelves in a shirt and tie and I was damn fucking proud of it. I had earned it. I would also make 50 pence more on the hour and that made me a demi-god.
Martin’s headshot remained, his freckled crazy-eyed headshot. In the right light you almost couldn’t notice how one eye stared down the other as if in a perpetual war dance. I had collected carts with Martin over the summer at Quinnsworth Shopping Center. When not collecting shopping carts I was turning down his invitations to join Sinn Fein. Martin, of course, was already a member, and many an hour would pass with him telling tales of how the English ate their babies and if you left a Protestant alone with your cat for more than 10 minutes you would get it back raped, blind and pregnant. Martin continued to crackle under that year’s Indian summer with his new buddy and potential convert, Stewart, a flop-haired boy obsessed with David Bowie who walked around with his mouth permanently open, looking amazed and apathetic at the same time.
I was 18 and had just received the results from my final exams at school, and got enough points to head to college to study engineering. I would work weeknights and weekends, making a pretty sum of 45 pounds a week. My life became a rotation of working long hours indoors packing shelves and sitting in classroom lectures on material mechanics or something equally as dull. As I progressed in life I began seeing the outside world less and less.
So here I was, all done up in my new uniform unable to respond to a very simple question on aisle two. This wasn’t my section after all.
“Do we have Marrow fat peas?” I repeated slowly.
The old woman narrowed her eyes and jabbed her boney finger into my new shirt raising her voice.
“Yeah, don’t yah have them or don’t yah not have them?”
Her white wispy hair was tucked under a head scarf, the rest of her was hidden under a deep grey coat with oversized pockets. It was the middle of summer but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Let me check.”
I turned and walked into the store room through the thick plastic flaps. I just stood there. Not a soul, just me and every item of food Ireland could ever want in an endless storeroom. The compacter crushed waste, a forklift shifted pallets and someone somewhere was packing a jangly stock-cart.
“What the fuck is a marrow fat pea?” I thought.
I returned to the floor.
“I just spoke to the manager and unfortunately we don’t stock marrow fat peas.”
“Liar!” she growled, producing a can that she apparently had all along.
“I’ve been looking for these for ages and every time you say you don’t stock them. Liar! I found this on the shelf earlier. You’re all too lazy to look! It’s no wonder this country has gone to the dogs.”
She stormed away, all bones and old clothes, and then I was doing it without realizing it. I was doing what I had seen the full-timers do. I moved to the next aisle over were they kept the fresh bread. I reached deep into the wicker bread basket and pulled out the hardest scone I could find. I weighed it in my hands. The raisins were crisp and sharp, the shell was ceramic to the touch but a small squeeze revealed a springy interior of fresh sweet bread. The typical Irish scone. I looked up at the low-lying industrial fan above my head, it’s blades rhythmically swooping around. Whump-whump-whump. The glass-like coating of the scone became a little sticky under the moisture of my hand. I threw it up into the fan. As if it were the fans only purpose, a blade scooped it up and shot it across the supermarket floor.
I could tell it was perfection. Not by the ping from the blade, nor the arch of the scone, but from the silence. Nothing happened for the longest time. Then, the sound of a cosmetics shelf exploding. Yes! Shampoo bottles burst forth into the pea and bean aisle. A woman screamed, a baby erupted into glorious, ear piercing , undiluted despair. YES! Seven aisles over!
I calmly walked back to the storeroom to really find out what a marrow fat pea was.