We Grow Up in The Strangest Places – Part Four

We Grow Up In The Strangest Places – Part Four

Before long it was almost Christmas and they hired new staff for the rush. Momentum was building to the point where flop-haired Stewart and crazy-eyed Martin started to look like their head-shots. Shiny new mannequins draped in the latest fashions adorned the smaller satellite store windows, irrelevant, static, empowering and terrifying in their limblessness. Christmas tree salesmen appeared out on the roadside and butted heads for space, lights went up, and all that shite that is christmas began.

Frank was the new recruit that stuck out. He was from Ballymun, a rough area a few towns over, which meant that every other store between there and here had not hired him.  This was terrifying because the distance covered Crazy Prices, Super-Valu, Bargain Town and, the most inglorious of them all, the battleground of thugs the Northside Shopping Center. I’m sure that Northside’s radio jingle (shouted, not sung) was performed by the very thugs who populated the place. “Northside! Northside! the great, great shopping center!!!”.

Frank cycled to work everyday, showered at work, and then hit the floor with his pencil thin mustache and rock-hard gelled hair. Skinny as a rake and propped upright with rage, he laughed with an evil, quiet chuckle that came from his belly and barely caused his lips to move. Wah wah wah. He would steal produce the entire day and by lunchtime his backpack was pretty much bulging to burst. Did I ever say anything? Fuck no, I befriended him because he terrified me. Little did I know that he would ruin Christmas for everybody by having the mother of all showdowns with Santa Clause himself.

Santa Clause, or Terry as he was known to all, came in every year and dressed up for the local kids. His grotto sat just outside the store and lines of children would form as soon as the doors opened. To say Terry was simply loved would be to say that Mother Theresa was simply tolerated. Terry was adored. Everyday he would walk from Beaumont through the houses, down the main road to the roundabout and skip in through the car park whistling as loud as anybody could whistle. He loved his job, loved it. I never found out what he did the rest of the year but for the three-week run up to Christmas he was a professional Santa Clause. 

This is where the problem started. At the end of the day, Terry used to leave his Santa costume in the one and only shower in the whole place causing Frank great displeasure in having to move it every time he came in to work. Frank always arrived before Terry, and he would move his costume by dumping it on the floor, and then proceed shower and leave. Terry would arrive later and find his costume on the ground. Later again because Terry left after Frank he would put his costume back in the shower, therefore stamping his territory. The shower was Terry’s and Frank was an occasional lodger. Everybody loved Terry and everybody was scared of Frank. 

A storm was a brewing. A shit storm.

That morning of the shit storm, the mornings of all mornings, I arrived to find the place is chaos. Managers were running around like cowards in a battle, lines of children at the grotto had become shifting tides of crying and wailing snot-nosed shriek machines, pleading to their mothers to see Santa. But there was no Santa, and as the lines grew bigger, an air of panic floated over everything. The only thing I could hear clearly was the bleeping of the newly installed barcode scanner checkout machines. Bleep, Bleep, SCREAM, bleep, bleep, SHUT UP Y’LITTLE BASTARD, bleep, bleep, WAHHH!. I walked to the locker room and saw the cleaning lady come out with a large black bag. She was wearing rubber gloves and carried a bottle of bleach. It didn’t look good. I was almost afraid to ask, judging by the look on her face. The cigarette that always stuck out sternly and erect from her lip now hung down by her chin shaking the ash onto her apron. 

“What happened” I said.
“Oh poor Terry, that poor man” she said. “He’s fuck’n heartbroken so he is”.
She dropped the bag into the cart, walked me into the canteen and over a cup of tea she told me what had just happened.

Frank it seemed, finished his shift the previous night and before leaving he went to the shower were Terry kept his Santa costume. He took one of his black Santa boots and unceremoniously took a shit in it. I never had to imagine a man shitting in a boot before but that day was a day of firsts. I could imagine Frank, teeth bared over thin chapped lips and his snake-like eyes burning holes in the shower tiles as that soft chuckle of his slipped out of his mouth. Wah wah wah. His pencil thin mustache lying dead on a stretched-thin smile as he pushed his boney arse into the fur-lined boot. 

The cleaner had seen Terry arrive in full pomp and whistling ceremoniously as he always did, laughing and waving to everyone. He went to the locker room and dressed himself with the speedy routine he acquired over the years. Last to go on were his boots, the last of which contained Frank’s day old shite. Terry pulled up the boot, froze, turned to the cleaning lady and said in his gravely deep voice “I quit.” He showered, changed back into his old clothes and walked home never to be seen again, ever. I was going to ask about the tell-tale smells which may have lingered from his boot, but the place was full of strange smells all poorly masked by the overpowering twang of bleach. Nobody could ever really smell anything let alone chain-smoking, gravel gurgling Terry. Everyone knew it was Frank but there was no proof. The locker rooms were off limits to any type of surveillance due to an incident involving an overweight female security guard who fell through the skylight in the woman’s bathroom while investigating the mysterious disappearance of toilet rolls from the cubicles. She sued the store and won. Hence, there was no security once you left the shop floor. 

I sat there drinking tea while the cleaning lady stared out the window. “Poor Terry,” she said. “God love’m, the face he made when he put on that boot. He knew immediately who it was.” She stubbed her cigarette butt out in a foil ashtray then threw it in the cart.
“Things are gonna change around here I tell yah.” She made her way through the tables and chairs to the door. I nodded, but deep down I knew they wouldn’t. The trash compactor burst to life from the storeroom and Terry’s Santa costume was no more.

That was the day, that was the morning, that was the moment when working there stopped being fun. It had started odd and would get even worse. I should have guessed judging by how the day started. 

Earlier that morning when coming to work I took a short cut through a local housing estate when I suddenly heard the magical and sickly twinkles of something familiar, then it stopped just as quickly. I turned to see that across the street, Maggie was getting into his ice-cream van ready for another day, slow and careful so as not to break himself. Maggie, a man, was my former ice-cream man. There was something sad about seeing him climb into his pink van with his wild, unkempt grey hair, a cigarette hanging from his lip, and an obvious hangover. It was too real. He looked old. When I was young, seeing his van in the estate was magic; now it just made me depressed. Hearing The Teddy Bears’ Picnic plink-plank tune bounce off the pebble dash walls from the far end near the Campbell’s house, bounce around the playground, and disappear into the fields across from my house set such a fire inside me, I would have burnt a chapel to its foundations for its donation money. I never did, I just asked my mam for 25 pence and bought a screwball. A screwball was ice cream in a plastic cone with a round ball of gum at the bottom that we called a gob-stopper. Cherry if I was lucky. I would scoop out the ice cream at the back of the van, eat the gob-stopper and stick the plastic container between the back wheel and frame of my BMX because it made it sound like a motorcycle when I sped through the back lane, chewing cherry-flavored gum thinking I was cool. Maggie was great, always in good form ─ until we had a dispute over the increase in the cost of a screwball from 25 pence to 30 pence. After hearing a neighbor shout at the bin-man the day before, regarding them leaving a mess behind, I decided to quote him directly in a desperate attempt to get the same results. I did, kinda. 

“I pay your fuck’n wages Maggie,” I cried at the height of our exchange. I was 10 years old.
“Y’do in your bollox!” he screamed jumping out the van’s side window scattering cones and a tub of chocolate flakes before chasing me down the street. He never caught me. I never went back to Maggie. Besides, I hated ice cream. Now I knew where he lived. I’d seen him before the magic of his arrival at our estate two towns over.

As I walked through the car park to the store I saw something that was both hilarious and depressing at the same time. It was the type of thing you only see working in a job were you pack shelves and take shit from the public. It was not uncommon to have people from the richer areas shop at our store for its much lower prices. They had been doing it at Crazy Prices, Dunnes Stores and Super Valu for years. They would come in the morning or late at night. They stood out like sore thumbs. Men who seemed both confused and surprised at everything. They smelled different, less like Old Spice and more herb-like. Sports jackets with elbow patches. Skinny, boney-arsed wives, zombying around the store with purple wine-stained lips. When you saw them together, it was less love, more function. 

A guy with side parted hair and lemon sweater stooped over a miniature version of himself surrounded by glass and bubbles. I could tell they were broken champagne bottles because they were the only bottles I’d never walked out of the liquor store with. The child was having, for a ten year old, a very mature nervous breakdown. Stoic. There were tears but they left his eyes so reluctantly. He was more embarrassed at showing emotion than being upset. Like a ship without a mast, a tall skinny woman drifted through the parked cars, her nose air bound. She brought her heavily bangled wrists up and pointed at her son, also in lemon, crying. Albeit slurred, she demanded answers.

“What in the name of CHRIST is going on?”
Looking down, the husband pointed at his sons shoes surrounded by effervescent rainbow filled bubbles.
“Nigel is after dropping all the fucking plonk!”

Nigel looked up distraught, and the husband threw his hands in the air. The day was ruined. The wife calmly opened the passenger door of the car and climbed inside with the elegance of a woman who regularly got drunk by 11am. Sitting in silence punching buttons on the radio, she eventually found a station playing her song. As Nigel and his father cleaned up the mess, she listened to “Diary” by Bread at top volume.

I entered the shop both entertained and disturbed by what I had seen and moved past the smaller shops in the arcade, with their mannequins propped in the windows. Then I walked into the Frank – Terry fiasco. The rest of the day was a somber affair. Everybody was talking about it. I had laughed along with all the other pranks and tricks that were played upon the staff, but not this one. I felt bad for Terry, I felt bad for all my sycophantic behavior around Frank because I was afraid of him. Most of all I just found it depressing that this was the reality I lived in. They got one of the butchers to dress in the Santa suit but he wore his own shoes. I wondered how the children may have been affected by the copper smell of blood from this hastily-gathered slaughter-turned-Santa as they sat on his knee telling him what they wanted for Christmas. Not to be murdered by you?

The day before Christmas eve I worked the night shift with the usual crew. The tradition of working nights over any holiday was that we all chip in and get the job done, help each other out so we could finish early and retire to the canteen to get hammered drunk. We could eat anything off the shelves and drink whatever the manager left for us as a bonus. This was always reinforced by liquor smuggled in. It also helped that Keith was living with Maria, the manager of the liquor store. These nights always led to carnage and the settling of old scores, and this was no different, although I remember not enjoying it as much this time around. 

There was the food fight which never got quite out of hand because we had to clean it up afterwards, the pallet truck race, indoor football match using borrowed mannequins for goal keepers, and scone throwing. Unadulterated, joyous scone throwing. Keith regaled us with further stories of his sexual adventures with Maria, Paul’s fight talk reached higher, more unbelievable grounds spurned on no doubt by being out-psychoed by Frank in the last few weeks. Paul would fight anyone but he’d never shit in someone’s shoe and he knew that we knew it too. Andy done his usual party trick of putting a chair on a table and standing on it while puffing on a huge cigar as we all slapped the table and chanted “Midget! Midget! Midget!”. A guitar was brought out and we all sang until the blue light of morning started to shine through the grimy canteen windows. We then finished the beer as we sat around tired, chatting and re-establishing what we had and had not in common.

Then we all went our separate ways home. I knew it would be the last of the night shift parties for me. They would have many more. 

As I left I walked out through the shop floor, along the wicker baskets filled with scones, around Santa’s grotto and past the smaller stores in the arcade with their battered mannequins wearing soon to be last years fashions. 
Despair is contagious.
The End.