It was Wednesday and Donna had just come back off unpaid leave for stealing a leather armchair. She’d managed to skirt around getting sacked, or sent to prison, with a doctor’s note on the account of anxiety caused by her best friend’s murder. More troubling than something this horrific happening to somebody you know, is the conflict it causes you internally. Were we bad people for not liking a woman going through such a traumatic event? Regardless of her 6-week absence, she returned, 10 minutes before opening, took one good look over the standard merchandising, set according to the company’s step-by-step guide, and murmured loudly “Oh, I’ll have to do something about all this.”
Donna often decided our work wasn’t up to scratch. She’d stand over you, pointing to pieces of metal stands, asking you to drag them across the floor while customers with 2- for-12 t-shirts dodged out of the way. All the while glaring at you for not being careful enough. She began to avoid eye-contact and I’d anticipated her request to put everything back, exactly as it was. We could all see it coming, that she’d be popping out for her 4-hour lunch break.
“I’m taking my lunch early.” When family members lie dying in hospital, they get that look on their face too.
Once Donna had left, Mandy’s eyes widened in a way that frightened me. I’d seen my mother have a minor stroke, years before. Her lips pursed, like the shock of being kicked in the crotch, she lowered her voice and spoke calmly. “Donna’s back everybody.” I’m not sure who everybody was, but Mandy’s husband had recently gone blind and I had begun making a point of agreeing with everything she said and did. Besides, the empty shop would do her some good.
After a few minutes of rattling our hands over rails of clothing, we decided we’d put the kettle on and do nothing. For fear of showing initiative, we’d only disappoint if we looked too keen. We stood at the back of the shop, behind the stands of black trousers in any style or fit someone daft enough to wear them, could dream of. We agreed to make a point of being unable to take our breaks, being only two of us in the shop. “It’s not on” was Mandy’s favourite expression. But I considered: if it wasn’t “on”, our version of “off” was likely an out of body experience, where we watched ourselves do as little as possible from the fake CCTV cameras.
I was in the middle of calmly explaining to a regular that she could not, in-fact, return underwear for hygiene reasons, when M sent the gas signal. Mandy’s tiny 5-foot stature popping out from behind the customer. For those blessed with zero retail experience, it’s a complex hand gesture that involves holding the nose and making a waving motion with your free hand. Spitting from the corners of her mouth, the woman with the butterfly clip and indoor sunglasses decided to try an age-old sob-story. The particular hinge of this one being that her Mother was in hospital. In London. And we all knew southerners were far too tasteful to be caught dead shopping in Barato’s Bargains. I agreed with her. I also recalled selling them to her yesterday – a double pack of cream Sloggy’s – and complimenting her mother’s cardigan. It reminded me of Joseph’s technicolour dream coat, which as a child, my Godmother had forced me to watch a VHS tape of Donny Osmond performing on west-end. Mandy tried to do us all a favour and suffocate her with air-freshener, before coming to work through some of her anger.
“Actually, that’s quite disgusting,” Mandy said, leaning over the counter slightly and peering through her own narrowed eyes into the heart of the beast. Mandy was from Yorkshire and had the rare and under-appreciated ability of being condescending while sounding perfectly reasonable.
“Well the pack hasn’t been opened, look!” she said as she pulled an open pack of control briefs out of her carrier bag.
“I’m not sure what the problem is then,” Mandy said, with a tone shorter than Donna’s working day.
“Well they don’t fit”
“And you’d know that how, if your mother hasn’t tried them on?”
“Because we took them out of the packet and held them against her thigh.” I wondered whether the woman was stupid or simply cared so little that she’d given up all attempts at hanging onto reality.
“Why don’t you try taking them back to M&S, tell them you’ve forgotten the receipt,” I ventured.
“Oh, good idea, lovey! You’re so good to me here. Send my love to Donna.”
Mandy held her arms up in the air as the woman left the shop. If I understood exactly what had just happened in front of me, I’d have probably walked straight out myself. I’d have left Mandy on her own to shout at the old ladies who complained the £3 sale t-shirts weren’t also on the 2-for-12 offer.
Ellie was in at two, she’d been owed five hours for last week. Donna’s return to work actually being last Monday, but due to the rising costs of childcare, our retail manager had decided to work from home. I wondered what her home looked like. It likely smelled of the pine floor disinfectant we’d ordered on our cleaning supplies and never received.
“I’ve been here two bloody minutes and there’s a shit in the changing rooms!” Ellie always wore clothes far too large for her, and her cardigan billowed like a cloud of black smoke around her.
“Not again!” Mandy exhaled, with enough defeat, that we told her to have a sit-down in the staff-room.
“Will you get me the paper towels and a carrier bag,” Ellie said, without a single tear leaving her eyes. “Oh, and the washing up gloves from the staff room.”
“You can’t pick that up, Ellie. You don’t know what’ll happen”
“God, you’re right.” She paused. “I’ll get the hoover.”
Would she have tried this if we only had one hoover? Leaving us to effectively torture ourselves when the door mat needed vacuuming, or when another customer shattered her dentures into tiny little pieces on a Werther’s Original. We’d likely have to tell everyone to avoid trying on shoes, and watch out for shards of molars if you came in wearing sandals.
“If anyone asks you to hoover, just say you’re busy.” She knew full well it’d be me or Mandy at the end of the day, stuck with the dodgy one, afraid of switching it on, for fear of boiling the thing.
“What’s wrong with these people?” Even though Ellie was fumigating the shop with Smart Price air freshener, in hindsight, she didn’t really seem that bothered. Indifferent might have been how I would describe her response. Like someone’s who’s been to war, and walks into fight outside the pub, breaking it up and then carrying on with her evening. I wondered what awful things she must have seen, and then I remembered each female member of staff were semi-trained bra fitters with no way of measuring the cup. I made a mental note to send her any job vacancies I saw. There was nothing wrong with fitting bras, of course, at least for the customers who wore deodorant. I realised by now she must have an above average tolerance for smells. That and she carried hand sanitiser in her pocket, always ready for action.
Donna returned around three. “I’ve not stopped all day, so I’ll quickly go eat now and then you two can go for lunch.”
By this point, Mandy was two more comments away from needing an ambulance, and my own instinct was to stage a coup, walk out and see if she had the audacity of firing any of us. We all knew too much, and I could never tell whether Donna was blissfully unaware, or so brazenly convinced she was indispensable, that we’d never dream of slipping an anonymous complaint in the general direction of our area manager.
“I’ve got you brownie and everything,” she whispered as she stomped her way past, like a child being told they have to clean their room. In that moment, I realised my visual disgust when she opened her mouth had not gone to waste. Meanwhile Mandy and Ellie looked as though we’d had another mobility scooter to pedestrian crash. I still had flash backs of the poor woman’s mangled form, cowering under the sale stand while we phoned for an ambulance. The woman in the scooter, so in shock that she carried on and went for the face. I don’t know whether she disliked the woman, or if it was simply an accident, but I admired her conviction. Why stop until you’ve finished the job?