Quitting Time

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?

Dating Apps and the Pluckiness of the Hook-Up

I’ve always done well with the pensioners. They’re absolutely my crowd. The kind of things they want to talk about, we share those in common. Why is the bus never on time? Why does a coffee cost £4 now? Why does everyone get so angry in supermarkets? I could, on any given day, chat to an elderly friend for hours about where they used to go when they’d bunk off from school. Or their entire employment history and every period of annual and maternity leave they’ve ever taken. The two of us, holding up a Tesco queue, baskets at our feet, not a care in the world.

Post braces and pre university freedom, my eighteen year-old self minced its way, unprepared and filled with adolescent sexual shame into the daunting world of Grindr. Skinny, toothy smiled and wearing bow-tie from the Top-Man on Bangor high street. As the messages flooded in for the very first time, it seemed someone was determined to ruin my aged friendships. I suspected God. Who else would have the power and the time on their hands to be so vindictive? I sorted through the photographs in my inbox. Photos of abdomens, photos of appendages, occasionally a secondary school teacher here and there. Quickly I regaled. Forced to reexamine a lifetime of warm reception from elderly members of the public. Should we find ourselves sat side-by-side at the bus-stop, I might think twice about talking to you now.

I’d heard stories friends having run-ins with revolting old men. Bellies hanging, the only thing protecting their modesty in the full body photographs they’d send. A friend once told me she’d been contacted on a fake facebook account she’d set up to check up on her boyfriend, by the step-father of someone we went to school with. The following afternoon on her way into work, the daughter of the cafe’s cook recounted, word-for-word, the same tale.

Still I’d yet to experience the hook-up, in all of its monstrosities myself. Boring date after boring date, I’d avoid, shamelessly, replying to the poor men who’d paid for us to go to the cinema or bought me a coffee. Until I found myself in a long-distance open relationship. However short-lived it was, it was not a hook-up. I was beginning to suspect my inclination towards the hopelessly romantic was biting me in the arse. Following this fizzling out, I found myself strutting back out there. This time with three times the committal. My next attempt at a hook-up was a newly qualified primary school teacher. Lovely, polite and horrifically boring.

So there we were, trapped in an endless series of unfulfilling dates. Neither of us even hinting towards the vague idea of physical chemistry. I’d agreed to meet up for a drink, initially, because he’d listened to me drone on about cis-privilege in the gay community and even rewarded me with an image of his face for the trouble. No awkward sexual chatter. My only exchange for having boring sex with him being a veggie volcano from Dominos. He taught children how to read, he didn’t deserve this sham. I later managed to finish us off by accidentally sending him a compromising photo intended for someone else. “No! Don’t open that! It was meant for someone else” does not in any circumstance result in a clean resolution. Regardless, I was up a pizza and he’d gotten a shag.

The dating app, in all of its comedy and tragedy has walked us further down the isle towards our inevitable marriage to our phones. Not a night out goes by without the reel of horror stories about unsolicited photographs and the subsequent angry messages should the horrified recipient not dignify the faceless genitals with a response.

The truth of the matter is, some of us, no matter how hard we try, aren’t made for a life of endless Tinder swiping. No matter how much effort we put into seeming non-committal or comfortable with anonymity, we’re hopelessly miles away from realising it. We’re connected now. For better or worse. Those of us not cut out for it better step up or move on. Maybe one day, the elderly woman in the vegetable aisle might just have a grandson she’s willing to palm off on a well mannered boy with a bag-for-life.

As for me? The smartphone is hung-up – pardon the pun, and I hope to never again wade into the murky waters or Grindr. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

Lime Street

Two years ago

if I was feeling

north of the boarder,

unable to concentrate

on reading

or showering and cooking

I’d have probably

text a friend

to ask if they were busy

 

but it seems like

even when the opportunity arises

when someone texts me first

I’m already half way

to standing on the

wet grey steps

with coffee

and a cigarette

like I’ve not thought through

that either of us

might have anything going on

besides the two of us together

 

 

I miss it when you visit me

I don’t get to drink coffee

on Bold Street

and walk

‘round the corner to Lidl,

fill your cupboards with food

and make pasta for two.

There’s no fun to any of it

when the balls in my court

and I’m stagnant

and bored

and waiting.

June

Elected in me

above all else

is the newness you’ve impressed.

The 6th day

to forget you,

to leave no boundaries

liable,

without you,

we board the smallest plane

I’ve ever seen

in my then 18 years.

Domestica destroy.

Brave for a little boy

shrouded in

the clothes of a part-time job,

a blouse I saw my co-worker wear,

the trousers

as queer as I could manage

on £6 an hour,

trying to look

an inch of the liberty you exude.

I think

above all else

that the way I tie my hair up

is to replicate

you

the moment I fell in love with the future.