here is the place
First job’s folding worn look jeans.
“These jeans are made holy and authentic by machines and slaves,” I say.
“Holy in the divine sense?” you say.
“Not quite,” I say.
Yet you still kneel before the jeans and confess last night’s dream, one where you quit this job and found another doing something you actually love – like the degree you aced. Pretending to weep you say, “What a strange, fleeting joy.”
“It doesn’t work like that. You’re all mixed up,” I say.
“I know,” you say. “But I’m edging my bets.”
This is how it goes with you and me and the jeans. It’s the same with the coats costing quadruple our daily wage. It’s the same with the neon socks which we stack in pyramids on shop window plinths. In fact, last time we did the socks, it was you who made a slavery quip. Just a peon stacking neon, you sang, coining the tune there and then. Later we hummed the tune in the stock room whilst Stanley knifing t-shirts deemed offensive by the media. You shredded the ones which said Don’t Eat (the blonde bobbed skeleton, remember?) and me the ones that said Sorry But You Asked For It. Originally we put the t-shirts in the bins out back. Then our manager instructed us to shred. Head Office was worried. They didn’t want any homeless wearing the t-shirt around the city.
You stand up, rub your knees.
“That’s it for today punk. That’s your slave joke quota reached. One a day and one only.”
“What about unskilled labour jokes?”
“No. No. No,” you say. “It’s not good for us. Embittering. We’re lucky in the grand scheme. You know this. So, now, let’s try to be a little more positive. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“Sure,” I say and we start folding jeans positively.
Halfway through, the manager comes over. She’s about six foot four with cheek bones that’d cut glass. I look up into her nose.
“Lily phoned in ill. I need one of you on the tills,” she says.
This month, following Head Office’s style bible, the manager wears only black velvet and golden tinfoil. We‘ve never paid an iota of attention to the style bible. Honestly, you’re more regurgitated rainbow than goth-space-cadet and although I dig the idea of you rolling around in prism sputum our manager definitely doesn’t. She looks you up and down and then sends you to the stock room to count coat hangers. She asks me to staff the till and then brings out this black velvet shirt with golden tinfoil shoulder pads.
“Put this on,” she says.
“Yes,” she says.
I go over to the changing rooms and put on the new shirt and then, bundling up my original shirt, head over to the stock room where our lockers are kept.
You’re arms deep in a box of coat hangers when I walk in. Seeing me in my new shirt you laugh.
“You pug. You chihuahua,” you say.
“Shut up and tally your coat hangers,” I say. “I’m moving up in this enterprise even if it means being robbed of my body.”
“Oh well, at least your eyes still fit in your head.”
“And I can still breathe.”
“And you’re not rotting within the creases.”
“What are you two doing?” Our manager says, popping her head around the door. “I need you in here.”
“Coming”, I say, giving you the nod.
You smile and I realise the sole reason for hacking this is all the time I spend with you which doesn’t seem like time at all.
I put my clothes in my locker and when I turn around the manager’s gone but you’re hailing her, your right arm extended in the air, your hand straightened, a coat hanger dangling from the tip of your index finger.
I develop a mindless consistency whilst manning the tills. I doodle in between transactions. In biro, I split a length of till roll into a tiny grid. I find a pink and a green highlighter under the counter. I fill a square green. I fill a square pink. It’s stimulating. Every now and then the manager comes over and that’s when I hide the till roll. Earlier she asked me to unfold my arms. Now she asks me to smile because I look disengaged.
“I will,” I say, smiling.
“Be happy,” she says, walking over to the jockstraps, watching me cross armed.
Two girls come in and point at the shoe lace thongs. The girls are small and thin and look perhaps ten or eleven. They hold up individual thongs for inspection. They hold the thongs where they would naturally go and admire themselves in the mirror. Nodding, the one girl gives the other the go ahead. Looks good. Buy the thong, she signals, before making a phone call.
Another pink and another green. My till roll looks like a sherbet straw mosaic.
“I’d like to buy these please,” says the one girl. She’s at the counter, dangling thongs in the air.
I hide my till roll.
“Sure,” I say. “And how will you be paying?”
For a second I wonder about the ethical nature of what I’m doing but then I weigh in how the girl has her own credit card and I scan the five thongs through.
“That’s one hundred and twenty five pounds please,” I say.
I ready the card machine and we go through with the transaction but the receipt says VOID.
“Might be insufficient funds?” I say. “Maybe you could buy one or two instead? We could try again?”
“Georgia,” she shouts. “Georgia, which do you prefer?”
Georgia, still call deep, waves her friend away.
“What do you think?” says the girl. “I quite like this one. The silvery one. But then, I like this peach one too. Which do you like?”
“I don’t know.”
The girl looks at me. I close my eyes. I think of my sister and brother and this time we were kids running barefoot across Barmouth beach. We ran so fast that I didn’t notice this huge jelly fish. I must have trod the place a jellyfish doesn’t sting. There was no pain.
When I open my eyes Georgia’s standing at the counter too.
“Here,” she says, handing a gold credit card over. “Put them all on this.”
This time the transaction does go through and I put the underwear in a carrier bag.
“Thanks for your custom,” I say, “handing over the carrier.”
“Thank you,” say the girls, smiling.
But as soon as the girls leave the managers back over by the counter wanting to know what the problem was? Why was I so slow? Why wasn’t I cheerier? Why does my customer service ethos suck so much?
“Did you not think they were too young?”
“No. They had credit cards.”
“Okay,” I say.
“You almost lost control of the situation there. You almost lost us a sale.”
I don’t know why but I start unbuttoning the borrowed shirt. It’s up over my head and then I’m standing behind the till, topless with the manager looking at me. Some customers notice and look over too. I throw the balled shirt over to the manager who catches it like a kid might a beach ball and I walk off over to the stock room. For whatever reason I kick the stock room doors open and walk on through and there you are bright as day still counting coat hangers.
“Where’s your nice shirt?”
“In my locker,” I say and I open the locker door and put on my actual own shirt and you look at me as if to say, What in the actual fuck are you doing?
“Want to go park after work?” I say. “I’m leaving early. But I’ll be in the park if you fancy it?”
“Are you ok?”
“Super,” I say.
As I pass by you reach out and touch my arm.
“I’ll be seeing you,” you say and then I’m through the loading bay and out on the street.
I sit down on a park bench. I look at my watch. The sky’s grey and the wind livens the bare trees. I stretch my legs out like a human slide. There’s this dog walking through the park. I can’t see an owner. It’s a terrier type dog and it trots over sniffing. I pat the back and the head and then move onto the cartilagey bit under the ear. Here is the place that dogs love the most. I keep at it. The head’s cocked now, the dog grizzling, immobile with pleasure. I pat the haunches and regard how strong and perfect the legs are. I cup the snout and the dog smiles. With both thumbs, I stroke the soft bridge between the wet, black eyes.
Luke Humphries lives in West Bromwich.
He writes stories and songs.
He can be found here – https://twitter.com/luwarm