‘Oh, a new one’
The slightly overweight and unshaven man pulled on his company-assigned fleece as he lowered himself on to the swivel chair in front of his designated checkout. The faded blue and yellow colouring on the fleece suggested several miscalculated spin cycles too many. It also suggested experience. Longevity. A scuffed plastic name tag crept out of the creased rubble as he adjusted the fleece. Barry, it read. He glanced down at it through his rimmed glasses briefly before looking across at the ‘new one’ sitting at the checkout across from him.
‘Hi there, I’m…’
‘You won’t have a name tag yet, will you.’ Barry ignorantly cut short the ‘new one’s’ overly pleasant introduction – the kind reserved and displayed by any and all new starts on their first day in a new job. Less a question, more a statement.
‘Erm…no, not yet…’ answered the ‘new one’ tentatively, his eyes narrowed slightly as the wheels in his mind began to decipher what kind of person his new colleague seemed to be. ‘But never mind, I’m…’
‘Don’t bother.’ Barry raised his hand in admonishment. ‘It doesn’t matter. Trust me. You’ll see.’
‘I’m sorry?’ the ‘new one’ asked, taken aback. The new start-in-a-new job eagerness rapidly wearing thin and crossing into the ‘who the fuck is this arrogant arsehole!?’ territory.
‘Look, I’m not being rude. Well, not intentionally. It’s just, well believe me, its better not to bother with all that. You’ll see.’
‘You’re being serious!?’ the ‘new one’s’ slowly percolating anger ticked up a notch.
‘Look, seriously, you can think I’m an arsehole…’
‘I don’t think you’re an arsehole’ replied the ‘new one’, all the while very clearly thinking this man is an arsehole.
‘…you can think I’m an arsehole, be my guest, but it’s far better and easier in the long run if I don’t know your name. Trust me.’
‘Suit yourself then.’ The new one swivelled slightly in his own chair, turning away from Barry, mentally noting never again to engage that particular mountain of arsehole in conversation should it be possible.
He glanced down the line of checkouts, briefly renewing the forced eagerness of his demeanour as he prepared to ingratiate himself with other (hopefully) friendlier colleagues. The smiling façade dissolved almost instantly. As he looked up at the line of checkouts all he could see was a succession of hunched, unsmiling, unwelcoming colleagues smothered in over-washed, un-ironed fleeces. Only the faded yellow and blue colouring of said fleeces suggested they were in fact at their place of work and not, as appeared more likely, participants in a funeral procession.
He swivelled back in his chair, staring at his till sullenly. He looked up slightly, above the till and into the vast expanse of warehouse beyond. Furniture (flat pack and/or built), lights, storage containers; all arranged or displayed in a seemingly unending array of ceiling high shelves or meticulously choreographed ‘room’ scenes. Oh well, he thought. Five minutes into the job and I despise the place already. That’s a new record. He drummed his fingers on the roof of the till and adjusted the plastic coiling on his PA microphone. Waiting. Waiting for a customer. Any customer. Any human being, in fact, to help lift him from this fresh suffocating portion of hell.
‘Can I just ask, why?’ the words shot out of his mouth before his brain had time to analyse their impact, surprising himself.
Barry sighed. ‘Why what?’
‘Why is it easier if you don’t know my name?’ he asked in reply, looking up at the mountain of arsehole sitting across from him whom, he now noticed, was not even giving him the professional courtesy of eye contact.
‘It just is.’
‘Ok, I get that. You’ve made that point. But why? Just tell me that and I’ll leave you alone. I won’t ask again.’
Barry sighed once more. A longer, deeper sigh than the one before. One that ignored all attempts at subtlety.
‘Because,’ he began slowly, ‘because, look, you’ve not had any customers yet have you?’
‘So you won’t know yet. But you’ll see.’
‘What don’t I know yet?’
Another sigh punctuated the space between question and answer.
‘What this place does. To people. To relationships.’
‘What do you mean? What does ‘this place’ do to relationships? What does that mean?’
Barry looked up at his new naïve, unlearned colleague, adjusting his glasses slightly as he looked him in the eye.
‘It’s where relationships come to die.’
The ‘new one’ narrowed his eyes. And then burst into a loud one syllable eruption of laughter. It echoed around the warehouse. He turned around towards the line of other colleagues, expecting to see them either smile in acknowledgement of the teasing or share his bafflement at the strange and nonsensical utterings – or ‘pish’ as he would usually refer to such drivel – flowing from this Barry’s mouth. He saw neither. All he did see was each of the colleagues look up gloomily in unison at the sound of the sudden noise only to then look back down again towards their tills. A slight shiver shot through his veins. He tried to shake it off, turning back to Barry.
‘Don’t talk rubbish,’ he laughed, aware that the laugh lacked sincerity, ‘what do you mean this is where relationships come to die?! What does that even mean?’
‘Trust me’ answered Barry, each vowel and consonant now somehow sounding as if they were infused with his, what would appear to be, trademark sigh.
‘Trust me, yes. Look…’ yet another sigh, this time serving as filler as he deliberated whether to expand on his laconic answer, ‘look, you’ll see what happens when we get some customers. It’s still early, you’ll see. In fact…in fact look there, down at the bottom till. There’s a couple. Look at them. Look at their faces. Hatred. Pure hatred there. To each other. And you know what? I passed them on my way in here about twenty minutes ago. They were holding hands. Smiling. Laughing. Planning how to revamp their bedroom or living room or whatever. And now look at them.’
‘Come on now, I think you’re pulling…’
AAAGH! A short sharp shout echoed around the building.
‘Look, look!’ said Barry excitedly, ‘look for god’s sake. Look! She’s just run over his foot with that trolley! She’s laughing! Look! Snarling! I’m telling you, it’s this place. Relationships die here. They don’t stand a chance! Customers, co-workers, everyone. Relationships cannot survive this place.’
‘Na, come on, I’m not having that…’ his voice sounded unsure as he looked towards the couple, the man now limping and swearing, his partner holding aloft a wooden shelf in a combative, fighting stance.
‘Trust me. I’m telling you.’
‘Na…no, I can’t…’
‘Look, you’ll see. This place. It does something. It does, I don’t know, something. It gets under people’s skin. It clamps onto all those little problems and animosities bubbling away under the surface of relationships and brings them out into the open. I don’t know how. But it does. Maybe it’s the size of the place. Maybe it’s those stupid little arrows that usher you round the building should you, god forbid, decide to stray from the path. Could be it’s that bloody bypass and the nightmare drive to get here. Maybe it’s the Swedes, maybe they want to bring down Western civilisation?! Maybe they lured us in with the soulful sounds of ABBA to make us all docile and now they plan to finish the job with this place, befuddling everyone’s mind with irrational animosity and a tsunami of shitty instructions! I don’t know. But as sure I’m sat here now, this place will destroy any relationship. I’m telling you, it might be £30-odd for a home delivery from here but I would urge anyone, if they want to keep their relationship and sanity intact, and even though it would put us out of a job, to pay that charge every single time. This place does things man, it does things…’
The ‘new one’ looked up at Barry and saw that his colleague appeared to be genuinely troubled. Uneasiness trickled through his own mind. Was this a wind-up? Was this a nightmare? Was this dishevelled Barry character in the midst of a nervous breakdown? Had he stumbled onto the pages of a sub-standard dystopian short story? No, he thought, surely not. It can’t be that.
‘No, come on Barry. Seriously. Couples argue all the time. Especially in shops. You’re exaggerating.’
‘Ok then, if it’s so bad then why stay?’
‘Why stay? The job market isn’t exactly in its prime is it? And anyway, since when was job satisfaction ever a realistic goal.’
‘Na…na, you’re at it. You’re pulling my leg here. You are.’
‘You’ll see. I’m telling you, you’ll see. Oh look, here’s another couple coming now. I’m sure that blood-stained box clutched in the woman’s hand and the man’s open, bleeding head wound is all perfectly innocent…’
Barry straightened himself on the chair and greeted the aforementioned customers to his checkout, keeping chat to a minimum as his new colleague looked on with open-mouthed awe. At one point Barry, in between the screams of ‘FUCK’ and ‘BITCH’ and ‘BALD PRICK!’ emanating from his warring customers, nodded over at his colleague. A nod which, slyly and smugly, said I told you, you’ll learn, you can see I’m right.
And he did learn, the ‘new one’. He’s not sure when exactly but at some point during that day he did learn. Maybe it was when his first customer smashed his newly purchased chest of drawers off the ground only inches away from his counter after a whispered, barely-audible argument with his significant other? Or it could have been when he swivelled in his chair at one point and looked towards the food area to see an angry couple viciously lobbing meatballs at one another’s head. Or, quite possibly, it may have been when one furious wife or girlfriend, clearly at the end of her rope, actually got behind the wheel of a momentarily abandoned forklift truck and tried to, albeit very slowly, run down her male partner. Or maybe it was a dozen other incidents that managed to convince him that, yes, maybe Barry was telling the truth after all. Relationships really did come to this place to die.
At the end of his shift as he walked through the automatic doors, head bowed in a cloud of gloom, a smiling fresh-faced, fresh-fleeced woman walked towards him, her arm out-stretched anticipating a handshake.
‘Hi there, I’m just starting my first shift, my name is…’
‘Don’t bother’ mumbled the now-no-longer-new-one as he ignored her outstretched hand and rudely walked past her into a car park full of angry beeps and blood-curdling shouts, ‘just don’t bloody bother, trust me.’