Here I am at the supermarket checkout. Right hand moves the stuff to the scanner. Left hand pushes it on. When I can, without being obvious, I glance at the clock. This time it’s another half an hour to the end of my shift. Last time I took a peek it was forty minutes.
I can’t decide whether I like the really busy times when the pressure is on and you know somebody somewhere has the tills under surveillance to see who lets a queue build up, or screws up manual pricing when the scanner won’t recognise something, or how many times you have to call the supervisor. Or is it better when it’s dead quiet and you have to sit there looking pleasant and alert just in case somebody turns up? The trouble with too many quiet times is that hours get cut and if it is really bad people get laid off. No Union: that’s the problem. No security. Mostly women only too glad to get something to help put food on the table, who don’t want to rock the boat. Me? I’d sink the whole fleet if I got the chance. Leaching on the farmers, treating staff like so much of their unnecessary throw-away packaging.
Right hand, left hand, a quick grab to release some more of the deadly plastic bags. Eyes down. No eye contact. Don’t be seen being too friendly. The corporate smile and the cheery “Good whatever time of day it is”, addressed somewhere over the customer’s left shoulder, but never actually looking at anybody. They are trying hard to make us say, “Have a nice day”, whilst gazing at the departing midriffs, but the local culture of “See yer m’dear” is proving hard to shift.
I open a few plastic carriers to speed things up. Don’t want to over-run at changeover. No medals and definitely no bonus payments. How soon can I risk putting out my “Till Closing” sign? Too soon, I get a reprimand; too late, and I miss my bus.
Right hand, left hand. Then a voice. “Thank you so much”. I’m startled enough to look up and actually see the face of the customer. Memories flood in and the years drop away.
“Is it really you, kid?”
“Of course it is, Sharon. I’ve been waiting for you to notice me all the while you were checking my shopping. I wondered what I had to do to make you look at me”.
“Don’t ask”, I hissed. “Company policy. I’m off soon. I can see you outside – if you want to wait that is”.
“Oh, Sharon, of course I’ll wait. You might not know, but I tried to find you after I left The Haven. I’ll be out at the front”.
The last few minutes slipped by, with my mind in a complete turmoil, until I was out of the corporate overall, out of the staff exit and round to the front doors. To my utter amazement she was
there, perched on a bollard, unsurprisingly reading a book. Good to know some things never change.
“Caitlin”, I said, stumbling over the unusual name that she had been so insistent on us getting right in the Home.
She moved towards me, obviously intent on a warm hug. I backed away. “Steady”, I said. “CCTV everywhere. Do you have a car?” She nodded. “Drive almost to the Exit and I’ll get in there. It’s out of range”.
“Oh Sharon, you make it sound like a spy thriller”.
In a couple of minutes we were driving off in her smart car. Not only was it clean on the outside but the inside looked brand new. No fag packets, no crisp crumbs, no old polystyrene coffee cups, no screwed up bits of paper, no scrabbled up carrier bags like all the other cars I had ever been in. But what else would I expect of Caitlin? I sank back and closed my eyes.
Then I shot up. “Where are we going?”
Caitlin smiled, “I thought we’d try a cup of tea somewhere. Or I could sell you into the white slave trade, or turn you in to the Police, since you seem to be worried enough about surveillance to be on the run”.
“Don’t joke. I am a white slave already, where I work. And as for the CCTV they want to be sure we are not working any kind of scams with the customers, or passing on vital information to the opposition”.
Caitlin giggled. “Is the price of sprouts really so important? But seriously, Sharon, do you have to get back ? Children from school, man to feed or anything like that?”
I shook my head sadly. “No. Nothing like that”. Too soon to start on my tale of woe. So I turned a bright smiling face to her and asked, “But what about you, kid? You look great. What have you been doing for the last few years? What happened to you when you left? They just said you’d gone and that you hadn’t left a message for me or anything, and that if you wanted to you would ‘no doubt get in touch’. But you never did. So I supposed you were sick of me and wanted to forget The Haven. I don’t blame you for that I must say – forget The Haven that is. But I did try to be nice to you and I thought you liked me – a bit at any rate”.
Caitlin reached out and squeezed my hand. “It’s OK. No-one to call you ‘Les’ here, Sharon. Let’s go to my place. I think we’ve got a lot to catch up on”.
You can find the next episode in Sharon’s story on this page.