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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

Night Shift

Before the low-cost German supermarkets Aldi and Lidl came over in the late 1990s, the UK had its own homegrown "subprime" supermarket chain, Kwik Save. It grew up in North Wales near where I grew up and it pioneered the margin-boosting tactics of...
JA
Κείμενο Jesse Armstrong
1.12.07

Illustrations by J. Penry Before the low-cost German supermarkets Aldi and Lidl came over in the late 1990s, the UK had its own homegrown “subprime” supermarket chain, Kwik Save. It grew up in North Wales near where I grew up and it pioneered the margin-boosting tactics of deliberate under staffing, low pay, crappy premises, and products displayed in nothing but the cardboard boxes they were delivered in. The resulting dispiriting ugliness about the whole shopping experience put the chain in what felt like a sadomasochistic relationship with its customers. “Come in, you filthy fuckers,” Kwik Save seemed to say, “we know what you want, affordable food. And, yes, you can have it, but first you must be cold and unhappy and view the brutal fonts in which all information will be displayed to you.” Anyway, I worked a few months in a Kwik Save, often on the night shift and I always wanted to write something about the grim, grimy, self-loathing, group-bonding, sweaty, anxiety-filled, anarchic, slightly boundaryless feel of it. The chain has gone bust now, so I suppose this is my memorial to it. RIP Kwik Save. They were playing five-card poker—wrong—when Coot said, “Alright, we’ve fucking talked about it I dunno how many fucking times, I’m brassic, Roberts is a cunt. Let’s rob the fucking money.” It sounded spontaneous, like he wanted. But Coot already had everyone onside. The hardest to persuade had been Si. By the igloo-cold of the open chest freezers, he’d had to cover all the angles to get him to join up. “Si, you’ll make 80 quid—no fucking risk. And if you don’t—I’ll break your fucking arm.” He smiled, at once diffusing and reinforcing the threat, and squeezed his arm hard. “You won’t even have to fucking do anything, you cunt. You were keen last fucking week.” Mostly, it was the betting they did wrong. To stay in each round everyone bet just what he wanted. A big bet was nothing but a show of bravado. It showed you thought you’d win it all back. On his second night-shift night Si said he thought they were doing something wrong, but they told him to fuck off—that this was how they played on night shift and if they did it different in Las Vegas they could fuck off. Still, they got pissed off when Si stayed in for 5p every round and soon everyone started doing it. So the games were going down shit street. Also wrong, though, were the hands. They got ranked ad hoc, based on a mixture of the immediate appearance of the cards and the length of service of the player revealing the cards, multiplied by the incipient brutality of the assembled team. So Si had once seen his straight flush beaten by Orange Dave’s full house. “Alright,” Benson said, “but we should all do it together.” “Alright then, let’s go down and fucking do it now,” said Coot. It was a shit crime. Coot just opened the separate off-license till and took out the little float that stayed in there overnight. £354.40—they counted it on a wooden delivery pallet in the back shop. The only good bit was that instead of walking out with it in the morning they were going to put it up through one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles until a later date. Coot liked this bit. It made him what he liked to call himself, “the Kingpin.” They all stood around as the Kingpin climbed to the top of the highest drinks pallet in the back store—on top of 15 cases’ height of two-liter Cokes—and poked the money up, through, and over. He fitted the tile back with exaggerated skill; slowly and quietly as if it was alarmed or likely to be taken for forensic testing and this lightness of touch would somehow avoid incrimination. Then they shifted the Coke on its pallet—swapping it with a little hump of Lucozade deep down the back of the storeroom. Then they went back to the shop floor and the pallets delivered earlier. They’d hardly started on them before first break and cards. It was a heavy night. Eighteen fat, high, wide, mixed bastards. Five more than normal and nothing light or easy. It was anxious work, anyway, night-shift work. Because at three in the morning you’re anxious about anything. But tonight, Jesus. And there’s no boss there—only a poor dope who’s boss for the night. So it’s a sort of workers’ democracy, but no one trusts each other to work, so you all keep checking round the corner and making half-jokes—your own little Gestapo. It’s brutal—whittling down the big top-heavy pallets till they’re little mounds on each aisle—and then keeping on humping them out onto the shelves until they’re melted away and you can spin away the ghostly-light empty blue pallet into the back and move on to the next bastard, slicing the plastic wrap around it with your Stanley knife and considering the ugly geology of evaporated cream, toothpastes, Marmite, jelly packs, Paxo. Each element rich with its own properties. The heavy drum cans of family beans bending away from their cardboard base as you try to slide them in. The boxes of cornflakes that always get sliced as you cut off the front of their bigger box. Out of the fluorescent flat-fronted box of the supermarket it was pitch. The plate glass gives you nothing back but your greasy self and the aisles stretching away sickeningly behind you. But right outside you could see when a gang of lads walked by. The sober workers inside—the pissed lads going home from the pubs—unimaginable ghosts to each other. Sometimes a gang would pound the glass and ask for a packet of crisps. Or, one time, a lad had crouched like a dog on all fours and pretended to lick the ground. Said he wanted them to smash a bottle of vodka and he’d lap it up. Tonight, Si was looking out a lot. Because Kelly was out, and she might come past. When he thought about her he could feel his little heart go wild. And now after the money and a couple of cups of Nescafé, in the middle of the night, he was pretty frantic. He was nervous, he thought, because she was so fucking nice. He knew she’d just simply talk back to blokes in pubs. And the terrible thing about having had her, was if she’d have him—the shaggy-faced dope—who would she possibly reject? “So what are you going to say when Roberts asks you?” Orange Dave asked. “What, about the money?” “Yeah.” “I’m just going to say I don’t fucking know anything.” “Yeah. But what if he keeps on about it?” “I’ll just say I don’t know anything.” Si couldn’t tell if Orange Dave was just worried or had been sent by Coot to wheedle at him. He was a good man to work with. He drove through the pallet and made you work too, through guilt and the absence of any conversation. It seemed like the night shift was what Orange Dave was all about. That whipping out a pallet of nappies in eight minutes was him in his highest aspect. Rather than how it was with everyone else—a weird and furtive aberration. The only three things Si knew about Orange Dave he’d been told by other people. They were: 1) that he lived with his mother, even though he must have been forty; 2) that his genuinely orange tinge came from his prodigious consumption of the cheapest tartrazine bright-orange squash and; 3) that he had once been offered a promotion beyond stock lad, but had balked at taking on any responsibility. “But what if he keeps on asking?” Dave asked. “Well, if we all deny it there’s nothing he can do.” “Aye, except sack the lot of us,” Dave said. He was sliding long packs of washing powder in, having already cut a big X through the bottom of the thick plastic around them. When they neatly lay above the underneath layer, he could whip the whole lot off—abracadabra—and leave 18 boxes fresh in place. “Do you reckon?” Si asked. “Well, I don’t know. But Roberts doesn’t like looking stupid, like.” “One of the day stock lads could have…” “There was the money there when they locked up and it’s gone now,” Dave said. And as he slid the next column in, his face went from passive and benign to brutal for a second as he scrunched a little pucker of the plastic and then ripped upward to draw it off in one. “What does Benson think?” Si asked. “He thinks Coot’s only doing it to get his missus a ring.” This was telling intelligence. Benson always worked with Coot. They were like a pair of working-class homophobic homosexuals. They spent every night together. Toiling side by side. Except they toiled as little as possible. They plotted and swore. If Benson had doubts about the money, with his thick forearms and bony, readable forehead, then there was room for maneuver. “What do you reckon then?” Si asked. Dave now had Paxos in his hand—two across and 12 deep—like little parodies of the washing powder. You could hold one of these and do a delicate X in its fragile plastic and spin it on your finger, practically, before you tossed it into place. “I dunno.” The tape machine up by the tills clicked off. Up at the front you could make out that the streets were full for a while now. When you were out in it, he knew, it felt like something. Like something spontaneous—and in its immediacy and the fun and rough and tumble, like it could last. But through the glass it looked like the truth—the end of the night. Twenty past one and everything closing up. The people poured out like savages—after food, sex, a safe way home. They wobbled. They shouted, they fought. It was like seeing some chemical reaction under a microscope the way everyone bounced around. Watching with the sound down not a disadvantage. A group of lads piled past; the strong at the front—the weak, joking, behind. The wheedlers trying to fit their chests in between the front—looking for a gap, tripping to adjust their pace. Boys walked behind girls—quickened their walks to catch up—to say something, anything, make contact. And the girls checked them out. You could see it working, even on a street in the middle of the night—they didn’t dismiss them. They looked and said a few words and veered off across the car park. And the boys shouted after them, slapped one another on the back and made off. Si was mad for a sight of Kelly—he wanted to see her with a couple of friends, wobbling off home. But she was so fucking approachable. It was impossible to envisage an evening where she went out without him which didn’t include some incident which if he knew about it would make his guts flip and his heart race like a hand whisk in thin air. But still they went home, relentless, similar, falling toward taxis. And occasionally with someone different—a couple of older goth girls. Then some lads he knew—Nick and Sam, Grant and Sponge. Si banged the glass. Hard, twice, palms up, slapping the glass. It carried nowhere outside, but the thuds echoed ridiculously round the shop. When she came by it was so painful and immediate he couldn’t remember not knowing it. Its inevitability and its occurrence all wrapped up in one. She was faithless and lovely and available and walking home with another boy. A man, so to speak. They didn’t look like they were having much fun, but then they needn’t, now. They would be going back to hers, to her right little tight little front room and her easygoing mum and dad—if they weren’t already in bed. “You fuckin’ half-a-job!” Coot shouted. They were halfway down their second pallet. But the first one had been mostly beans. Just slide those fuckers in, stack on top of stack. Si flipped the loose plastic nodule on the Matsui radio and “Marcher Sound” spilled out, trying to fill the air. A commercial station so thin in its self-confidence you felt it might simply fade away midbroadcast. Orange Dave had toiled on. His only reproach his ceaseless labour. He’d knocked out half a heavily mixed pallet of bathroom and other stuff. The weird shit like Oxo and jelly cubes, custard powder and tomato puree, for over the freezers. And all the washing powders and fat bombs of fabric conditioner. If you sliced one of those it was the worst smell—worse than a split sausage of dog food. It came in two colours—spunky pink and spunky blue—but they smelled the same. A deep rich sick sweet smell—that mixed up with the acid-dirty floor in the back shop conjured up the grimmest conjunction of fake purity and dead dirt—like dry frying Turkish delight. Si wanted the money conversation to go on. He was haunted by the liberating possibility of telling Roberts the truth. He was no moralist, but in his heart he was a snitch. He wanted to kiss the boot. “What do you think about Roberts?” Si said. “Well we either tell him or we dunna.” “What about Coot? Would we tell Coot?” “Nah.” He paused, working. If this was all, Si thought, then it was set—the way out. But then: “He’d just go ballistic and never trust you.” “You.” Never trust “you.” So? Si bumped his Stanley knife down the horizontal ridges of the shrink plastic wrapped tightly again and again around the next pallet. The layers pinged away nicely as they got successively cut—tension relieved. But not on the floor. The thing about night shift was that you wanted the time to go quick—so you could go home to bed. But because there was no boss and you had to finish the pallets, you wanted time to go slow, so you could finish and play poker at five-thirty or take a nap on the little couchette of the wide nappy shelf. But boy, after three, time really sped up. If you hadn’t broken the back of it by four you got anxious. Gnawing night anxiety that welled up as if you were going to cry because your sleep was edging further and further away. And then the cleaners came at six and would look deeply disapproving if there was still shit on the floor, then the assistant manager at seven who’d call Roberts if things didn’t look right. And then Roberts might come and keep you there till, well, midday was the worst, slogging it out, still, but box by box from the back shop once the punters were in, and the pallet miles away. Tonight was weird though. The pallets were still waiting. Down all the aisles, too many untouched. But because of the money the atmosphere wasn’t like normal. Normally there wouldn’t be any “lunch” on a night like this. Just what you could eat while you worked, but at three-fifteen Benson came scootering, freewheeling on one of the hydraulic pump trailers, and said, “Lunch!” And Si and Orange Dave looked at each other and the many untouched pallets and pocketed their knives. They weren’t working through if Benson and Coot weren’t. Benson and Coot’s aisle was even worse, they weren’t even a quarter way through. Si watched as Benson walked back up his aisle, punching a big wall of stacked sugar bags as he passed. Hating the work to come. Si peeled the yellow date tape round the neck of a Kingsmill thick-sliced, his dirty fingers groping the water-pumped white bread to pull out three pieces for fat Cheshire and Spanish onion sandwiches. With curlicues of salty butter, splatted on excessively—an excess which was a sort of economy, since whatever remained of the whole incriminating pack was going to get thrown up on the roof or stamped down as “damaged” in the back. They were behind, way fucking behind. And the bloke was still at Kelly’s. Still biding his time. Having another coffee. Pretending to want to watch some cheesy funny-bad late-night show, creeping for a piss upstairs, maybe washing his dick, his mouth, waiting. But long after lunch Coot was dealing out a hand like they only had to mop up and fuck off. “What you gonna do with yours then, Si?” “The money? I dunno. Get pissed? “Oh aye, get pissed, of course, what fucking else, you cunt?” “It’s not that fucking much after you’ve got pissed, is it, Coot,” said Orange Dave. Hallelujah. Dissent. Coot looked around as he put in his ante. “You miserable fucking cunts aren’t chickening out, are you?” His greasy black fringe shaking as he looked out, up, around. “Fuck off,” said Benson. Then paused. “But Roberts’ll fucking know.” Oh sweet Jesus, carry me home, we’re getting somewhere, thought Si. “So?” asked Coot, challenging someone to test pure logic against his conviction. There was a beat—silence. Hot conviction always wins over cold reason, in the moment at least, and the moment is all that counts. Yet Coot knew he hadn’t won yet. He was vulnerable. No splitters. “You know what we could do?” Coot said. “What”—Benson. “We could have the rest of the night off and have the fucking money.” “What?”—Benson. “We could fucking say we were robbed.” “How?”—Benson. “Well—you know—well. It’d be a piece of piss. I go out through the fucking fire exit and put a breeze block through the front window. When Roberts and the police turn up we say we got robbed.” “Oh Jesus”—Si. “What, you fucking half-a-job, you haven’t finished a pallet all night, you cunt, what you ‘oh Jesusing’ about now?” “It just sounds like a lot of bother.” “Of course it’s a fucking lot of ‘bother.’ If you’re a cunt. If you’re safe it’s fucking alright, isn’t it? We could have it done in a quarter of a fucking hour. Go downstairs, one of us ties the other fuckers up in the back shop, then he goes out—takes a breeze block from outside, Boots fucking puts it through one of the doors—fucking comes in and one of us ties his hands.” “I don’t see why we have to be tied up,” said Benson. In, then. “To look like we was fucking robbed, Benson.” “But say it was four big cunts who threw a breeze block through the window—what would we do?” “Oh aye, if we wanted to be fucking half-a-jobs about it we wouldn’t even have to tie each other fucking up.” “If we were robbed—probably we wouldn’t be tied up,” said Orange Dave, “it’d take them too long.” “If there were four of the cunts?” “Oh aye, it wouldn’t take long if there was four”—Benson. “Say five, one each and one for the money”—Coot. “What’d we say they looked like?” said Si. May as well ask at least. “Druggy cunts like you”—Coot. “Or they’ve got masks on”—Benson. “Balaclavas”—Dave. “Yeah, druggy cunts in fucking army trousers and jumpers and balaclavas, five of them”—Coot, then, “Let’s go and have a fucking look.” So the four of them slipped down the stairs onto the shop floor—a new arena to them now. The pallets that were left taking on an air of shadowy permanence. Returning to them now would be like coming down to your cold Sunday dinner on a new Monday morning. They were gone. They stood by the doors looking into the empty black street. No one left out there now. It was silent for the whole while they watched. Probably just one car would have changed things. But none came. Si felt panicky and tearful. The great danger, now, was that there would be no moment alone, no just him and Dave. If this thing was going to happen it could all shoot along from here with no one allowed a moment without Coot to challenge him. “So are we really going to do this?”—Si. “‘So are we really going to do this?’” Coot mimicked in a whining voice. “Well, it’s up to you cunts, isn’t it?” “Well it’d be a big thing”—Dave—“they’d question us…” “But we didn’t fucking do it”—Coot. “But they’d ask us about it for ages”—Dave. “Aye, but—well, we’d just say we were all working on our pallets when five fuckers put a breeze block through the front window and came and fucking got us and took us into the back shop.” “No,” said Orange Dave, “you have to have every fucking thing straight—did they have a van? What did they say? ’Cause if one of us says a van, one a fucking Astra, they’d have us.” “Well, if we haven’t agreed it, say you don’t know”—Coot—“So, they come in, out of we don’t know what, we canna see, they don’t say much, ‘In the back now…’” “With Scouse accents”—Benson. “Aye, one of them, oh, this is fucking nice, they’ll never fucking suss us—and they take us and tie us up and threaten to rough us up—so we tell them where the concession’s till is, and then they’re in and fucking off.” “What about cameras? Are there cameras?”—Si. “How long have you fucking worked here, ‘Are there cameras?’ Of course there aren’t cameras. What do you think I am, Uncle Cunt?” “So what did they actually say about roughing us up?”—Orange Dave. “‘Now where’s the money, you wankers? Or I’ll break your fucking legs!’” “And who told them?”—Dave. “Well, fucking…”—Coot looked around—“Si did, the little fucking snitch.” And everyone laughed, Si included, he had him on the button. In the back shop they looked for something to bind themselves with. But there was nothing. For a moment it looked like the whole endeavour would fail for the lack of rope. But Benson found a thick band of brown duct tape from the assistant manager’s cubbyhole and everyone saw that this would be much better. They did Orange Dave first. A test case. It went on nicely. Tight around the wrists—two binds would probably have done it. But they wound it round again and again. Next they did Benson. Coot had a thousand-yard stare on, but Benson was laughing and joking. The accomplice who knows that somehow nothing really bad can happen to him. That at cosmic, if not Crown Court level, he is innocent. “Oh aye, Coot, you fucking love this, don’t you? Now you can arse bandit the fucking both of us.” “I fucking will if you don’t shut up.” “‘I fucking will if you don’t shut up…’ you bitch,” Benson copied, liberated, somehow, by his binding. Si sat down on the uncomfy six-knobbled crown of a case of Coke and put out his hands ready for Coot to do him. “Oh, I have to fucking go and do it, do I?” he said. “What?” Si said. And Coot looked at him for a long second, making out a difficult calculation; right at the edge of where power mattered. Trying to see if this was where authority was finally exerted after a lifetime’s petty, bullying accumulation. Or if this was a false dawn; a dead-end watershed that would swirl back on itself. “You fucking do it,” said Coot. And Si didn’t know, nor anyone else, if this was a failure of will, or its perfect expression. Panic—or the grandmaster’s projection of the many moves ahead. “But do my arms round the front, so I can whack some tape on you.” He paused. “In fact, cut these cunts free.” Si looked at him, “What, so you’re all the same?” “Oooo, look out, Kojak’s fucking learning.” So they did them all again and Coot screwed up the cut bindings and buried them in the cage of empty boxes. And the second time Coot held the tape, delicately unfurling the spool from the middle so his fingertips didn’t touch the fresh tape. Si did likewise when he came to do Coot. Spooled it out fresh and brown, twice, three, four times round. “Will you be able to do me?” Si put the roll between Coot’s clamshell hands, and watched, zoomed in like a camera on his dirty thumbnail flick-flicking at the tape edge, not getting it. Si stuck the end to his own thumb tip and let Coot spool some out with a jerky rip. “Fold the fucker over there—I don’t want to be fucking around when you come back in here.” And his hands were shaking a bit. “Alright, you fucking half-a-job, get through those doors then. And make sure you don’t have a piece of fucking glass fall and chop your fucking block off when you come in.” “And throw the fucker hard”—Orange Dave. “Aye, it’s nothing special, like, though, it’s been put through before”—Benson. “I know, but it probably wasn’t some Saturday-boy cunt, then, was it?” Coot said this almost chummy to Si. He was weirdly honoured now to have this responsibility on his shoulders. “Alright.” “Go on then, and fucking run once you’re out, that’s the only fucking bad bit, before you’re fucking back in here.” “Alright.” He went to the fire door next to the big horizontally corrugated warehouse door that reached up half the back shop’s height. He looked back at them and then, with his hip, busted into the bar, pushing it down and grating the metal door bottom over the tarmac outside. “Fucking peg it!”—Coot. And he did, over to the stack of breeze blocks outside Boots. And as he hefted one off he could see the guys inside, gray-faced and powerless, and he felt bad. To be pulling this block off—unable even to make a straight break for it. Not wanting to see, think of, their fishy mouths gasping for a change of heart. Because once he was out of view, that was it—boom, he was away. The breeze block hit the tarmac—ice-cold with no give and the corner crumbled and blunted. But Si was gone. Out past the front, the tick-tick timing buzz of the alarm—started by his opening, the door turned into a warning pierce radiating out of the building. And then a large serious noise erupted—the full-throated grind of the full alarm, and he was so glad to be away from there. Happier every step he took that left the echoing alarm farther behind. Animal simple it was to get away from that. And the cold air rasped sweetly. He could feel his hammering legs tingle and pop with their sudden thirst for oxygen—and he felt like just breathing was pleasing his flying body. Boom. Past the Methodist church. Past the wool shop, closed down. And the alarm was getting hidden now—not the only sound, just a sound. He was sucking up the beautiful air, turning its nothingness into energy, his legs flick-flacking like something not quite his beneath him, down the middle of the carless roads—over the railway tracks, smelling the creosoted pine fences warming back to life, noticing the spiders’ webs and the streetlamps growing redundant, sick, against the white-gray sky. He loved the motion. In his mind if he’d fallen he would have flick-flacked out of it like an unstoppable robot with murderous intensity in a film. Eventually he slowed, until, three streets, two streets, one street—there he was. Outside her house, the only one, of course, with a living room light burning at five. Sixty watts just making it through the strip of net between the curtains where they didn’t quite meet. The glass was cold on his nose. But the breath that steamed a writable film of condensation from his mouth was pure relief. There she lay, tucked up and chaste, like a mother cat on the sofa. And the man in the armchair, not a sated boy but her brother, his body buckled up under him with drink and sleep. Everything was alright. Everything was fine.