How Can I Help?
by Dushi Rasiah
Beep. Vacuum-packed beetroot. Beep. Spaghetti, uncooked. Beep. Washing machine cleaner.
Beep beep beep. Three multi-packs of Doritos. With each item, the ‘Till Closed’ sign staggers closer.
‘Do you need any bags?’ I ask.
‘Do you have a loyalty card with us?’
‘Can I just pay?’
‘No worries.’ Thankless bitch.
I stand up and stretch, eager for my break.
‘Oh no, are you closing your till? I’ve only got three items, all the other checkouts have got queues to the back of the store.’
I’m about to tell the blonde trespasser that I’m not on shift for the next fifteen glorious minutes, but just then my manager walks past, catching my eye. Game over.
‘If it’s only three items…’
‘You star!’ she cries, stacking three anaemic low-fat hummus pots on top of one another, then setting five wine bottles behind them. You’d be surprised how many people think you can’t count if you work in a supermarket. I don’t sit down while I sling each item past the barcode scanner. She’s in a hurry too, so she doesn’t notice a bottle rolling back out of her tote bag as she moves closer to pay. Throwing me a ‘Thanks, bye!’ over her shoulder, she breezes past lines of shoppers.
‘Any time!’ I sing, holding the Shiraz behind my back.
I hand it off to a part-timer on the shop floor, on my way to the staff canteen. ‘Put this back for me?’
I’ve made an art of the fifteen-minute break. As I cross the warehouse to the stairs, I swipe a handful of grapes from a produce crate on an unattended pallet. Locker room next, to fetch my phone and a Tupperware packed full of last night’s dinner, detour to the canteen microwave, then the locker room again for a toilet stop and deodorant spritz, and finally back to the canteen, headphones in.
Re-heated rice and curry, a vending machine cuppa, free grapes and the new Beyoncé album. Bliss.
Three minutes to catch up on text messages – my sister asking how big my staff discount is, my son asking when I’ll be home because he’s locked himself out, my sister again asking what time my shift ends, my son again asking if he should break in through the porch window, and finally my next-door neighbour warning me about a suspicious hooded youth loitering outside my front door but not to worry, he’s keeping an eye out – and then time’s up.
Back to work, on the shop floor instead of checkouts.
I push a shopping trolley of ‘put-backs’ around, returning items left behind by customers – in this case, deliberately – to their shelves. Each time I turn a corner into the next aisle, I check one of the two store clocks, counting down the last ninety minutes of my shift.
By the time I reach aisle twenty-five (bin liners, cleaning products, pets), I’ve got sixty- six minutes and ten put-backs to go.
‘Where are your eggs?’ The barked question comes from a man wearing a suit and a scowl. I don’t take it personally. My practised guess would be that he’s been sent out on a pre- dinner shopping trip, and regrets coming home from work early for a change. But maybe I’m projecting.
‘Aisle eleven.’ I’m supposed to at least offer to accompany customers to the aisle in question, but I’m seasoned enough to know this man is no mystery shopper. The worst he’ll do is put in a complaint to customer service on his way out, and I never wear my own name badge anyway; I choose a different one from lost property at the start of each shift. Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Tina!
‘No, I’ve just been there, shelf’s empty.’
So why did he ask where they were?
‘Sorry, there’s a shortage at the moment, so we’ve only got what’s out there. If there’s nothing there, we’re out of stock.’ My answer’s rote by now; most customers know about the egg shortage from the news, but they still ask.
‘Out of eggs? You’re a supermarket! Don’t you have any in the back? I’ll wait while you check.’
And then of course, there are the special few who think we hold some stock back just for them.
‘No problem!’ Abandoning my trolley of abandoned items, I withdraw into the warehouse and perch on an empty pallet, hidden behind towers of toilet roll. I idly count to three hundred, then return to aisle twenty-five and my trolley, confident that Suit and Scowl will have moved on.
Seven hours down, one to go.
I dawdle in the bakery aisle, scanning the rows and rows of cakes and tarts and pastries, fantasising about which ones I’d choose for a dinner party, or my birthday, or breakfast tomorrow.
An enormous banoffee pie for a dinner party. A lemon meringue tart with a side of fondant fancies for my birthday. Eclairs and almond croissants for breakfast.
‘Sorry, love, excuse me.’
A small woman, I’d say in her seventies, hovers by my elbow, carrying a basket far too heavy for her. I offer my first genuine smile in hours. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Sorry to bother you while you’re working, dear. Could you help me reach the tonic water on the next aisle?’
‘Of course. Why don’t I give you my trolley and I’ll take your basket? I haven’t got as much as you do.’
I collect her tonic water, dash three aisles over for the last couple of items on her list (vodka and orange juice), then finish swapping our items around with forty minutes to go.
‘Thanks, sweetheart.’ She slips a fiver into my pocket with a wink, as I pretend not to notice. I’m not supposed to accept gifts from customers – or carry cash on the shop floor.
‘Don’t mention it.’ But I’m already looking forward to eclairs for breakfast tomorrow.
I can feel the finish line hurtling towards me, the fresh bounce in my step.
As I re-home the last put-back (multi-surface antibacterial spray), a tannoy announcement interrupts the Michael Bublé covers playing on repeat, calling me over to checkout sixteen.
Behind the till, my colleague Mary’s beleaguered expression tells me this isn’t going to be a quick ‘could-you-take-this-back-to-frozen’ callout. A few steps closer, and I recognise the customer holding Mary hostage as Suit and Scowl from aisle twenty-five.
He follows Mary’s glance in my direction and I’m pleased to see his eyebrows draw even closer together.
‘How can I help?’ My question is addressed to Mary, but he doesn’t wait for her response.
‘I need these avocadoes swapping out for different ones, these are too soft.’ He holds out his basket to me. The queueing customers behind him are shuffling and tutting, but he doesn’t seem to care.
I’ve heard more ridiculous requests, but I’m still riding my earlier high. ‘Didn’t you choose them?’ I ask.
‘Presumably you felt them when you picked them up and put them in your basket?’
He pivots back to Mary. ‘Could I speak to a manager?’
Mary gapes at me, and I take pity. She’s on her second warning already, after unknowingly walking past a yoghurt-spill earlier this month without cleaning it up; a third means disciplinary action.
‘It’s no trouble, sir, let me take those back and get some new ones for you. Anything else, Mary?’
Again, it’s Suit and Scowl who replies, this time with a smirk. ‘While you’re there, if you could take another look for those eggs?’ His smirk vanishes the instant he swings around to face his disgruntled peers. ‘So sorry everyone, she won’t be long!’
I take the basket from him and stride to produce – a mere ten paces away – where I crouch low as if to examine the newly stocked crate of avocadoes diligently. Then, out of sight, I carelessly juggle his soft avocadoes, letting them bash against each other for a few seconds before putting them back in his basket.
Standing up straight, I remember he can see me, so I head over to aisle eleven for an obligatory walk-by, crossing my fingers the shelves are still empty. Irritatingly, I arrive just in time to witness a customer returning a twelve-pack of eggs to the shelf; apparently, the five cartons in her trolley will suffice.
I wait until the customer’s walked away, then open the solitary carton.
Twelve perfect brown eggs.
Expiry date a month away.
I picture Mary’s tired eyes as I palm an avocado and roll it around in my free hand. Her shift doesn’t finish for another three hours. Enough time for at least another fifty entitled customers, more if there’s a dreaded evening rush.
I bring the avocado down hard, striking each egg in turn.
Not so soft after all.
When the eggs are a sticky mess of tectonic shell fragments and oozing yolks, I wipe the avocado clean on my uniform fleece and replace it in the shopping basket. I close the egg carton and pick it up with great care, then stroll back to checkout sixteen with an apologetic smile.
‘So sorry for the wait, sir. These were the best avocadoes I could find, and I managed
to get you the last carton of eggs on the shelf.’ Before Suit and Scowl can speak, I lean over Mary’s till, scan the egg carton’s barcode and deposit it gently in one of his plastic bags.
‘Anything else I can help you with, sir?’
My grovelling does the trick. ‘That’s perfect, thanks so much.’
‘My pleasure.’ And it is – it carries me around the shop floor for the next half an hour, upstairs to the clock-out machine and all the way back out through the store’s automatic doors.