Then my mam would appear at the door.
Don’t you be waking him up, she’d whisper through clenched teeth. I mean it.
Go back to bed Sandra, he would say quietly, not looking away from me, sometimes ruffling my hair with a hand that felt huge and ice-cold. I need a word with my boy.
He needs his sleep before school. Move it.
Aye, you stick in at the school, he’d say. It was his favourite phrase. Stick in at the school, gets ye into the uni, and then the world’s your oyster, sonny.
Most of the time she’d come into the room and stand by the bed, just glaring at him.
You can do anything at all, he would say. Anything you put your mind to.
Time to doze off again wee man, she always said to me in one voice then would turn to him and say in quite another one, You. Out. Now.
And find yourself a nice lassie while you’re at it eh, and he would smile, Because that makes all the difference. He would draw her a look, and they’d be gone.
It was a regular occurrence. Always the same routine. He never liked going straight to bed when he got home.
And so, I had graduated earlier this year, only months after he had to retire from full-time work. They were proud as punch in all the photos, him in a smart suit with a flower pinned to the lapel, her occasionally caught on camera talking at him through gritted teeth, him saying things back out of the corner of his mouth, and Rosie, the nice lassie I had found in my Honours class, smiling alongside them, all of us out in the sunshine.
The months went by, but all the early applications for jobs relating to the course of study hadn’t turned up an interview. It was competition, there was just so much of it, too many people, it was no wonder your form got lost among the stacks of them that were pouring in for these positions. And what with Rosie only able to do part-time hours herself, eventually I’d sent off letters to anywhere that was advertising. A stopgap would be fine, I could work anywhere for a while. My half of the rent and bills had to be paid and there was nobody else to do it but me.
The first place that accepted me was the supermarket on the other side of the river. I was to stack shelves. It was temporary. Grocery Assistant and Stock Replenishment, doing nights. They told me in a letter.
It’s a start, I said, and handed it to Rosie.
She looked up from her magazine, glanced at it. Aye, she said. It is.
I told the mam on the phone.
Och well, a job’s a job, isn’t it?
It’s only for a wee while, I said. And it’s an immediate start, which is good.
That’s great, she said.
The first shift was that weekend. I had to cancel plans to take Rosie out for dinner. She joined a gym so she wouldn’t be getting left in on her own. She didn’t like the flat when I was out. I couldn’t be bothered asking where the money for the gym membership was coming from.
That Friday evening I reported to the supervisor’s office, told them my name, got a tie in the supermarket colours, and a woman called Donna explained the routine. She was some sort of a manager. You started when the shop was still open, getting the cages of stock ready downstairs to be taken up in the lift. It was to be me in the warehouse, dragging them in, slamming the door, banging on it twice, and another guy upstairs hearing me, hitting the button, taking them out, sending it down for the next load.
Donna walked me to the warehouse stairs. John’s about somewhere, she said, Him and Shona will keep you right. She disappeared out the side exit. He must have heard me coming down because he stepped out from behind a big pile of crates and offered his hand. John Yates. But to just call him Yates. He was about fifty, wearing a zipper with the supermarket logo on it, a shirt with the collar open. After shaking my hand he was jogging up the stairs and smashing his fist on the lift door to let me know he was raring to go.
Some time later, a short woman with a ponytail and eating an ice-lolly came in the warehouse door. She grinned.
The name’s Shona, but everybody calls me Shug. What’s your story? Student?
Eh, no, just finished.
You’ll be fine. As long as you do what I say – don’t listen to that John, his head’s away with it. A screwball. Just ignore him.
Alright, I said.
By the time we had them all up and ready to be worked, the place had shut and it was just us. I came onto the shop-floor and Yates had a carrier-bag full of beer at his feet. He opened one and handed it to me.
Need a wee juice to get you going, eh.
Aye, I said. Thanks.
We walked slowly, drinking them, and Yates sat the carrier at the end of his aisle. His was the first one, the longest aisle, the tins and jars. There were ten or twelve cages lined up there for him, heavy with soups and beans and pickles, and salt, bottles of cooking oil, pasta sauces. It was ten o’clock and we were to finish at six, being back in the next evening to do it all again at eight. I could hear Shug in the distance, throwing bags of frozen food into the deep chillers.
But it flies in, Yates said, Don’t look so feart. You just need to get into a rhythm with it. Head down, arse up, as they say. That’s all there is to it really. And if Shug comes round trying to get you to do anything, or asking any questions, just belt up, right? Ignore her. A fucking space-cadet if ever there was one.
Right, I said.
Certified bonkers, let me assure ye. Don’t listen to a word of it, right? Just nod along. Aye, you stick with me son.
Mine was the ginger aisle. Fifteen cages of coke and irnbru, with some waters and orange squash packed into one at the back. I spent some time pushing all the stock together on the shelves so it was clear how much space was left for the new stuff. Yates came round the corner and said, The fuck you doing?
You can’t just shove stuff to the back, it needs rotated. So shite doesny go out of date.
Get all that pulled to the front again, pack the new gear in behind it.
It’ll take forever.
I listened to the footsteps moving across the shop. I moved all the stuff as he said. There was nothing else to do. The hours drifted. My phone was in the locker-room so I just kept working – no distractions, no skiving. Yates put a radio on, but it was over his side of the shop and I couldn’t hear it right. Now and then there were sounds outside. People drunk, walking home, shouting to each other and sometimes falling against the windows or the shutters, laughing. The supermarket lights were always on, all through the night, it seemed to draw folk in for reasons I couldn’t work out. The glass was black but when somebody came right up to it you could see them, a blurry outline with a face. At one point a woman was peering right in, cupping her hands round her eyes and trying to see. From the way she was looking, moving her head, scanning the place, there was no chance she’d picked me out. I stayed still and watched her. Why did she want to see in? It was ridiculous. It must have been two or three in the morning by this time. She soon staggered off into the dark again.
There was less noise from Yates’s end now. I started to imagine myself as a robot, slicing open the plastic on each packet, using the wee case-cutting knife Donna gave me. I heaved the bottles out onto the floor, lifted them and shoved them into place, kicked the wrapping into a growing pile, reached for the next batch. Again and again and again. My bones got sore from the tiles, so I cut some pieces of cardboard and used them to kneel on.
At one point a shout went up, breaking the silence.
HOW YOU DOING WEE MAN?
I jumped, dropping a big pack of waters. It bounced then rolled underneath a display case.
NEED A HAND?
NO, AM OK.
Minutes later I jumped again, as I noticed Shug’s head peeking round from near the bottom of the aisle. Don’t take any notice of that shite son, he’s never helped a soul in his life.
Just tell him to fuck off if he asks again, right?
Tell him to fuck right off. Ye don’t need his help. Right?
When the ginger was all out I started taking the cages of packaging back round. There was a pile of empty beer bottles at the end of his aisle, but all his stock was gone and the shelves were perfect. Row after row, straight, tidy tins, everything full, all the labels facing the front. No spaces. Then the sound of things being pulled into the lift. I sped up and saw Yates leaning on the doorframe, trying to push a cage in further with his foot.
Fucking thing must be stuck, he said.
I went in. The cage was against the back wall.
It’s in, I said. It’s in as far as it can go.
Ah fuck it. Yates closed his eyes and breathed out. He laughed. Fuck it, he said again, louder.
Ye better go and sit down John.
Aye, he said, So I will. He went off towards the deli, singing in this low voice.
It was colder in the warehouse now, but I decided to take a quick break anyway, sitting down on a pallet of toilet-rolls and letting the minutes tick by. I thought about what Rosie was doing right now. Sleeping, obviously. She was a heavy sleeper. Probably with just pants on if it was hot in the flat. Which it would be, as she kept the heating on full blast when I wasn’t there. I leaned into the wall and brought my legs up. It was more comfortable than it looked, resting on a bed of toilet-rolls. I dug my heel in till one of the packets burst. The idea of trying to fall asleep on it, just to see if I could. There was the noise of squeaking wheels coming through the ceiling, cages were being moved. I got up.
Yates was doing something at the meat-counter as I passed.
What were you doing down there? he said.
It was starting to get light outside when he poked his head into my aisle.
Jesus. You on a go-slow son?
You kidding? My hands are red-raw. Look.
He shook his head. I’ve done near the full place. She’s been fucking useless, as ever – but I’ll let you off, since it’s your first night.
Where you up to?
You’ll see when ye take the empties down. He was smiling.
You’ve tidied every aisle up to this one?
That’s the job.
Fuck sake. I must be doing it wrong or something.
Aye well, I’m away out for a puff. Will bring some trolleys in from the carpark, seeing as that security guard hasn’t bothered.
Feel free to nab yourself some messages before the cleaners get in.
Aye, I said. If only.
He looked at me. I’m not joking. Get yourself a wee bag or two. There’s nobody here except us.
Really? You sure it’s ok?
Perk of the job son. They’re not going to notice a few bits here and there for two hard-working nightshifters. Got a bag with ye?
Bring one the next time. For now you can stick your stuff at the loading-bay, get it when you leave. Go make yourself up a couple of carriers, quick. I’ll get mine when I come in.
That’s fucking brilliant! I said. Cheers John.
I walked round the shop choosing stuff. Thinking about how much cash was being saved. Deodorant, hair gel, fancy shampoo for Rosie, strawberries, a whole roast chicken, tissues, cranberry juice, gateaux, sausages, quilted toilet roll, beansprouts, lube, razors, Red Kola – all stuffed into bags and all deliciously free of charge.
When I went into the biscuit aisle, Shug was straightening a massive stack of Kit-Kats. She looked me up and down. Hard at it? she said.
John said we’re about done?
Pffft, and how would he know? Skiving bastard’s left it all to me as usual. She grinned. Getting some stuff together?
John said I should.
She nodded, looked down at my bags, then turned and started piling on more of the shiny red packets.
I struggled on the narrow stairwell with the bulging carriers, before sitting them in to the side of the big loading-bay door.
The sound of the lift descending again. The door got pulled open from the inside and Yates shouted, You get some?
Help me with these empties then. If we get everything sorted we can take the last hour off.
I moved two of the empty cages over to where the rows of others were, making sure they lined up right.
What’ll we do for an hour then?
Yates shrugged. You can knock off early. I need to wait for the shift manager coz I’ve got the keys, but he’ll not mind if I’ve let you away. If everything’s done.
We took a walk round the floor, making sure all the shelves were tidy and there was no plastic or cardboard lying anywhere. Yates took time to make sure every bottle of ginger had its label facing forward before he was pleased.
Looks alright, he said. How did you find that? Going to stick with it?
Am a bit tired. But aye, I’ll definitely be back.
Thanks for the night John. You two did most of the work. I’ll get faster.
Forget it, Yates said. And remember a bag.
I’ll just go say cheerio to Shug.
Don’t, he said. She’ll be out on a break or something. You’ll be seeing her in a few hours anyhow. Lucky you, eh.
I got my jacket and left out the main door, waving quickly to Yates, who could be seen in the distance, in behind the deli counter again at the far end of the store.
There was an old man trying to see over the side of the big industrial bin when I reached the carpark. Right up on his tiptoes, his head nearly inside it. He turned and watched as I dragged the bags of messages out and held the button in. The shutter lowered noisily, banging down onto the concrete.
Rosie was still sleeping when I let myself in to the flat, the room in darkness with the blinds and curtains closed. I decided not to kiss her in case she woke up. I quietly put all the messages away in the fridge and cupboards. It wasn’t a great job, Stock Replenishment, in fact it was the opposite, but this really was something good, something that could not be overlooked. Free messages every night! I stood in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water and looking out the back window, enjoying the stillness. The silence except for the wee bird noises somewhere in the trees. Things were ok. And what would her face be like when she saw the full shelves in the fridge. I smiled, and stayed another few minutes before thoughts of the warm bed made me go through to the room. I stripped to my shorts and got in beside her. She moaned and spun round in the sheets. When I woke up she wasn’t there. The bedside clock said six. I had a shower and hurried into the kitchen. A note on the table said:
Went to gym. How was work? Rosie xx
PS: Did you nick stuff? :-)
I opened the fridge and saw she’d drank half the bottle of cranberry. I made myself pasta with the new sauce and sausages. Finished the juice. The biggest bag we had was Rosie’s backpack from when she went travelling, it would be much easier to carry things home in that. I put a bottle of water and a spare T-shirt into it, wrote a note on the other side of hers:
Perk of the job. See you tomorrow, D x
Yates was already there, smoking, with his back against the front doors. I was walking up the ramp. Shug came out and lit herself a cigarette, stood in close to him. It was raining steadily, but they was safe under the canopy. He looked about and seemed to be mumbling, or singing to himself. The lips were moving. I waved.
Alright? I said.
You are one daft bastard.
He dropped the fag, stood on it.
What? What d’you mean?
The smoke came out of his nostrils, his head was shaking.
I wouldn’t go in there son. You’re sacked.
Thieving. They wanted to phone the polis, but I talked them out of it.
But - you said it was fine to take stuff?
Aye, Yates said, From the bloody warehouse, Jesus. Not off the shop floor! The security boy fast-forwards through the footage every morning.
Fuck, I said.
Yates hung his head. He was looking at the ground but seemed to be smiling.
But you, I said, staring at Shug, You saw me do it. You saw me with the basket.
She started to laugh.
Me? I thought you were collecting out-of-date stock to take down the stair. It’s nothing to do with me.
How was I meant to know??
Thought that would’ve been fucking obvious son, I didn’t even think to spell it out. Did it not dawn on you the cameras are always on?
Naw it didn’t. You said take – so I did.
Yates was shrugging as he lit another fag.
They’re not phoning the cops now, but you’re not to get paid. That’s what they said.
I stared at him. For fucksake.
How d’you think I feel? I’ve to do the full shift on my lonesome now.
Ha, Shug said. That’s a laugh.
Fuck, I said again. I stood there. He took a draw and turned to look down to the car-park. She was still smiling.
The full place, he said. That’ll be fun.
I took a few steps away then stopped.
Here John, I said.
How come they don’t see you on the cameras? With the drink?
He grinned. They’re no interested in that. They just want the work done. Fast. And honest.
We stood there. The rain was getting me again as I’d stepped outside of the cover.
Don’t be like that wee man. Am sorry to see you go.
I turned and started to walk.
Bye then, she shouted.
I am sorry, he said, Seriously. But I was soon round the corner and back on the main street.
It wasn’t busy, most of the shops had closed. Cars were waiting at the junction, a wee queue at the cashline, a lassie standing on the steps of the bank. Probably getting picked up. Her mam or her boyfriend. It would be good to talk to somebody – if I could just talk to somebody. Going straight home was not a good idea. This needed to be talked out, or even just thought out, how to break it to Rosie that I’d been dismissed without pay exactly twenty-four hours after starting a temporary position at the local supermarket.
I took the wrong turn. Some time was needed. Getting wet but it wasn’t heavy rain, it was ok. It was fucking Yates, his fault, playing the big man with the new start. He should have left me be, let me get through a single fucking shift. If things had gone even a wee bit different I could’ve been sat in the police station. Or the Sheriff Court. A University Alumnus of age twenty-six, standing trial for grievous, premeditated shoplifting. The mam in the gallery with a solitary tear of disappointment rolling down her face. Turning briefly to hiss at the dad for something. Him softly telling her to shut it. While the roast chicken and the lube were paraded as evidence. I was walking down the side of the dual-carriageway, the water starting to make its way into my trainers. What I could do was wait till it got dark then go back with the backpack filled with stones, half-bricks, whatever, and pan the supermarket windows in. Give Shug the fright of her life. Her and him. It could easily be done, as long as there weren’t cameras round the place – and that could be checked beforehand. There was definitely time for a reconnaissance of the surrounding area.
It was just a glorious thought. I couldn’t keep the smile down. People must’ve been thinking I was a fucking nutcase, but I wasn’t. I was a recent graduate and even more recent Grocery Assistant.
There was a kids’ playpark not far off, the end of the street I was on, and a wee burn flowed alongside it. There would surely be stones and rocks about there.
I imagined her expression when that first boulder flew in through the blackened windows, bouncing onto the floor in a hail of shattered glass. She wouldn’t be grinning then. And he’d be off running for the warehouse like a fucking gazelle, kicking his beers all over the place in the rush.
My phone was buzzing in my jacket. It was Rosie. I put it back in the pocket and zipped it. I would think of how to explain it all later.
The old boy would shit himself alright, cowering behind the cages in the warehouse as the bricks kept flying upstairs. She’d be terrified to go to the office and phone in case it was ramraiders, sticking the place up. Or a gang, wanting somebody to batter for a laugh. To give somebody a good pasting just as a way of passing another night. The phone buzzed again.
I kept walking, going in the lane between the houses, moving onto the grass and slowly down the slope, with my feet side-on so as not to slip and fall. I rested on the wee wooden fence by the burn and listened to it trickling past. All I could see were the streetlights reflecting off the water and the fragments of broken glass all over the path.
After some time had passed, I got up and went home.
Rosie was on the couch, sleeping quietly. The TV was on, the volume too low to hear what was being said. I perched myself on the cushion where her head was, and ran my fingers into her hair. She started to snore.
I had all night to apply for more jobs. Anything would do me.