I’m Not Even Supposed to be Here Today

This is the second piece of fictional writing I submitted for the ‘Start Writing Fiction’ course. If you want to have a go at it, you can access it here.

The stock area of every supermarket I have ever worked has been foreboding; devoid of natural light, always frigid thanks to the chill emanating from the concrete floor, and full of pallets loaded with indistinguishable cardboard boxes full of consumer goods made by people I will never meet. They invariably smell of a combination of sour milk, cabbage leaves and Windex. As I walk between the pallets to the tea room to clock in, I usually feel like I am travelling through a subterranean Orc kingdom.

Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

Some mornings when I first started in this line of work on a full time basis, I wished one of those slimy monstrosities would appear and take to me with a tomahawk. Every morning, from the very moment I walked in the front entrance to start my shift, I felt as though there was a little invisible bloke hiding behind the automatic doors with a sledgehammer in tow; ready to whack me under the chin. The repetition of how I would make my way to the stock room made me feel like an automaton; destined for the sole purpose of making some rich jerks even richer. It was though the only joy I could get out of my day was to notice what had changed in the store on my journey to the storeroom. First past the cash registers, then through the fruit department, take a right at the butcher’s shop and try to avoid eye contact with the manager who hated me, past the coke pallets where I would take a right into the Orc kingdom. The slightest change in the layout of the store would get me perversely excited.

I was a shy, awkward, and milquetoast kind of kid; one never suited to being a packer in a bakery. With a pugnacious and overbearing father whose roof I was living under insisting that I increase my loading from part to full time after I graduated from high school, taking on this profession never really felt like my decision. They took a toll on me: financially, emotionally and, as I was to find out, physically. As a man in my forties, I can now reminisce on those times with a sense of gallows humor.

However, my first night of full time work often makes me wonder if I had been literally cursed by a higher power.

It was around five thirty in the afternoon. After I had deleted ten different voicemail messages from my soon to be full time colleagues making a procession of animal noises ranging from duck, monkey to something that I think was supposed to resemble a goat, I stumbled upon a message asking me to start my career as a full time bakery packer by coming in on emergency call to help with the night bake. Andy, our 2IC, had called in sick. Perhaps he had gotten rabies? I swore he was the dog in that menagerie of crank call animals.

The entire evening nearly slapped me upside the head like a can of tinned peaches to the side of the head. If my writing seems somewhat analogy heavy so far, let me reassure you that what I am describing was a literal occurrence. Ten minutes after my shift had started, I remember taking one moment to purchase a bottle of aqua blast flavor Powerade. I needed something to sate my thirst during what would be a quite intense night of work. Halfway back from the drinks aisle, I walked past the night crew: a motley crew of shelf stackers, supervisors and ne’er do wells. In 1970’s Melbourne, they might have gotten work in the Painters and Dockers Union, but since it was 2002, and the union had been deregistered 11 years earlier for criminal activity, they were out of luck. Psychologically and anatomically, they resembled the Morlocks: nocturnal, bestial in appearance, easily excitable and always on the hunt for a victim. Thankfully, our departments were separate, and rarely did our paths meet.

Mostly because of my introverted nature, I avoided eye contact with most people in the store. On this occasion, my personal wellbeing relied on me taking an opposite tack as no sooner had the day manager finished his instructions for that evening’s work than a 400 gram tin of SPC peaches in syrup came hurtling towards me at the rate of knots; accompanied by a cry of ‘Hey! You guys! Let’s have some fun!’ I found out retrospectively that the hardy soul who had dispatched this preservative projectile my way used this as the first shot fired in a series of gentlemanly sporting pursuits, namely dodge ball and cricket, using all manner of canned and boxed foodstuffs as balls and that were to be played in the aisles.

Having managed to escape the setting of the Lord of the Flies, albeit one populated by grown men, without a serious concussion or fractured skull, I now confronted what awaited me in the bakery.

At his workbench was Pearce. Unlike me, Pearce didn’t need this job. The word was that his wife had more than enough bread, pardon the pun, to sustain them both. However, thanks to an indomitable and uncompromising work ethic, he chose to continue in the back breaking line of work he had been in since he was a young man.

Industriousness, intensity, and steadfastness to the cause are desirable traits in any employee; at least in the eyes of the automatons of the managerial class. However, Pearce melded those traits into a near mental disturbance. So hard would he work, his face would turn the color of a Christmas ham, the veins in his neck would protrude as though they were ready to burst through his skin like enraged gummy snakes, and he would inevitably be soaked in a light veil of sweat by the end of his shift. In direct contrast to the sanguine, cheerful and genial nature implied by his blonde scraggly hair, tanned skin and blue eyes that would suggest to the uninitiated that he might have been a laid back, California surfer dude type, he spent most of his time threatening lawsuits for whatever tenuous comeback I could muster against him, dismissing my daily toil as shit, and threatening to ‘bury me’.

Looking at the staff whiteboard where the day manager had left him instructions to make sure to wipe the bench this time was Fat Bastard (or Mario, which we will henceforth refer to him as). This moniker was given to him for two reasons. Firstly, despite him not being Scottish but of northern Italian heritage, he was a dead ringer for the eponymous Austin Powers character; obese, ruddy complexion, and with thinning ginger hair. Secondly, his demeanor was nearly indistinguishable from Fat Bastard’s right down to him having the social graces of a goat. He regularly and unashamedly farted in front of customers. He would often steal my mobile and ring my female friends up to serenade them with random karaoke numbers in the vain hope they would swoon over him though Harvey Danger’s ‘Flagpole Sitta’ still has yet to register with me as a romantic ballad per excellence. It’s more an admission of insanity. His mid eighties beige Ford Falcon XF station wagon was strewn with McDonalds and Burger King takeaway bags. Replace the UPS uniform the fictional version wore in the ‘Spy Who Shagged Me’ with the all white polo top and tight shorts ensemble of the baking profession that my version wore, and he and Fat Bastard would be close to twins. Worst of all, he was the laziest prick I had met in the industry up to that point. After completing his apprenticeship, he had baked for ten or so years before transitioning into a sales rep job for a baking supplies company. He had not gotten his hands in any dough for many a year and it showed.

The evening started out as an extended version of the casual shifts I had taken up to that point. After getting the first set of bread done, the consequent hour involved Pearce and myself getting into an argument about the likelihood of pentothal being used by the CIA to catch terrorist suspects, devolved into a series of threatened lawsuits based on his tenuous understanding of the concept of slander after I told him I didn’t give a fuck about what he thought in feeble exasperation, and concluded with Mario trying to spray cream down the crack of my temporarily exposed ass (my belt was a bit loose and my shorts had slipped down a bit) with a cake piping bag. After all of this gaiety and mirth, we realized that Fat Bastard hadn’t proofed the bread properly; an unforgivable sin for a supposedly experienced baker. This being the umpteenth time this had happened, Pearce stormed off to the men’s toilets, returned armed with a toilet brush, pinned Mario down to his work bench and proceeded to try to ‘clean his ears out’ in the vein hope that by doing so, he would henceforth listen to instructions. I’m not sure the tip even got past the jowls that masqueraded as his cheeks.

However, the nadir of the evening had yet to be reached.

It wasn’t until about one o’clock in the morning that we started noticing them flitting in. At first, we found three or four dotting the floor of the main store when we took our occasional toilet and cigarette breaks. Small, black insects roughly the size of pencil erasers that had made their way into the store and then ran out of puff. They first came to our attention thanks to the crinkley sound they made when we inadvertently stepped on them: a sound that was almost like stepping on autumn leaves. They almost seemed like dried out husks as the associated goo that typically bursts free from an insect should you squash it was absent. After a good hour or so, it was like the floor was awash with a scattering of black, glistening jellybeans. Their death pose was unusual in that they didn’t curl up into the foetal position. It was almost like they realized they were in my workplace and realized that it was somewhere they didn’t want to be. Perhaps we were kindred spirits in that sense?

It was likely that they were attracted to the store’s internal lighting as well as the illuminated signage out front. We stood out like a Las Vegas casino in the middle of a desert highway of an evening as soon as the sun set. We posited that they had probably gotten in when the night packers had gone out for a smoke and had to open the automatic doors at the front of the store. Nonetheless, while the frequent corporate propaganda that we were subjected to dictated that we should behave like gormless drones who should unctuously satisfy our management overlords by obsessing how we could make every millisecond productive, we initially ignored these critters. It wasn’t until we could barely see a ten centimeter square area of the concrete floor that we decided to find the night crew to find out what in the Sam Hill was happening after finishing up the batch of bread we had in the oven. Surely the answer would lay with them.

After jogging three desperate laps of the store, we were baffled as to where they could be. It wasn’t until we found a 1.5 liter Coke front end display tipped over; leaking its dark, saccharine contents all over the floor that we started to put the pieces together. A subsequent review of security camera footage illustrated that their evening rough housing also involved them scaling product shelves to escape from the flying projectiles of processed food hurled by their colleagues. A particularly zealous character caused one shelf to sway too hard as he mounted it. It subsequently nudged the base of the Coke display at the front of the store; thus knocking the lot over. The lid of at least four bottles came off; coating the area near the check out with a product once considered faux medicinal. I could have done with some type of remedy myself; snake oil or not.

With stock being damaged, their arse on the line and them having a strong case of the couldn’t be fuckeds, our Morlock compadres decided that they would do a runner. It was that or they had decided to hunt Eloi as the sun had started to come up. They left via the automatic front door which as a rule was deactivated after the close of business. This meant that for those entering and leaving, the doors had to be opened manually. Alas, as was their way, the night crew decided to leave the front doors wide open, allowing the beetle swarm to come in like those vampire bats from ‘Dusk ‘Till Dawn’ did after Sex Machine bit Frost.

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

After a brief call to the day manager, who promptly came in to inspect the store despite it being early in the morning, we were informed that we had just witnessed a once in a decade event. The insects that had infested our store apparently came about from a mass hatching. The weather on this very evening, the evening of my first ever full time shift, contained just the right amount of heat and humidity that the immeasurable amounts of these creatures’ eggs instantaneously and spontaneously hatched. I could only ponder the biblical implications of this event, and made silent comparisons to the plagues Moses unleashed on the Pharaoh prior to parting the Red Sea. The ironic thing was that a benevolent prophet would have sent these creepy crawlies at the day manager in order to free me from bondage.

After the manager had finished inspecting the store, he informed us that as the beetles had gotten into the fresh fruit, meat, fish and baked goods on display, the following business day would witness a mass destruction of the contaminated goods, a complete cleanout of the entire store and closure for forty eight hours. He informed us that after getting the bread out of the oven, we could go home and take the next two days off. After getting changed, a spring was restored to my step as I headed to the front exit. As I left, I noticed that as an act of of civility, good humor and proletarian solidarity, a member of the night crew, and doubtlessly a gentleman of the old school, had decided to leave a pink Post-It note on the front door. It simply and delightfully read, ‘You can all kiss my arse’. Heartwarming stuff.

As we walked towards our cars, Pearce grabbed a stray shopping trolley with one hand and threw it down the stairwell leading to the shop entrance. On any other day, I would have marveled at such a Herculean feat of strength.

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