When I was working at the shop, the girls and I would stop for a snack around mid-morning.
It was common knowledge that the village stopped for coffee around half past ten. The regular rheumatic thrum of chainsaws would cease. Dogs would go back to sleep. Engines would stall in startling succession. It was at that time that Kelly would fire up the grill in the bakery department.
This happened, without fail, on my manager’s day off. Totally by accident. Or, to put it another way, entirely deliberately.
(This was the woman who went through my pockets, cast various homophobic slurs across the office, got through three assistant managers inside four months, invited herself to staff ultrasounds, and spread rumours that I was sleeping with the woman in the estate agent’s long before I was. We used carbs as a coping mechanism.)
There was a group of us, morning shop staff and the men from the Butcher’s, who clubbed together, bought bacon from the meat counter, bread rolls from the bakery, and ketchup and Reggae Reggae sauce from the main shop.
Kelly, who worked in the bakery, would call us through in turn as they were ready. It was like Christmas. They were epic, and with the smell of bacon wafting across the shop floor, we sold a lot more meat when the shop refilled.
One night, I was working with one of the young lads. We used to have one supervisor, one shop assistant in the evenings. The night time shop assistants were kids from the area, usually around sixteen years old, possibly hormonal, and not allowed to sell age-restricted products without supervision. That was me. Strangely, I didn’t go mad from the power – I think this was a surprise to us all.
When the kids needed assistance, they had been trained to ring the bell on the counter, and I would come running down from the back store to help them. I was drinking a world-tilting amount of caffeine at the time, so I was thinner, stressed and having night-terrors. More of that later, undoubtedly.
Among the many lovely customers, there was a man who scared everyone. He looked tough, muscle vests and a look in his eyes that said he could have you killed.
One murky, mist-kissed night, he came into the shop. I was out the back, bundling up the newspapers that hadn’t sold and preparing the paperwork to send them back to Exeter.
The lad was frightened of the scary man. All veins and biceps, everyone was nervous around him. Rather than ringing the bell, suddenly the kid was at my side. The scary man had asked for twenty pounds cash-back. The lad had handed him a twenty-pound note, and had him sign the receipt to indicate he’d had the money.
The scary man had signed the receipt, handed it to the lad, who had put it in the till – it’s a humdinger of a transaction, so far. The lad closed the till, and only then did the scary man look at the balled up note in his hand, and announce he had wanted a tenner and two fives, not a poxy twenty pound note.
In closing the till, the lad had effectively locked it.
Rather than have me run down the aisle and into a mess, the lad appeared, ashen-faced and quaking.
I went down to the front of the shop and apologised, as I had been taught. I opened the till, for indeed I had that power, and exchanged the £20 for £10 and two £5 notes. At this point I realised, my shop assistant for the night, slender and every inch of six foot four, was hiding behind me.
I was a foot shorter than him. How he folded himself so neatly as to disappear from view I have no idea. I can only assume he did a lot of yoga.
The scary man, a little bit worse for drink, insinuated that I was probably paid peanuts, and the boy even less. Perilously close to the truth, I did my best to mollify the situation, without agreeing too much. It doesn’t do to agree too much. The scary man called me a few, not especially pleasant, names. Shockingly, this hadn’t happened to me before.
“This is what %$£*ing happens when you put %$£*ing kids in charge!” he spat.
(You don’t know me well enough for me to swear in front of you yet. Give it time.)
In my twilight-lunacy, I had decided it was vital to show the lad that customers were not to he feared.
“Actually, I’m twenty-six,” I replied. Like an idiot.
Thankfully, he merely shot me a look and skulked off soon after.
The next day, over coffee and bacon sandwiches with the girls, I was telling Kelly about the exchange I’d had with the scary man the night before.
She was horrified. He’d only recently been released from prison. Surely, I knew that?
No. No, I did not know that.
When he appeared in the shop later that afternoon, I did my damnedest to not look afraid of him. Of course, I was.
He couldn’t have been more polite. He asked after my general health, which was a bit creepy, but he packed his own bag, didn’t check his change, and took the time to learn my name.
I got through a lot of energy drinks in those days. They kept me moving quickly, and my metabolism was tip-top. I’ve since been told, I was starting to look deathly ill, and more than a little blurred.
And then I had the dream.
I dreamt I was in the back storeroom of the shop, hoofing wine boxes from my right to my left. I was only moving them about three feet, which seemed pointless, but I continued nonetheless.
And then, all of a sudden, the lights went out. The door to the store corridor was shut, and I couldn’t work out how I was going to escape. The wine bottles and boxes were all over the floor, and in the dream I stumbled and smashed my way to what I believed to be a wall of the storeroom. With all my might, I banged on the storeroom wall, and called out for assistance.
I woke up, owl-eyed, standing on my bed, fist-prints on my bedroom window.
I stopped drinking energy drinks.