You will know that my agency often sends me to work in one of Edinburgh’s ampler supermarkets. You might also know about my manager Andrew. If not, then please picture a tall, gentle, Polish man with a grey face and greying hair. He has astonishingly clear, intelligent eyes that lead many of the people who he meets to think him overly generous with his talents in agreeing to be superintendent of this supermarket. In carrying out his duties, he always exudes a delicate, exquisite despair, though he is too sparse with his confidences to ever rouse people to active pity.
Our story finds Andrew sitting in his office staring at his computer screen. He was conscious that he had been staring at the unmoving spreadsheet on the screen for several minutes and that nothing was giving. His brain had become as frozen as the spreadsheet, as if the two had slipped unhelpfully into a sympathetic companionship. The numbers on the spreadsheet would not cooperate and his brain was now just issuing a blaring noise.
The staff rota for next week was still terribly short. Andrew needed at least five extra staff to make up each shift.
He finally went out on to the supermarket floor with a clipboard. He spied Marion rumbling towards him down the nearest aisle. She was perched up on the new driveable sweeper-scrubber and her face looked content and somewhat insensible. At the forefront of the machine, two shuffling brushes flicked at the floor, like the mandibles of a huge ant, whilst another, wettened, disc-shaped brush slithered around in its throat.
Previously, the workers had to sweep the floor with soft brushes and scrub it using a machine that you had to push. But since staff were far fewer these days – and the staff that were available tended to be old or fat or some mixture of the two – Andrew had reluctantly invested in a machine that you could sit on. As soon as a fresh wave of workers had appeared from somewhere, this sweeper-scrubber would be sold. His disapproval of it continued to gleam immaculately like stainless steel. Such a machine made a worker look like a slob in an invalid carriage.
It barged its way down the aisle, so that the customers had to scatter with their baskets. “Marion!” he shouted after her. She did not hear him or else she was ignoring him. She is going to drive through the wall, he thought dully, but at the end of the aisle she evidently awakened sufficiently in order to direct the sweeper-scrubber around the corner.
Next, Andrew cornered Ross, a pimply youth with glazed eyes and a mouth that was too small for his face, so that his lips became frayed and bleeding whenever he tried to exert them too much. Ross had claimed to be seventeen on his C.V. and Andrew had been so desperate for staff that he had not bothered to verify this. He would not have missed a breath if someone had told him that Ross was three years younger.
“Can you work some more shifts, Ross?” Andrew asked. A year ago, if he hadn’t sent Ross home for the unironed uniform, he would have told him to lose the nose ring and cover the tattoos and keep his phone out of view. Lately Andrew had to learn not to react to these horrendous errors. He had to dim the bright lamps of his watchful eyes; he had to wear patience on his face like a plastic mask. It was a golden age of employee freedom.
Ross blushed and looked cross. “I have football training,” he mumbled with exasperation.
Andrew smiled wryly. “Ross, working here is a lot like being in a football team. You have your teammates – you have fun – you have to score goals and win. There are also the best facilities – we have luxury staff changing rooms, free drinks and lunch, discounts on food, new staff toilets. I have worked hard to make a relaxed and fun atmosphere for you all.”
Ross stiffened. He did not seem to be listening to the words but he knew as true as daylight that there was something that he distrusted behind them. Something manipulative and rotten. He made the sort of face that a boy would make if he found a dog sleeping in the road, flipped it over, and saw maggots. His nose wrinkled.
“Can I put you down for Tuesday afternoon?” Andrew begged. Jesus Christ, should he throw in his daughter too? He imagined parading Ross home to her. This is your new husband – please marry him, the supermarket really needs it.
“Give it some thought,” Andrew suggested kindly. “We’ll talk about it later.” He would add Ross to Tuesday afternoon and hopefully the lad was so dopey that he would go along with it. He doubted, however, that it would be this easy. These days, staff who appeared otherwise braindead would suddenly erupt into spitting fury if you made the slightest encroachment or took the tiniest liberty.
He gravitated towards the fish counter, where Basha was lingering with her alluring Siren’s smile over glass display counters of sole and plaice. Andrew could see the headphones and he knew that she would have a tablet lying at her feet, on which she was watching Blue Planet. Basha was an immigrant from the early days – like himself, she had come to the UK in 2005 – and like him she was only half-heartedly in thrall to the hypochondria about Brexit. She already owned a flat in Edinburgh, and she spent all of her money here, so she had been not sent packing by the low pound. As he approached, she grinned up wickedly at him and shook the headphones from her hair. He could no longer make the staff wear hairnets now.
“You could help them stock the shelves, while it’s quiet,” Andrew pleaded. He would have never asked this of Marion or Ross, but Basha was a crony of many years.
“No my job,” Basha replied, with a prompt, almost automatic flash in her eyes. Andrew did not take it personally. She gave him another fiendish grin, as if she was a triumphant supervillain, and the headphones rose again. Andrew knew that there was no point in asking about next week.
On his subsequent tour of the supermarket, Andrew closed his eyes to staff abandoning their positions to chat and flirt in the new staff coffee area; staff topping up their coffees with rum that was so obviously pilfered from the shelves (if the paper label was torn, the bottle could be filed as wastage); and a member of staff and a delivery driver bundling each other into a cleaning cupboard with greedy hands. If Andrew found himself feeling unamused, it was in fact because what he saw largely invalidated the stance that he had always taken on staff indiscipline.
He had frequently maintained that if the customers saw the staff joking and having fun together, they would feel excluded, as though they were intruding upon a private party. On the contrary, today’s customers seemed to be actively mingling with the partygoers. Some of the more comely customers had been invited into the staff coffee area. Around the store, the customers looked a lot merrier, as though the cheerfulness of the rowdy staff was in itself compensating for this quarter’s inflated prices. It was almost as though Brexit had transformed this supermarket into an impromptu nightclub and he was stalking around as the lone bouncer who could not partake in the fun.
A year ago, he would have patrolled this supermarket and seen staff frantically at work wherever he looked. They would have begun working frantically as soon as they had heard his footsteps. He did not take pleasure in having to tell off workers who he found idle, and so he had worn some jangling keys on his belt that could warn them of his approach in good time. Now he roamed around like a barely visible ghost that could spook nobody. Still, if his workers were all having so much fun, he might collect some more names for next week’s rota. He managed to procure two, one definite and one a strong maybe.
Back in his office, he swiped around on Tinder for a couple of hours out of curiosity. Hundreds of women passed through the supermarket every day and he liked to see who was coming and going. He just liked to look. This was not part of the post-Brexit indiscipline – it had been his daily routine for years.
[Previously on Tychy: “This Is The Country You Live In.”]