FEW WRITE ABOUT the extra ordinary. Murders, death in all its forms; love, in all its guises; tragedy and triumph, in all its parts – all of these and more are written about, photographed, whispered and shared. But not the extra ordinary. The very word extraordinary makes no sense; suggesting something to be ordinary in the extreme, which is the polar opposite of what it is meant to do. A slice of white bread is extra ordinary. A multi-seeded loaf with sundried tomatoes and olives is not.
LEON WORKS AT a medium sized retail shop, a chain, one of those corporate behemoths that turns every employee into a Payroll number. The kind you hate. Even the managers carry zero respect. What does Leon think about during his shifts? Breaks. The next break. Small breaks and big breaks. Half an hour to sit and eat, unpaid, to reflect on why a university degree has helped him to become a cashier stroke shelf-stacker extraordinaire. And why that word makes no sense.
Lately he’s been prone to bouts of jealousy. ‘I’m just a jealous guy…’ sings Robert Palmer in the partition of his brain that stores music. You see, Robs swiping technique with the scanner is just that bit better. Faster, and with an economical motion from holder to barcode – it’s been eating away at him like crazy as the second hand noisily ticks its way around the face of the excessively large clock in the backroom. It wasn’t just Rob. Jenni and Mike had strengths as well. They were all-rounders, competent at all shop related duties. Their shelves were neater, richer in aesthetic appeal. Every item was date checked with appropriate reductions made. Nothing got past them in terms of stock related responsibilities. Lately, Leon was starting to worry that they were even encroaching on his once firm grasp as second in command, supreme scanner #2. And that wasn’t including customer relations. Sometimes stuck for words, Leon didn’t know what to do when a shopper came over to ask about where the gluten-free reduced fat granola was. Thoughts like, ‘I’m sorry I’m not sure I’ll just ask the manager’ followed by asking for the manager over the public address system gradually turned to, ‘Just eat some fucking wheat!’.
Where had his manner gone? Did he ever have one in the first place? Maybe Rob and the rest had simply made him feel like he was doing his job well when in fact behind his back, they were slagging him off. Maybe some of the laughter during stock takes, on the other aisles was about Leon’s rudeness. About how he simply didn’t seem to care. But he did care. Deeply, or at least as deep as it can get in this line of work.
The shop would be shutting in two hours. With five minutes of break left Leon did the unthinkable. He knew he’d be dealing with the cardboard from all the boxes, flattening and recycling them while the others faced up, making sure the shelves were stocked and neatly arranged for the next day. He looked in the trolley which out of date items were kept in. A dentless tin of beans, a week out of date was perfect – not exactly botulism in the making but acceptable. An indistinct product, generic enough to avoid detection. Leon picked it up and hid it inside the stock room, just before the doors on a small shelf for later use.
‘Leon! Can you sort out the self-service counter?’ said Martin, the manager, currently engaged with an acquaintance of which he had many.
Leon nodded. Anger began to brew. Martin knew Leon didn’t have experience using the swipe card to reset the machine and could never remember the password either.
Leon struggled with the machine while an exasperated customer decided to take their goods to a real-live-person-counter instead. Desperate eyes searched for someone that wasn’t too busy, to ask for the passcode. Jenni was slowly putting some drinks out, squatting down, pink thong peeking out label and all.
‘Jenni, what’s the passcode for the self serve till?’ asked Leon, fidgeting.
Jenni turned her head his way then went back to stacking cans. ‘Is it not 435862?’
Great. Even Jenni knew more than he did. Or did she? The code didn’t work. Rob spotted the man in trouble and mid-swipe, cooly and confidently announced he’d help him out as soon as he was done with the customer, who happened to want just about everything behind the till as well.
Rob wasn’t a bad guy. He simply knew the managerial spot was about as good as things were going to get. Smiling was his normal face. A friendly guy always, exchanging banter with customers regular and new, unshakable in the face of social situations.
BA Hons in Media zipped through Leon’s mind. BA Hons in Media it taunted.
‘Leon, you forgotten again?’ Rob stood next to him, fingers gliding over the screen at a speed Leon could only hope to emulate after four years of service. ‘Remember it for next time yeah?’
Leon had already forgotten.
Thankfully there were no more malfunctions at the self service until closing time. Leon stocked the shelves and even chatted to Martin about the state of the economy best summed up by, “Fucking Tory bastards”. Enlightened and thankful for the exchange of words no matter how banal, Leon restocked the shelves in what he thought was a personal best time, only to have his elation shattered by Jenni who waddled around the corner, having finished two sides of an aisle by her lonesome.
‘You guys need a hand?’ she offered, like a marathon runner who’d just finished half a mile in front of the closest rival.
The nerve of her. Undermining right in front of Martin. Some sort of mistress of psychological warfare.
‘It’s ok,’ said Leon firmly.
‘Nonsense!’ overruled the manager. ‘Many hands..and all that.’
‘I’m just going to the toilet,’ Leon said, slinking away.
‘I’ll take that off your pay!’ kidded Martin, laughing at his own joke. If it were a tyre it would be illegal, bald from overuse.
Leon went through the big swing doors to the stock room and grabbed the tin of beans. Poking his head out he spotted Martin whistling away to his left, arranging the wines. Walking briskly out to the right Leon headed for the midsection of the shop; bean central, the tin corridor. Jenni wasn’t to be seen and Rob was mopping up near the tills – impeccable timing. Mike had left early.
Leon needlessly snuck down the canned section. He plucked the two cans at the front of the beans shelf, and shoved the one he’d carried right to the back as far as his arm would reach before replacing the two tins as neatly as he’d found them. This was Rob’s section. A mild pang of guilt surfaced, submarine-like, as he’d helped him out earlier with the till. Never mind. This is retail!
The rest of the close went as smoothly as could be hoped for. Collectively they finished ten minutes early. To Martin ten minutes was an hour. “There’s always something to be done.”
Martin disappeared to the office, presumably to do that something. That left Jenni, Rob and Leon to reassess their aisles, to turn products a few millimeters so they were more central and symmetrically on display. All so the first customers of the day could see the handiwork and destroy the neat stacking. It was the bed making of the shop world.
With minutes to go Martin dashed through. ‘We’ve got an emergency. There’s a tin of beans missing from the out of date stock.’ Damn he was sharp.
Leon’s eyes widened.
Frenetically all four of looked around desperate to get away on time, into the street lit blackness of 11 pm having dodged the sun all day. ‘It’s not in the stockroom – let’s search the floor.’
To Leon’s delight, Martin assigned himself the beans section. Within two minutes he pulled out the can, holding it triumphantly aloft as the second hand of the store clock raced past 11:05.
‘Rob,’ he said sternly. ‘How did this get here?’
Rob was puzzled and for once speechless.
‘It’s a week out of date..’ he said curtly. The tin was held up in Rob’s direction.
‘No idea Martin. I swear I checked every single tin.’ Moving closer he examined the product. ‘Aye look, the labels not even the same. There’s no way I’d miss that boss.’
Martin squinted, comparing both in-date and expired tins. Indeed there was a discrepancy. How strange. Rob was always perfect at his job.
‘Hmm. Well, just keep an eye out next time.’
That was it. No admonishment or humiliation, nor even any sign of anger which Martin was prone to from time to time late at night. The saboteur had been foiled. Leon’s own status in the shop remained a non-mover at number five. And if you included the other staff members he was into the teens.
Several weeks passed although it was hard to tell exactly how long. The Bean Incident had become a topic of conversation and bonded those who shared in the triviality of it, with streams of terrible puns and word play including such classics as: “It couldn’t have bean me” and “Rob, you’re a has bean“. How they laughed. Even their laughs were somehow more genuine, louder and infectious.
Fifteen minutes after the shop closed Martin appeared having been in the office. ‘Where’s Leon?’ he said loudly so everyone could hear from whatever aisle they were in. Leon frowned and walked to the end of the fruit section to see Martin marching towards him. When he saw Leon he stopped.
‘Don’t sit down. Come around here.’ Martin ordered Leon to the other side of the desk where his laptop was. ‘Watch this.’
Leon watched as a twenty second loop played of him taking and secreting a tin from the pile in the out of date trolley. Martin let it play five times before stopping it. Leon felt a sudden heat rising up under his skin.
‘Red-handed. What’s the idea behind this? Are you trying to get Rob or myself into trouble?’ Martin stared at Leon who couldn’t take his eyes off the frozen frame.
‘I was just messing about. I’m sorry Martin.’
‘Just messing about?’ he echoed. ‘I could lose my job over something like that. I’ve got a mortgage and kids to feed. Do you? I didn’t think so. I’m giving you a verbal warning. Any more of this and you’re off.’ He closed the lid of the laptop and held the door open, continuing the stern disappointed look.
As they walked back to the shop floor in silence Martin spoke to Leon. ‘What degree is it that you got again?’
‘Aye, that’s what I thought…’