The night before I started my new job in the frozen food supermarket, Bejam, there was a fire. I turned up at work, nervous, first day, and spent more or less the whole of my first day scrubbing soot off the walls.
Well, this is shitty, I was thinking, and so it was.
Bejam was in the Quadrant shopping centre in Dunstable, on the corner of one of the pedestrian zones. It was about half the size of a modern Lidl, really, just a few rows of chest freezers with some dry goods (in bulk-sized packaging) around the side. Bejam was the first place I noticed kosher goods on sale; these were were exotic to my narrow experience. Nowadays, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s have whole aisles of specialist and ethnic foods, but Bejam felt off the beaten track. Eventually the chain was taken over by a smaller company, Iceland, which I guess is at least a more appropriate name. The Bejam name was based on the initials of the owning family. You can’t say it too many times without it sounding ridiculous.
Four litre tubs of vanilla ice-cream, Butterball turkeys, rhum-babas, frozen peas: this was the stuff of Bejam, but not on the day I arrived for work. Working in retail as a part-timer, a school kid with a part-time job, you would, in normal circumstances, have very little to do with the full-time staff. They were generally given Saturday off and the shifts were taken by sixth formers. There might be one of them in on a Saturday. As for the Friday evening, you might bump into one or two of the full-timers as they finished off their shift.
But on that first day, all of the full-timers had been pulled in for the emergency clean-up. The shop was closed, but the fire damage such as it was, was relatively slight: the main problem was a layer of soot that covered almost everything, from the smoke. So there were two things going on that day that made me regret taking the job. The first was the scrubbing: it seemed pointless to me. We had very little impact on the soot, and it was obvious that a professional clean-up crew would be needed, along with a fresh coat of paint etc. But this was my first ever contact with cheapskate management, who were happy to waste everyone’s time as long as it saved them a bit of money further along. So even as I was doing it, I wasn’t trying very hard.
The second thing that made me hate the job on that first day were the coarse and loud and ignorant full-timers, the kind of gob-shites who made lessons boring with all their crap, and then went into the kind of dead-end jobs that people like me only did for pocket money. There was a big loud blonde kid who swore constantly and another one who was still hungover from the night before, and seemed to seethe with a kind of permanent, unfocused anger. As I said, in normal circumstances a Saturday worker wouldn’t have much to do with these people, and it was a rude awakening for this particular hothouse flower.
One of them was quite nice though: a ginger-haired sophisticate who spoke in an educated drawl, so that you wondered what on earth he was doing working at there. In my naïve way, it took me a while to twig that he was (flamboyantly) gay, but I never did work out how he managed to balance his love of cigars and the high life with the low wages he must have been on.
I suppose you could argue that I thought myself above the work. The truth is, I think of myself, even now, as being above all work. Work is a horrible necessity, and I’m never going to buy into the lie that it’s something that gives you an identity or vocation. All lies spread by capitalism, though I wasn’t well read enough at that point to object to it by name. I never felt that there was any nobility, nor any point to work. Work in a frozen food centre largely involved picking orders, pricing up, filling freezers, and sweeping up mess. There was other stuff (breaking up cardboard boxes, corralling stray trolleys) but the days were fairly routine. You got your first exposure to customer service. You could be helpful, they could be rude, you couldn’t really do anything about it.
Once the soot scrubbing was done with and things returned to normal, things got more bearable. The girls on the checkouts were flirtworthy, often from exotic and strange secondary schools in other parts of town. I became convinced that most of the pretty girls in town had gone to Northfields, a school I have only the vaguest memories of touring on an open evening. And a couple of the other kids were fun to be around.
A while after I started, someone in the year below me at the same school, Martin, began to work there. He eventually became a successful software engineer. Back then, he was a prototypical computer nerd, into programming when software was being shared and published as printed code in electronics magazines. I believe that Martin had an Apple ][ when those things were really new and really expensive. I think in a way he was too early to catch the wave: he wasn’t Bill Gates, and he didn’t get to rise the later dot com tide. But he was a nice lad, interested in the world, and we would take ourselves away to the big freezer, put on the parkas and the gloves and ‘tidy up’ which involved sitting around in a nest of cardboard boxes and talking about Bob Dylan, computers, or other interests.
He was polite, uncomplicated and pleasant where I was seething with teenage angst and up my own arse with self-involvement. Because of this, and apart from talking to Martin, I think probably my favourite activity was the trolley run, which allowed you the freedom to wander around town looking for abandoned trolleys. This might involve twenty minutes or half an hour of solo wandering, and as long as you came back with a train of trolleys, you were good. And the great thing about it was, if you went really far afield, you usually found one that had been pushed that way by kids or people who walked home with their shopping and couldn’t be bothered to bring it back. So I’d be on the far side of the Sainsbury’s car park at the other end of town, and I’d spot the distinctive blue and yellow handle of a Bejam trolley and I could happily and slowly make my way back, picking up the other strays as I went.
Being out and about also meant bumping into other kids from school with their weekend jobs. I’d occasionally bump into my best friend John, out doing a trolley run for Sainsbury’s, or I could hang around out in front of the shoe shop and talk to Georgia from my school and her blonde and beautiful and slightly older co-worker, Sarah, who wasn’t.
The worst parts of the job were as follows. First of all, not being able to go home until it was time to go home, even though you were done and finished with your work. We were often delayed by the fact that one of the checkout girls had a discrepancy on her till roll, and the manager would sit with her in his office, going through every transaction until they found the error, all of which meant he didn’t come out the back to give the once over to the pricing up area and tell us it was okay to go home. Then there were the nights he’d decide that the cleaning was inadequate, or the final few boxes needed to be collapsed, before were were allowed to leave. Petty management bullshit, in other words.
The other bad aspect of the job was the knowledge of how the shopworkers treated the food. There were no bar codes in those days, so all the pricing up was manual. One of the full-time workers, whenever he was pricing up ice-cream, would crack open the lid of every single box, swipe the back of his finger across the ice-cream stuck to the underside of the lid, and eat it. So any customer who purchased ice-cream priced by him would have his mouth germs all over the inside. And of course melting ice-cream is the perfect medium for bacteria to breed. He was also fond of the frozen rhum-babas. Then there was what happened to the frozen peas, when the bag split. This would often happen, and it was not uncommon for them to swept up with a filthy dustpan and brush, poured back into the bag, which would then be resealed using the heat thingy. And I can’t tell you the number of times one of the cardboard chicken or turkey boxes would split, sending frozen poultry bouncing across the dirty floor.
Needless to say, I never shopped in Bejam (or Iceland) after I worked there. I’m sure I wouldn’t shop anywhere if I knew what went on behind the STAFF ONLY door.
What was mostly going on was the need for bored workers everywhere to entertain themselves through the day, and the constant battle with management who think that people who are having too much fun are having too much fun. Apart from having a laugh, the main object for me was flirting with the girls. I was especially taken with one particular girl, Juliet, who was my age and seemed to have such a grasp on being cool about everything. Unfortunately, she was (a) out of my league and (b) had a boyfriend, but that didn’t stop me trying. Once I knew she existed, naturally, I started to see her quite often out of school. I would take detours on the way home, hoping to bump into her in the Quadrant, or the local library, where she was sometimes to be found, sitting with her friends, killing time and trash talking.
The yearning that took over me was real, and yet I knew she wasn’t the only girl for me. A lack of focus was a problem. There was the interesting Sarah in the shoe shop; there were a couple of girls at school. In my mind, at any one moment, they would be the driving force in my life, but then when one of the others was around, I’d forget everything. Selfish, self-absorbed, but also bereft of the most basic self awareness.
Interesting Sarah from the shoe shop was a case in point. I knew she was a year or so older than me, and that immediately made me sure that she wouldn’t be interested in a mere school kid. I couldn’t even tell you what she was doing: whether she was working full time, or at college, or what. I didn’t like the other girl, Georgia, who was at my school (she was pushy and had a nasty side to her), but seeing Sarah meant putting up with Georgia, to an extent.
I happened to be involved with the committee that organised all the sixth form social events. We organised regular parties – it wasn’t just a question of an end-of-year prom. The word ‘prom’ in fact was never mentioned. It was just ‘6th Form Party’. I’m still a little bit puzzled at the way schools get officially involved these days with so-called Proms, including asking staff to work them. We had a number of our parties, no staff involved.
My dad—although the printing trade was already using phototypesetting— still had access to some kind of letterpress machine for small jobs, I got him to print us tickets. I usually made them hilarious in some way: jokes that usually backfired because people thought I’d got the tickets cheap due to the ‘mistakes’ they included. I was ahead of my time. My humour is consistent, though. It’s the same impulse that saw me name my first blog Hoses of the Holy. Anyway, all of this meant that I had easy access to tickets to our parties without needing to pay the cover price.
All of which Georgia knew. So in order to get herself a free ticket, Georgia drew the conversation around to the idea that her work friend Sarah might like to come to the party, you know, with me, and therefore, if I were to supply two free tickets, I might have a date.
None of which I believed for a second. I remember being aware of Georgia’s manipulations and not really caring. I gave her two tickets, just to get her off my back and for no other reason. I had no illusions about Sarah, barely gave her a second thought. My obsessions lay elsewhere.
I think I was a little bit wrong about Sarah: but that’s a story for another day.