Bygone Barcodes

Sitting down at a table she blew on her tea and waited for something to happen. It was only quarter past eight and she wasn’t due to start her shift for another forty five minutes so she opened a copy of Now and skimmed through the pages. Barry walked in to the canteen and waved. ‘Morning Anne.’ He said and smiled.

‘Morning Barry. How are you?’

‘All right. You know how it is.’ He removed a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and checked how many remained within. He looked down at the pages of the magazine and noticed a picture of Beyonce and Jay-Z walking around the streets of Cuba. ‘Look at that.’ He tutted. ‘They walk around like they’re some kind’ve royalty or something. It’s bullshit.’ He realised the expletive but it was too late to suck it back in. ‘Sorry.’

‘It’s okay.’ She looked at the flock of people crowding around the celebrity couple.

‘I just don’t get it. Why do people care so much?’

‘I don’t know, but they seem to like them.’

‘People like Mongolian Boodog, doesn’t make it right.’

‘What’s Mongolian Boodog?’

‘Some barbecued goat. Saw it on a programme last night. Crazy. They bleed it, break it, stuff it with rocks, and then blowtorch the whole thing.’

‘Sounds interesting.’

‘Yeah, it’s more interesting than them.’ They both looked back down to the page of the magazine. ‘I wish I could go swanning off to Cuba.’

Anne closed the magazine. ‘You’ve just come back from holiday.’

‘I know. Why did I do that?’

‘Because you love us so much.’

‘Sure. And I love Mr Morrison even more. So, how about it Anne. Me and You. Next week. We’ll go to Cuba. Drink some nice wine. Eat some nice food. Meet Castro and smoke some cigars. What do you say?’

‘Sounds nice.’

‘Come on.’

‘We’ll see.’

‘Imagine it.’ He removed a cigarette and placed it behind his ear.  ‘That’s what I do. Stops me thinking about this place.’ He winked walked away, humming some summer tune Anne didn’t recognise. The canteen was empty again and all that kept her company were thoughts about Jim and the argument last night, but she didn’t want to think about it, so she decided to do some shopping before her shift began and made her way through the corridor back out onto the shop floor.

As she walked down aisle 12 she noticed the various cans of vegetables and remembered when her son Michael used to work there and once stacked the shelves she now examined. She remembered seeing him for the first time in his work uniform and feeling proud. It was his first job, his entry into the working environment, and now he was wearing suits and working for a University with his own mortgage and savings and life insurance. Time flew past so fast. Even Lorna was living with her fiancé now. It seemed like only yesterday that they were all in the house together eating dinner and talking about the things that made them curious. But that was then. Now things were different. Now there was only time that ticked away and left behind moments brief and brittle, all of which would soon disappear to be replaced by other particulars that were already waiting. Age had caught up with her and things were not quite how she once imagined, but images were radiant reproductions when life itself was real and disappointing. Life, it seemed, was wilting. Things were lost. Money. Cash cards. Keys. Children. They all moved on, eventually, and Anne wondered why she hadn’t done the same.

Pushing the trolley down aisle 13 she couldn’t help but notice the pink biscuits Michael used to like when he was a child. She wondered whether his kids would like them too. The nightshift workers were still finishing up and clearing pallets and bailing cardboard and she smiled at them as she passed. ‘Good morning.’ She said.

‘Morning.’ The man replied.

‘Good shift?’ She asked.

‘Shift good. Yes. Long. But good.’ Anne looked at the display the man had only just finished creating. Crates of Coke cans piled high in alternating patterns. ‘You like?’ The man asked and stood proudly beside his creation.

‘Yes, it’s very nice. Looks very sturdy.’

‘Sturdy?’

‘Yes.’

‘What means sturdy?’

‘Solid.’ Anne made a movement as if she was struggling to push something heavy. ‘Hard.’

‘Ahh, hard. Like work.’

‘Yes, similar.’

‘Good.’ The man smiled and nodded. ‘You work now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hmm, me, I sleep.’

‘You deserve it. Go home and rest.’

‘Yes. Rest. I like rest.’

‘Me too.’

The man began picking up stray bits of cardboard and she watched him for a second before pushing her trolley into the next aisle. Many of the night crew didn’t speak English particularly well but they were pleasant and well-mannered and always seemed to be in good spirits despite working such long ungodly hours. She wondered what their secret was. For years work was just something that had to be done, something to be endured in order for what existed beyond it to thrive. But now, now she would leave only when there was enough time to prepare dinner before her programmes started. If she was lucky Jim would begin watching something on Setanta and after they had eaten she could disappear into the front room with little or none of his remarks and rage. If not, she would try and ignore him. That was how they lived together.

In ten days’ time it would have been her mother’s birthday. She would have been eighty four this year and Anne couldn’t help but wish she was still alive. She missed the visits and conversations and idle gossip of who did what to whom. The time they spent together spoke beyond the volume of their words. She missed the way her mother listened and nodded her head and occasionally asked for clarity amid her aged confusion. She missed the tea and biscuits and the comforting sound of the television as Michael Barrymore urged contestants to choose between the top, middle and bottom. She remembered her mother giggling at his jokes and the way she always used to incorrectly guess where the Hot Spot lurked. She missed her mother more with every passing day and wondered if Michael and Lorna would feel the same when she was gone. She hoped they would. Even just a little.

In aisle 12 Anne came to a halt and looked at the magazines displayed in the stand. There was still something unsettling about the sheer volume of magazines on which were plastered photos of scantily clad women and within which secrets were shared or shunned. She didn’t find them vulgar and distasteful like some of her friends, but merely a symbol of how times and tastes had changed. Now the women were so thin. Beautiful, but so very thin and fragile. She couldn’t imagine being young now, trying to find a way to fit in with all the pressures pushed upon a former innocence now defined by desire and trends and money. She didn’t agree with the popular sentiment that the young had it easier now. She didn’t think it was true. She couldn’t see how it could be.

Anne noticed the clock and realised she would have to hurry the remainder of her shopping in order to get it done before her working day began. Picking up her pace, she passed through the different aisles and found the items she thought were needed. At the end of aisle 16 she stopped at the little stand with the bargain DVD’s and looked to see if there was anything of interest. On the cover of one she recognised Johnny Depp standing in a pair of oversized underpants and after examining the back she realised it was something to do with that writer Michael liked, so she put it in her trolley and continued to walk towards the till. Sandra was working the staff checkout and Anne began to unload the contents of her trolley onto the conveyor belt. ‘Morning.’ She said and smiled at her long-time friend.

‘Morning Anne. How are you?’

‘Good, thanks. And you?’

‘Not bad. Did you see Eastenders last night?’

‘Yes. I can’t believe Lola took Lexi. Where is she going to go?’

‘I don’t know. But it was good to see that look on Phil’s face. He’s such a horrid man.’

‘I know.’ Anne put the last item on the belt and pushed the trolley to the end of the till. ‘I don’t blame her at all.’  She thought about the courage it must have taken Lola to make such a tough decision. She wondered how things might work out for her. A mother and child alone. It was a tough world, she thought, tougher than it should be. Sandra passed the items under the barcode scanner and let them slide down towards Anne who packed the plastic bags in ways much practiced and prepared. ‘How’s John?’ Anne asked and removed her purse from her bag.

‘Oh, you know, the same. He’s got a doctor’s appointment about his back today, so hopefully they’ll finally do something other than just prescribe pain killers.’

‘Is it still that bad?’

‘Yes. He can barely get up in the mornings now.’

‘God. He just has to be firm with the doctors.’

‘I know.’ Sandra waited for Anne to press her pin into the card reader. ‘How’s Jim?’

‘Good.’ Anne removed her card. ‘He’s good.’

‘Is he working?’

‘Not yet, but something will come up.’

‘Hopefully. It can’t be good for him to sit at home all day.’

‘No. It most definitely is not.’ Anne put her purse back into her bag and gripped the handlebar of the trolley.

‘Do you want to go to the cinema this week?’ Sandra asked.

‘Yes, but I’m not sure I can.’

‘Because of Jim?’

‘Not only.’

‘You know you’re more than welcome to come around and visit whenever you want.’

‘I know.’

‘You don’t have to stay in that house.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I mean it.’ Sandra tried to mask the concern she felt for her friend, but it was difficult to see her like this. ‘Lunch?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Pushing the trolley up aisle 29 she passed the countless wine bottles and spirits and beer and paused when she saw the little packet of tiny Babysham bottles. She remembered drinking them on New Year’s Eve with her mother, wishing each other health and happiness and expressing hopes of dreams that might become real throughout the night. She wondered if Michael and Lorna would remember these things. She wondered what they would remember and what they might chose to forget and ignore. They did have good times, and despite the latter hardships she was confident they had experienced a happy childhood. She was proud of the way their youth was lived and there were few things she would change in the way they were raised. They had been nice kids, and now, they were nice adults. They were proof of the good she had achieved and it made her feel a little better about how things had turned out. Things weren’t that bad, and blame was brutal when the facets of their fate had changed with little consideration for their care. It was just the way things were.

Anne left her shopping bags in the changing room and removed her jacket and hung it on the railing. She checked her name badge was straight and popped a mint in her mouth. Just as she was about to leave she felt he phone vibrate and removed it from her little purse. Looking at the screen she saw that it was Jim. She held the phone in her hand and paused. Finally she pressed the answer key and held the phone to the side of her face. ‘Hello’ she said.

‘Where are you?’ Jim asked.

‘I’m at work.’

‘Where’s my wallet?’

‘What?’

‘My wallet. Where’s my bloody wallet?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Bullshit. Where did you put it?’

‘I didn’t put it anywhere.’

‘Don’t lie to me.’

‘Have you hidden it again?’

‘What? No, of course not.’

No, of course not. So where is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘For fuck’s sake. I need it. Where did you put it?’

‘I haven’t touched it.’

‘No, you never touch anything.’

‘What do you need it for anyway?’

‘None of your business.’

‘Are you drinking already?’

‘And what if I am?’

‘It’s nine o’clock in the morning.’

‘So?’

‘What do you mean so?’

‘I mean so fucking what? I know what time it is. Where is it?’

‘Where’s what?’

‘My fucking wallet!’

‘If you weren’t so drunk last night maybe you would remember.’

‘Oh fuck off.’

‘I have to go.’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘I’m leaving.’ Anne felt her heart beat at her breast and she steadied herself by leaning on the lockers beside her. The air was caught inside her lungs and she felt the pressure of their past tightening on the remnants of their love. She couldn’t think of a reason to stay, not anymore. Everything was different. Everyone was distant. They were all gone. Far away and safe.

‘What?

‘I said I’m leaving.’

‘Leaving what?’

‘You.’ For ages nothing happened. Neither of them spoke and all that echoed in the changing room was the sound of the ventilation fan overhead. The world was empty and there she stood finally whole again and free. ‘I’m leaving you.’ She said again. ‘I’m sorry.’ She put the phone down and tried to breath but her lungs were caught in casts of former cages. She closed her eyes and tried to think. So this was it. This was how it ended. A lifetime of devotion dead and buried. Days of dust diminished into darkness. Their life, nothing more than history. The phone began to vibrate again but she opened her eyes and cancelled the call. She didn’t know what to think. For all the years he’d been a kind and caring husband, all the years they’d shared and slowly lost, it was now perhaps the time to take a stand for those that were still as yet to come. She felt the tears roll down her face and she couldn’t tell what they meant. She didn’t know how to feel, and yet the feeling came.

She exited the changing room and walked towards the tills. At least she still had this job. She liked the people she worked with and the customers. She enjoyed talking with the regulars and hearing about their lives. It kept her in touch with the world. All the different people and their different lives and different habits and rituals and rules of engagement. All living together. She enjoyed watching them all. She remembered her first shift, forty three years ago now, back in the 70’s when these stores were new and novel. She remembered the uniform and unique emotions. She remembered the pride and joy Jim felt when he visited her at work for the first time. She remembered when he cried that evening as he handed her a bouquet of fresh frescia’s. She remembered it all. It was beautiful. But that time had gone. They had long since left it behind and beat their way atop a new one. Sitting down behind the till she typed in her access code and waited for the machine to wake up. She looked around. It was still beautiful. All of it. In different and unique ways and she enjoyed it more now than ever before. The till beeped and she smiled at the waiting customer. ‘Good morning.’ She said and scanned the first item. It was a new day. Perfect like the rest.

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