“Now, here’s the man himself!”
Francie Ryan clapped a hand on Senán’s shoulder and led him past the deli counter towards the bread section, to where a slight figure dressed all in navy stood looking warily at the pair.
“This is my number two,” said Francie proudly. “Luke Geoghegan. No better shop man will you find in Limerick city or county. He’ll show you the ropes. By the end of the week you’ll be facing with the best of ’em.”
Francie released his grip on Senán after almost pushing him towards Luke.
“Luke, this is your new stacker, Senán . . . erm . . .”
Senán smiled and offered a hand to Luke, who took it with what seemed like fearful reluctance.
“We-we-welcome a-bo-bo-board,” said Luke, although his face showed no welcome.
“He’s a college boy and a hurler,” said Francie. “He’s from Tipperary, but we won’t hold that against him!”
Francie gave a jolly laugh but Luke did not join in. Luke’s eyes, large and slightly bulging in his lean face, moved slowly from his boss to Senán and back.
“I’ll leave ye to it. I’m off to the chipper to have a gander at what they’re up to over there. Good luck!”
Luke looked at his watch. “You’re the si-si-six to clo-clo-closing shift,” he said. “It’s a bus-bus-busy time. Out on the fl-fl-floor here you’ve got to-to keep-keep the main se-se-sellers stocked. And then, as it ge-ge-gets quieter, you’re-you’re-you’re ti-ti-ti-tidying up for the morning. Fu-fu-fu-follow me.”
Luke led Senán to the store room and gave him a tour of its rows of bulk shelving, neatly packed with cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped PET bottles. He would point at a shelf and say, “Your breakfast cereals are here” or “Your toilet roll is here”, but otherwise said nothing else. Senán enjoyed the mix of smells from the goods, and took mental notes of locations. Back on the shop floor, he was the sole audience for a solemn declaration of the do’s and don’ts of shelf stacking in Francie Ryan’s supermarket: “You do-do-don’t change the po-position on the shelf of any pu-pu-product. You do-do-don’t increase or decrease fu-fu-frontage. Me an’ Francie have put a lot of ti-time into wha-wha-what goes where — so do-do-don’t change anything. Everything nu-nu-neat and tu-tu-tidy. Labels-labels out. Straight. No-no higgledy-pi-pi-piggledy. If a fu-fu-full box of stu-stu-stock doesn’t fit on the shelf, then ta-ta-take the extra stock ba-ba-back to the store. When you’re pu-pu-packing, do-do-don’t block the aisles. Empty boxes stu-stu-stu-straight back to the stu-stu-store. No matter wha-wha-what you’re doing, you’re ne-ne-never too-too busy to help a cu-cu-customer. An’ remember: do-do-don’t give shit to any of the-the-them. You do-do-don’t know who-who-who you’re de-dealing with. You do-do-don’t wu-want to ge-ge-get slapped around or sta-sta-stabbed. Or-or-or wo-worse.”
After receiving specific instructions on arranging bread, checking best-before dates, and double-checking prices and bar codes, Senán was left to his own devices.
“If-if-if you’ve any qu-qu-questions, ju-ju-just ask me or one of the la-la-lads,” Luke said as he left.
Senán was surprised at how busy the supermarket was, and he was kept on his toes all evening. His trekking between store and shop floor with boxes of breakfast cereal or slabs of yoghurt cartons or packs of two-litre bottles of cola seemed endless. Keeping the shelves tidy was also a continuous job. No sooner would he fill and face a section of condiments, for example, when a customer would disturb the perfect alignment of jars and bottles. They would, with seeming glee, dig amongst the very packets of bacon he had just finished putting in order, searching for the most distant best-before date. Items would be removed from shelves, placed in a basket and carried around the shop, only to be dumped, suddenly unwanted, on some distant shelf. He began to resent the very existence of shoppers, whose only purpose seemed to be to rummage through his newly stocked and faced shelves and convert order into disarray. He came to see them as agents of chaos and he himself as a soldier on the side of organisation and tidiness.
Customers were also annoying in another way. Senán would be perched on a stepladder, one arm cradling an eight-kilo box of stock and the other placing its contents carefully along the farthest reaches of a shelf, when he would hear a “Where’s the hundreds and thousands, love” from down below. Or he would have his arm jammed deep into a shelf trying to fish out an errant bag of flour when he would be asked where the tinned pineapple was. Old women would ask him to carry a bag of spuds or dog biscuits to the counter. Some shoppers would even ask his opinion on certain products: “Is this muesli any good?” “Which soy sauce is better value?” “Why is this soup half the price of that one?” No matter how frazzled or resentful of being interrupted he was, Senán always remembered Luke’s advice and treated each customer with respect and courtesy, even if he was rarely thanked for his assistance.
Over the course of his first shift he met the other members of Luke’s crew. The middle-aged woman on the deli counter was Susan. She had raven-dark hair cut in Cleopatra style, and her chatter, which ranged from flirtatious banter with the men to earnest gossip with the women, could be heard all over the shop during lulls in the piped music.
“Sur’ you’ll be grand here, love,” she told Senán. “Francie’s sound. A fair man to work for. Although himself,” she lowered her voice and waved her bob in the direction of Luke, who was arranging a display of greeting cards near the magazine rack, “can be a bit of a prick, you know? Just keep your head down and don’t give anyone any cheek. The customer is always right in this shop!”
The two girls on checkout duty were Trish and Debs. The pair spent much of their time talking across the few feet of space that separated them, although when Luke was in their vicinity they tended to remain silent. In accordance with the cliché, noted Senán, the girls displayed typical checkout-girl glamour. Both wore heavy make-up, had elaborate hairdos with highlights and extensions, and had long, talon-like, intricately painted nails. Debs was short and chubby, with the deep, crackly voice of a smoker, while Trish was stick-thin and quietly spoken. When he first spoke to them, they commented on his accent.
“God, you’re posh, aren’t you?” said Debs.
“You must be in culture shock here,” joked Trish.
“Ah, no,” said Senán, “sur’ why would I? It’s grand here. So far anyway.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for ya,” said Debs. “Won’t we, Trish?”
Luke checked up on his new charge regularly. “How-how-how you gettin’ on?” he would ask. If his pale face showed no approval of Senán’s stacking and facing, neither did it display any dissatisfaction. “That’s gra-gra-grand,” was all he would say.
Sometimes he would pass Senán and issue a terse order. “Wu-wu-would you give the main flu-flu-floor a sweep?” “There-there-there’s a wo-wo-woman outside needs a hand lifting some ba-ba-ba-bales of bri-briquettes into her car.” “Will you co-come with me to the wine store to lift out a few ca-cases?”
Luke issued orders easily, as if he had been shop manager for years, although Senán reckoned he and Luke were the same age. In the harsh light of the strong room at the end of the store, where the alcohol was kept under lock and key, Senán got a chance to study his new boss. Luke wasn’t just skinny: he was emaciated. His legs looked like sticks inside his chinos, and as he bent to lift a case of wine on to the trolley, the curve of his back under his sweatshirt was Gollum-like. It was only on Senán’s third shift that Debs and Trish confided in him that their nickname for Luke was, in fact, Gollum.
Senán felt sorry for Luke, but also a degree of guilt at feeling sorry for him. As well as his wretched physique and ugliness, he seemed desperately lonely and introverted. He engaged in no small talk with staff or customers, and gave the impression of slinking around the aisles in order to avoid human interaction. The only words that came from his mouth had to do with the business of running the shop. Whatever area he happened to be in fell immediately silent, and even his shooting a look towards the checkouts from the bottom of the shop could cause an awkward drear to fall on the focus of his gaze. Along with the usual dislike of any manager that Senán sensed from his co-workers, there hung in the air an impression of Luke being a figure of fun. “You might be in charge of me,” seemed to be Susan, Debs and Trish’s attitude, “but at least we’re happy and normal.” They warned Senán that Luke was “always watching, always listening” and that he “sneaks up and down the aisles like a creature of the night”.
Senán wondered was it his own snobbery that caused him to feel sorry for Luke— an attitude very close to looking down on him. Just because Luke wasn’t a “college boy”, did that mean his shop-managing career was second best to Senán’s degree in economics and finance? Just because Luke had missed out on the richness of third-level education and had settled into a life that seemed old and stale to Senán, did that mean he deserved pity? Senán pondered whether his middle-class upbringing made him see the role of manager of a small supermarket in a poor area of the city as a kind of failure for anyone with intelligence or ambition, a soft option — a cosy, comfortable and safe job that ceased to be a challenge once one had learned the ropes. He gradually gleaned that Luke had been with Francie since his early teens and had worked his way up through the ranks. Where was the fodder for pity there? Luke was clearly ambitious and competent. Running a supermarket was probably beyond many of Senán’s classmates who had received first-class honours, and possibly even beyond Senán himself.
He tried to talk himself into an attitude of regard for Luke, but he still couldn’t avoid feeling sorry for him. It was the stutter. Senán knew all about it: he had stuttered until his early teens. He didn’t know whether all the therapists and quacks his parents had sent him to had cured him, or if the stutter had gone away of its own accord. He still stuttered the very odd time, when he was under stress, for example, or had his head in the books for hours, but since early adolescence he had known he had the thing beaten. Whenever he came across someone with a heavy stutter and whose self-image and behaviour were obviously affected by it, his old feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-loathing came flooding back. He wanted to grab them by the shoulders, shake them hard and say: “It doesn’t have to be like this. I was like you once, but I got rid of my stutter. You can do the same!”
As he watched Luke’s delicate hands snap the padlock shut on the wine store, Senán wondered how to raise the matter. He was sure that Luke would be defensive about it.
I’ll give it a few weeks, until I’ve gained his confidence a bit more, thought Senán, and pulled the heavy trolley out of the store.