In his second week working in the shop, Senán felt comfortable enough with its demands to be able to raise his head above his work and properly observe the human traffic that passed through Francie’s. The customers were not the type of people he was used to seeing on campus, nor did they resemble the prosperous farming folk of his own village. People dressed differently: men and women of all ages wore tracksuits, often garish; among the young, there was an absence of the hipster and preppy looks which prevailed on campus; old men were often scruffy-looking, much more so than even the most bedraggled bachelor farmer from his own parish; females from early teens up to middle age could be seen shopping in their pyjamas. But it was more than clothes. There was a lot of obesity among the shoppers, to the extent that a body shape such as his own — not to mention Luke’s — was a rare sight among the aisles. Along with the obesity came a characteristic physiognomy: a swollen redness of cheek and chin, offset by the greyness of the rest of the face. Many customers had battered, weathered faces, not quite as haggard as your typical homeless person’s, but somewhere along that spectrum. Senán put this down to drink or drugs, and the obesity to poor diet.
He didn’t know whether to be appalled by the selection of foodstuffs in Francie’s or by customers’ own shopping habits. Perhaps one was a function of the other, and neither party was to blame in what had become a symbiosis of the provision and consumption of unhealthy fare. From what Senán could see, most customers subsisted on a diet of frozen or chilled ready meals, heavily processed bread, pastries, crisps, biscuits, chocolate and tinned spaghetti, peas and beans, all washed down with copious quantities of fizzy drinks. The fruit and vegetable section was small compared to supermarkets in better-off parts of the city. Not even potatoes were big sellers, with customers preferring bags of frozen chips. Many of the products Senán stacked he had never come across before: plasticised cheeses, tinned meats and instant desserts in plastic pots, for example. And there were products that were staples in his own household — olives, pesto, couscous — that were absent from Francie’s.
The shop did a roaring off-licence trade. Wine and beer sold so well that Luke paid special attention to stock levels in that corner of the shop, and called on Senán a couple of times a shift to help him restock. The range of wine was limited to cut-price Chilean and Australian Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, South African Sauvignon Blanc and cheap Spanish cava. Slabs of cider and generic lager flew out of the shop, and alcopops were also in great demand. The well-known brands of beer stayed on the shelves longer and there was not a single bottle of craft beer on sale. Spirits were kept behind the counter, along with the cigarettes. Senán was amazed at how many shoppers, especially elderly women, asked for a naggin of whiskey or vodka (along with a scratch card) as Trish or Debs rang up their goods. When he asked the girls about the phenomenon, he was told: “Sur’ that’s their night in, these poor auld ones. A naggin of Powers and Strictly Come Dancing.”
It was also in his second week that Senán came across his first instance of shoplifting. He was six rungs up a ladder, arranging a display of plug-in air fresheners at Luke’s request. He had a bird’s eye view not just of the top shelf, which he was rubbing down with a damp cloth, but also of the next aisle over — the cosmetics section. As he collected mini dust-bunnies from as wide an arc as he could reach, he became aware of a woman’s presence a few yards below him. There was something off about the way the woman — short, plump, dyed blonde hair and wearing a parka with a large, furry hood — was hovering in front of the men’s toiletries. More than comparing prices or searching for a specific scent within a range of deodorants, she seemed to be grappling with a difficult decision. Her eyes were glassy in an impassive face, and her gaze was glued to a small cardboard box displaying four-packs of razor blades. As he watched, Senán saw her blink into life, give a sly look up and down the aisle, reach forward with lightning speed, and stuff what she had taken into an inside pocket of her coat. Without looking around, the woman calmly walked a few yards down the aisle before halting and feigning interest in a bottle of nail polish remover. With obvious deliberateness she ran her finger along the price on the shelf below, then shook her head and left the aisle.
Senán was unsure of what to do. Should he jump down and tackle her before she left the shop? Go to Luke? Forget he saw anything?
Anyone who is reduced to thieving a couple of packets of razor blades must be in a bad way, he reasoned. Maybe she’s a mother who needs a few quid to feed her kids? Maybe she’s being threatened by a loan shark? Or maybe she’s a junkie?
Senán decided to take the matter to Luke. He clambered down the ladder and hurried to the off-licence section where his boss was restocking.
“Luke,” he said quietly, “I’ve seen a woman shoplifting. I’m pretty sure she took some razor blades.”
“Show me where she is.”
Senán led Luke to the frozen food section and nodded in the direction of the blonde woman in the parka.
“Mags Halloran,” said Luke, with the first real smile Senán had seen him sport. “A re-re-regular.”
“A regular,” repeated Senán. “Wow.”
“I’ll handle it from-from here,” said Luke and tossed a look at Senán to let him know that everything was OK and he could return to his air fresheners.
Back up on the ladder, Senán leaned forward and craned his neck to get a view of what was happening down by the freezers. He saw Luke approach the woman, and lip-read him saying “Mags”. The woman smiled and raised her eyebrows in a show of sassy nonchalance. Luke returned her smile, said something brief and held out his right hand, palm upwards. With a shrug of her shoulders that said, “Go on, you’ve caught me”, she reached into her coat, took out what Senán presumed to be the razor blades and placed them in Luke’s hand. He nodded and, still smiling, may have said “thank you”. The woman returned, not a bother in the world on her, to perusing mini-pizzas, and Luke walked smartly to the cosmetics aisle and replaced the packets of blades.
“She-she probably has mu-mu-more stuff on her, but there-there-there’s no point in getting he-he-heavy-heavy with the likes of her,” he said to Senán. “If we-we-we called the sh-sh-shades every time some-wa-wa-one shoplifted we’d be-be-be here all ni-ni-night.”
Francie’s philosophy, he explained, was that unless someone was persistently shoplifting large quantities of goods, then no legal action would be taken against them. Someone like Mags Halloran who stole the odd jar of face cream — or razor blades — would just be asked to return the goods, with no threat of barring or summoning the gardaí. If her behaviour worsened, however, she would be barred, and if she thereafter snuck into the shop and pilfered, only then would the gardaí be called.
“We-we-we only ever have-have-have had to ban a ha-ha-handful of ju-ju-junkies,” said Luke. “Mu-mu-most people have-have the co-cop-on to thieve only smu-smu-smu-small stuff.”
Francie had it all worked out, Luke told Senán. Someone like Mags spent far more in the shop than she stole. Between lottery cards, cigarettes, vodka and Danish pastries, whatever money they lost on whatever she might have whipped, they more than made up for with her purchases. If everyone who shoplifted the odd time was barred or had the gardaí called on them then the shop would be left with very few customers.
“Pu-people round here know not-not-not to take the pu-piss,” said Luke. “They do mu-mu-most of their sh-sh-shoplifting in the city ce-ce-centre. E-e-even the junkies have copped on.”
For similar reasons, Senán learned, other infractions such as drunkenness, vandalism, hooliganism or insulting or threatening behaviour towards staff were dealt with in-house. If every drunk or gang of teenagers behaving obnoxiously was barred, Francie’s would quickly haemorrhage customers. Every evening, Senán witnessed at least one such incident. Very high or drunk people were a common sight. These were mainly a problem for the front-line workers, Susan, Trish and Debs. After staggering through the shop in search of alcohol or crisps to stave off the munchies, drunks’ or druggies’ next port of call would be to Susan for some hot food, then on to Debs or Susan for cigarettes or cigarette papers and tobacco. Some would be blind drunk and stone-in-the-mouth incoherent. The girls’ efforts to elucidate their needs and assist them in paying, often helping them count out change, could be quite comic. Senán found himself chuckling at the exchanges between the girls and the more placid drunks as he went about his business on the shop floor. He also found the antics of funny drunks and stoners amusing. Stoners tended to wander around the shop in a daze, handling random items and staring at brightly coloured displays. Out of pity, Senán would lead them to the snacks aisle. Funny drunks came into the shop looking for devilment along with their fix, and Senán got used to going along with their scat.
Aggressive or cantankerous drunks were a different matter, though. They would bellow their rage at the girls, frightening them and nearby customers. Luke would intervene, his comportment stern or mollifying depending on the situation and the particular drunk, but always remarkably calm and composed. A few weeks into his shelf-stacking career, Senán would also pitch in, using the same placating attitude as Luke. He came to know each drunk’s name and ways, and to possess a mental road map of how to deal with them if they became obstreperous.
Senán quickly learned that it wasn’t the shoplifters, drunks or junkies who were the most trouble, but those coming into the shop looking only for hassle. These were mostly gangs of teen or pre-teen boys, but there were several groups of girls who seemed to be on a mission to outdo the boys’ yobbery. Anything up to a dozen boys would enter the shop in a loud ruckus and rampage through the aisles, pushing and shoving one another and knocking into displays. They would attempt to purchase alcohol or cigarettes, and notch up their threatening, boorish behaviour when refused. Whole sections of the shop could be left in a mess if they were particularly indignant. They would insult the girls, calling Debs a fat cunt and Susan and Trish sluts. The girls’ families, especially their “dirtbird” mothers, would be incorporated into jibes, with the pinnacle of their abuse always involving mention of a mother, aunt or sister who had been “fucked up the arse” by a Traveller or seen plying her wares down the docks.
Some gangs came into Francie’s with the sole intention of tormenting Luke. The jeering youths would gather around him, mocking his stutter and crying out “Gu-Gu-Geoghegan, Gu-Gu-Geoghegan”. It was during these episodes that Luke’s stutter was most pronounced.
“Ou-ou-ou-ou-out of-of-of-of-of-of my-my-my-my-my sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shop,” he would struggle to say.
Only when they had had their fill of gleeful taunting would they leave.
On the first and last occasion Senán intervened, the youths turned on him, threatening to “see him outside” and “cut him a new face”, and asking him did he like hospital food. Luke warned him never to do so again.
“I’ve-I’ve-I’ve been de-de-dealing with toerags like-like this all my li-li-life,” he said. “I no-no-know how to han-handle them. You don’t. They-they-they-they can smell-smell that you-you-you’re not from this-this shithole. They-they-they know me, my-my-my family. How-how far-far they can pu-pu-push me. I’m-I’m-I’m not in any da-da-danger. But-but-but you . . . you just-just ke-keep the head down-down-down anymore when-when they come in.”
Scary Mary’s warning came back to Senán. It was the first time he felt like a tourist in Francie’s, like someone who didn’t quite get the lingo or the nuances of the interactions between people. Luke was telling him he was an outsider, which stung. As long as he worked in Francie’s he wanted to stand side by side with Luke and the girls as they dealt with the drunks and junkies and scumbags, not hide behind his stacks of beans and spaghetti letters.
“OK,” he said to Luke, resolving to keep his head down for a while at least, but also promising to himself that he would keep his eyes and ears open and look, listen and learn.