Saturday, January 12, 2013

Stacker

My cat is 16 this year, and came awfully close to being "put to sleep" over three years ago when he became incontinent (on my lap). The vet suggested some expensive tablets to be taken daily, which he refused to eat until we had the idea of crushing them up with a mortar and pestle and mixing them in with his food. The incontinence went away, although he has lost a lot of strength in his back legs and sometimes will become embarrassed when a misjudged jump fails and he falls backwards.

Over time, he has become more and more pampered, to the point where I have to give him a different type of luxury cat food for every meal. If I give him the same thing for more than 2 days in a row he looks at me in disgust and meows until the situation is rectified. This means that I now seem to spend an awful lot of my life buying cat food in Wilkos, a homeware and household goods chain with over-bright lighting and awkward unmanageable baskets. It's a shop that always brings back memories for me as I worked in one as a student, in 1991-2 for the princely sum of £2.25 an hour (those were the pre-minimum wage days my friend). I was so excited to get a job there stacking shelves two evenings a week, although the euphoria wore off about halfway through my first shift. The job involved using an electronic scanner thing to record the quantities of stock that was left on the shelves, as well as replacing stock. I was started on "home brew" which was supposed to be easy but gradually ended up doing the complicated sections like ladies tights. Often the lists of stock that I had bore no resemblance to what was on the shelves, and being the sort of person who took things very seriously, I would become increasingly anxious, worried that due to my inability to figure out the system, the branch would be overwhelmed by a delivery of a million clothes-horses the following day.

But gradually, I figured out the strange system and sometimes would finish my shelves early, so would be given the job of sellotaping up all the cardboard boxes for collection in the warehouse at the back. The warehouse was like a set from a horror film, the only good thing about it was that you could lose yourself in there so nobody could monitor your progress.

There was a "team" who I worked with and we were allowed a quarter of an hour break during our four hour shift where we recovered from the tedium of stacking in a windowless little room. Being also very shy and socially awkward as well as anxious, I never spoke a word during these breaks but instead observed and disapproved. But there was a sense of cameraderie between us, based on the fact that we were all in under-paid part-time work, that grew over the months.

Our team leader was Pete, a local 23 year old ex-student who had started out stacking like me but made the effortless shift to middle-management. He was laid-back and handsome in an average sort of way and I thought he sometimes flirted me with in a way which made me puzzled at the time but in hindsight was just his blokish way of being friendly. There was Mick who was ugly and liked to sing Nirvana songs tunelessly, arguging that anyone could sing well but it took special talent to sing badly. I was scared of him. Peter was a 3rd year English Lit student with round glasses, long hair and hippyish values who was nice. Diane was rough and scary with ginger hair and very white skin. She had moved up from London. "I know you don't like me but I'm going to be working here three times a week from now on so you can't get rid of me" she announced defiantly after I'd known her for just two weeks. Finally, Karen was a self-proclaimed tough "bitch" who took a perverse liking to me. Towards the end of my time there, she bumped into me outside with my boyfriend and I watched her face suddenly register understanding.

When you are young, time passes very slowly, especially when you are engaged in boring work, and those 4 hour shifts felt more like 40 hours. I was always exhausted and numb by the end of them. Sometimes, as we left, we would have to open our bags and be searched, just in case we were attempting to steal the merchandise. Nobody was ever caught and frankly, it seemed preposterous that any of us would risk getting caught by shop-lifting anything from Wilkos. But we allowed ourselves to be subjected to this additional indignity with quiet resignation.

By Easter, I'd had enough and left. I have nothing but admiration for the people who I see working there now.

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