Quitting Time

It was Wednesday and Donna had just come back off unpaid leave for stealing a leather armchair. She’d managed to skirt around getting sacked, or sent to prison, with a doctor’s note on the account of anxiety caused by her best friend’s murder. More troubling than something this horrific happening to somebody you know, is the conflict it causes you internally. Were we bad people for not liking a woman going through such a traumatic event? Regardless of her 6-week absence, she returned, 10 minutes before opening, took one good look over the standard merchandising, set according to the company’s step-by-step guide, and murmured loudly “Oh, I’ll have to do something about all this.”

Donna often decided our work wasn’t up to scratch. She’d stand over you, pointing to pieces of metal stands, asking you to drag them across the floor while customers with 2- for-12 t-shirts dodged out of the way. All the while glaring at you for not being careful enough. She began to avoid eye-contact and I’d anticipated her request to put everything back, exactly as it was. We could all see it coming, that she’d be popping out for her 4-hour lunch break.

“I’m taking my lunch early.” When family members lie dying in hospital, they get that look on their face too.

Once Donna had left, Mandy’s eyes widened in a way that frightened me. I’d seen my mother have a minor stroke, years before. Her lips pursed, like the shock of being kicked in the crotch, she lowered her voice and spoke calmly. “Donna’s back everybody.” I’m not sure who everybody was, but Mandy’s husband had recently gone blind and I had begun making a point of agreeing with everything she said and did. Besides, the empty shop would do her some good.

After a few minutes of rattling our hands over rails of clothing, we decided we’d put the kettle on and do nothing. For fear of showing initiative, we’d only disappoint if we looked too keen. We stood at the back of the shop, behind the stands of black trousers in any style or fit someone daft enough to wear them, could dream of. We agreed to make a point of being unable to take our breaks, being only two of us in the shop. “It’s not on” was Mandy’s favourite expression. But I considered: if it wasn’t “on”, our version of “off” was likely an out of body experience, where we watched ourselves do as little as possible from the fake CCTV cameras.

I was in the middle of calmly explaining to a regular that she could not, in-fact, return underwear for hygiene reasons, when M sent the gas signal. Mandy’s tiny 5-foot stature popping out from behind the customer. For those blessed with zero retail experience, it’s a complex hand gesture that involves holding the nose and making a waving motion with your free hand. Spitting from the corners of her mouth, the woman with the butterfly clip and indoor sunglasses decided to try an age-old sob-story. The particular hinge of this one being that her Mother was in hospital. In London. And we all knew southerners were far too tasteful to be caught dead shopping in Barato’s Bargains. I agreed with her. I also recalled selling them to her yesterday – a double pack of cream Sloggy’s – and complimenting her mother’s cardigan. It reminded me of Joseph’s technicolour dream coat, which as a child, my Godmother had forced me to watch a VHS tape of Donny Osmond performing on west-end. Mandy tried to do us all a favour and suffocate her with air-freshener, before coming to work through some of her anger.

“Actually, that’s quite disgusting,” Mandy said, leaning over the counter slightly and peering through her own narrowed eyes into the heart of the beast. Mandy was from Yorkshire and had the rare and under-appreciated ability of being condescending while sounding perfectly reasonable.

“Well the pack hasn’t been opened, look!” she said as she pulled an open pack of control briefs out of her carrier bag.

“I’m not sure what the problem is then,” Mandy said, with a tone shorter than Donna’s working day.

“Well they don’t fit”

“And you’d know that how, if your mother hasn’t tried them on?”

“Because we took them out of the packet and held them against her thigh.” I wondered whether the woman was stupid or simply cared so little that she’d given up all attempts at hanging onto reality.

“Why don’t you try taking them back to M&S, tell them you’ve forgotten the receipt,” I ventured.

“Oh, good idea, lovey! You’re so good to me here. Send my love to Donna.”

Mandy held her arms up in the air as the woman left the shop. If I understood exactly what had just happened in front of me, I’d have probably walked straight out myself. I’d have left Mandy on her own to shout at the old ladies who complained the £3 sale t-shirts weren’t also on the 2-for-12 offer.

Ellie was in at two, she’d been owed five hours for last week. Donna’s return to work actually being last Monday, but due to the rising costs of childcare, our retail manager had decided to work from home. I wondered what her home looked like. It likely smelled of the pine floor disinfectant we’d ordered on our cleaning supplies and never received.

“I’ve been here two bloody minutes and there’s a shit in the changing rooms!” Ellie always wore clothes far too large for her, and her cardigan billowed like a cloud of black smoke around her.

“Not again!” Mandy exhaled, with enough defeat, that we told her to have a sit-down in the staff-room.

“Will you get me the paper towels and a carrier bag,” Ellie said, without a single tear leaving her eyes. “Oh, and the washing up gloves from the staff room.”

“You can’t pick that up, Ellie. You don’t know what’ll happen”

“God, you’re right.” She paused. “I’ll get the hoover.”

Would she have tried this if we only had one hoover? Leaving us to effectively torture ourselves when the door mat needed vacuuming, or when another customer shattered her dentures into tiny little pieces on a Werther’s Original. We’d likely have to tell everyone to avoid trying on shoes, and watch out for shards of molars if you came in wearing sandals.

“If anyone asks you to hoover, just say you’re busy.” She knew full well it’d be me or Mandy at the end of the day, stuck with the dodgy one, afraid of switching it on, for fear of boiling the thing.

“What’s wrong with these people?” Even though Ellie was fumigating the shop with Smart Price air freshener, in hindsight, she didn’t really seem that bothered. Indifferent might have been how I would describe her response. Like someone’s who’s been to war, and walks into fight outside the pub, breaking it up and then carrying on with her evening. I wondered what awful things she must have seen, and then I remembered each female member of staff were semi-trained bra fitters with no way of measuring the cup. I made a mental note to send her any job vacancies I saw. There was nothing wrong with fitting bras, of course, at least for the customers who wore deodorant. I realised by now she must have an above average tolerance for smells. That and she carried hand sanitiser in her pocket, always ready for action.

Donna returned around three. “I’ve not stopped all day, so I’ll quickly go eat now and then you two can go for lunch.”

By this point, Mandy was two more comments away from needing an ambulance, and my own instinct was to stage a coup, walk out and see if she had the audacity of firing any of us. We all knew too much, and I could never tell whether Donna was blissfully unaware, or so brazenly convinced she was indispensable, that we’d never dream of slipping an anonymous complaint in the general direction of our area manager.

“I’ve got you brownie and everything,” she whispered as she stomped her way past, like a child being told they have to clean their room. In that moment, I realised my visual disgust when she opened her mouth had not gone to waste. Meanwhile Mandy and Ellie looked as though we’d had another mobility scooter to pedestrian crash. I still had flash backs of the poor woman’s mangled form, cowering under the sale stand while we phoned for an ambulance. The woman in the scooter, so in shock that she carried on and went for the face. I don’t know whether she disliked the woman, or if it was simply an accident, but I admired her conviction. Why stop until you’ve finished the job?

‘February’ and Cheval 11

9781912681082_1024x1024.pngI recently had the pleasure, in all of its terror, of reading my work in front a packed audience at Swansea’s beautiful Dylan Thomas Centre. As one of the writers included in this years publication of Cheval 11, I had the opportunity to meet other writers from the area, and the rest of Wales, including this years winners Katya Johnson (1st prize), Michael Muia (2nd prize) and Thomas Tyrrell (joint 2nd). Hearing each story and poem read in succession could not have hammered home harder how remarkably different these works are to one another. In perspective and style, the diversity in talents of the prize winners is breathtaking – as are the rest of the works by the 31 writers printed.

Cheval is fabulous. Existing as both an annual anthology and an organization dedicated to nurturing and publishing young writers. Aida Birch, the organisation’s founder, started with the joint mission statement of honouring her late partner, Welsh poet Terry Hetherington, while giving mostly unpublished writers with an opportunity to see their work in print for the first time. As well as every year providing one young writer with an incredible £1000 in recognition of their talents. With Parthian assuming publishing responsibilities, the book is beautiful. The cover itself , this year, being designed by Rose Horridge as a part of the publisher’s design competition – opening up Cheval’s opportunities to artists in the community.

If you’re thinking about entering the competition of 2019, entries are open now and all the information is available on the Cheval website. The book is published by Parthian and is £8.99.

And while you’re at it, my poem ‘February’ is the very last one, gracing page 147.

What I Learned from Growing-Up Fat

Ask anyone who was fat and unlucky enough to experience when they were young, the miseries of a childhood diet and they’ll tell you – perhaps upon a moment of reflection – that it haunts them to this day. I would argue it’s one of the most obvious influences in the person I am today – familial attitudes surrounding food. In pondering this relationship I have with food, and where it began, I struggled to find a general consensus that reflected my own massive appetite. A need to feed those around me, to share food, and to enjoy it. Something that forms the very basis of my relationship with my best friend – the comfort and celebratory nature of food being as healing as any closeness.

Growing up, we didn’t often have any selection of crisps and sweets around the house. Partially, I suspect, my Mother wanted to avoid the shame of having to take us to the dentist to have large chasms in our teeth replaced with metal. Both me and my two older brothers, however, would all come to benefit from an adolescence of braces. If we’d been the kind of family to take holidays abroad, I’d have understood her fears. It makes perfect sense not wanting to get held up in line at security because your five year-old son has a suspicious presence going on in his mouth. Of course, my suspicious oral activities didn’t begin until I was much older.

My earliest memories of dieting hark back to around age nine. The same time my mother told me that she and my father were thinking of getting two kittens. The very same evening, in fact.

“I’ve got ice-cream in the freezer if you want one.” My Grandmother told me, as my Mother dropped me off on one of my weekend sleepovers at her house.

“No, we’re being healthier,” said my Mother, her tone raised so high you’d have thought my Grandmother had just offered to let me jab knives into the toaster. Something I had done, aged 4, to brightest flash of white light – and screams from everyone in the room but me. Luckily my sensible Clark’s and their thick rubber soles had grounded the shock. I couldn’t understand the fuss until I realized I’d broken the toaster.

“Oh, I forgot you were on a diet. One wont hurt though will it?”

“It’s not a diet! It’s healthy eating,” said my Mother. God bless her for trying to turn this already humiliating situation into something even vaguely positive. “We had a big fruit salad for pudding, anyway.” A fruit salad is not something anyone in their right mind learns to appreciate until an adulthood of slowing metabolism approaches. I don’t care what the Change for Life leaflets told you.

It had worked to varying success over the years, although in hindsight to negligible results. It wasn’t until around age seventeen that I finally managed to drop down to a healthy weight for my height. To which I found teachers asking me to wait behind at the end of lessons, asking if I was ill – with a capital ‘I’. My interest in school work had reached zero and my weight was decreasing on a similar trajectory. My clothes, too big and swamping my newly sized S frame. I felt too proud of my accomplishments. I had done one thing with absolute commitment, to the betterment, or so I believed, of my self esteem. Neglecting any awareness for the needs of those around me, especially the one’s as emotionally under the weather as I was.

So what if I found myself self-isolating, obsessed with counting calories, academically a disaster, but I was thin. I was, for lack of a more enlightened point of view, finally accepted as a sexually desirable being. And absolutely clueless as to what I was to do about it.

It’s a personal belief that I hold, that when you experience the real brutality of childhood ridicule, there’s only two options for you to take later on in life. You’re either a far nicer person for having known the personal consequences it has on your own self-esteem, or a far crueler, bitter person for having been subjected to it. I credit it as the sole reason I work well in teams as an adult.

I remember with horrifying lucidity, meeting for a Pizza Hut lunch buffet, organized by a close friend of mine at the time, and ordering a salad. The waitress bemused, having taken such large celebratory orders from everyone else around the table, ecstatic about their AS results, handing me a plate free of charge. “Don’t worry, they all get a salad free with their meal so there’s no point in you paying for one.” Her generosity only further highlighting that I was doing something so remarkably different to everyone around me. That same friend’s home whom I had purged a slice of pizza at a gathering, earlier in the summer. Wondering up to the bathroom while the sound of the television and loud chatter masked my first venture into slamming away extra calories down the toilet bowl. I felt, at every turn, the beginnings of something sly growing at the back of my mind. Each time I got away with something in a social gathering, a confidence building. No one suspecting the former fatty.

Of course, ease like that cannot last. An obsession with exercise and having always conveniently eaten ahead of time at lunch, lead my best friend to a confrontation. The two of us, walking up Bangor high street towards Asda, my hands cramping in my sweatshirt pockets, unsuccessful at holding back the tears. Her own similar experiences with a cousin – albeit different almost entirely – felt as though they were smashing me back into real-life. A life where people ate to survive, and celebrate, ate for enjoyment as much as they did necessity. I felt, for the first time, how cruel this behavior was when heard it spoken from the mouth of someone I loved. I left school following a summer of disastrous AS results. Picked subjects I felt interested in, in the college down the road. We began to meet up every Tuesday and Saturday after work, for coffee and a cake. Sometimes, just if one of us was having a bad day. Sacrificing our responsibilities for a shared love of food and sugary coffees. A ritual born out of our own needs for healing. No shame in crying with each other, we knew better than that.

Dating Apps and the Pluckiness of the Hook-Up

I’ve always done well with the pensioners. They’re absolutely my crowd. The kind of things I want to talk about, we share those in common. Why is the bus never on time? Why does a coffee cost £4 now? Why does everyone get so angry in supermarkets? I could, on any given day, chat to an elderly friend for hours about where they used to go when they’d bunk off from school. Or their entire employment history and every period of annual and maternity leave they’ve ever taken. The two of us, holding up a Tesco queue, baskets at our feet, not a care in the world.

Post braces and pre university freedom, my eighteen year-old self minced its way, unprepared and filled with adolescent sexual shame into the daunting world of Grindr. Skinny, toothy smiled and wearing a heavily discounted Top Man bow-tie. As the messages flooded in for the very first time, it seemed someone was determined to ruin my aged friendships. I suspected God. Who else would have the power and the time on their hands to be so vindictive? I sorted through the photographs in my inbox. Photos of abdomens, photos of appendages, occasionally a secondary school teacher here and there. Quickly I regaled. Forced to reexamine a lifetime of warm reception from elderly members of the public. Should we find ourselves sat side-by-side at the bus-stop, I might think twice about talking to you now.

I’d heard stories friends having run-ins with revolting old men. Bellies hanging, the only thing protecting their modesty in the full body photographs they’d send. A friend once told me she’d been contacted on a fake facebook account she’d set up to check up on her boyfriend, by the step-father of someone we went to school with. The following afternoon on her way into work, the daughter of the cafe’s cook recounted, word-for-word, the same tale.

Still I’d yet to experience the hook-up, in all of its monstrosities myself. Boring date after boring date, I’d avoid, shamelessly, replying to the poor men who’d paid for us to go to the cinema or bought me a coffee. Until I found myself in a long-distance open relationship. However short-lived it was, it was not a hook-up. I was beginning to suspect my inclination towards the hopelessly romantic was biting me in the arse. Following this fizzling out, I found myself strutting back out there. This time with three times the committal. My next attempt at a hook-up was a newly qualified primary school teacher. Lovely, polite and horrifically boring.

So there we were, trapped in an endless series of unfulfilling dates. Neither of us even hinting towards the vague idea of physical chemistry. I’d agreed to meet up for a drink, initially, because he’d listened to me drone on about cis-privilege in the gay community and even rewarded me with an image of his face for the trouble. No awkward sexual chatter. My only exchange for having boring sex with him being a veggie volcano from Dominos. He taught children how to read, he didn’t deserve this sham. I later managed to finish us off by accidentally sending him a compromising photo intended for someone else. “No! Don’t open that! It was meant for someone else” does not in any circumstance result in a clean resolution. Regardless, I was up a pizza and he’d gotten a shag.

The dating app, in all of its comedy and tragedy has walked us further down the isle towards our inevitable marriage to our phones. Not a night out goes by without the reel of horror stories about unsolicited photographs and the subsequent angry messages should the horrified recipient not dignify the faceless genitals with a response.

The truth of the matter is, some of us, no matter how hard we try, aren’t made for a life of endless Tinder swiping. No matter how much effort we put into seeming non-committal or comfortable with anonymity, we’re hopelessly miles away from realising it. We’re connected now. For better or worse. Those of us not cut out for it better step up or move on. Maybe one day, the elderly woman in the vegetable aisle might just have a grandson she’s willing to palm off on a well mannered boy with a bag-for-life.

As for me? I don’t even have a smartphone anymore.

Lime Street

Two years ago

if I was feeling

north of the boarder,

unable to concentrate

on reading

or showering and cooking

I’d have probably

text a friend

to ask if they were busy

 

but it seems like

even when the opportunity arises

when someone texts me first

I’m already half way

to standing on the

wet grey steps

with coffee

and a cigarette

like I’ve not thought through

that either of us

might have anything going on

besides the two of us together

 

 

I miss it when you visit me

I don’t get to drink coffee

on Bold Street

and walk

‘round the corner to Lidl,

fill your cupboards with food

and make pasta for two.

There’s no fun to any of it

when the balls in my court

and I’m stagnant

and bored

and waiting.

June

Elected in me

above all else

is the newness you’ve impressed.

The 6th day

to forget you,

to leave no boundaries

liable,

without you,

we board the smallest plane

I’ve ever seen

in my then 18 years.

Domestica destroy.

Brave for a little boy

shrouded in

the clothes of a part-time job,

a blouse I saw my co-worker wear,

the trousers

as queer as I could manage

on £6 an hour,

trying to look

an inch of the liberty you exude.

I think

above all else

that the way I tie my hair up

is to replicate

you

the moment I fell in love with the future.