He looks disdainfully at the cases of bitter.
He audibly tuts at the wines.
His countenance darkens at the alcopop selection (and I have to say I’m with him on that, alcopops are a disgrace to drink and a symptom of What’s Wrong With This Country. I’d ban them instantly).
Eventually he points at the stack of Carlsberg 18-packs, which bear the enlightening, informative yet succinct slogan, “CARLSBERG – 18 PACK – £10.99”.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you?
“How much is an 18-pack of Carlsberg?”
Keep calm. You need the job. There’s a Global Economic Crisis on, and no matter how much fun it’d be to paint the words “TEN NINETY-NINE YOU COCK” onto a shovel and smack him in the face with it repeatedly, trying to explain it at interviews would be, at the very least, somewhat of a drag. Eight, nine, ten…
“They’re £10.99.” The days of calling them “sir” have long passed, but at least I didn’t swear or spit at him.
“Oh.” Pause, two, three, four… “They’re £9.99 in Asda.”
“But…” I stammer, “we…I…OH MY GOD! A thousand apologies, sir, I realise this must be a distressing time for you. I am but a minion here, but please accept my humblest and abject apologies. I will pass this higher up, to someone who has the power, if not to set things right – what could be right, after THIS disgrace? – then at least to make some gesture in the direction of recompense, to mitigate our shame! General! GENERAL!”
A deep, bass voice rumbles from the back room. “What is it?”
“General, I think you should come and witness it yourself…”
The door flies open, and there he stands – The General. A legend in the low-margin, high-volume retail booze world. Unlike me, he does not wear the 100% polyester polo shirt – he wears a hand-made 100% polyester dress uniform. The light of the lager fridge reflects from the gold braiding on his epaulettes, glistens on his cap badge, coruscates on the row of medals adorning his left mantit – the Croix du Vin, received for valour in the field of sub-£5 Merlot; the Grand Cross of the Knights Of Trampfuel, pinned on him even as he stood, bloodstained and unbowed after a 16-hour shift, by the Duce Giacomo Lambrini himself; the Order of Cider, First Class, awarded after single-handedly shifting 278 crates of tainted Frosty Jack (some apples had inexplicably been involved in its manufacture).
“What is it, boy?” He growls, fingering his swagger-stick and chewing his cigar.
“Sir, I…I’m not sure how to put this, but…”
“Directly, and immediately, is how to put it!” His face darkens. He does not like to be dragged to The Front – he has served his time there, and these days gets, if not pleasure, a grim satisfaction from sitting at his desk, a martyr to gout and dyspepsia, plotting exactly how we will, this quarter, finally put an end to bastard kids nicking the seasonal confectionery.
I swallow nervously. “Well, s…s…sir, this gentleman has told me that…”
“OUT WITH IT!”
“We’ve been undercut by an out-of-town superstore, sir.” I feel a palpable, physical sense of relief at having said the words. What worse can follow? And before my eyes, I see the proud, Grand Old Man falter for perhaps the first time in his long career.
“I…I…Oh sweet Jesus.” Before my eyes, his posture sags. The old man has been through hell in his time – they say early on, as a greenhorn assistant manager in Kilburn, he stared down 200 navvies annoyed about the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, using only three bottles of Jamesons and a Watneys Party Seven – but now, he suddenly looks his age. He turns to the customer, clears his throat, and tries to regain his dignity, but the fire has gone out in his eyes. “I’m sorry, sir,” he croaks, “I never dreamed it would come to this. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen,” his eyes mist over, “whole towns under the sway of MD 20/20…the Vodkat debacle…a tramp who’d shit himself, setting his beard on fire outside a pub called ‘The Shoulder Of Orion’…but I never, NEVER thought I’d see the day when a small, franchised off-licence in a shit end of Preston would be undercut by the world’s largest retail conglomerate. Sometimes, it just seems like it was all a waste of time…” He gazes into the middle distance.
The customer and I bow our heads, knowing, but not wanting to acknowledge what we both know must come next.
The General snaps back to attention. I salute, tears welling in my eyes.
“Stand easy, soldier,” he hoarsely whispers, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “It comes to us all. We never die in bed. Tell Rosie I loved her.” With that, he climbs atop the Bitter cans stack, and, left foot on Caffreys and right on McEwan’s Export, raises his sword high, before plunging it into his stomach. I move forward to support him, but he motions me back with his free hand as the other forces the blade sideways, all of nature’s hideous internal, visceral intricacy spilling over his cummerbund. After a few seconds that feel like a lifetime, his enormous bulk crashes atop the stack; the blood pours, then drips, then pools at the base of the Tetley Smoothflow; his drained white face, the eyes staring and empty, takes on a sudden peace as I reach across and close them; and, unable to help myself, I kiss his forehead and whisper, “goodnight, sweet prince”.
I turn to The Customer.
“You don’t have a brother who knows how much everything used to be, do you?”
We never did find out who Rosie was.