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.
So, we got busted by Trading Standards/The Filth. And just to get serious for a minute, how the bloody hell is this legal? If an undercover copper approaches you and asks you for drugs or sex, it’s called entrapment and gets thrown out of court, but if they send an undercover 17.8 year old in to buy a bottle of Kopparberg, that’s us in the shit. They went about it sneakily as well:
Yeah, I know, blah blah antisocial behaviour blah blah public nuisance blah blah corporate responsibility, you know as well as I do that’s horseshit. Everyone who works in the shop lives within 3 streets of it, we KNOW who the little trouble-making shites are and don’t serve them. Not that it makes a blind bit of difference, as their white-trash parents just come in to buy chemicider, WKD and own-brand vodka-type substance for them anyway. But it’s one more result for the crime statistics, so we get hit.
End result of which is: one of my comrades loses his job, gets an £80 fine and a caution on his record. Which, when you’re a year away from graduating and competing for jobs, is a bit of a kick in the nuts. Also, we now have to operate “Challenge 25” – anyone who looks below that age gets asked for ID. And the local 5-oh were very clear on this point; The only forms of acceptable ID are a photo driving license, a valid passport, or a PASS card. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Cut to two nights later.
“Next please!” He puts 8 Stella on the counter. I scrutinise his face. Could be 26. Could be 22. Could be some freak with a gladular problem specifically picked out by the Babylon just to get me in trouble. Play it safe. “Do you have any ID please sir?”
“ID?” He looks baffled. His girlfriend giggles slightly.
“Passport, driving license…?”
“Uh…no. I’ve got this though,” he says, and pulls out…
A Lancashire Constabulary warrant card.
“I’m sorry sir, this doesn’t have your date of birth on it.”
“Your colleagues were very insistent on this point sir. I’m afraid I cannot accept it.” I hand back the card and put his beers behind the counter. “If you’d care to return with a passport, driving license or PASS card showing your date of birth and the PASS hologram we’d be delighted to serve you. Please close the door on your way out.” He looks as if he’s about to kick off, but thinks better of it, just gives me the Standard Issue Copper Hard Stare and walks off. At least two people in the queue behind him are openly laughing as he leaves.
Petty regulations? We can play that game too, you bastards.
She looks approximately 18.
HER: Hiya, you OK? Just this please [hands me a bottle of Jacques]
ME: OK…sorry, it’s policy, do you have any ID?
HER: I haven’t. Sorry.
ME: I can’t serve you then. Sorry.
HER: [Breezily] Oh, that’s ok. See ya!
Must have been the test purchaser. No swearing? Civil? Not pointlessly abusive to people with a job?
It has to be some kind of elaborate trap.
Well, thank Yahweh we didn’t serve them, eh? We’ll just get on with our legally mandated business of serving enormous amounts of poison to people who should, but never will, know better, and by stopping some poor sod from having a couple of pear ciders after their GCSEs have finished, we’ll pretend we’re saving the cocking planet.
Really, I’ve spent the best part of two years at the front line of selling booze to idiots, and I feel I have some expertise on the subject – THE PROBLEM IS NOT 16-YEAR OLDS. It’s not even 18-year olds. The problem is grown-ups.
When I got this job, I thought I drank a lot. I don’t. I may drink more than the guidelines say you should, but compared to many, MANY people, I’m abstemious. And the scariest thing is that many of these VERY heavy drinkers are your friends, your neighbours, the guy in the next cubicle/classroom/office…the white trash, with their 3-litre cider bottles and knowing winks and cheap roll-your-own baccy, worried me, but not half as much as the ones who came in dressed respectably, the ones with a copy of the Guardian or Telegraph under their arm, the ones carrying 30 exercise books all ready for marking, looking frazzled, and asked for two litres of QC and a half of the cheap vodka, and while you’re at it 20 Regal…
I’m not having a go at these people, by the way. I’m sure their life would make me drink. Just pointing out that chemical dependency is not something the poor have a monopoly on.
“Have you got any of these chilled?”
“Yes sir, indeed we do. None are in the fridge – that fridge, right there, the one IN THE SHOP – but many are in our special walk-in fridge out the back, where we stock every single brand of beer in the world, chilled by specially-calibrated thermostats, including what I notice is your drink of choice, McNasty’s Super-Strength Bus-Shelter Fuel. But beware, that fridge is available only to the most select brethren of the crappy off-licence; those who have been initiated into it’s mysteries. For behind the facade of just the one fridge, of a shop surrounded by low-ratable value multiple-occupancy housing, charity shops, one extremely off-brand boutique and a well-known local brothel, behind and beneath lies a sordidly glamorous hellfire club of chilled beer, hot gypsies, and the spirit of Bacchus.”
I lowered my voice.
“But they take it too far, sir. You must have noticed, you’re in here every day, that we’ve lost two serving-wenches already this month? It isn’t right what they do in there. A gent like you shouldn’t get involved with them animals, sir. You’d be best advised to just drink the same thing you drink warm every other day of the year without complaint, and stop asking stupid fucking questions of poor bloody offy drones who are stuck inside earning a godamned living on the hottest day of the bloody year, while you, due to your reluctance to pay the £1 premium for big-name brands, are drinking 7% of regrettably warm lager with your unemployable mates and your fucking pitbull, on that patch of grass between the Spar and the Community Centre. If you ask me.”
Of course I fucking didn’t. But a man can dream.
1. “Do you have some ID?”
“22nd September 1990.”
“22nd September 1990.”
“No, you see, I asked if you have some ID. That’s not showing me some ID, that’s just you saying a date. If it was that simple, I wouldn’t be working here, would I? I’d just go down the social, say ‘4th June 1917’ and spend the Winter Fuel Allowance on beer and pies.”
“So you’re not serving me then?”
2. “10 L&B.”
“Any ID on you?”
“Can’t serve you then.”
“Come on you tight cunt!”
“Oh go on then, seeing as you called me a cunt.”
Honestly, what sort of shop does this guy normally go to, where calling the staff cunts makes them more likely to look upon you kindly?
3. “Do you have some ID please?”
[Shrieks] “I’M 21!”
“That’s as maybe, we check anyone who looks under 25.”
“Well I haven’t got any on me.”
“I can’t serve you then.”
“Fuck’s sake. That’s it, I’m not coming in here again.”
“Gutted. Without you coming in to buy a £2.99 bottle of wine-style fluid and the cheapest rolling baccy we’ve got, we’ll all be on the fucking dole in a week. Shut the door on your way out and leave me to my bitter, desperate tears, you rancid harridan.”
There’s others, but they’re all pretty much variations on those themes.
I’ve known her a couple of years. She used to drink in the same pub as me – you don’t see her in there now, I think the poverty’s starting to bite – and one time, we chatted at the bus stop for a quarter of an hour. She turned out to be a big fan of the Rebus books, and was massively impressed with my baby daughter.
Now, I see her every day I’m working (which recently is pretty much all of them), because she rolls up on her mobility scooter, comes in, buys four cans of Strongbow Super, attempts to engage me or whoever in small talk, then leaves.
Today she bought five cans of Strongbow Super.
“Special occasion?” I asked (well, you have to show willing.)
“No, I’m cooking tonight. What you want to do is, get yourself a gammon steak, and cook it in this [waggles can of Tramp Drink at me]. Bit of mustard, it’s gorgeous.”
When I started this post I was honestly intending it to be a Springsteen-esque lament about how society’s broken her down but she’s doing the best she can, but the fact is she smells of piss and cooks with cans of 9% cider, and I’m fucking glad she doesn’t come stinking up the tavern any more.
Six more months of this job and I will be a Nazi.
He appears to have decided we’re not racists after all; well, he’s still buying booze from us, and you wouldn’t buy booze from a Nazi, right? Anyway, this time he comes seeking advice from the highly knowledgeable offy staff.
“What is best drink for woman?”
“Um…gin’s popular. Or Taboo.”
“Is for woman, so must be very sweet.”
“Baileys is sweet. £10.99 a bottle.”
“Hmm…is strong? Must be sweet, and strong, so later…woman is easy. [Makes internationally recognised hand gesture for putting your willy in a lady]. I take Baileys. And 20 Pall Mall Red.”
Which is probably the real reason behind 90% of Baileys sales, but I’ve never heard it put quite so bluntly.
“10 Richmond King Size Please”
“I’m afraid it’s all in 1p’s and 2p’s.”
He buys 8 Carlsberg, 10 Lambert and Butler and some sweets.
“That’s £10.23 please sir.”
He hands me a twenty. I run the counterfeit pen over it, because if I bank a fake it turns up again in my pay packet come Saturday. I key in “2000-ENTER”, the till opens, and I take out a fiver, four pound coins, a fifty pee, a twenty pee, a five pee and then…
“Here, I’ll give you 50 just to make it easier,” he says, handing me 50p.
Easier for WHO, you bastard?
“Hello love, I’ve just come for me wines.”
“You are wrong on two counts, madam. Firstly, I do not love you, indeed your very presence offends me. Secondly, you have not come for ‘wine’. You have come to purchase, as you do EVERY COCKING DAY, two large bottles of Lambrucini, a drink so cheap and nasty that even people who drink Lambrini look down on it. Give me the money and fuck off, you harridan bastard.”