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.
“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.
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.”
Before we start, let me make it clear I hold no animus against Polish people. I am strongly pro-EU (well, anything that pisses off the Daily Mail and my ex-mother-in-law has to be good, right?), I have in my time been beaten, shunned and arrested for anti-racist rants and activities…I ain’t a Nazi. I welcome our Polish brothers and sisters, their charming kids, their inexpensive plumbers, and their delicious Sklep (which I believe to be some kind of stew, but I’m not altogether sure).
But this bloke…here it is. Word for word.
LONG-SUFFERING OFF-LICENCE DRONE: Can I help you sir?
RESENTFUL POLISH DUDE: Why is no Tyskie in fridge?
L-S-O-L-D: Uh…dunno. We just put what they tell us to in there. People at head office decide, probably after lengthy negotiations with their equally revolting counterparts from the beer companies, you know, the sort of high-powered, small-dicked twats who afterwards go for expense-account dinner at Frankie and Fucking Benny’s and behave like they know what good food is, then one of them offers to show the other lot “the sights” of Runcorn or Ashby-de-la-Zouch or Radlett or whichever pointless, futile little shithole their HQ is in, which turns out to be a branch of Revolution and The Most Depressing Lapdancing Club In The World. And then they send us a diagram showing exactly where the Stella goes. And Tyskie wasn’t on it, so it doesn’t get in the fridge.
RPD: IS BECAUSE YOU DON’T LIKE POLISH, RIGHT? HAH!
L-S-O-L-D: Uh….we have Okocim in the fridge.
RPD: I UNDERSTAND. [Pause and stare at me like he’s going to hit me]. 20 Pall Mall Red KING SIZE!
L-S-O-L-D: Here you go. £4.10 please sir.
RPD: [Throws right money down] I tell my friends. RACIST.
L-S-O-L-D: Thank you, come again.
OK so it wasn’t exactly word-for-word. I did say the last bit in the Apu voice though. Maybe I am a racist. Would The Simpsons ever have got away with making Apu a comedy Indian if they’d been British?
“How much is a case of Carlsberg?” he asks. I count to ten in my head, then reply, “£10.99,” and gesture towards a stack of six cases of Carlsberg, on which hangs a sign bearing the gnomic and impenetrable riddle, “CARLSBERG – FULL CASE £10.99”. He tuts.
“It used to be £9.99.”
Yes, it did. It also USED to be 25p for a litre of petrol. It USED to be £25,000 for a 3-bedroom semi with front and rear gardens. I USED to be able to do it seven times a night. You USED to have a wife, until she got sick of being married to a skinflint alcoholic and left, leaving you with nobody to annoy except the poor bastards who work in the nearest off licence. BUT NOT ANY MORE. So unless you’re going to fire up your Tardis and fly us both back to the glory £9.99 a case days, it’s TEN NINETY FRIGGING NINE.
He buys a case anyway. But he’ll be back next week. And he’ll ask again, and I’ll tell him again, and he’ll tell me how much it used to be again, and it’ll be the same every week until one day I twat him round the head with the non-inflation proof lager and do a wee on his comatose form right there in the shop, the bastard.
To be continued…