Like water dripping rhythmically into a coffee-stained cup.
Mixed peppers, two tins of chopped tomatoes, garlic, 1kg of penne rigata.
Like someone impatiently ringing the receptionist’s bell.
7 tins of mackerel, tin of baked beans, 6 cans of Excelsior lager.
Like the obsessive compulsive’s knock on every passed signpost.
Bottle of gin, bottle of tonic, lemon.
A succession of toots on a lazy flute.
Camembert, prosciutto, red wine, orange juice, 6 eggs, spring onions.
Magda didn’t even hear it anymore. Only when something broke the monotony of it, when someone tried to return something, or ran back into to the shop to replace a damaged carton of milk, when she had to wait, stop, take a look around, resurface. Then it came back into focus: the flurry of beeps, out of sync, sending strange coded messages out into the fluorescent-lit aisles, unnoticed.
When she’d started she took to wearing earplugs, but that was quickly stopped. She used to enter a strange kind of meditative stupor, and when there was a problem with someone’s card, or the wrong change given, she’d find it incredibly difficult to come round. Customers would have to tap her on the shoulder, shake her even, and then she’d snap out of it, immediately apologetic, helpful, dazed. The manager noticed early on; gave her a stern talking to.
She’d gotten used to them, eventually. She was able to harness them, to focus on them more intently, until they became something else altogether, almost continuous, like a background hum, a harmless drone.
It became so ubiquitous she began to hear it under the patter of rain drops onto her bedroom skylight. It lurked under the stalling cars and distant sirens. She could make it out in nearly everything. It became familiar, comfortable, almost necessary.
The job wasn’t all that bad. It was something, at least. She’d started out looking around for advertising positions: copywriting, graphic design, internships. In Katovice she’d worked for a small marketing firm based in an open planned loft. She’d made pitches to companies looking to rebrand their mini-mart chain or design a poster campaign for a new menthol cigarette. The red brick, the purposefully lazy layout, the hum of voices and telephones and low hanging ceiling fans - this was what she expected she would find here. She spoke good English. She’d dealt with British broadband providers and consultancy firms looking to expand into the Eastern market. They’d liked her. They all said how much they’d liked her.
It was on the suggestion of a quiet young man sat at the conveyor’s end that she’d handed in a CV, the last place she’d imagined herself. He saw her haul: brown sliced pan, cheddar cheese, pasta, pesto, porridge; he knew what that meant. He told her in Polish “try it for a week. It’s not so bad,” and the gesture had touched her more deeply than she thought it could have. A month of silence and rejection had hardened her. She’d spoken only to sceptical receptionists and the odd charity worker in just over four weeks. She’d taken to talking to herself in the mirror for fear of losing her voice from neglect. He called the manager and he gave her a trial there and then.
She was there three years now. Twenty four to twenty seven. The weight of the monotony had quickly begun to show. In her third week the assistant manager had spotted her boring a hole into the bottom of an empty coffee cup in the staff canteen. “Play games, that’s the key.”
“Y’know, you get a point every time someone buys a chicken fillet, lose one for every bottle of sunflower oil.”
“What do you win?”
“I dunno. A cigarette? A bar of chocolate? It just keeps the mind occupied is all. Stops us all from going mental, ha.”
“There was this Chinese fella’ worked here when I was still on the floor used to cough three times whenever someone bought a packet of condoms. God, he was gas. Really broke up the day, y’know?”
“You mean, Chunshan?”
“No, no, different guy. He was let go.”
“Chunshan’s got respiratory difficulties.”
She tried it for a day or two but it didn’t help much. She found it difficult to keep track in her head, and the strange looks she got from customers each time she tried to chalk down her score on a scrap of receipt paper prayed on her self-consciousness. She focused on the sounds again, the incessant noise, the pitter-patter of tinny notes.
A bottle of washing up liquid, a jumbo box of non-bio laundry detergent, two pairs of pink marigolds, cream crackers, sellotape.
Magda couldn’t help but think of her grandmother, relentlessly cleaning, an oversized red chequered apron draped loosely around her neck and trailing down onto the floor. It got so filthy around the hem she had four spares and wore them on rotation. “It’s better than sweeping the whole damn house everyday” she used to say as she hooshed it up around her waist to reach a tricky corner of the armoire with the duster. She tripped over it one day running to answer the door to a delivery man bringing fresh supplies and cracked a rib on the hall table. A cleaner had to be hired then.
She looked up to find an elderly man in a tattered tweed jacket over a mystery-stained grey polar neck beaming back at her with a lecherous grin. She recognised him from her commute. She’d often see him perched on the steps of the ground floor council flats across the road with a can of own brand lager in hand and a paper bagful on the floor for later. Everyone said he was “harmless”. Magda never quite understood that.
“You’re a lovely looking girl, you know that?”
“Thirteen twenty nine, please.”
The security guard lifted his nose, took a few steps towards Magda’s till and called over, “Alright Dominick?”
“I’m a paying customer” he said, a little too loudly, turning sheepish heads at the other checkouts.
“Come on now, Dominick.”
He dug in his pocket and pulled out an assortment of crumples, ring pulls and coppers. He handed her two stray notes and tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the change. He took his box of supplies and marched off towards the door. “A loyal customer.”
And he was gone, back to his stoop, presumably. The guard’s eyes followed him out as he took a few more steps towards Magda’s till.
“I’m fine, Francis.”
“Good thing I’m here.” He lingered for a few uncomfortable seconds while she greeted the next customer and scanned their things. Magda could feel the air thickening to a paste.
“Francis, I’m fine.”
“Well, I’m here if you need me.” He backed off and returned to his post by the automatic doors, picking up where he left off with the repair man perched on a ladder fixing the motor. Francis’s job was to open and close the shop and to cast a watchful eye over the customers and the checkout staff alike. It was a running joke in the canteen that he slept in an armchair with his eyes open and a silenced pistol in his lap. Magda liked to think it was really an impossibly large key chain with hundreds of keys, and that he’d count them like sheep on his way off.
Bread, butter, tomatoes, six tins of tuna chunks in brine, six tins of mackerel fillets in sunflower oil, 2 packs of mixed fish chunks, baby spinach, peanut butter, sewing kit.
All that fish didn’t sit well with Magda. She remembered Christmas dinners at home; Jellied carp and pickled eel and salted cod, plateful after plateful of smoked and cured and tortuously preserved sea creatures. She’d had annual shouting matches with her mother all through her teenage years about the inhumanity of the giant tanks of live carp that appeared on the street corners of Katovice in early December. She could picture them still, fat and black, bumping aimlessly into the walls and eachother’s flanks, an amorphous scaly mass against the blue plastic of the tanks, thinning out day by day as they were plucked from the water and gutted alive on a makeshift wooden table right there in front of her unsuspecting pedestrian eyes. “But they’re not human, Mag” her mother would say, “they’re fish!” She’d storm out then and go to her room hungry, until her mother brought her up some bread and soup and hugged her quietly while Magda pretended not to even see her.
“Hello?” the girl at the end of the checkout had all her fish packed away in her backpack and was waiting to pay. She had her hair drawn back into a tight blonde pony-tail and seemed to be holding Magda’s gaze like a live grenade. Magda came to.
“Oh - I’m sorry.” She laughed awkwardly and started pressing buttons on the till. “That’s twenty-two thirty-five, please.”
She stuck her card into the machine and waited. Magda could feel her eyes on her. She could see in her periphery a fluttering of eyelashes and a fevered glancing from hand to head to hand to keypad. She kept her eyes on the till and said nothing. In the past she might have glanced purposefully over her shoulder and thrown Francis a pantomime wink, but she knew better now.
Card accepted. Enter Pin
There was a long, heavy wait. She stole a glance and saw the girl biting her thumb nail as she bore into the small fluorescent screen. A single bead of sweat perched just below her hairline. Her eyes widened, the hastily applied liner stretching under the strain. A smile hinted at cracking.
Payment accepted. Remove Card.
Magda smiled and handed her the receipt. “Thank you, bye now.”
“Thanks.” She took her bag and headed for the door, head down, eyes on the ground, mouth open and breathing deeply. Francis hadn’t even seen her.
The day wandered on. People bled into it. Hushed voices and car horns and busy hands over worn keys and cash drawers ran under the endlessly looping notes in patterns so singular they were never to be heard of or registered or played again. Magda was deep in it.
She looked around aimlessly in a momentary lull. People’s mouths moved, their tins of chopped tomatoes banged together in their baskets, babies wailed and their young mothers chastised them with violently wagging fingers. It was all one sound, completely homogenous, no one source distinguishable from another. The place was flattening, dimensions dropping off with each passing bag of penne. She was beginning to feel like a cartoon.
She’d been having a recurring dream lately. The whole place would be humming, the late afternoon rush in full swing, everyone milling quickly about in their rush to get home and eat and sink slack-jawed into the remainder of their day. Magda would finish up with one customer and go to greet the next. “Hello”, she’d mouth, but no sound would emerge. The realisation was a shock, a white hot fear seething into her chest from her now defunct vocal chords. She’d freeze, clutching the sides of her till in a fevered panic, looking pleadingly into the eyes of the customer in front of her. “Hello” they’d say back and busy themselves with their things. “Cash or card”, she’d mime, still no sound. “Card”, they’d say. And then she’d be paralyzed, motionless with fear and confusion and the abysmal paradox in front of her. Was it that she alone couldn’t hear her own voice, or that she was truly dumb and no one even noticed? The customer would shake her while she wrestled with this - “hello? Hello?” - and she’d wake up, flat on her back and motionless. She’d lay awake then for an hour or two and shake the badness away until the fear passed and she could fall back into sleep.
She turned the corner into the final hour, moving more slowly now; greetings were lackadaisical; change was given in no hurry; customers left without goodbyes. She had it worked out that her productivity dropped by a good 30% from 7 to 8 o’clock. No one cared; they all did it. Stretch out each interaction to fill a bigger space and the time will feel shorter – sped up in slow motion.
She could feel her eyes strain to focus on the screen, everything around her seeming at once to be impossibly large and in miniature. As a toddler she’d been once to a theme park in Denmark where whole cities constructed of little plastic blocks had been built in painstaking detail, the tallest skyscrapers only reaching the top of her braided head. As she looked at her own hands passing lazily over the ergonomically colour-coded keys of her till, she remembered how she had felt then for the first time in decades, these things so terribly far away and yet every crack and crevice plainly open to the world. She had walked through its streets in awe of the place, until a misplaced hand had sent a domed library roof toppling in on its frozen inhabitants. There was a photo somewhere now of her parents laughing in adoration as she cowered behind her mother’s leg and wept.
The last quarter of an hour was when things sped up. Francis would be on his toes, checking his watch at thirty second intervals, waiting for the final few seconds to roll over so he could turn the key and fasten the entrance doors shut in their puffed up little faces. Sometimes he’d stand there facing out at the latecomers and mouth to them with a shrug - “sorry”. He was just doing his job, he’d suggest, but their fingers said they could see the smile in his eyes.
When the customers became finite, when the doors were finally sealed, when you could actually count on one hand the number of interactions that were left - that’s when things would begin to unravel. Hands were drummed nervously on tills while change was sought at the bottom of handbags. “Hello”s and “goodbye”s were peppered with giddy little small talk. Fevered glances and private jokes in native tongues were tossed between cash desks. Magda could feel the excitement rattling her bones.
The end of a shift on the floor was a release she had all but never known. She’d heard people joke about it in the staff room, comparing it to rebirth, to the end of a week in the hole, to Robin Williams emerging from the jungle on the roll of a five after 26 unimaginable years. But for Magda there was something different. For Magda, the end of an eight hour stretch was something more akin to holding her mother’s hand as she walked out of mass and into the biting cold of a bright January Sunday afternoon. The day lay ahead of her surely enough, but the view was obstructed. She could not as a child sit still for the thought that tomorrow she must once again wake up in the dark, eat her porridge in silence, and wait for the bus to school as the sun came up behind the clouds. To this day she muttered niedziela under her breath every time she saw a lone crow perched. Sundays plagued her.
Three people left in the queue and a solid five minute interval since the last person joined. That was a good enough time to shut up shop as any. Magda passed the little red triangular bar to the last in line and asked would they please just put it at the end of the belt if they wouldn’t mind, thank you. This was the moment when freedom was so close it was almost tangible, so near you could smell it, and yet unspoiled by the frenetic inadequacy of reality. This was the proffered water bottle at the end of the marathon. This was the smell of soup wafting from the kitchen after a long hike. This was an unopened gift.
Magda sometimes wished she could live there, bed down in that moment of anticipated pleasure about to be fulfilled. Nothing could go wrong here. She’d hunker down in the moments between this and closing and settle in for a joy that would always be in the process of coming. She took her time in choosing just the right combination of change for each purchase, knowing that once the last coin fell into the last sweaty palm the spell would break and the worry would not be far behind.
She stood in front of the small blue door of her locker and looked in the mirror. She felt tired. She gathered her dark shoulder-length hair into a ponytail with one hand and examined the line of her jaw and the lift of her cheekbones, tilting her head back and around to catch the light. The drop of her jawbone was severe, almost horizontal, drawn back from a softly rounded chin with the sureness of a well-placed arrow. She smiled at her own nose, wide and flat and spaced at the brow as if broken. “My little featherweight” her father used to say with a poke on the button, her thinking of the lightness of pillows and doves until she learned the real meaning at twelve and didn’t talk to him for a week.
“Looks better down.” Francis strolled in and removed his utility belt, placing it with a loud clunk on the top of the lockers while he worked his combination. She acknowledged him with a wan smile and began to gather her handbag and a few select groceries from inside.
“See you tomorrow, Francis.”
“Yup, okay, bye now,” hands going from hip to locker to pockets.
She walked quickly out of the canteen and out onto the near-deserted floor. The only sound was Shane driving up and down the aisles on his motorised floor cleaner. She never knew what to call it. When she’d called it his car he’d laughed at her. She waited now for him to drive past and offer her a lift home, but today he was preoccupied, cruising through the frozen food section with his phone to his ear, oblivious to anything but the other end of the line. “Watch out or you’ll pick up a penalty point,” she tried, but he hummed by, rapt, unaware.
Walking through the shop in silence, Magda glanced absently at the newly restocked aisles. Tins, packets, bags of rice and pasta, all sitting dumbly in the fluorescent light waiting to be plucked from their shelves and stuffed into plastic bags to await uncertain futures. A fleeting image of a Toy Story-esque fantasy flashed before her eyes, smiling anthropomorphic vegetables fraternising with bottles of neurotic antiseptic and villainous flagons own-brand cider, gallivanting around the shop in a desperate attempt to escape, only to hastily resume their places in the spilling dawn light as Francis lifted the shutters and surveyed the floor. She laughed quietly to herself as she reached the staff exit; “Idiota.”
Outside, a cold wind was blowing, stirring her hair and teaming about her bare neck and hands. She rooted in her bag for a scarf and nestled into it before marching on towards Capel St. The air was biting. She thought she even felt a snowflake landing singularly on her nose. She was well used to the cold. Some winters at home the thermometer dropped below minus twenty and she’d sit in a steaming bath or in front of the fire and wonder how long it would take for the cold to finally take you out for good. This was nothing. This was fresh.
She continued down Parnell St., passing huddled couples walking briskly through the windblown night, a lone smoker idling outside the shuttered bookkeepers, local children gathered in packs, hooded and scowling with expressions of timeworn menace. She walked the place twice a day now, and it struck her how similar it all seemed at night, the glass-fronted high rises endlessly reflecting the yellow dinge of streetlights back and forth between their facades. No one lingered here for any longer than was absolutely necessary, stasis in a place like this being a sign of resignation, a luxury bestowed only upon those few who called the flats their home. Her pace quickened unconsciously.
Up ahead, a pair of black leather loafers sat on the pavement to her left, lying on their side and pointing toe to toe. Her head tilted slightly in curiosity as she approached, watching the shoes grow two greenish brown legs that extended out of sight into the doorway of the Ed’s Electrical Supplies, now derelict, its chipboard windows yawning damply out into the road. She slowed, despite herself, until she came close enough to see a man slouched in the opening, wearing a brown jacket and dark jumper, which even hidden in the blackness of his shelter she could see was encrusted with a pale filth that had come trickling from somewhere above. A twinge of familiarity bothered her indifference like a determined housefly, arresting her there as she bent over to catch a glimpse of his face, his head twisted and buried in the jacket’s shoulder padding. A can of generic lager was clasped in his left hand, its grip, in defiance of every other appendage, sure and firm. It was Dominick.
Sensing her presence, he stirred, blinking blearily up into her silhouette, backlit by streetlights, glowing gold at the fringes like a frayed tapestry. For a brief moment she thought she saw him smile peacefully, but she couldn’t be sure - his face was obscured, purple and bruised, his nose contorted and swollen with a small but nasty looking cut on the bridge, a small trickle of viscous black ooze still creeping its way down his cheek. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Do you want me to call an ambulance? Or the police?”
“You need help, Dominick.” She wasn’t sure if she’d meant this as intervention or question, her tone betraying both curiosity and concern. Either way, it was out now, and it seemed to reach him, if only for hearing someone call him by name.
“I work in the supermarket,” and then, after a moment’s consideration “I’m Magda.”
He received this information with some difficulty, his eyes moving upwards so that they were now looking at and through a point just a few inches above Magda’s head. She thought for a moment she could almost hear the faint rapid clicking of someone flicking through files in a cabinet somewhere in the deepest recesses of Dominick’s brain. And then it stopped.
“I think you should-
“-really go to the hospital, Dom-”
She stepped backwards as he began to rise. With no small difficulty he hoisted himself up against the chipboard behind him and leaned heavily on wall to his right, waving his can violently about with his free hand, splashing small amber droplets of warm beer onto the pavement and Magda’s shoes.
“GUWANTFUG!”, he continued his tirade unabated, coughing intermittently between incomprehensible groans and mutterings. “GEROUYUHDOANBLONGIH!”
Magda stumbled backwards as he stepped out onto the path, his face now contorted with fear and hatred, the wounds and bruises opening again under the strain and beating purple and inflamed with a fresh anger. She raised pacifying palms, but he continued to lurch forward, cursing and shouting and spitting at her shock.
“YUHDOANBLONGIH!” he kept repeating, again and again as Magda turned and walked quickly away, hearing his abuse fade further into the background with each footfall, the string of melded syllables drowning under the city’s tidal whoosh, disappearing into everything, a faceless wall of sound.