Stone stood above it for a while, hypnotised by its mystery – or perhaps by a rather dull lack of coffee. Something must have leaked out of something, and a lake of green matter had nestled in the grooves of the tiles over by the walk-in fridge. He thought that maybe it was soup. Whatever it was was darker than before, and would probably be more difficult to clean. But Stone walked past it. It wasn't his job to deal with it.
Stone knew what his job was, and he wasn’t prepared to give anything more, as he threw his weight onto a trolley, where his equipment was, and pushed. And pushed – the wheels’ resistance echoing around the quiet supermarket stock room.
Two of the wheels turned begrudgingly, while the other two weren’t turning at all, and Stone’s stifled grunts of exertion sounded pathetic, even to him. But now he was hunched over the trolley, he felt he might as well struggle on. If he could just get it through the double doors and out onto the shop floor ahead, it’d be fine.
So he kept pushing, and it kept squeaking. He passed a cling-filmed wooden pallet stacked high with budget kitchen roll, and around it he noticed the pretty girl who worked on the delicatessen. Jennifer. She was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor by the walk-in fridge, where he’d just been stood.
“This green stuff is manky,” she said, climbing to her feet.
She threw a torn cloth towards a bucket, but missed, as steam rose violently from the frothy water inside. Stone liked how a thick strand of her blonde fringe swept across her forehead and tucked around her right ear, which was held down by a straight white hat. He didn’t like how, blotchy, sweating and red-faced, he didn’t look great in any way.
“Oh really, well I don’t know anything about that,” he said, standing over her. “What sort of green was it? Was it soup?”
Jennifer sighed and ran her hands under the tap, then ripped a few hand towels from the plastic dispensary on the wall and dried herself. She looked at Stone.
He looked back at her and recalled how he’d tried to fill his head with thoughts of her in order to dream about her, every night in bed that week. But if he had, he couldn’t remember it. Maybe this was how it began, right here at work. Maybe he’d leaned in and kissed her softly, before unbuttoning her long, thick shirt and… maybe that’s how it went.
Jennifer looked at Stone’s name badge and said: “Is that your real name?”
Stone inspected the plastic plate that was pinned to his lime green shirt.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said, his voice breaking as he forced a chuckle.
The conversation was dead, and they both knew it. Although Jennifer smiled at him, the way her eyes narrowed and nostrils flared as she left suggested she was about to laugh. She disappeared through the door and her footsteps fluttered up the stairs. Stone mouthed “I love you” after her, then shut his eyes and felt his heartbeat return to its normal pace. The blood drained from his face.
He knew that if he kept screwing up these fleeting moments they had together, which were once a week at best, then he’d never make any progress with her. If he’d had more time, or was speaking to anyone else – literally anyone else – he was sure he could have come up with a much better response to her question. Already, one had occurred to him.
Squeak-squeak-squeak through the double doors, and then, “woah”, Stone said, blinking a few times as he edged onto the over-lit shop floor.
He’d never got used to this. The humming fridges with their strip lights reflected in mirrors, the beeps and bleeps of distant checkout tills, the gossip of customers getting in each others’ ways, the music – everything felt bad and wrong, as usual. Looking down at his wrist, he saw a milky white line where his watch should have been. Must have taken it off before he had a shower. Left it in the bowl of potpourri on the bathroom windowsill. Probably only another three hours until home time, he reckoned.
Rubbing his eyes, Stone staggered over to the meat fridge, where he began his job of finding products that were close to their expiry date, reducing them by a third of the price, and putting them back on the shelf.
And so he lifted the packets of food no higher than necessary as he checked the dates of sausages, gammon, pate – his trolley squeaking every step of the way. Yoghurt, cheese, butter – creeping along the wall of fridges, inch by inch. Apples, mushrooms, salads – playing a whole album in his head to keep him entertained. Chicken, mince, crabsticks. Pies, pizza, quiche. Soup. Squeak squeak squeak.
“Hello!” said a voice next to Stone.
A boy standing behind Stone was holding one of the packets of mince that Stone had stacked on his trolley.
“How much are these going to be?” said the boy, dressed in what appeared to be a school uniform.
“Why, what are you going to with them?” said Stone. “Do you know how to cook?”
The boy shook his head.
“They’re for my dad,” he said.
“Right,” said Stone.
He tried to ignore the boy, but found it difficult to concentrate on anything else with him just standing there with a hopeful, expectant glare.
“How old are you?” said Stone.
“Seven,” said the boy.
“Well I’m knocking a third off the price, so these are going to be about £1.30,” said Stone very slowly and clearly.
The boy frowned and momentarily drummed a beat on the side of the trolley with his index fingers.
Then he said: “OK,” and turned his back.
“Well, whatever. For you I’ll make it half price,” Stone said. “So £1 a packet.”
The boy smiled like it was his birthday or something.
“Take it or leave it,” said Stone.
“I’ll just go and ask my dad!” said the boy.
The boy skidded down the biscuits aisle, and Stone kept his focus there, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy’s father. Stone had been living in this town all his life, and hadn’t once seen the boy around. He didn’t sound like a local. After a couple of minutes, Stone assumed they must have paid up and left. He got down on his knees to reach the large tubs of margarine at the back of the bottom shelf.
“What about this stuff?” said the boy.
Stone turned around and saw the boy carrying a swaying column of packets of meat. There were about nine or ten altogether, neatly stacked on top of each other.
“Hey, you’d better put those down or you’ll drop them!” said Stone.
“No I won’t, I’ve got hold of them,” said the boy. “I won the egg-and-spoon race last year, I’m good at balancing things,” he said.
Stone smiled and said: “Oh yeah, where was that?”
“Just at school,” he said.
Stone laughed. “You should get a job here,” he said. “People who can carry things as well as you can are pretty useful here.”
The boy laid the packets of meat on the trolley, just as Stone’s boss walked past them both. His boss was despised by all the young people who worked in the store – and the feeling was probably mutual. This time, he didn’t bother Stone. He barely even acknowledged him as he held his head unusually straight and high, with the confidence of a man who’d read a book on how to look confident. His shiny shoes clip-clopped through the double doors, and beyond.
“Actually, maybe not,” Stone said to the boy. “You don’t want to work here. Promise me you’ll never work here, ever?”
The boy laughed.
“It’s not that bad in here,” said the boy. “It’s warm.”
“It is that bad, believe me,” said Stone.
“And you must get free food!” said the boy.
“Promise me…” said Stone.
“OK, I promise!” said the boy.
“Say: I promise…” said Stone.
“I promise…” said the boy.
“That I will never…” said Stone.
“That I will never…” said the boy.
“Work in a supermarket,” said Stone.
“Work in a supermarket,” said the boy.
“Good,” said Stone.
He looked down over the packets of meat the boy had laid out for him, and shook his head.
“See, I can’t reduce these. They’re nowhere near their expiry date,” said Stone.
The boy sighed, and tried to take the packets back. Stone stopped him.
“Don’t worry, I’ll put them back,” he said. “I tell you what, you find me anything that says the 18th of May on it, and I’ll reduce it by more than half, just for you.”
The boy scampered off as soon as Stone’s sentence had registered. Two minutes later he returned, and dropped some more stuff on Stones trolley.
“It’s all the 18th of May, so it all needs reducing,” said the boy.
Stone was amazed. He hadn’t expected the boy to find anything, because he’d been looking in areas that Stone was already supposed to have checked – clearly not too thoroughly.
“Cheers mate,” said Stone. “Wow, you really would make a good worker here.”
He slapped reduction stickers on the packets the boy had brought him.
“But still, never, ever work here – understand?” said Stone.
The boy nodded, and watched as Stone scanned more packets and printed off more reduction stickers.
“There you go, that’s two-thirds off a joint of gammon. A real bargain, that,” he said.
The boy smiled and held the gammon like a trophy, before he dropped it into the basket he held with his small hands.
“Mikey!” said a man behind them.
A man approached them wearing a flannel shirt. He was quite short, and his long hair looked thin under the bright lights, which beamed off his pale scalp.
“What have I told you about hassling people?” he said, winking at Stone.
“Ah he’s no bother,” said Stone. “He’s actually been a real help finding the all the out-of-date stuff I’d missed!”
The man laughed and ruffled his son’s hair. The man carried a basket of his own, but there was very little inside it.
“He said he’d made it cheaper than it usually is,” said the boy, holding up a strawberry milkshake. “Look at this, dad.”
The man again winked at Stone and ruffled the boy’s hair, but Stone could tell he was quite taken aback as he read the price sticker.
“Good work, Mikey,” he said. “Good work.”
The boy buried his head into his father’s midriff, and his father threw his arms around him.
“You old softie,” said the man.
“The more you can find, the more I’ll knock off,” said Stone.
“For the 18th of May?” said the boy.
“Yes the 18th. And the 19th actually, let’s go crazy,” said Stone.
The boy disappeared one of the aisles and came back with some pork chops, couscous, and three punnets of strawberries. And he wasn’t done. He went back to get more. Coleslaw, quiche. Tomatoes. Even his father got involved. A roast chicken, some peppers. After a while they needed to go back and get a trolley to put all the stuff in. And then the printer ran out of ink, so Stone just started writing the prices on in pen. He was reducing things by as much at 95%. It was ridiculous. But he could tell how much it meant to them.
“No more cereal for pudding,” said the man. “For a while, at least.”
“Actually, forget about the dates,” Stone said. “Just bring me anything you want and I'll reduce it.”
The man and the boy left with two large trolleys of food. Stone expected questions later on that shift from his boss, but he didn't care. He wasn’t earning a living here, anyway – just a disposable income.
Upon realising he hadn’t taken a break for a while, Stone felt in his pocket for cigarettes, and put one between his lips as he walked through the stock room and upstairs. He lit the end just before walking into the smoking room, where Jennifer was sat.
“Hey,” he said.
“You up for your break already?” she said.
She opened the ringpull on her can of Coke and quickly put her mouth around the rim to catch the fizzy brown liquid she hadn’t expected to gush out so much. Stone hadn’t noticed. He stared at the woodchip wallpaper and tried to imagine the man and the boy unloading all those bags of food into whatever car the man drove. He wondered where they were going.
“Hey, I said are you on your break already?” said Jennifer.
Stone stirred. “Sorry. Yeah, I'm done for now,” he said.
“I haven't got much to do, either,” she said.
They both took long draws of their cigarettes and exhaled. Then Stone got up and walked towards the window and looked out over the near-empty car park. The streetlights didn't light up much.
“So anyway, I was thinking,” said Jennifer. “Do you want to get a drink somewhere when you finish? Like, just us two? Somewhere in town? I'm not at college tomorrow.”
Stone saw a couple of shadows next to a car’s open boot, and squinted as he tried to make out who it was. But he couldn't. It was too dark. It didn't look like the man and the boy. A car was waiting at the traffic lights, and he thought maybe that was them. When the lights turned green the car drove away. No more cereal for pudding, he recalled repeatedly, nodding slowly. No more cereal for pudding.
When he returned to his seat, the smoking room was empty. Jennifer’s cigarette withered away from where she’d clumsily stubbed it out, and the leather was still rising on the base of seat that she’d clearly only recently left. Stone noticed a brown puddle on the table where her Coke was, and thought about wiping it away.
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