Unidentified Monster in the Bagging Area
Cindy wasn’t right after the late shift.
She wouldn’t let us turn on the self-checkers, so we had to ring up sales on the tills. We don’t have enough staff to do that for every customer, so that meant long queues, and lots of unhappy-chappy public. A couple of cheeky people just dropped their baskets of groceries and walked out. We dumped those baskets in the cool room to deal with later.
With most of us tied up on the checkout lanes, the shelves weren’t getting restocked. I scrambled up and down the aisles with a pushcart of stock boxes to plug urgent gaps, with customers stopping me every 5 seconds to ask about black caviar lentils and unhulled tahini - like shelf stackers know where every posh item is.
After a few hours of bedlam, Chloe slid into the break room and refused to come out. Trevor tried to get Cindy to start the self-checkers to take the pressure off, but she just yelled at him that it was her call as duty manager and sent him home.
Someone must have called the office, because after lunch one of the suits came over.
They took Cindy to a quiet spot in the bailer. They probably gave her a drug test. I saw it happen one time with this bagger who was tweaking during his shift. After a long while, she came out. Her eyes were red and puffy. She fetched her handbag from the break room, and told us she had quit. No explanation.
It was a shock. Cindy had always been alright to us, even a bit of a mum when we needed it. She didn’t have a uni education, had spent the last 20 years with the chain, and needed to look after a tween kid. What was she going to do with herself? I guess there’s always the welfare office.
On her way out she told me “Get out of here now. If you stay, this place won’t let you leave.”
She didn’t have to tell me that. I didn’t plan on staying here forever. Just do an innings here, and hop to one of the nicer supermarket chains. Build my savings, finish my engineering bachelor’s, and invest everything I get into loans to buy rental houses. Then I can kick back and let other people pay off my properties, and have a bit extra to give mum and dad holidays. Retired at 40 - I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it.
The suit told me they heard I had a bit of spark, and that if I wanted the job I could take Cindy’s place as duty manager. Just for now, but if I kicked goals it could be a permanent gig. Of course I went for it. You’ve got to take your chance when it comes.
First off I started the self-checkers to get more staff on the floor. They’re a huge timesaver, except for number 6 - that one is kooky. Then I had everyone sweep the aisles for stray trolleys and other clutter. One aisle even had a smashed bottle of pasta sauce that had been there for hours. On top of that we had to deal with customers, always looking for frozen bags of elderberries or whatever.
One lonely old man saw the name on my badge, Sohail, and asked me if I had been in England long. I told him my dad was from Pakistan but I was born here. He didn’t believe me - they never do. I’m not their idea of English.
In the afternoon lull I had staff do a blitz to face the products. That’s where we pull products to the front of the shelves so everything looks nice, plug gaps, and move anything that’s in the wrong spot. By closing time the store was pristine.
As the new duty manager, I had to stay behind to lock up. The other staff went home.
You get lots of young students like me in supermarkets, but we don’t stay long. Other jobs pay better and are more glam. You also get the lifers who work here for decades. Me, I would go crazy. When I’m at a checkout booth, I keep my mind working by studying the customer’s items and working out what they plan to cook. If I’m extra antsy I try to scan their purchases in alphabetical order.
I can understand the lifers though. The work is easy, and the rhythm of stocking shelves and scanning items is soothing, even hypnotic. If you’re rostered on the self-checker, all you have to do is keep a loose eye on customers and tap your staff ID on a machine when there’s a glitch. Some people just want the simple life - work, eat, watch the tele, sleep, do it all again tomorrow. The lifers are nice overall, they just keep their heads down and do their part.
I rolled out the shop front security screen, turned off the shelf-checkers and floor lights, and went into the bailer to check the stock levels. When I came out, I saw I hadn’t turned off one of the self-checkers. Number 6, always the problem. I switched it off. I went into the break room to get my bag. Just as I was about to go, I saw the number 6 was still on.
I knew I’d turned it off that time, so I went over to investigate. I could hear it making a weird noise, lots of beeps and grinding, and under that this whispering sound like anonymous voices at the tube station. Alone in a dark supermarket, it was all a bit spooky. I bent in close to hear better.
I didn’t turn it off. I just bolted. When I got home, I told mum and dad I had been promoted at work. They were heaps proud, but warned me not to let it get in the way of uni. I was too late for dinner, but mum whipped up some jam roly poly as a treat.
Lying in bed, I thought over what happened at the self-checker. I decided I had been overtired from a hectic day. But I was sure it had spoken to me.
“Welcome to the firm, Sohail.”
It even knew my name.
I tried to put the voice out of my mind, but I was on edge all the next day. Customers never stop, and you have to keep goods flowing, plus I had the pressure of making decisions as the manager. I tried to stay away from the self-checkers, and had someone else turn them on. But they kept having issues, mainly number 6. One lady said she’d scanned some bananas there and bagged them, but they had vanished. She thrust her receipt in my face and asked for a refund. Her story was crazy, but store policy is to keep the customer happy on small stuff, so I rang it up on a till.
I didn’t want to be alone in the supermarket so soon, so I asked Chloe to stay late and close. I told her I had a lecture, which was even true. She had the hots for me, so she was happy to help me out.
The next day, Chloe didn’t show up for her shift. I texted her phone, but didn’t get a response. We managed to get someone to come in on short notice, but it wasn’t like Chloe to ditch a shift.
On top of that, we were still having problems with number 6. One confused guy said he lost something important at the self-checker but couldn’t remember what it was. I had to guide him out of the store and send him on his way. After that I hid in the bailer doing admin. The office had asked us to increase the price on a few goods, so we could lower the price next month and call it a discount. To get ready for that, I needed to update some spreadsheets in the pricing system. You would think that would be automatic, but we had to update the data manually, with an encyclopedia of product codes in a fat binder. The lifers kept things running on the floor. I rang Chloe all day, but no answer.
Finally it came to closing time. I asked Trevor to turn off the self-checkers and floor lights as he left, while I finished up the admin. If this was going to be my store, I couldn’t let it spook me, so I resolved to close up alone, and prove my unease was just new job jitters.
Sure enough, when I left the bailer the self-checkers were all off, including number 6. Cindy’s breakdown had just thrown me off my game. Chloe had probably just been too sick to call in. And who knows why computers do half the stuff they do. Opportunity had fallen in my lap, and I was going to make the most of it. If I was clever about this, maybe I could move up early retirement, go for 35 rather than 40.
I went to the break room and grabbed my bag. When I came out, all the self-checkers were on.
In the darkness, they shone like an electric stonehenge, broadcasting electronic waves of clicks and hisses blended with expectant murmurs.
I tried to kill the power on one of them, but it zapped me hard. I grabbed a frying pan from the cookware section, thinking I could smash them. Before I had a chance, the screens of the self-checkers brightened, drowning the supermarket in ugly light.
In the dazzling haze, I saw the underneath of the supermarket.
Listless ghosts trudged the aisles, selecting memories of purchases, storing them in intangible baskets and trolleys, and taking them to the hungry self-checkers. At the checkers the ghosts would tap a card or drop some coins, with the machines chirping in reply like iron birds.
A few shades fussed at the fringes to fill the shelves and keep the ghost parade marching. I realised these were the supermarket workers - people like me, the thralls indentured to the supermarket.
I felt the misery of the supermarket, with its oppressive lights, clutter of meaningless brands, and clunky automation. The flow of shoppers was a ballet of life’s frantic tedium, with each of us hustling to survive a regimented production line of barcodes and receipts.
The ghosts sped up, becoming a whirling river of bored consumption rushing through the supermarket. The torrent flowed into the supermarket, took communion at the shelves, and left tribute at the self-checkers as it flowed back into the world. The beeps of the checkers became a shrill, worshipful hum.
I thought of the gap that forms in a shelf when someone takes a can of soup away. That gap was eloquent, and spoke of the supermarket’s bounty, and the price the supermarket demands in obedience.
I knew then that supermarkets were not built for our convenience. They are living things, with famished humans their churning blood.
And I knew that this supermarket had chosen me to help it feed, that it might thrive, and seed the world with more children.
After that, there wasn’t much point sticking with the manager job. I told the suits it wasn’t for me. They were chill about it, and I went back to scanning items and stocking shelves. Chole even showed up a couple of days later. From the way the lifers looked at us, we could tell that they had also had the revelation. Turns out lifers understand the world better than anyone, including who is really in charge.
I told my parents I was ditching uni. There was a row, and they kicked me out of the house. Doesn’t matter. I get enough pay to cover a bed in a flat. They don’t understand that the supermarket is in all things, and our only purpose is to serve it. I know my place.
I’m a lifer. Work, eat, watch the tele, sleep, do it all again tomorrow.
For all of us.