CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES (OMNIBUS OF WEEK 1)

shop-assistant

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES

Charlotte woke up at 12 noon. The sun was at it’s zenith. The blackout blind at her window gave her no clue as to the time. The room remained in total darkness apart from the neon green glow of her clock radio. She turned to her phone, left on silent whilst she slept. No messages, no missed calls, no change there. She switched on her bed-side lamp, and looked at the half-full wine glass, from the night before.Without even thinking about it, she drained the glass.  A little pick-me-up. She got out of bed and opened the bedroom door, and the sun crashed in like a sledge hammer. The pain behind her eyes exploded into a full-on  headache. She went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet. As she pee’d she reached across to the bath taps and turned them full on. She waited until the hot tap ran hot, then she put in the plug and reached across to the bubble bath… As she stretched across, she slightly lifted her bum off the seat, and swore as she pee’d down the inside of her thigh. She wiped herself off with toilet paper, and went into the kitchen/living room of her flat. She turned on the kettle and put a tea-bag and sugar in the heavily stained cup. She went across to the fridge and saw that she was nearly out of milk.

“Shit, now I’ve got to go to the shop before work.” She stirred the water in the cup and removed the bag before adding the milk. She sipped her brew, and grimaced. The hot tea made her heartburn worse.

She took her tea into the bathroom and then went back into the bedroom for her cigarettes. She took off her nightdress, and carefully dangled a toe into the bath. Not too hot. She turned off the taps. She put one foot in the bath gingerly and then the other. She stood motionless for a couple of seconds… Then realised it was too hot. Too hot to handle.

She jumped out as quick as possible. She put more cold in until it was safe to stand in. She slowly lowered herself into the welcoming water. She washed her short cropped hair and then carefully scrubbed herself down. Then she lay back and shut her eyes. The most blissful moment of any day. She folded her flannel into a rectangle just wide enough to cover her eyes. She allowed herself a minute of bliss, then she jumped up and grabbed her tea. She sipped her tea and then reached for the towel. She dried her hands and took a cigarette out of the pack, She tried to light it with her lighter, but no spark would fly. Obviously her fingers were still damp. She took the towel and ran the lighter wheel across it to take away the moisture. She rubbed her fingers on the towel and then tried the lighter for a second time. It lit. She greedily sucked the smoke into her lungs. Ahh, that first head rush of nicotine. she sat in her bath, tea in one hand, cigarette in the other, and slowly took stock. The day she faced was the day she faced five times a week.

Did she begrudge the hours of her labour? Not so much. It gave her stability, as sense of normality. She had waited a long time to find a sense of normality. For a decade normality was a word which lay beyond her lexicon. For a decade, she had lived in a world beyond words. The thought of that, was enough to make her get a shift on. She got out of the bath, toweled her hair dry and then carefully dried her body. The drugs meant she had to take care to dry herself carefully, she had a horrible side- effect of rashes and dry skin. When she was happy that she was dry, she reached into the bathroom cabinet, took her pills and then took out her toothbrush and toothpaste. She squeezed out a small pearl of paste on to the brush and put it under tap. She rigorously brushed her teeth. She went into her bedroom and put on her uniform. She pinned her name tag to her left breast pocket. She looked across anxiously at the clock… Did she have enough time to go down to the shop before work? Just! She slipped on her flat shoes, grabbed her bag  and pulled on her jacket. She ran the three flights of stairs down to the ground level and went across the road to the local shop. She bought a litre of semi-skimmed milk and a pack of 20 cigarettes. She looked longingly at a bottle of pinot grigio which was reduced… But did not give in to temptation.She had made it a rule ever since she had gotten back a “normal” life. Do nothing to interfere with the smooth running of her “normal” existence.She knew the fallibility of this hard and fast rule was ever near… She had already broken it this very day!

She had drunk the dregs of last night’s wine when she had woke up.Could she forgive this minor misdeamenour. In the end, she had no choice. She had to forgive herself. That is what her counsellor had hammered home to her. She did not have to punish herself for every little misdemeanor. Not every little thing…

She got back to the flat, and put the kettle back on. Another tea before she put her face on and made her way to the store. She drank a long draft of tea, and went back into the bathroom. She looked in the mirror. There it was, the tell-tale scar. The scar she had carried since she was six. It was like a chevron on her forehead. She had been pushed into the parrafin heater by her bigger brother when play had turned into a fight. The v-shaped vents at the top of the heater had left a perfect chevron burn on her forehead. Over the years the vivid scar had faded… But not enough for it not to be noticeable without make-up. It was like her mark of Cain. If anyone saw it in all of it’s natural glory, people might immediately put 2 and 2 together… then her secret would be out.

She applied an exfoliator to the area, then slowly filled the scar with a concealor. After this was completed she used a foundation to blend the area into a seamless whole. Once the chevron was hidden she felt safe. Her secret was safe. They say that you are always given a second chance, Charlotte knew otherwise. If it came out who she really was, her life would become untenable.

The walk to work took her 30 minutes. She could get a bus, but she liked to walk. It helped to prepare for work. Helped her set her mantra in her mind. I must smile! Imust try to be helpful. I will not react to provocation. In her mind, the drugs helped. They promoted a sense of ease. They kept her calm…Dull, but calm. They slowed the rate of thoughts in her mind. She couldn’t race ahead of the now with them. She could not create castles in the air. She could become hyper, but only by force of will… Luckily, she didn’t have that force of will. Her main concentration was on doing her job, being friendly and not reacting on provocation. Her counsellor had perfected this mantra with her. It had taken a long time to learn. She stepped out of the Safe place her flat represented and with the slightly perplexing smile pasted on her face, she paced out the steps which took her to work.

Work was in a supermarket. It was barely minimum wage, and required very little mental activity. She would stack stock, or less frequently, work on the till. She wasn’t often put on the till, given that it required a friendly response, to often idiotic members of the public. Her manageress was aware of her mental past, and protected her to some extent, trying not to over stress her. Her manageress was a nice person. She seemed to understand. He had spoken to Charlotte about her own mother, and how she too had been under section after a period of post-natal depression. Where the manageress was kind and understanding, the supervisor under her was the opposite. He was deliberately provoking. He didn’t agree with the company’s policy of employing Nut jobs, as he called the mentally impaired. He was of the old school. Why give nutters a job when there were ordinary people who needed jobs? Of course, he did voice these opinions within earshot of management, he kept these opinions to himself and his sidekick and underling. Together, the supervisor Jim, a short, fat, and balding tyrant; and Julie, his long, thin, angular and stupid sidekick, looked like a comedy double act… Laurel and Hardy, Little and Large, Hitler and Mussolini… Charlotte had thought of the last comparison during a difficult period from yesterday’s shift. She had thought it smiled to herself, and then admonished herself for not thinking of her mantra. Such thoughts could lead to a cascde event. A spiral of thoughts which would lead inevitably back to the unit. She had taken control of herself. She had, by force of will, focused on smiling, on breathing and not on throwing a tin of baked beans at the supervisor’s big fat shiny bald pate! What was it her counselloe had said? She focused. His words were… It’s ok to have these thoughts… It is not Ok to act upon them. Don’t focus on the thought, focus on getting beyond the thought. She had broken out of the mindset, but it had not been easy. She had taken the trolley of stock, the supervisor had found for her twenty minutes before the end of her shift, and had headed back out on to the shopfloor. The last two hours of the shift she did, the store was closed. She and others on her shift, were expected to clear existing stock, so that the night shift could prepare the new stock, which arrived at eight, for the shopfloor. They had to breakdown the pallets and put them into bay related trolleys.Normally, the twilight staff had finished the existing stock, and would help the night shift break down the palletised stock. It was the best part of the shift for Charlotte. The night shift would banter and joke about, and though Charlotte did not really join in, she enjoyed the feeling that she could. That she was accepted. It felt nice to feel this sense of belonging. So, to be singled out by the Supervisor on last night’s shift had meant that she had missed out on the banter. She was banished from the warehouse, sent out with this magical trolley of stock which had not been there earlier, and sent to the far flung bays of spices and condiments. She felt victimised. It had hurt when she heard laughter as the rubber door shut behind her. She had wanted to answer back, to call them names. She had wanted blood. She had breathed slowly, she had pasted on her best smile, and tried to ignore the tiny tears which prickled in the corner of her eyes. She spoke her mantra in her mind. She did as she was told.

It didn’t matter how hard you tried to conform, tried your hardest to be the perfect worker, there was always someone there who made everything difficult for you. Why? Why would they be like that? Charlotte did not have the guile to understand the process… The process by which you feel your worth rise by pushing someone else down. She had missed out on the fundamentals of workplace politics. Work, in a normal environment had been a goal in itself. Just to make the transition to a normal, run of the mill, worker, had been a massive step in her recovery. She was determined not to crack under the jibes and unfair treatment from little Hitler and his gormless lanky oppo, Mussolini.

She would do the job she was told to do, no matter what, no matter how much she felt provoked, she would not give in. This was her chance to live a normal life. Normal! How far she had come from those dark, dark days.She had a very vague notion of her life before the dark, dark days. She had a notion that her life before the fall… Had been far from normal. She had a notion that she had been extra-ordinary. Yet the shape of those ,before times, were as fantastical as Prospero’s Island in the Tempest. She had read the Tempest at some point, maybe it was as a schoolgirl. The drugs made memories as fluffy as clouds.

When she got to work, her smile was plastered in place. She went to see the Manager, who had left word on the customer service desk, that he wanted to see her before she started her shift. She was worried. Why did he want to see her? She couldn’t think of what she might have done to require an urgent word?

“You wanted to see me, Mr. Jones?”

” Hi there Charlotte, how are you?”

“I’m fine thanks sir.”

“Call me Brian, Charlotte, you don’t have to be so formal.”

” Thank you Mr. Jones, I mean Brian.”

“Okay, Charlotte, I asked you here just to see if everything is going fine. If you have any problems it’s important that you feel you can come to me. I know how hard it must be, with this being your first job after… Well, you know, after your problems.”

“It’s fine, eh, Brian, I enjoy the job, I like to work.”

” I can see you do, you always have such a lovely smile for all the customers and the staff alike.”

“Thank you sir, I mean Brian, I’m glad I’m making a good impression.”

“I think you are doing really well, Charlotte, but some people take a bit longer to take to new staff… it has been brought to my attention, by one of the twilight shift, that one of my supervisors has been less than friendly towards you. Mentioning no names, if this becomes a problem, or if you feel you can’t cope with his attentions… You must come to me. Don’t let it get you down, we don’t want any unpleasantness. I don’t want you to feel under stress. Remember, you have a friend in me, I’m here to help you.”

“Thank you Mr.Jones, I will. I will come to you if I have any problems, but I’m just happy to have a job. I can cope with everything thanks all the same.”

“Good, I’m glad you have such a positive attitude… I’m Here for you, don’t forget… Now, time to you got yourself back down on the shopfloor… Those shelves won’t fill themselves.”

” Of course, eh Brian, can’t wait to get started!”

Back in the warehouse, things were not quite so cordial. Jim looked pointedly at his watch…

“You’re ten minutes late, Charlotte!”

“Mr. Jones wanted to see me.” She explained.

“What did the corporal want?” he asked.

“Corporal? Sorry I don’t understand.”

“Corporal Jones… You know from Dad’s Army.”

” I didn’t know he was in the army.”Charlotte looked perplexed.

” It’s a joke… Dad’s Army, you know, off the telly?”

“Sorry, Jim, I don’t have a telly.”

“It’s no wonder you don’t know shit then is it Charlotte? “

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Charlotte, just be punctual…Now then I’ve got a nice little job for you. You see that cage full of beans there… I want you to put them on the overstock shelf down aisle 10. The normal shelves are full, so just chuck them on the top shelf ready for refilling.”

“Can i have a kick stool?” Charlotte knew that Jime didn’t like a kickstool on the shopfloor when there were customers… But without one there was no way she could reach the topshelf safely.

” A kick-stool on the shop floor during open hours? You know my rules.”

“But Jim, I can’t reach the top shelf without a Kick-stool.”

” You know what Charlotte, just for you, I’m going to change the rules…”

“Thanks Jim…”

” I was joking, you idiot!”

“Oh, Sorry.”

She took The trolley full of beans and made for aisle 10. She would have to improvise. She decided she had two choices, one, go to the manager and tell him that what Jim was asking her to do was impossible, or two, to take some of the tins and put them on the floor as a impromptu step and gently push the rest of the tins on to the overstock shelf from the front. It was, she realised, a task which had been set-up for her to fail. She didn’t wonder at Jim’s malicious attitude to her, she had overheard his mocking of her in the staff room… Calling her a loony. Obviously, Brian, the manager had only told the supervisor some of her history. He had not given Jim the details, which he been privy to, he had just said enough so that Jim would be patient with her… But this knowledge had only served to make the supervisor suspicious of her and resent having a “Mong” as he had called her in the staffroom, under his supervision. She knew that his prejudice was not going to change. She loved having a job, and the freedom it gave her, but feared that Jim would do his utmost to make her job impossible.

She gingerly stood on the four tins of beans and reached up to the top shelf and pushed a tin on. So far so good, she put down fur more tins so she could stand on them with both feet. She grabbed four more tins and placed them on the front of the shelf. Then she got four more and slowly pushed the four backwards until the front ones were pushed right onto the shelf. The methodology was good to a point, but what she couldn’t ascertain was how far back the tins had gone. She had to try to ensure that they also lined up tidily. Given that she was unsighted, as the shelf was at arms length from her standing position, even with the tins she was standing on. Of course the inevitable happened. She pushed to get the four tins in her hands on to the front of the shelf… and having them just hanging over the edge, she pushed against the resistence. A tin fell over the top and dislodged a couple of large jars of silverskin pickled onions from the top shelf on the opposite aisle. There was a loud ckatter and crash! Closely followed by a loud expletive.

“What The Fuck!” Charlotte ran around the aisle to see a young man hopping. He had shorts and trainers on, and there was a pretty substantial trickle of blood coming from the back of his left calf.

Charlotte didn’t know what to do… Her brain told her to run away, but her conscious thought was to help… But how to help, she didn’t know first aid… That was it get a first aider. She ran down to the customer service and asked Beryl to call for a first aider on aisle 9. She then went to the warehouse to fetch the clean-up trolley. When she got back to the aisle, she could see that Jim was leading the young man away to the staff room.

He gave her a gutteral grunt…

“Clean up this mess then come to me in the staff room, I thin you owe this young man an apology.

Charlotte swallowed a sob as she gingerly picked up the glass and white pickled onions. Once she was sure she had bagged up the offending detritus, she wiped the floor clean with the mop.

She was screaming inside her head, now your for it, now your for it now your for it… She tried to remember the mantra… Breathe slowly, it’s not your fault, it’s just an accident.

She took the clean-up trolley back to the warhouse and timidly made her way to the staff room. She stood by the door and watched as Jim cleaned the wound and patched it with an elastoplast. She could here what he was saying…

“I’m sorry sir, she’s a bit special, if you know what I mean… A loony, a fruitcake… but we have to take them… Company policy and all that.”

“Why was she stacking a top shelf without a stool to help her reach? I saw her, I mean she was standing on tins to be able to reach… I thought thats an accident waiting to happen… I didn’t expect it to be an accident waiting to happen to me!”

“I don’t know why she didn’t have a kick-stool, she should have asked for one, as I said, she’s not the full shilling.” Charlotte face reddened, breathing wasn’t going to help now…

“I’m sorry sir, I really am… But the reason why I didn’t have a kick-stool was because HE wouldn’t let me have one! His exact words were, It makes the shopfloor look untidy. I knew trying to stack the tins like that was ridiculous… but I had no choice. He didn’t give me one!”

“That’s enough from you young lady, you can go and get your coat, you are fired!”


This is an on-going project, which is already tightly outlined in my mind, but i have to let it open slowly. I apologise if your anxious to get to the exciting bit… stick with it, I think the ideas will be worth it… If I can pull it off. I think maybe an explanation of what the story’s genesis is… I wanted to write a story which dealt with seemingly ordinary people in seemingly ordinary surroundings. I had an idea that we make general assumptions about people and their lives by the present situation, now given the joyride that my own life has been, I believe that such a notion is false. So I wanted to explore this premise. I think the revelations which will develop will genuinely shock the reader… But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Dale

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