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Rolling back his tired shoulders and puffing out his chest, he approaches the checkouts. His regulation shirt is a little baggy, intended for a stockier breed of man. He jams his hands into his pockets and attempts a casual grin. Shifts like this, when he spends too much time alone, can be difficult to get through. He ends up dwelling on his mum’s final days, wondering if he should’ve moved back sooner. The supermarket is empty of customers, and the shelf stackers went home hours ago. There is only one cashier on the tills tonight. She stares into space, her chin dumped in her hands.
“How’s it going, Maggie?” he asks.
Maggie gives a slight nod and raises her pencilled eyebrows high. Although he has worked here a fortnight now, she’s never addressed him by name. He’s pretty sure she doesn’t even know it. Under the strip lights, her hair has a lacquered shine and looks almost brittle. Her eyes glint despite her defeated posture. Decades in this job must’ve acclimatised her to long hours of nocturnal inactivity. Although twenty years her junior, he finds these shifts gruelling. The recycled air leaves his mouth dry, and the continual hum of freezers keens his nerves. The shadows under his eyes are getting darker each day.
“Anything to report?” he presses.
Picking a speck of lint from her fleece, Maggie purses her lips. She thinks him too soft for this job. Only last week she was berating their manager – at a volume intended to be overheard – about no longer feeling safe on shift. He squeezes the metal rim of the checkout, as though measuring its thickness. Could he protect her, if something kicked off? He isn’t even sure himself. This was the only job he could get in a town where work is scarce and everyone thinks him a stranger. It’s enough to tide him over, though, until probate comes through and he can sell the house.
“Good,” he says, trying to summon a gruff confidence. “Well, you know where I am.”
“Uh-uh,” says Maggie.
Pushing off from the checkout, he begins to walk away. He wonders what he’s done to earn such scorn. It’s as though his whole person emits a dog-whistle pitch, signalling he doesn’t belong here. The irony being that he spent his first eighteen years in this shithole. He knows all the terrace cut-throughs, the paths leading to the woods beyond. He knows the boredom and the comfort of provincial living. And since returning to sort out his mum’s estate, he’s had plenty of time to refamiliarise himself. Aside from eating microwave meals or watching telly on his childhood couch, there’s not much to do except walk around town. He tried dating apps for a while, but none of the women he matched with were suitable.
As he strolls towards the security office, his tiredness returns in waves. He lets a yawn surface and rubs his face with both hands. The mug of coffee on his desk is still warm, so he gulps it down. Drinking too fast he gets a mouthful of sludge, the residue of granules slicking his tongue. On his first day, he asked if there was a cafetière. The look he got ensured he never asked again. Gathering saliva, he spits into the mug and sets it on the desk. The screens in front of him dance slightly, the pixels refusing to settle in their frames. The underlying images remain constant: an empty aisle, a deserted magazine stand, an unmanned cheese counter, and an automatic door that has not opened since 3:35 a.m.
Not yet worn in, his boots are pinching around the toes. He loosens the laces and wonders if he can justify another fag break. He’s gone from smoking a pack a month to a pack every couple of days. The jump of grey-scale images is soothing, with just enough play to keep the eyes occupied. After doing a couple of spins in his chair, he relents and rummages for his tobacco. The pouch is empty apart from a few dry shreds, enough to make a thin rollie. Tapping it on the desk, he catches a movement on the monitors. Two people are walking into the shop: an adult, with a child trailing behind. Placing the rollie behind his ear, he leans forward to get a better look. His knee jiggles under the desk. The tall figure seems too jumpy, too deliberate – and besides, who brings a child shopping at 5 a.m.?
As the pair traverse the supermarket, they appear on one, two, or occasionally three of the CCTV screens. Because of the way the monitors are stacked, progress appears skittish rather than linear, and the figures seem to jump between the aisles. He squints at the hurrying blurs – trying to determine gender – but both are wearing tracksuits with the hoods pulled low. As they approach aisle six, where the chilled meat and fish are stocked, he feels his palms prick with sweat. High value items. This might be his first real test, a chance to prove he’s more than a useless city boy.
On impulse, he slides open the bottom drawer of the desk. Groping under the accident log, his fingers find what they are looking for – the cold, hard shape of a whisky bottle. It belongs to one of the other security officers, although he isn’t sure which. Unscrewing the cap, he sniffs and recoils from the paint-stripper fumes. The figures on screen are hovering, dithering, perhaps gathering their courage. He cannot act until they act, so he sets the whisky down and waits. The smell of cheap scotch rises from the bottle and permeates the room. They are customers until you have evidence they are thieves,his manager had cautioned on the first day. Keep it by the book. Last thing I need is a lawsuit.
The movement comes when he’s stopped waiting. Swift and unsubtle, the child crams something – a shrink-wrapped steak or a pack of mince – under its hoodie. Too late, the taller figure steps forward as shield. He takes a slug of the whisky, refusing to wince at its taste. His palette is not so delicate as all that. Swallowing, he realises his mistake: the shoplifters might smell his breath and refuse to recognise his authority. He jumps up, knocking over his cup in the process. Coffee dregs dribble off the desk as he rushes to the sink and cranks the tap. He slurps and spits, testing his breath in a cupped palm.
Glancing at the screens again, he sees the figures are headed for the doors. He speed marches out of the office and onto the shop floor. Halfway down the cereal aisle, he realises his boots are undone.
“Fuck’s sake,” he mutters.
Aware he’s still on probation and his first criminals are getting away, he increases pace to a jog. His boots slip around on his feet, the tongues flapping loose, but there isn’t time to stop. The shoplifters are already scurrying for the exit – backs turned and hoods up – when he emerges panting from the aisle.
“Stop! Stop where you are!” he shouts.
He hardly expects to be obeyed, but the pair stop dead. Relieved, he strides over to them, trying to walk as if his boots are firmly laced. The taller shoplifter turns, revealing herself to be a young woman. Her face is gaunt under the harsh lights, her hair lank. One cheekbone is yellow from an old punch, and a cold sore dominates her bottom lip. She keeps her eyes down, refusing to look at him. The child – a girl with plump cheeks and crop of golden hair – shifts awkwardly inside her hoodie. She wears a reproachful pout, not seeming to understand her own guilt. He swallows, trying to stick to script. The less you improvise, the less chance you’ll fuck up, his manager had warned.
“Madam,” he says, his voice stiff and formal. “I have reason to believe you are leaving with items you have not paid for.”
The girl pulls on the strings of her hoodie and looks towards the doors. The woman continues glaring at the floor.
“Nah,” she says, shrugging. “Don’t know what you’re on about.”
“Madam, you were seen on our closed-circuit television system. We have video evidence that you took items from aisle six.” He pauses, his stomach tight and fluttery. Perhaps he drank too much coffee earlier. “And you clearly have no intention of paying for these items, being well past the checkout area.”
The woman glances towards Maggie, who is watching with undisguised interest from behind her till.
“You’re wrong,” she says, chin jutting defiantly. “So don’t go accusing me in front of my daughter.”
There is something tragically familiar about her. In that face, he recognises every junkie he’s ever encountered. He’d almost be moved to pity her, if she weren’t using her own child as leverage.
“Look,” he says, no longer able to keep his voice level. “I’m not blind. I can see her hoodie is full of stolen goods. So if you think I’m going to let you walk out, you’re very much mistaken.”
The woman looks at him straight for the first time, her gaze intimate enough to turn his stomach. She smirks, her bottom lip cracking open, then shakes her head.
“What are you going to do?” she asks. “Frisk us?”
He straightens, determined not to be drawn. He will not be played for an idiot.
“No,” he says. “I’m taking you to the security office, where you can wait for the police to arrive.”
For some reason, the woman finds this funny. Whipping back her head, she lets out a rough, smoker’s laugh. The girl stares up at her, shifting from foot to foot. The woman stops laughing as abruptly as she started.
“Wooow,” she says, her voice filled with disdain. “You really don’t remember, do you? Fucking hell.”
The conversation has veered so far off course he can no longer orientate himself. Maggie stands behind her checkout now, craning to see the drama unfold. He feels like a small child at a family party, watched from a distance to ensure he doesn’t disgrace himself. Turning to the woman, he searches her damaged face and tries to understand. He notices her blue-grey eyes and her thin, almost dainty nose. His sense of her as universally familiar is collapsing into something more specific, the massed faces filtering down to one. He knows her, and not just as a type.
“Got it yet?” she mocks.
There is something erratic in the way her hands move, the way her face tics. The daughter takes a step towards the doors. As she does so, a packet escapes her hoodie and falls face down on the floor. She scrabbles to pick it up, but the tray has broken and a sausage has burst from the shrink-wrap. The meat appears grey against the pale lino. Still on her knees, the girl looks to her mother for guidance.
“Leave it,” he snaps, kicking the packet away.
The child begins to cry, scrunching up her face and gulping with each sob. Her tears are too dramatic to be real. Without looking down, the woman holds out an arm for the child to inhabit. She hugs her daughter tight and fixes him with those grey-blue eyes. Although a good foot shorter than him, she looks angry enough to fight. He clenches his fists, ready for an onslaught of teeth and nails. They stare each other down for a long minute.
“You always were a fucking coward,” she mutters, looking away.
At last, he remembers: Brittany, her name is Brittany. Back in year nine, they had hung around in the same crowd for a while. He fucked her once at a party when she was blackout drunk, then avoided her for the rest of term. She dropped out of school a few months later. It was just one of those stupid teenage things. Scrutinising the girl – now staring up at him with wet red eyes – he calculates that she’s too young to be his. He shakes his head, annoyed at having entertained the thought.
“Look, madam,” he says, drawing himself up to full height. “I haven’t got time for excuses. I suggest you hand over the stolen goods immediately and then make your way to the exit. And if I ever see you in here again, the police will be called.”
Brittany stares at him in disbelief.
“And if I just walk out with the stolen goods?” She drums a hand against her leg. “Who’s going to stop me, Steve? You?”
He flinches internally at the use of his name but keeps his expression neutral. He can feel Maggie watching them, waiting for him to fuck up. He’d like nothing more than to retreat to his office and gulp down two fingers of whisky.
“Yeah, I thought so,” says Brittany. “Come on, Sadie. Let’s go.”
Yanking her daughter by the hand, she heads for the exit.
“Come back,” he shouts.
His tone sounds more desperate than intended. When Brittany does not respond, he chases after them – his boots still slopping loose. He grabs the child’s shoulder and spins her round, jerking down the zip of her hoodie. A packet of burgers, some chicken drumsticks, and two salmon steaks fall to the floor. The girl stares at him so shocked she almost forgets to cry.
“Get off her, you fucking paedo,” snarls Brittany, pushing him away.
Caught off guard, he stumbles and almost falls.
“That’s it,” he says, recovering his balance. “You’re coming with me.”
As he reaches out for Brittany’s arm, she slaps him away. He tries again, and she slaps him harder.
“Don’t touch me,” she spits.
On the third attempt, he catches her hands and pins them to her sides. Tears of anger prick her eyes as she tries to wriggle free. He leans into her face, close enough to feel her breath.
“Chill out,” he commands through gritted teeth. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”
As Brittany’s arms go slack, his grip relaxes accordingly. The next thing he knows, a blow strikes his ear and leaves it throbbing. The pain intensifies as the ringing subsides.
“I said don’t fucking touch me, Steve!” Brittany shouts, loud enough for Maggie to hear.
She glares at him, apparently no longer concerned with escape. Before he can stop himself, he has reached out to grasp her neck. He forces her backwards across the shop floor – ignoring the child, who runs screaming after them. Packets snap underfoot as he ploughs onwards, steering Brittany by the throat. He knows this could cost him his job, perhaps even get him arrested, but right now all that matters is shutting her up. His jaw is clenched and his limbs seem to need no instruction. Her arms flail as she tries to resist, but of course he is stronger. There’s a fear in her eyes that was not there before. She shouldn’t have tested him.
Only once he’s ejected Brittany from the store – and she lies sprawled on the slabs outside – does his adrenalin start to ebb. He lets the automatic doors sigh shut then activates the manual lock control. On the other side of the glass, Brittany staggers to her feet. She does not look over, simply flicks up her hood and takes her daughter’s hand. The pair hurry away and are soon lost in darkness, obscured by strip-light reflections. His chest still heaving, he looks around at the mess of meat and plastic. Those goods will be spoiled and he hasn’t even apprehended the thieves. He crouches down to tie his boots, trying to take slower breaths. He can’t explain what just happened, but at least the shop wasn’t full of customers. Someone could have filmed on their phone and posted the video. He hates to think what his mates in the city would say. They wouldn’t understand that life here is different.
Looking up, he finds Maggie beelining towards him. No longer bolstered by the checkout, she looks small and insignificant. Her legs are restricted by a pencil skirt, and low-heeled shoes hobble her feet. She is clapping slowly, as though someone has cracked a bad joke. He tries to calculate how much she might’ve seen. She’ll probably side against him if the incident gets investigated, so his story needs to be watertight. He will claim that the junkie pulled a hypodermic at close range. Trying stop his hands shaking, he concentrates on his shoelaces, pulling the double-knots tight. Maggie continues clopping across the floor, coming to a stop by his side. Although she is standing and he is crouching, their faces are almost level. Maggie puts a ringed hand on his shoulder, letting it rest there.
“Good job…Stephen,” she says, peering at his badge. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”