Inside the Plasma Supermarket
The dusty green and blue can of goulash had been on the shelf for nearly ten years now. Each time that the stock had been replenished, it had somehow made its way passed the checkpoints without a passport; had somehow eluded its censors. It didn't mind much, passing its time as a tin of goulash on the shelves of the Plasma Supermarket. The market looked after its own.
The tin of goulash surveyed the supermarket readying itself for opening time. The place was bustling - managers managed the sweepers sweeping the floors on which the salesmen would soon be selling; ties were being straightened, zips zipped, buttons clipped. Certain members of staff were intensely analysing lists of figures. The frantic movements of cleaning and cleansing looked sporadic and somewhat random from up on the shelves.
Outside the Plasma Supermarket, in large green neon letters, the following legend was inscribed: "Here the Customer reigns Supreme". The staff were now reminded of this maxim by a certain Mr Zobrowski, the owner of the store, who spoke loudly through a large orange megaphone to his restless audience: "Today, gang, we are going to exceed all limits set before," his voice boomed with mechanical enthusiasm. "In this year's Extravaganza Tuesday Sale we're hoping to increase last year's profit margin by thirty?three percent!" He paused for a satisfied moment to sweep his eyes across the store at his employees, his shop, his people. He sighed.
Heather, in the cosmetics department, misinterpreting his brief pause as a need for affirmation, let out a whoop. "Yeah!", she yelled. Heather in her lycra pants.
Mr Zobrowski raised a quizzical eyebrow in Heather's direction before continuing, "So team, I want us all to work together today. It's going to be busy, so I want every one of you on your toes, every one of you paying attention ... A reminder that shopping hours have been extended and that all tea-breaks have been cancelled. Okay, make it good - let's go and get them!"
"Oh man," said Mick.
"That includes you, Mick," came the voice from the megaphone.
Mick shuffled down Steve's aisle, his clipboard limp in his hand. He never could figure out what all the fuss was about. Each and every year, the Extravaganza Tuesday Sale would roll around, and every time it did they would all put in long hours, fielding a steady stream of wild-eyed, economically-minded customers; and all they ever got out of it was one free hamburger and tired feet. So what did he want them to go out and get?
"I heard Zobrowski's having a Jacuzzi installed," Mick confided to Steve in passing. Mick regarded the fact of his having to work at all not only as an annoyance, but as a personal offence. And today of all days. Why did he have to sweep and mop these dirty floors? For what? To pay for some fat fuck's Jacuzzi?
Steve watched Mick make his way slowly down the aisle and found himself with only pity for this creature. You see, not everyone was like Mick. Every day, in every way - and especially on days like today - there were people like Steve, who could hardly wait to find and flex the true limits of their salesmanship. These select few joined in the festive mood of the day, in the hustle and bustle of preparations and decorations. For them there was never enough that they could do for the store, or which the store, they firmly believed, could do for them. Steven could not leave Mick's contemptuous attack on the well-deserved privileges of authority go unanswered and "Yes!" he called after him brightly, "and if I get promoted to trainee manager by then - and yes, I WILL get promoted, I WILL, I WILL ... then maybe I'll be invited to Mr Zobrowski's Christmas party and get to see that Jacuzzi for myself!"
Steve's voice had cracked with emotion on his last word, and now his eyes grew slightly damp as his mind was arrested by the happy vision of the Bossman and himself in a Jacuzzi.
There was a screeching metallic whine and the megaphone was back: "Steve! What are you thinking, man! I want one hundred and ten percent from you today! Not 50. Not 75. One Hundred and Ten! Move!"
Steve instinctively moved towards his shelves, grumbling unhappily at his misfortune. It was all Mick's fault. He'd never get to see that Jacuzzi now. He began rearranging the cans in an attempt to calm his frustration, accidentally bumping a green and blue tin of goulash onto the floor, which promptly dented itself against the steel stand on the way down. Steve furtively glanced about, but was reassured to find that the incident had gone undetected by the man with the megaphone. He considered getting the broom himself and dealing with the can and that dirty spot in one go - but there was simply no time. The customers would be here any moment now. What was he to do? Steve swiftly pushed the damaged tin in under the shelf with his foot and set off with a purposeful look in the most convenient direction.
With a final word of, "Let's see those sales coming in today, people", Mr Zobrowski whined his megaphone off with a flourish. He checked his watch. Good. There was still time to get out of here before the rabble arrived. He made for the door and his spare BMW.
Faye woke up wondering … What if, she thought, free choice meant that it was possible for everybody to decide to go to the same place at exactly the same time? What would happen? Her speculative musings had something to do with a dream she'd just had about twelve million cars all driving out of their respective driveways and out into the streets simultaneously. In the dream, what had happened, was that all the cars immediately drove right back into their driveways and reported home that the streets were full. Later on in the dream the evening news had announced that all business had been halted due to overcrowding, whilst the cameras panned over completely deserted streets.
Faye had no time to consider the many implications of her unsettling dream. A fierce banging on the door had woken her up, and it now began again in earnest, destroying any hope of returning to sleep. The door shook furiously on its hinges, and finally she shouted, "Alright, I'm coming!"
On opening the door, Faye found a boy surely no older than fourteen, who thrust a leaflet into her hand before scuttling off. Evidently not considering it necessary to employ the carefully-considered roads which had so diligently been planned by their city council, this boy simply bashed his way through her flowers and shrubs and scaled the brick wall of her property. It wasn't long before Faye heard him banging away insistently at the house next door. Evidently his training had not extended to any form of doorbell etiquette, as he stood there simply slapping away at the door with his open palm and a grim determination.
Faye examined the leaflet:
The boy continued his steady rhythm. Faye shook her head and went inside. The Rupenzals were away for the week, but if he wanted to bang, let him bang. But as she made herself coffee in the kitchen, and as she glanced over the morning paper in the lounge, Faye found herself unable to ignore the steady, ceaseless throb emanating from the door of the house next door. On and on it went. She thought of how this poor boy's hand must surely be hurting by now. She thought of his red, shiny skin on wood. And so Faye went outside. "Hey, listen - ," she called out, "those people have gone away for a few days, they're not there!"
The boy finished beating the twelve-bar blues line with which he was busying himself before glaring at her sullenly for a second. He then promptly set about opening the door with a pair of pliers. Faye stood amazed as he disappeared into the house, only to emerge thirty seconds later at a steady jog, carrying the Rupenzals' black?and?white television set.
He never turned around. He never varied his pace. Smoothly he swept down the road and out of view. Faye went indoors to put another spoon of sugar in her coffee.
The stale gas escaping from the green and blue can of goulash sounded like a sigh. It wasn't used to being on its side. And it was so dark down there.
Steve was hanging listlessly about between the frozen foods and the cans. This was his domain and here he was king. On this particular morning, however, this prestige meant relatively little to him, as he had found precious few subjects wandering into his terrain. In fact, at the last count, none at all. Steve's furrowing brow shaped an arrowhead pointing to the thin line his mouth became. He thought and he thought. Why was no one shopping in his section? The sale had been on now for over three hours, and yet he had not been of service to a single customer, not one. He simply had to get to the bottom of this. Steve checked and rechecked the shelves. No, everything was in its proper place, all neatly marked and labelled.
Mick, accompanied by a contentious smile, ambled down the aisle. Steve was immediately on guard. He knew he should watch his step with this one. To be associated with Mick could prove a serious handicap when the time came for management to determine who was worth their proverbial salt in this business.
"Oy, Steve," said Mick, "I wonder why there's no one in the shop. Where are all the customers? It's really strange, don't you think?"
Steve turned his face away and busied himself rechecking his displays. After this morning's incident he was terrified that his potential promotion to trainee manager might be further jeopardised. He simply could not afford to give in to Mick's cajoling. No, he would not fall into that trap again. He had to keep on his toes. The Boss wanted one hundred and ten percent from him today, and that's what he'd get. Steve prudently ignored Mick's banter and turned his attention once more to the astonishing lack of support for his exhibition of canned foodstuffs.
Mick found Steve's behaviour odd, but not half as odd as that of the Plasma Supermarket on that particular Tuesday morn. This was supposed to be the busiest day of the year and yet no one had arrived. Where were the masses? It was already half past ten.
The storesmen and the floorsmen, the managers and the trainees, the cosmetic girls, the sweepers and the cleaners, the bakers and the butchers, the people at the tills - all looked slightly bewildered. Some were smiling. There was a lot of chatting. At first they had been bored, but as it carried on, as it continued, the silence of the store seemed to create a strange excitement, as voices echoed down the empty aisles.
Tea-break shifts traditionally began at quarter to eleven, and although the staff knew they weren't supposed to take a break today, the situation was getting somewhat ridiculous. They were all very aware of the time, and all trying to make up their own minds about whether or not to dare nip off for a quick cup and, for some of them, a cigarette. And so they watched the clock. All except Steve, who continued staring furtively at his price list. Perhaps some items have been overpriced, he thought to himself busily.
Faye had never been one for advertising. To her, all the vivid colours and screaming slogans were just so much noise. She was a determined believer in free will and resisted any attempt made to alter hers, and yet the dream from which she had awoken disturbed her. Who were all those people in the cars? she wondered.
Faye remained preoccupied with these and other thoughts as she dressed, ate breakfast, climbed into her car and drove down the street. It was only once she passed the boy trotting alongside the road, a black?and?white television set firmly in his grasp, that she realised where she was heading. Without thinking about it, she had left for the Plasma Supermarket.
The green and blue can of goulash began to leak a foamy liquid which announced its presence by a peculiar and rather unpleasant odour.
At exactly ten to eleven, the doors closed silently behind Faye as she walked into the Plasma Supermarket. She was greeted by the sight of a garishly garnished, enormously elaborate supermarket. There were ribbons everywhere, there were flags and there were posters. The place was spotless, the floor was shining. It was exactly what Faye had expected. It was what she had prepared herself for, except for the fact that where she had expected to see shoppers scattered around the store, where she had thought she might see uniformed staff attending to the displays, what she saw was - no one at all.
This sort of thing can have quite an effect on a person, and Faye stood breathless for a moment, hardly daring to move. "Hello?" she called out, "Is there anyone here?", her heart quivering ever so slightly. Strangely entranced, she still somehow felt compelled to move down the aisles of the shimmering and festive empty spaces. She heard footsteps in a far-off corner and made her tentative way towards them.
Steve was becoming very concerned indeed. Someone ... some ... infidel ... someone thoroughly undeserving of their employment, had stuck the wrong price tag on the pitted Israeli olives. He was quite sure that this must already have discouraged a great deal of clientèle, and Steve tried as best he could to hide the olives behind the cans of New Jersey maize. Furthermore, he suspected that there was something under the shelf which smelled just terrible. Steve was hoping that Mick might come around again so that he could deal with that can of goulash once and for all, which, he reasoned, must be the cause of the bad odour. But Mick was nowhere to be seen, and now a customer was approaching. Dear oh dear, everything was going horribly wrong! And on this day of all days - on the Tuesday Extravaganza at the Plasma Supermarket!
Faye stared at the bald, bespectacled man hovering defensively between the frozen and the canned food sections in his officious, clinically white uniform. He stared birdlike back at her, drawing his feet neatly together as she approached.
Faye ventured a tentative "Hello?", but was cut short after her first syllable:
When no reply was forthcoming, he continued unabated: "I have some lovely canned goods available for your perusal. Did Madam have anything particular in mind?"
Faye, feeling slightly numb, walked over to the cans.
"I'll just have a look around," she says.
"By all means, please take your time", says he.
Faye tried not to be distracted by the strange circumstances in which she found herself, but to think of what it was she really needed. She reminded herself that it could only have been due to a deliberate decision that she could have come to be here. So what had brought her here? Faye thought hard until she came up with something that worked. Yes, but of course! She had decided to visit her friend Jean who lived around the corner, and she had decided to come here first, to get … to get what? She wondered. Help was on the way.
"If Madam would permit me the pleasure of swaying Madam's judgement by presenting to Madam our fine range of quality cans. It might make it easier for Madam to reach a decision. On the other side of the stick, it might make things more difficult. You see, there's just so much from which to choose!" Steve threw in his well-rehearsed chuckle before continuing: "Yes, we have a lovely range of cans here. You'll find only the finest asparagus, snails, shrimp, fish, chicken stew, broccoli, peppermint sauce, glazed pork and pineapple rings in our quality cans."
Steve helpfully pointed out the various cans as he named them. It was clear that he was a professional and knew his shelves like few others could have. His stance was poised and at the ready. Ready to be at the customer's service where and whenever it was required of him, and even then some. A broad smile strained around his lips.
"Do you have any goulash?" asked Faye, desperately grasping at the first thought to meander across her already rattled brain.
("One Hundred and Ten Percent!" Steven murmured to himself.)
"Madam, we have caviar and oysters, we have cans of crab?meat, spinach, blue-cheese ... perhaps I could interest Madam in our smoked salmon ... No? How about the blueberries?"
"What about goulash? Do you have any?" asked Faye again.
Steven's eyes began to dart very quickly along the shelves.
"Madam - we have salads in cans, and we have fresh fruit in cans, we have guacamole, we have gammon."
"I'm not interested," said Faye, forcing a bold hold on her frangible senses. Steve was trembling. "We have spaghetti and we have soya sauce ... here you'll find veal flavoured by a touch of cumin and black peppercorns ..."
Faye began to notice a dull moistness growing in the area between Steve's upper lip and his nose.
"We have chestnuts, noodles, carrots, turnips, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, green peas, sweet peas, black peas, mixed peas - but it would appear, Madam, that we are completely ... quite completely … out of goulash!"
Steve was a fast worker. Some said he had the sharpest eyes in the business. He was a prized possession when it came to stocktaking, and it had been mooted that he could take one glance at a shelf and tell you exactly what was on it. So it had not taken him long to determine that there was, in fact, not a single can of goulash on the entire shelf. He might have been saved had not his clumsiness this morning damaged the only can of goulash on the shelf, and he would not - underline: not - sell a customer defective goods.
The knowledge of what he had done began to prove too much for him. Steve's vision blurred. The strain began to tell and he heard an eerie humming sound reverberating from the walls.
Faye also saw that there was no goulash to be had. She wanted to get out of this place as fast as humanely possible. Slightly disgruntled, and yet also buoyed by the affirmation of her conviction that discount sales could never satisfy, she thanked Steve briefly and left the Plasma Supermarket to see if her friend Jean was in.
By twelve?thirty the store had been bursting at the seams for well over an hour, and the staff had hardly had time to discuss their slow start since returning from their illegal tea break, as it required every effort to keep up with the pace. It was only after the last customer had grudgingly left the store at eight thirty?five that evening, when most of the staff had already gone home, that Mick, checking the floors for the very last time, stumbled over a crumpled figure lying inert between the frozen and the canned food sections. It was Steve, clutching a small, slightly dented, slightly damp can of goulash in his hands.
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