18thAugust 2008, 12pm, StokeNewington, Hackney,North London.
‘Sorry Jen, but your mother is a SCREAM!’
Glad someone thinks so. My best mate Jasmine Connelly and I are sitting in Lemon Monkey (my weekly splurge) laughing at the impertinence of my mother.
‘GO ahead, laugh Jas, but she is a walking talking nightmare!’ I groan mid laughter.
‘Seriously though hun, you don’t enjoy your job and you’re an intelligent, energetic young thing. Quit already!’
‘In all honesty, working in Sainsbury’s in Dalston is really all I desire from my life.’
‘Sarcasm is so becoming in a lady, Jen, SO becoming.’
‘I’ve already been through the torture of hunting for clerical jobs, but I began to find that law firms from on us thespians. Acting for the Royal Shakespeare Company is out of bounds according to the haughty emails and letters from some old biddy who is probably just the cleaner, because I haven’t been in some poncy drama school since the year dot.’
I breathe a sigh as I feel tension lifting off my shoulders. Forget massages, Jasmine would clean up if she went into the relaxation business.
‘Well, what’s the worst that could happen?’
I give her a dark look.
‘What?!’ she laughs.
‘Don’t you think it would be quicker to ask what’s the best that could happen and work our way from there?’
‘It can’t be that bad…O.K, take that back. I know how bad it is, but I mean…Jen, look on the bright side!’
‘O.K, here’s a riddle for you Jas: I am in a job that I am severely overqualified for; customers treat me as if I’m invisible or terminally stupid and I am in danger of dying from boredom. Add to that a sister who has a degree in getting the better of me ALWAYS, a mother who sucks up to said sister like a leech whilst throwing me disapproving looks and a dad, who, though he is very nice, is more distant than the distance between the two poles. Tell me, oh best friend of mine, where is the bright side?’
‘Point taken, my love. Regrettably, I have to get back to the museum or Jonathan will kill me.’
Jas and I exchange hugs and kisses with promises to call each other when both of us are free. As Jasmine races round the corner to catch the 106 back to the Hackney Museum, I imagine what life would be like without her, Jasmine and I met as first years at Queen Mary, University of London , when we were next door neighbours at Westfield. She was the streetwise historian, while I was the zany amateur dramatist with a teeny tiny Jane Austen obsession. We immediately clicked and I soon learnt vital survival tips and Jasmine soon learnt that, sometimes literary romances were just as fun as real ones. By our second year, when we decided to share a flat away from the university, we were the infamous inseparable duo. Jasmine Connelly and Jennifer Woods. The two musketeers.
4pm, Stamford Hill, Hackney, North London
My shift didn’t start until 6pm and I had ample time to do something that I felt made life that much more worthwhile.
My grandma, Martha, died from natural causes when I was in my third year at uni. It was a huge shock for me because I definitely felt the closest to her out of the whole family. What saddens me even more is that I was not even there when she died. I despised university and everything about it for a time after she died for taking me away when she obviously needed me the most. She never even got to see me graduate. She would have been so proud too. Laughed at by fate once again.
Herbert Collins had been my grandma’s best friend and partner in crime ever since I can remember, and they had been inseparable. I really liked Herbert as well, because he felt like the granddad I never had. Herbert and I shared, and still share, grief and memories about Grandma Martha.
To make up for not being there when she needed me the most, I help Herbert with errands and collecting groceries. Herbert is still really vivacious and outgoing, but he is not as agile as he used to be. Carrying heavy groceries from Sainsbury’s each time Herbert needs me gives me that sense of redemption and peace which I’m sure Grandma Martha would have wanted for me.
‘Herbert, it’s Jenny!’ I yell through the letterbox.
‘Hello dear! How’s my favourite granddaughter?’ Herbert kisses me on the cheek and I feel at home for the first time in a long time. He isn’t even biologically related to me, but he never makes me feel stupid or uncomfortable about myself. You can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends.
‘I guess you’ve come to help old Herbert make some mischief?’
‘No, sorry, Herb, I’ve got a bit of free time a work later so I thought you might need a bit of a stock up before my shift starts. I would normally bring it over after my shift but I’m working the late shift tonight and I don’t want to inconvenience you.’
‘Oh, sweetheart! I appreciate you taking time out of your busy life to help out an old friend, but you really don’t have to.’
Herbert is somehow under the impression that I am some sort of social butterfly with endless invitations to parties and other social engagements, when in reality, Jasmine has to beg me to come out every once in a while.
‘Herbert, Herbert, Herbert.’ I sigh.
‘If you really did not need me every time you said that, what would happen to you?’
‘I don’t know, duck, but I am mighty glad that I have you.’
Herbert scribbles down some items on notepaper and gives me a hug before I race out to get them and get back before my shift begins.
6.30pm, 18thAugust 2008, Dalston, Hackney,East London
So now you know the sort of life I lead as a bored, underachieving often lonely supermarket girl right? Wrong! Rule Number 2 in the forthcoming‘Checkout Girls for Dummies’: Expect the unexpected. And I broke that rule. Starting my six hour shift after handing Herbert his groceries and sitting for a cup of tea and a slice of Battenburg cake, I felt good. Well, as good as it is possible for me to feel, anyway. I had done my good deed, avoided an argument with my mother, a run in with my sister dearest and an absolute gem of a best friend in jasmine. What more could a girl ask for?
‘Jennifer, you must really stop daydreaming and make yourself useful! When I first employed you, you were never this lazy. Get up and go, young lady! Motivation! Come on, if there are no customers at the moment, there is some shopping that needs to be put back.’
One thing a girl doesn’t want to ask for: a demon boss from hell. Nadia Lightman is the checkout manager at Sainsbury’s Dalston but her demeanour is more Sergeant Major than Aunt Bessie. I shuffle my way out of the checkout area and head for the universally hated overflowing trolley.
‘Always on target, always ready to help!’ Sergeant Nadia recites her personal mantra as I head down aisle to replace a gorgeous looking chocolate cake.
‘Aargh!’ One minute I am walking past shelves of Mr Kipling’s apple pies and Cadbury’s Swiss Rolls and the next minute I am facing the grey, speckled tiling of the ceiling.
‘Jennifer! Seriously! You know that customer representatives are the face of this company and this store and you choose to embarrass yourself like this!’
Nadia tsks at me before turning her heels and marching off, leaving me to pick myself up amidst the curious stares and mutterings of nearby customers. Heart heavy, I begin to stack the shelves, wishing a hole would open up and swallow me.