Tina Plays the Generation Game
She's small, is Tina, child-sized, perched on her high stool. Her quick little fingers jerk the day forward frame by frame with a beep-beep-beep under the pulsing red beam of the bar-code scanner.
She's only seventeen years old, but steady, says her supervisor, reliable. She won't mind waiting to take her tea-break, waiting till the busy time's over. Waiting till the others all come back chattering, and she'll be sitting on her own in the great grey canteen and when her cup hits the saucer with a clatter she'll apologize silently to nobody at all.
It's Wednesday. She's playing the Generation Game with herself. … And on the conveyor belt today:
Cottage pie for one … half a cucumber … pint of whole milk …small pre-pack of Canadian cheddar … two apples … miniature pork pie … tin of Pedigree Chum (senior) with lamb
(There's rarely a cuddly toy.)
“That'll be five pound sixty-five. Have you got a Clubcard?”
Deep stumbling breaths. She looks up.
There's an old man fumbling with a purse, red face, thick white hair. He's mumbling. There's a queue behind, shuffle-feet tap-tapping. He's found a fiver, slid it out, but he can't open the change compartment, can't twist the catch against itself, can't see how it works.
Tina says can I help you, and the man says yes please, hands the purse over and she opens it up, gives it back. She says take your time, not looking at the scowls waiting their turn.
He's only got forty-three pence in coins, so Tina changes a tenner, packs his shopping in a bag. He says goodbye and thank you very much.
Tina's little fingers get busy again, fast-forwarding past the cross faces towards lunch-time.
Five-fifteen. The after-school queues have died away; the after-work crowd haven't arrived yet. Tina's got nobody waiting.
Packet of butter … two bananas … pad of writing paper
“One pound seventy-six pence please.”
He hands her a two-pound coin. “Turned up again like a bad penny.”
“Penny? More like sixty-five of 'em.”
“I wish. I hadn't enough … even when I got the catch undone.”
“Can you open that purse now?”
“Yes. Thank you. It's not actually mine, as you might have guessed. But I see how it works now. It's just these awkward old fingers ... and when there's a queue of women huffing and puffing at me I get flustered. Everything just seems to take twice as long.”
“Tell me about it. Just ignore 'em. However long it takes, I'm still gonna be here till clocking-off time. If their lives are that tight that an extra minute queuing's gonna mean the end of their world, well … I just feel sorry for 'em.”
“You're very wise for such a little thing.”
“No. I'm not. I'm thick as two short planks and I know it. But I sometimes think that's better'n being unkind. Here, gimme that bag. No need to lick yer fingers … just pull the corners like this.”
Thursday morning, and Tina feels like a ball-boy on the telly at Wimbledon, crouching on the sidelines, keeping her head down below the net while the ball of talk flies overhead. She sometimes picks up a stray shot, a “what's the code for Braeburns, anyone?”, “You got the bakery list, Tina?”
Today's worse than usual. It's the day when the A-level results come out, and they're serving over her, ninety miles an hour, talking through their noses. “Two-As-and-a-B … York … Birmingham … General Studies … dropped a grade … Daddy's buying me a car … clearing … fan-tas-tic …” and a mis-hit from a boy filling shelves, an “Utter crap. I'm going back to school for a year … retake. I've got to do something … imagine being stuck in a dead-end place like this for ever …”
And Tina's conveyor belt trundles on a lifetime of lives in front of her, measured in whisky and washing powder, tampons, tomatoes and Tabasco, Paracetamol and peanut butter, crunchy and smooth.
Smooth … like the shampoo-advert hair of the checkout girls, swinging free, blonde, streaked, teasing the office lads. Freely dropping long strands that twist around the belt mechanism, slowing, stopping its progress. Tina drags her own black frizz back tightly, twists it into a rubber band, longs for serum, spray, ceramic straighteners. She hates her coffee skin as well, freckles floating like Gold Blend granules. She tries to hide them, draws concealer round the edges of her lips to make them smaller.
Half-bottle of French Chardonnay … two rolls of Andrex … mixed salad … chicken in white wine sauce with rice … Pedigree Chum with liver and kidneys
Tina says Hi to her red-and-white man, and it's six pounds thirty-seven pence.
There's a lot of excitement today, he says to her, and how did she do? Did she pass, get the grades she wanted? And Tina explains that she didn't stay on into sixth-form, didn't pass her GCSEs, couldn't do A-levels. She's here for a job, she says, not to earn pocket money like the students do.
“And that's what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
“Haven't got much choice, have I? I wanted to go for nursing, but I can't get Maths.”
“You can't have given up already. What about an access course, evening classes?”
Look, it's her job and she's gotta do it, just got to, she says to him, and if she don't stop talkin' that old bat of a supervisor's gonna be over here tellin' her she's not moving 'em through quick enough. So she'll see him tomorrow, perhaps?
He tears the Andrex packet open, pulls off a few sheets, tucks them into her hand. She turns away to blow her nose, wipe her eyes.
Next morning she sees him in the queue, throws him a smile. He's looking crumpled, baggy. His face needs ironing like his shirt does.
“Hey, Tina, Tina, Clementina … we're going down Reflections tonight … celebrating, you know, for yesterday.” It's Chloe from the next checkout with the sleek fall of caramel hair. “D'you want to come?”
“No. I can't. Sorry. I'm doing something else.”
“Okay. I said I'd ask.”
Oven chips … six eggs … broccoli … Walls pork sausages … pint of whole milk … rhubarb yoghurt
“Is your name really Clementina?” He isn't looking at all well, bloodshot eyes, frown lines carving deep above his nose. “That's unusual.”
“Unusual? It's gross. Of all the things I can't forgive Mum, that's number one. Satsuma, they used to call me. Best thing about leavin' school was turning into Tina, and then some bitch saw it on my card in the office here and grassed me up.”
“And you're not going out with your friends?”
“They're not my friends. They're students. They don't even wanna know me. It'll be a set-up … or Chloe doing her charity thingie for the week. I can't go, anyway. It's nine pounds to get in, drinks, bus fares … and I haven't got the sorta clothes for clubbing. I need everything I earn, for rent, food, electric, launderette.”
“Don't you live at home?”
“Mum and Dad stayed together till I was old enough to look after meself. Any longer and they'd've killed each other. Soon's I left school Mum went up to Bradford with her bloke. Dad's down in London seeing a bit of life. He bought me a little telly, paid the licence. He didn't want me to be lonely.”
Tagliatelle carbonara … lettuce … Butcher's Choice tripe and liver … yellow dusters … Mr Sheen … Harpic
Saturday morning. Tina tells him it's four pound sixty-two, and the pasta's buy-one-get-one-free. He says he doesn't want to eat the same thing two days running.
“Put one in the freezer,” she says. “Get it out when you fancy a change for your tea. It'll only take ten minutes in the microwave.”
He says he doesn't have a microwave, never used one. That's funny, Tina says, it's the only thing she cooks with. It's on a chair in her room; she's got a basin too, of her own, doesn't have to go along the corridor to clean her teeth or do the washing up.
“I taught History for thirty-seven years,” he says. “I think it's turned me into a bit of a dinosaur. All this new technology is so complicated … microwaves, mobiles, texting.”
Microwaves aren't difficult, she tells him. If she can use one, anyone can, and she's been thinking about that Maths class idea, but wouldn't it be real scary, with loadsa people who know what they're talking about?
“Tina … Tina, think about it. Why would anyone sign up for a Maths class if they knew how to do maths? That's what's so great about it. A whole group of people who can't do it yet, but they all want to learn. You'd all be in exactly the same boat.”
“I hadn't thought about it like that.”
Sunday's Tina's day off. She only takes the one day because she's asked for extra shifts. She's saving up to get the train, go see her mum on her birthday. She'll have to take a present.
Monday, he comes in early. Tina's only just opened up her till and her hair's still sparkling with water droplets. Summer rain sheets the plate glass windows like milk. The store lights flicker on.
52 buffet sausage rolls … gala pie with egg … mini scotch eggs … orange squash … cherry tomatoes … six assorted bottles of sherry … large fruit cake … man-size Kleenex … dark green napkins
There's no bar-code on the fruit cake. Tina switches her light on, waits for the supervisor. She takes his credit card. Heavy drops smack the perspex roof.
“That's a lot of shopping, Mr. … Frobisher. You havin' a party?”
He doesn't speak, fiddles slick-cheeked with receipts in the ox-blood leather purse, looks into the red light above the till. He's standing still, but his mouth moves slackly.
“Yes. A party of sorts.”
“That's nice. … With your family? I'm sorry. That sounds dead nosy.”
“No, not at all. Some of my family are coming, and at least I'll get to see my little granddaughter, though it won't be much fun for her. She's nearly four … be starting school soon.”
“Don't you see her very much?”
“Not as often as I'd like. She doesn't like coming here. She's frightened of my dog.” He packed the cold items. Tina put the sherry bottles into a wine carrier. “But Buttons was there first. He's always been there for us, through the worst times. He's a comfort to me.”
“Can't you go and visit her instead sometimes … leave the dog at home … get a neighbour to walk him one day?”
“I suppose I can now.”
Tuesday, five-fifteen again, that empty time. There's a draught from the open door, warm washed air.
Pint of whole milk … small jar of Maxwell House … sliced wholemeal loaf … aspirin
“… I see life rather like that bar-code.” He's chatty today, in a quiet sort of way.
“You mean there's thousands of people just like us sitting on a shelf somewhere?”
“No, I don't mean that at all. We're all unique – yes, even you. I mean look at the lines on it.”
“Like a zebra crossing, with all the traffic nearly hitting us, but just stopping in time … and we've gotta find a safe way across?”
“A good thought, but I meant more the dark and light. See those stripes. Think of them as dark times and light times. Maybe if your bar code has more of the white, you've a happy life ahead, but some people have a lot of thick black lines to get through.”
“You're so interesting. I've never tried to think like that before. D'you mean that it's all set up and we can't change it?”
“Not necessarily, Tina. Sometimes I don't even think we know what the black and white times are. Sometimes we don't see them clearly until we look back. I mean it's all down to what you are inside you. If I look at that barcode there, I can't even see what sort of food it is.”
“Or what it's worth.”
“But you can read it, can't you, with your scanner, your red light.”
“So sometimes other people can see the white in it, when we think we're deep in the black? … I don't want to be nosy, but all those sausage rolls you bought yesterday … it wasn't for a party, was it? Not what I'd call a party?”
“You're very perceptive. No. It was for a gathering of people, friends and relations I've known a long time, remembering someone very dear. It felt horribly black, but maybe you're right, and there was light there, in the love they all felt, in the fact that they bothered to come, in an ending that wasn't as long-drawn-out and painful as it could have been.”
“I thought so.”
PG tips … bar of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut … two lamb cutlets … frozen peas with mint
Tina sits a small cuddly puppy on top of the shopping, watches it chug towards her. It hasn't got a bar-code, just a white label on its leg, “Surface wash only”.
It's just a little prezzie for your granddaughter, she tells him. She's had it for years, always loved dogs. Maybe if you give her a toy dog of her own, a not-so-scary one to play with, she might get used to the idea.
The veins on his nose turn Rudolph-red. Tina's worried, asks if he needs to sit down.
“No, no. I was just taken aback. With all that's happened, it's still the little kindnesses that undo me. I brought you something, too.” He takes some leaflets from his pocket. “I teach a local history course, picked these up at the college. Ring Melissa – here's her number – I've spoken to her about you. … She says you're entitled to free tuition; she'll help you with the forms. There's a Foundation Course in Health Studies … part-time … fit in with your shifts here … includes Maths … hope you don't mind.”
“Ta. I might even do it. Sometimes I come to work of a morning, don't say anything to anyone 'cept ‘sixty-five pence please,' and ‘thank you' till it's time to go home.”
“And I'm rattling round that great house like the last lottery ball in Guinevere. I come here to get away from the echoes, the top of a head over the back of a chair that isn't there, the rings on the dressing table where her perfume used to stand, where the dust hasn't fallen yet and filled the empty spaces.”
“Don't be. I expect I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Take care of yourself, Mr Frobisher.”
“Gerald… Goodbye, Tina.”
©2004 Alexandra Fox
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