12th November 2020
Part One. London. September 1992
The first time Chris met Richard, he was asked for a urine sample. From that moment, their lives began to follow a totally unexpected trajectory.
Richard was impressed by Chris’ ability to remain calm and unflustered, while Chris was relieved to find someone who not only shared his sense of humour, but seemingly surpassed it. The meeting, Chris punned, was a watershed; Richard was literally taking the piss.
Chris had just started working at Fordham Books & Tapes, the company name itself being just one of the many anomalies that he was to encounter. The shop hadn’t ordered any audio tapes for years and was aggressively but unsuccessfully trying to rid the shelves of those dust-gathering relics with ‘two-for-one’ sales, ‘three-for-a-fiver’ sales and so forth.
On his first day, after a brief form-filling introduction by one of the company secretaries, Chris was given the low down on how things really were by Angela, his department head. Her manner, like her clothes and general mien, was down-to-earth, homely (he didn’t want to say ‘frumpy’).
The store was likened to an eastern bloc country, an endless, impenetrable labyrinth whose sole purpose was to confuse and depress. Whatever book the customer wanted would be here, but the exact whereabouts was anybody’s guess. It would never be found, that was everybody’s experience.
Angela went on to joke that not only the Minotaur, but dodos and Japanese soldiers could be encountered amongst the endless miles of shelving. She rather over-did the analogy, Chris felt, but at least she was friendly. The other two men working there had formed their own select clique, and greeted him, one by a half-hearted, “All right ?”, the other with a somewhat begrudging nod of the head.
The first day was confused uncertainty, not being able to discern staff from customer and not being exactly sure what he was supposed to be doing. While Angela unpacked boxes, priced books, checked invoices, Ben and Simon sat and talked, read books and drank coffee. They explained it was pointless learning the names of new staff, as the turnover was so high, nobody could keep up.
Angela suggested he familiarise himself with the stock, so Chris walked around, wondering what use his Physics course would be in the Technical Department which covered such diverse subjects as ergonomics, DIY, Geography and concrete. A whole wall unit, shelf upon shelf, about concrete.
As he was trying to create the barest semblance of appearing to know what the job entailed, Chris saw a tall, dark-haired man approach Angela. He appeared to be asking for something, then began making a buzzing, humming sound, miming the use of the desired apparatus.
“Yes, I know what a Hoover is.”
“I didn’t want to imply that because you’re a woman, you would automatically be au fait with items of domestic usage.”
“Well, I don’t have it.”
“Have what ?”
Angela merely went back to work and the young man, obviously staff from a different department, moved over to speak with Ben or Simon. Chris had made a point of not learning their individual names.
Three times a day there was a collection from all the cash desks. Two members of staff received metal boxes where bank notes were deposited and brought them down to the basement office.
On the fifth morning of his new job, Chris was behind the till with Ben and Simon, it being Angela’s free day. At the approximate time, two staff appeared for collection and Chris recognised the man who had asked for the Hoover. He handed the box over which the man passed to his colleague, then consulted a clipboard, eyebrows furrowed.
“Ah, yes … you must be … Chris. Good morning, I’m Richard. Would you be so kind as to fill this ?” He handed Chris a specimen jar, then continued, “and I have heard all the jokes before: no you do not have to fill it up to the top, yes, you may take a wee while and so on. There’s a good chap, take it to the manager when you’re done. Problem ? You have been … I don’t believe it. You weren’t told, were you ? I really must have a word with Doris, that’s twice this month. Puts me in a somewhat delicate … Awfully sorry, but it’s company policy to carry out random drug checks. All in the contract. Don’t worry, it happens once, twice, at most.”
Just then the act was spoilt as Ben couldn’t contain his laughter.
“You should of seen your face. Looked like you were gonna shit yourself.”
“Then he could have given a shit sample,” added his sidekick.
“Now, now chaps, ladies present and all that, keep it clean. Sorry, Chris. You played along well. You’re a good sport.”
“You really had me there. I was worried because I’ve just been and didn’t think I could go again.”
“He got me with Arabic lessons,” said Simon. Richard elaborated,
“Yeah that was a good one. I pretended that the staff had to attend mandatory Arabic lessons once a week.”
“He was so convincing, giving it all, “Oh, it ain’t much, just a few phrases, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and counting and ‘no we do not stock it but would be happy to order it for you.’ Bastard.”
Just then Debbie, the poor young lady struggling with all the metal boxes, suggested that they get back to work.
“Why ?” asked Richard, “this is Fordham’s B and T. Nihil fiendo factus. Nothing can be done, roughly translated, the Fordham’s motto and you’d do well to learn it. How’s it working out, so far ?”
“Could be worse. I didn’t expect to be in Technical. Not what I studied.”
“Let me guess. Physical Education degree ?”
Chris was slightly shorter than Richard who was close to six foot, had large, blue eyes, a straight, slightly pointed nose, light brown hair and a very slight build.
“Very good. You’ve heard about the Friday drinks ? No, I’m serious now, right ?” He appealed to Debbie who, while being quite attractive and pleasant, didn’t seem the joking sort. She nodded, adding that Chris should come.
Just before Seven that evening, Chris found himself next to Richard in a local bar. They clinked their beer glasses.
“Didn’t think you’d be a beer drinker, “ said Chris, “thought you’d order a strawberry daiquiri.”
“I had one for lunch.” Richard introduced Chris to the staff that had turned up. Chris tried to catch Debbie’s eye, see if there was any possibility of a work romance, but the outlook wasn’t encouraging.
Richard gave some background, a mixture of fact and gossip and, Chris suspected, fabrication when the truth seemed to lack a certain bite, and he appreciated the effort.
At the moment, there were four inter-departmental romances going on. Ben in technical was seeing a girl called Geri in economics, a situation that Richard loved, but no one else seemed to notice. The pompous head of history was seeing the lovely new Spanish girl who was having a mock war with a young man in Education who was Catalan, who in turn was seeing a much older women in Sociology. Finally, Ed in sports was engaged to Nicola in General Fiction.
Chris and Richard spoke about work. Chris couldn’t believe how lax the shop was. An Italian girl who worked in children’s interjected that at Fordham’s, “You can do work or not do any work and it doesn’t matter.” Richard could only nod in agreement at the sage reflection.
Chris spoke about his first week. He gave his opinion of Angela, very nice, obviously gay (erroneous) and Ben and Simon, obviously idiots (irrefutable.) They all joined in with horror stories about customers.
“Have you noticed,” asked Ed, “that they all say, ‘I’m looking for a book,’ then shut up, as if I have to guess which one ?”
“I always say, ‘ you’re looking for a book ? You’ve come to the right place,’ and they laugh,” said Nicola.
“I always say ‘You’ve come to the wrong place,’ but they don’t laugh,” Richard responded. Chris already had a story:
“One customer looked all around and then asked, ‘Where are the books ?’ Have you seen my department ? Books everywhere, even hanging from the ceiling”
“So what did you say ?” a girl from drama asked.
“I said that I wasn’t altogether certain, but that they must be around here somewhere.”
Later, Richard and Chris learnt that they had two things in common. They were both physics students and they both loved a drink. They were the last of the staff to leave and then it was just to find an ATM and another pub.
The next day, the busy Saturday, they learnt another fact: they could both work with dreadful hangovers.
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