Eyes, that’s what Rob needed. Lots of extra pairs. All shapes and colors. Ears too. A clone or two would be even better. He could be at home the same time as being in work. Slackening his shoulder blades, stretching taut muscles in his neck. A crash on the couch, even half an hour …so little sleep the night before, and nothing to do with sex. A definite no-no, at least until the teething season’s over. He wishes. Tracy looking pale and gaunt didn’t help him on his way to work. Or the car. The engine making that awful whine when he turned the ignition. More stress, more bills.
Henry’s voice from the “control room,” a cubby hole behind the vegetable aisle, crackles through Rob’s earphones. “This is Captain Kirk calling Security. Mother Ship to base. Klingon Thompson’s heading your way, over.” Holding his arms rigid at his sides, Rob stares straight ahead, his face impassive. He’s not fooled for a minute by Henry’s “Klingon” warning or his all lads together cozy routine. Henry’s on his fat arse for most of the day while Rob’s on his feet. Taking up position at the front entrance is his least favorite duty. A gust of cold air blows on his face every single time the automatic door opens but being a Monday, and with the bad weather, shoppers have thinned since the Christmas rush. Late January snow on the pavement outside is partly frozen but slushy too.
When Lee-Ann Thompson comes into view, wire basket across her arm and dressed in her “drab ordinary housewife” clothes, he doesn’t show the slightest hint of recognition. “Blowing my cover,” was how she’d described the smile and friendly nod he’d given her when he was barely a week in the job. It’s a lot stricter here than his last stint for sure, the hours in the warehouse passing without seeing a living soul. And bored out of his tree but at least he could play his own kind of music then and not have to listen to a constant stream of schmaltzy crap played for pensioners and housewives. Sedation music. So no-one gets too excited buying the cornflakes. Lee-Ann gives him a coy glance and moves on, her rubber soles soundless on the tiled floor. She might be his own age, early thirties, he guesses. It’s hard to know with women like her, all make up and no ties, arriving into work in tight skirts and high heels, changing into “flats”, doing her best to look like a “drab ordinary housewife,” going about the business of shopping for her “average” family. Rob is sure she’d include Tracy in those categories, just because she’s housebound with a baby.
Despite himself, his eyes are drawn to where Lee-Ann strolls among the rails of sweaters and colour coded jackets. Handbags and shoes are stacked on shelves near the accessories and she sometimes fingers a scarf all casual like or spreads it across her shoulders, posing in front of one of the full length mirrors, as if seriously considering buying it. “I wouldn’t wear the tat they sell here if my life depended on it,” Rob’s often heard her say to Audrey, the red-head from the off-licence.
Every time he looks up at the huge clock face over the customer services desk, the hands barely seem to have stirred. When he moves away from the entrance doors and begins his tour of duty there’s no sign of Lee-Ann. He guesses she might be deep in coded conversation, pretending to buy wine or a bottle of sherry. The check-out ladies nod to him from their perch behind the tills. Sometimes, women on the check-outs take turns to work on the shop-floor when they aren’t busy and he sometimes helps them sort through the returns from the changing rooms or the jumbles of clothes knocked from the rails.
“Hey Rob, give us a hand,” Big Myra calls to him as he passes by Ladies’ Fashions. “Sure, I’ve got all the time in the world,” he says, picking up a blouse and a clothes hanger from Myra’s trolley.
“Some of the customers are pigs, eh,” she says, sorting the clothes by size. Myra moves her large arms as if in slow motion, an expert in stretching out a fifteen minute job to fill the guts of an hour. A study in time and no motion.
“Did you not hear? Her house got done yesterday in broad daylight. She’d only nipped to the shops and they were in and out by the time she came back. She’s in shock. All their wedding presents robbed. Myra purses her mouth until it’s a crumpled, thin line. “You’d wonder why we bother working when there’s nothing but thugs around every corner, waiting to pounce the minute our back’s turned.” Rob nods but says nothing. Myra’s worked in the store so long he thinks she must be institutionalised and no amount of robberies would shift her. She picks up the clothes he’s already re- hung and checks that the buttons are closed and the shoulders are straight.
Mid-morning comes at last. Rob removes his ear phones and heads into the tea-room for his break. The room is standard Formica and chrome, with scuffed lino and a window that faces out into a yard full of empty wooden pallets at the back of the store. There are still wisps of tinsel straggling from some of the notices, looking sad and tired. “Captain Henry Kirk”, sleeves rolled up and heavily perspiring despite the cold in the room, calls a “Hi Rob, catch any Romulans yet?” Rob shakes his head, playing along though he hasn’t a clue what time-warp Henry’s trapped in. “What do you make of this?” Henry asks, pointing to the newspaper spread out before him on the table. Take a look; it’s the best I’ve seen in a long while.”
“What is it?” Rob asks, pretending interest. He thinks better of plugging in the kettle until Henry finishes reading out the item. Henry reaches for his glasses and wipes the paper free of digestive biscuit crumbs. “According to this, some poor bastard’s been found up a mountain someplace out foreign, frozen to death and face down in the snow.”
“Nothing strange there, is there?” Rob replies, “People are discovered on mountains all the time, killing themselves for the glory of reaching the top.” Rob gives the kettle a shake, checking for water before he switches it on.
“No Rob my lad, you don’t understand,” Henry says, “He was found in a fancy designer suit and wearing new shoes, not a mark on them, nothing. Here, read it yourself if you don’t believe me. Frozen solid when they found him, can you believe it?”
Rob takes the paper from Henry’s outstretched hand and tucks it under his arm as the kettle begins to boil, piercing the air with its shrill whistle. He warms his mug and then pops in a teabag, leaving it to brew before finally taking a seat and shaking out the tabloid. There’s a picture of an ice-capped peak in Mallnitz, Austria, and a large headline “Dressed to Chill” about a designer body being found, some copy writer’s idea of a joke.
“Yeah, looks like it’s true alright,” Rob says, reading quickly through the couple of paragraphs under the photograph of the peak in Mallnitz. “Wonder how he got there? Probably flung from a plane like it says there somewhere. Drug barons most like. Sure what’s new?” He closes the page and folds the paper neatly, adding as an afterthought, “Maybe he’s a fallen angel or come from another planet, like Newton. Henry looks at him with a blank expression, “Who the hell’s Newton?”
“Forget it, it doesn’t matter,” Rob says. Jesus, what planet did Henry come from? Everyone knew who Newton was didn’t they?
“Who the hell’s Newton?” Henry asks again. “Is he of Newton and Ridley by any chance?” He looks rattled so Rob says, “It’s never too early to talk beer but if you’re not a Bowie fan, no sweat. It’s just some stupid film that’s all, The Man who Fell to Earth. About an alien coming to earth who never makes it home again.”
“Why’s that, is he killed by the Mafia or what?” Henry says, slabbing together two digestives and dunking them into his tea.
“No, he takes a mistress, becomes a drunk and soon forgets about his wife and child left behind on a dying planet,” Rob explains. He doesn’t think Henry would be interested in the finer points.
“Nothing new there either,” Henry says with a shrug. “There’s plenty would play away if they got the chance. Maybe that’s what happened to Newton here. Anyway, time for the Captain to step down from the bridge. I’m going for a cigarette.” He scrapes back his chair, leaving his cup on the table amid the coffee rings and crumbs. “The cleaners get well over the odds to do it,” he often says. As usual, Henry’s left the milk carton lid off, and as usual, when Rob pours milk into his own mug, he tightens it back on again. It’s the one thing that drives Tracy crazy so he’s well trained on that score. Rob sips at his tea and thinks about his day off on Wednesday, a psychological break which makes the week seem shorter. At least that’s what he’s telling himself. If it’s not too cold maybe they could go somewhere but deep down he knows that’s not going to happen. Most of the day will be spent catching up on sleep. He spreads out the newspaper on the table, his eyes again drawn to the caption about the grisly find. He wonders how long the man was lying there, his face buried in hard packed snow, his skin hardening by the hour, All that silence in a frozen world. And so random. Anything could happen and when least expected.
As he stirs two spoons of sugar into his tea, he remembers his conversation with Myra. It’s the broad daylight feature of the robbery that’s beginning to gnaw at him. He takes a larger gulp of the liquid than intended, the extra volume scalding the inside of his mouth. Even the sting of the burn can’t rid him of the image of a burglar breaking into his house. Tracy might be out at the shops but he doesn’t think so, the weather is cold and the paths are slippery. She’ll more than likely be at home innocently washing a pile of laundry or brushing the sweeper over the brown carpet in the living room, Monday being the day for hovering and washing. Maybe the break-in’s happening at this very moment while he’s here drinking tea and eating a stale digestive. Owen, sleeping through it all, or worse, woken up and crying while his father’s in a stupid department store miles away in the city center. A step up from his last Security job but hardly World Enterprises.
“You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” Lee-Ann says, coming into the room. He shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head. “Just needed a brew, that’s all.” Again, he sips at the tea; it’s cooler now and when he places the mug back on the table he wraps his hands around it.
“Hang-over eh?” Lee-Ann says. He says nothing. It’s been a while since he’s had a drinking session but he’s not going to tell her that. You’ll never guess the latest scam,” Lee-Ann continues, sliding her tall, skinny frame into the nearest chair. He’s never seen her take tea or coffee or any kind of food, at least not on his breaks anyway. Although she’s super slim, he has also noticed her super size breasts pushing against her jumper. He inclines his head in her direction, careful to keep his eyes on her face at all times.
“I just caught a very respectably dressed, middle-aged geezer with a very swanky accent switching that expensive toothpaste, you know the one for sensitive gums? Well, he swapped it into a cheaper packet. I wouldn’t have noticed him doing it only I decided to take a look down the toiletries aisle and there he was, his head darting around, real guilty like.”
“Maybe he wasn’t himself, people do strange things under pressure,” Rob says.
“No fear he put the cheap one into the expensive packet then, now that’s what I’d call distracted.” Lee-Ann rubs the backs of her long legs and flexes her shoulders. She takes out a shiny compact from her jacket pocket, clicks open the clasp and stares at her face, fluffing up her hair with her free hand, checking that her lipstick’s still on. Her lips are full, her teeth white and even. Lee-Ann catches him staring at her mouth and slips her tongue between her teeth, then peers into the mirror again, searching her eyes for smudged mascara or a stray eyelash. At last, she snaps the compact shut. She returns his stare and he quickly looks down, examining his fingernails.
“It’s pretty genius though isn’t it?” Rob says at last, “Who’d think of it? What’ll happen to him now? Did he get off with a warning?”
“Did he hell!” Lee-Ann shoots back, her eyes widening with outrage. I pretended to be a packer at the check-out and accidentally let the toothpaste fall out of the packet. The look on his face did the rest of the work. I never saw anyone as scared in all my life. Blabbing like a baby at his age. “Lee-Ann makes a grimace of disgust. Rob wants to say that she could have let him off with a warning, that times were tough if a man couldn’t afford toothpaste for sensitive gums. But that was Lee-Ann, cold as ice.
“Better get back,” he says, rising from the table, taking his mug to the sink, washing, rinsing, drying and then putting it back in its place in the cabinet.
“Who’s a good boy then?” Lee-Ann laughs a teasing laugh that follows him all the way out of the room.
“Kirk here,” Henry’s voice crackles as Rob begins yet another tour of the store. He’s eaten his sandwiches, corn beef and brown sauce, a one time favourite he’s now tiring of. The sandwiches might satisfy his hunger but his taste buds could do with a holiday.
“Who?” Rob says into his mouthpiece. He’s getting fed up with Henry’s Captain Kirk routine making out they’re best mates when the truth was, one false move and Rob would be out the door. Okay for Henry, in his cushy job, nothing to do but watch monitors and make up rosters. His family probably all grown up too so he can afford to be on the couch half the night watching re-runs on channels Rob’s never even heard of.
“That Newton gentleman in the designer suit and fancy shoes, that’s who,” Henry says.
“Okay, so why couldn’t he have been dumped from a plane,” Rob replies, annoyed by Henry’s familiarity with a character from a film he’s never heard of until a few hours ago. “Because his hat was still on, that’s why… over and out.” Henry’s self satisfied exit is a further irritant for Rob. The detail of the hat meant squat. So what? The guy could easily have replaced it when he landed in the snow, proving he probably wasn’t even dead when he was dumped.
When Rob passes the furniture section, he sees a couple he guesses to be in their late teens bounce onto the wide bed that boasts an orthopaedic mattress. The girl wears bright coloured socks that go all the way to her knees and he can see a white stripe of thigh as she turns into the boy for a quick kiss. Rob knows he’ll have to warn them off the bed if they go too far but thankfully the girl spots him and they bounce off again, laughing at each other, scrambling for their shoes.
He walks through the freezer part of the supermarket section adjacent to clothes and furniture. It’s part of his daily routine to check that the fridges are working or there’s nothing spilled on the floor that might bring a compensation claim. Cleaners give the store the once over early in the morning but the things people did, just for pushing out the boundaries, seeing how far they could go. Twisting the caps off soft drinks for one thing, taking quick swigs and putting the bottles back again, leaving the caps loose. Eating stock without paying for it is fairly common. The store night packers regularly find half eaten bars of chocolate and packets of biscuits at the backs of the shelves. Those culprits could hardly be accused of shop lifting. He wonders why Lee-Ann hasn’t thought of using a stomach pump to prove in-store eating.
“Be a presence, let people know they can’t get one over on you,” Henry told him on his first day, three months ago. So far so good, nothing major has happened on his shifts. He knows the local winos now and all he has to do is refuse them entry and make sure they didn’t loiter around the entrance. There are gangs of professional lifters too. Brazen as anything and hard-faced with it. Sometimes they slip the net but he’s nabbed a couple of convictions so earns his keep. He’s still not sorry to have been off work the week before when Lee-Ann caught a young woman with nappies under the apron of her pram, bragging about it to Audrey in the tea-room. Walking past the freezers loaded with frozen foods, he’s glad of his heavy jumper. At least he doesn’t have to re-stock this section and can’t imagine how the packers manage to keep moving, for all their thermal jackets. That man found up the mountain must have been dumped from a plane for sure though and definitely alive. He couldn’t have stood a chance in the cold, especially only wearing a designer suit. The thought of the freezing temperatures shutting down all his senses sends a chill. He’d heard hearing’s the last to go. And so weird about his shoes, not a mark on them. One cool dude alright, even if a dead one. Whatever he’d done must have pissed someone off.
Shoes. He’s noticed that a lot of the customers are wearing snow grips on their shoes when they come into the store, removing them at the entrance. Held over the toes and heels, they look just like rubber bands with a spiky grip on them to avoid slipping. Some bright spark came up with the idea, probably making a fortune now in all the bad weather. Rob wishes he’d thought of it, all those hours on night shifts with nothing to do. Such a simple idea too. Why couldn’t he have thought of it? Maybe he should get a pair for Tracy? The ice wouldn’t be such a problem then. At least there’d be a good chance she’d be out of the house if a burglar does decide to come calling. But he doesn’t know where to buy them and he hasn’t seen them anywhere on display in the store.
He takes up position once more at the entrance doors. A rush of school uniforms barge through, the after school pile-up of “acne and testosterone,” Lee-Ann calls it. Girls pretending to choose a deodorant, spraying it all over the aisle; boys heading towards the cold drinks and crisps on their way towards the rear exit which leads them into the main shopping mall. They’re a blur of faces. But to them he’s invisible, they’re not one bit intimidated by him. He probably looks like a joke to them, all togged out in heavy Security gear and earphones. Some are holding hands, the beginning of first love. His mind drifts to his heavily mortgaged three bedroom semi miles from the city. If only they’d rented first, they could walk away now. Without even a scuff mark.
“Mother ship to base, mother ship to base, do you read me … over.” Henry’s voice startles him. Rob would give anything to tell him where to go with his mother ship to base crap. But he clears his throat and says, “Yeah, I read you, over.”
“Those school kids, keep an eye on them, they’re swarming around the CDs. A pile of them went missing last week.”
“But they’re all tagged,” Rob argues. Nevertheless, he moves forward towards the music aisle. Sure enough, he sees a swarm of school uniforms so he decides to humour Henry and stand at the top of the aisle. Some of the girls give him the two finger salute and walk off. Rob wonders where “Klingon” Thompson is. Part of him wants the kids to stuff their pockets and get one over on her but chance would be a fine thing. Soon, they grow bored and move away, onto greener pastures in the arcade nearby.
Rob heads once to the entrance. He’s on the homestretch, the last hour. His gaze travels to the wire mat just inside the plate glass frontage of the automatic doors. Saturated since the weekend, it reminds him of an overflowing bathtub, oozing liquid each time a shopper squelches onto it. Tracy sometimes takes a bath in the middle of the afternoon, the water hot as she can bear it, gushing in, swirling like leaves around the scented soap petals or salts she sprinkles in. He thinks of the hot scented water, only it’s not Tracy’s face he’s seeing but Lee-Ann’s and it’s definitely not Tracy’s body that emerges in the steamy waters. He shakes the image away and leans against the wall. He can barely make out Henry’s “Mother ship to base, Klingon Thompson’s got a suspect, Mother ship to base, over…”
Across a stretch of cream and brown tiles he sees Lee-Ann heading in his direction. Her eyes are trained on the back of a young woman wheeling a buggy. He recognises her from earlier on in the afternoon when he retrieved the soother her toddler flung from his buggy in a fit of pre-sleep crankiness. But he knows the drill. Lee-Ann gives him the nod and moves back into the store. It’s down to Rob now to follow the suspect outside and apprehend her, take her to Henry’s office where the guards will be called before a full search and interrogation. The young woman steps outside, Rob tips her on the elbow. She turns around and he sees the dark circles under her eyes.
“I’ve reason to believe you have goods not paid for,” he says, pointing to the shopping tray under the buggy.
“But I’ve not bought anything,” she explains. “These are mine, I’ll show you.” Red-faced, she bends down and fumbles with the knot on a plastic bag. Rob sees the jar of nappy cream and the bottle of baby oil wedged underneath. She removes a pair of snowshoes from the bag and hands them to him. His ear phones begin to crackle but so faint the sound could be coming from a long way off. He weighs up his options. He could ask the young woman to come back into the store with him, get a pat on the back from Henry and a sly smile from Lee-Ann … Or say he must be mistaken? He looks up at the blank screen of the sky, turning over the plastic, pressing steel grips into the soft flesh of his palm.