During the nightshift at the supermarket, we have a forty-five-minute break, which we take whenever. We’re free to split it, to have a thirty-minute break, and save fifteen for when the store reopens, allowed outside. The smokers do this, save the last minutes so they can go out at seven a.m. and breath crisp air and smoke cancer sticks. The time they rescue is a little gift to themselves, the light at the end of the tunnel, because by then, the shift is pretty much done. The destined fifteen minutes motivates from dusk till dawn, the first hit of the cigarette what they crave. It’s a good small thing they free for themselves.
I take my forty-five-minute break in one go, in the canteen, with the rest of non-smokers, at five a.m. on the dot, not a millisecond later. Sam is my co-worker. We sit on a crappy leather couch comparing our meal deals and I talk shit, anything, trying to get conversation out of him. He is younger by a couple of years, but looks older, because he has a fully formed beard, which I am jealous of. I am close to thirty and barely have facial hair, a fact that embarrasses me. My lack of facial hair is correlated to the directionless life I lead since I left school at sixteen. My beard can’t find where to grow and fails to connect, instead sprouts in small rough patches, stubble, unable to join or find itself.
The thing is, I’ve fallen into the nightshift because I tired of what I was doing before, as a tree surgeon. That job got dangerous when I shocked a squirrel hibernating, which startled me, and I almost fell eight meters without a safety harness. I clung for my life to a flimsy branch, legs flailing like a drunken parachutist until I was saved by Nails. Nails was my tree surgeon boss, and everyone just calls him Nails because he’s tough as. Although, Nails put me in danger in the first place, so I’m not sure that counts. Nails believed part of the thrill of being a tree surgeon is doing it free solo, Alex Honnold style. Nails is unaware we weren’t climbing El Capitan but cutting elm trees in Sheffield suburbs.
When I switched jobs, I couldn’t believe people lived like this, awake during unsociable hours (as they are called), from ten at night till eight in the morning. My new manager, a timid small ginger lady called Sarah, has been doing the nightshift for eleven years. She is pale like a ghost, obviously, because for the past eleven years she’s barely gotten any sun. England barely ever gets sun, although that’s changing because last year we had thirty-eight degrees in July, which is outlandish, a bad joke. An island surrounded by water, anything over twenty-five degrees gets sticky and humid, yucky. We never win with the weather, not even at football, which we invented, by the way. Either it’s too cold and not enough sun or it’s too hot and bright. Things are never perfectly poised and balanced, unlike Phillipe Petit, the mad French artist who high-wire walked between the World Trade Centre eight times in 1974 (no safety harness). Nails never shut up about Philip Petite, so now I never shut up about him. It’s good to know people like Nails because he kind of saved my life, but also, he introduced me to Alex Honnold and Philip Petite, and in this way, my own life gained depth and character.
Sometimes I think about quitting, but what else would I do? I tell myself I’m going to look for another job, but the weekend comes and sleep depraved time bypasses and I’m at the next shift at ten at night, ready to do it all over again. Life goes on like this, incessantly, so, while I work hard, I try and find little things to keep me going, striving, living.
Night-shifters choose to work nights, as if we’re vampires. This connects us, complicit. It’s just us, roaming the empty aisles like spectral beings, and when light descends on earth and the store reopens, we disappear, letting real life walk in, the shoppers and day time sales assistants, which is just a fancy way of saying you work at Sainsbury’s. Night staff are like a secret crew or a cult, but not a freaky one, with their own language and jokes. A vital pack because without us, the world can’t function. We’re some of the worst paid but most essential workers. If it weren’t for us, where would the food in your cupboards and fridges be? Your livelihood depends on us. I like to imagine this way, highlight our importance. To think like this, thoughts like these, it’s just one way to endure.
It’s that time again anyway, break. I’m talking to Sam, and Neil is listening. Neil likes to talk Call of Duty 24/7 and is one of three family members who works at the Wadsley Bridge Superstore. He’s itching to talk about COD because he bounces on the sofa. It’s been minutes since he mentioned killstreak, respawn or quick scope. It must be a record and it’s killing him.
“I moved in with my partner,” Sam says. “We have a newborn.”
I’m overjoyed. This sudden statement is a landmark, the crossing of a threshold from shit talk to friendship.
“I suppose you’re going to get married soon?” I tease, our usual banter. I share a look with Neil, who eggs me on.
“Married?” Sam laughs. “You’re nuts. Never in a million years. Too official.”
Neil slaps his thigh. “Sam, some would say having a baby is a bigger commitment than getting married.”
Sam’s eyes widen. “Ha-ha! I guess!”
“Yes! Ha-ha!” Neil says.
“Ha-ha!” I add.
We share food, packets of crisps and sandwiches, making the best of what we have, maximizing every sec, our forty-five minutes ticking and slipping and running.
Thomas is British-Guatemalan and was born in Paraguay. He has lived in many countries: Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, Japan, Canada, England, and Spain. His fiction is in J Journal-New writing for Justice.
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