HOW TO TAKE AN INVENTORY by Annalise Taylor (3rd place, Jul20)

Accuracy and efficiency are all. In order to be a successful Retail Inventory Associate you must be reliable and focused. Strong mental arithmetic will help you sail through the application process and before you know it, you will have been registered, with a navy polo shirt and name badge, and be awaiting notification of your first shift. It will be at an inconvenient time for most people, but this is what attracted you to the position in the first place. You think that you can find rapid change exhilarating and are sure you will enjoy the flexible hours and schedules.

Your first shift arrives. Fortunately, your mother is available to stay overnight with the children. The shift begins at 5pm so you need to leave home just after they return from school. They will be clingy but you will fob them off with ice cream and cartoons. You have been assured that so long as you are accurate and efficient as promised, you will be finished by 3am so you should be back before they get up. Once the count begins it must be completed. You cannot leave until it is finished. You will not fully appreciate the impact of those words until 3am the next day.

You arrive at the large supermarket’s back entrance and find the shift supervisor who issues you with a webbing holster and scanning gun. A more experienced Associate helps you put it on and explains how the scanner works. You have received training like everyone else but perhaps he feels the need to explain because you may just be old enough to be his mother. You are irritated but grudgingly relieved as the training hadn’t really sunk in.

‘No multi scans,’ the supervisor intones during the team briefing.

‘This is food not fashion,’ complains a young guy at the front. This boy wants the supervisor’s job – you can tell by the sharp lines shaven in his close-cut hair. He wants to trade in his polo for a real shirt with cuffs and a tie.

‘Yes Martin. But we are here on a recount and they want it thorough. No room for human error – that will not be a defence.They are looking to reduce their shrinkage and they need our inventory to do that. With all that in mind, welcome to our new Associates. Let’s have an accurate and efficient count. We all want to be in bed before sunrise.’

You head out onto the shop floor with the rest of the team and are relieved to be paired up with Martin. He knows what he’s doing and is surprisingly patient with you.

Your arms will soon adjust to the repeated movement of twisting a tin to locate the barcode, scanning the code, moving onto the next tin. You’ll be put on beans – entry level stuff. When you mis-hit a key Martin will help you delete your mistake. Intermittently the assistant supervisor, Holly, will download data from your handset to a central laptop. Like the rest of the staff she will appear to be twelve years old. Which is something your mother would say, but she genuinely looks like she should be in a school uniform, not dissimilar to the cheap, white shirt she has earnt the right to wear.

By midnight you will have had one fifteen minute toilet break. You will want to call your mum to check everything is alright but you won’t because she will be asleep in front of the telly. You have time for a wee, a drink of water and a Snickers bar from a vending machine out the back. You plan to pack sandwiches next time. You think of telling Gavin about all this; the annoying kids in charge, the arbitrary rules, the work that is mindless but not mindless enough, so you still need to concentrate on it. You will remember that Gavin is no longer home for you to share the day’s stories with. You will remember that if it wasn’t for Gavin, you wouldn’t need to be here. You would have tucked the kids in hours ago and be watching a documentary with a cup of tea and half a packet of biscuits. You would like to reduce the shrinkage in your life. You will consider taking an accurate and efficient inventory when your mind is your own.

When you return to the shop floor you will be sent back to Martin who has now moved onto the frozen vegetables. These are not the same as tins of beans, neatly stacked and regimented. These are freezing, floppy bags that need to be pushed to one side then scanned one packet at a time within the upright freezers.

With each bag of mixed veg that you pull forward to be scanned you retrieve another memory of your life with Gavin. Tentative lunches in the university canteen. Late night study sessions where nothing academic was achieved. Sheltering from the rain in a Yorkshire pub. You will consider at what point you realised that you had nothing in common except an appetite for excellent sex. You will hate your former self who said that she found Gavin’s derision of her academic work refreshingly honest. Activating the scanner’s red light and high-pitched tone you will recall weekends away to naff locations that you both approached with irony but left with fantasies of belonging,formed in front of estate agents’ windows.You will realise that these memories are without value in that their recollection subtracts from your sense of self-worth.

When the twelve year old supervisor admonishes you for your inaccurate scanning of frozen peas you will contain your rage. When she says, ‘‘So will you be fast and accurate for the rest of the night?’ you will try to forget that it is now 3am and your hands are frozen from clawing through bags of frozen vegetables and that you just want to go home.

You will push from your mind how much you hate her. And her piercings. And each of her poorly tattooed eyebrows that don’t look like eyebrows, or tattoos for that matter. You will not point out to her that you have written a thesis on women’s body image or that you have given birth. Twice. And that you are now compensating for the unexplained absence of a father in your children’s lives. You will not care if these thoughts make you ageist or whatever the opposite of intersectional is.

You will simply say, ‘Yes, I will be both fast and accurate.’ You will feel as if you have sold a significant portion of your soul for the minimum wage.

You will realise that the scanner only reads barcodes that are there in front of it. It does not register the ghosts of products that were once on these shelves. You will consider your mother who has never mentioned her disapproval of Gavin from day one. You will think of the soft skin of your son’s chubby hands. You will feel the reassuring weight of your daughter pressing into your lap as she hands you a book to read.

You will finish your shift. You will hand in your scanner for the final upload. You will wait for the night bus, too tired to be scared. You will get home and send your mum to bed. You will set your alarm for two hours’ time. You will close your eyes and you will dream of numbers.

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