By Alice Austin
Reading time: 4 mins
My first job was at Fat Face in Norwich. Neither before nor since have I experienced boredom as profound. My role was to stand in an area of the shop and wait for a customer to get within shouting distance of me, at which point I would bound up to them and ask ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
I did this because the managers told me to. I don’t know why they loathed me so aggressively, but I was only ever allowed to be the person that stood in the middle of the shop and verbally assault customers. I wasn’t allowed on the till and rarely allowed to man the changing rooms. Asking customers if I could help them was my sole duty and I was shit at it.
“Alice you look completely miserable.” The managers would say, which wasn’t true. In my memory I spent 95% of my time in there fake smiling and bounding up to people. There were, of course, moments when the desolation took over. Moments where, despite refraining from looking at the clock and thinking 2 hours had gone by, I realised it had only been 45 minutes. The managers always seemed to clock me right then; when the light went out in my eyes.
‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
Most of the time the customer would look embarrassed and say no and continue browsing. Sometimes the customer would be so affronted they would leave immediately. If I did get a response I would continue the conversation for as long as possible, hoping the managers would see me and realise I’m not a total waste of space.
I remember one cold February afternoon. I was hungover as usual (me and my friends were going through our beer pong phase), and I was in the first 20 minutes of a 4 hour shift. The time stretched before me like an endless grey tunnel. The light was nowhere in sight and there was nothing I could do to speed up the slog.
I noticed a middle-aged woman browsing the fleeces and bounded up to her. ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’
‘Oh, well I am looking for a new pair of shoes.’
Excellent. ‘We have these boots here, and we got these in just yesterday, they’re super nice.’
‘Yes they are, they are very nice. I’m looking for some wide sandals actually.’
The woman wore frumpy clothes, the kind that would have looked in place a decade ago, maybe even a decade before that. I noticed she was wearing open-toed sandals even though it was mid-February. She had a colossal bunion on the side of each foot which twisted her feet into unrecognisable knots. Her toe nails were yellow and seemingly deposited at random points in and around the end of her foot. One of them, a little one, curled grotesquely over its neighbour. Her feet were gross.
‘We have these sandals here,’ I said unflinching. ‘They’re on sale from last season.’
The woman picked them up to inspect them. She was weird, that much was clear, but she definitely wasn’t insane and that was enough for me to continue our conversation. My managers had to see that I could talk to customers, that I didn’t just spend all day rearranging fleeces and staring into the abyss.
‘Are the sandals for a special occasion?’
‘Oh well they’re just to cheer me up, really. I find it difficult to find shoes that fit and, well, I had some bad news recently, my daughter just got diagnosed with cervical cancer and…’ It was sad and I felt bad, but this wasn’t quite what I was going for when I asked if I could help.
I tried my best to be sympathetic while not encouraging the conversation at the same time. “I’m so sorry,” I said. It was clear this woman had no one to talk to. Tears sprung up in her eyes and spilled down her cheek.
At that moment I heard a voice in my left ear. “Erm Alice, can I have a word please?”