It’s not great, our part of town.
This being the case, it’s also prime real estate.
That’s the way it works. The creative types move into the not-so-great parts of town because… well, they’re cheap. Then those creative types try to make them a little more suited to their tastes. So a few of them will start up coffee shops, galleries, ‘co-operative spaces’ and such. Then the area has a ‘vibe’, it’s cool.
Then the chains and investors catch on, buying up land, building new apartment complexes, pushing the creatives who didn’t get a foot in the door out, and leaving the locals who always lived there wondering what the hell all these rich folks are doing in their shit-hole area. And that’s ‘regeneration’.
Then it’s the wine bars, offices, architecture and design studios, avocados and such. Articles are written in trendy magazines about the new openings and the whole place looks different. They keep the graffiti up and stick nice lights under the old railway arches that used to be crack-dens, and the artists complain about the lights despite the fact that they never tried smoking crack down there. Never smoked crack at all. Fucking artists.
Anyway, this is what was going to happen in our part of town.
We weren’t there yet though. We’d had a few mini-supermarket branches move in on the high street. They were already competing for the narrative. Was this going to be an ‘upmarket’ high street for the rich folk or a ‘cheap and cheerful’ area for the trendy folk?
It was neither for me and most of the other locals. Everyone shopped at Blessed’s. Blessed’s was great; run by an old middle eastern family that’d been there for years, I forget where they’re from, somewhere round the middle I guess. Anyway they had everything you needed, and all the stuff you didn’t know you needed. And to top it all off, a good, friendly personal service.
You could kind of judge the folks walking up and down the high street by which shop they entered, upmarket, downmarket or Blessed’s. So it was sad to see it when Mustafa, the owner, closed the door one Tuesday evening and put up a sign saying:
‘CLOSED FOR REFURBISHMENT’
‘That’s a risk right there’, I thought. They didn’t need refurbished, it was great. All that’s going to do is push people through the doors of the other stores, where they’ll get hooked on branded products and subliminal marketing and pricing structures; there’s a whole science to that stuff designed to hook you on and reel you in.
Well it happened anyway and a week later Blessed’s had a nice new backlit sign up and opened its doors once again.
I’ll admit it looked nice. They had slick new shelves and fridges, and these nice wooden crates for the fruit, veg and bakery that had a kind of farmer’s market thing going on. They’d gotten rid of the old checkouts, with just the one staffed stand for to alcohol and tobacco products left.
Then there was this new self-checkout machine near the exit.
Mustafa nodded at the machine as I stood there, observing the changes.
“What about Avesta?” I said.
Avesta was a lovely young woman, his niece I think. She used to work the checkout and was always chatty and helpful in the most endearing way. Beautiful too.
“She’s studying medicine now.”
“Oh… that’s good!”
That was good. I mean I’d miss Avesta but there’s more to life than attending a checkout, and if that’s what she wanted to to do then good for her.
So that was it. The new Blessed’s, and despite my initial concerns it was good.
It was about three weeks later that I noticed it.
What I failed to mention earlier was that part of what gives areas like this their local character is their local characters, and Ms Pendergast or ‘Ms P’, was one such character. She was friendly enough but something was a little off with her, upstairs that is.
So I’m in the store at the bakery at about 11am and Ms P is there at the self checkouts.
“No. No I won’t do that.”
She was talking to the machine.
“Stop that, stop that right now.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself a little. Those machines were infuriating at the best of times, let alone these less sophisticated models. I looked over to Mustafa and he was there at the desk with his arms folded, shaking his head slightly, seeming to wonder if he should step in.
“Well when… When. WHEN?!”
“Okay Ms P, this way, I’ll scan them through over here for you.”
Mustafa ushered her over to his manual register, Ms P moved but kept glancing back at the machine.
“But the… why is it?”
He scanned through her few items and took the money from her, placing the change in her hand and helping her out the door with the little trolley she pushed around. She glared at the machine once more before heading off down the road.
I took my few items straight to Mustafa’s manual register. We shared a look as if to say ‘Yup, that’s Ms P’. But neither of us said it.
It wasn’t until later that evening as I lay in bed thinking about the incident with Ms P that I got to wondering:
Who was she talking to?
I’ve had little conversations with self-checkouts before, but it’s normally because it’s saying something like:
“Please place the bag in the bagging area”
Or something like that.
And I’m saying:
“It’s in the bagging area you idiot!”
Or something like that.
But the Blessed’s machines didn’t talk at all. They weren’t all that good. They just displayed a few instructions on a touch pad and that was it.
Ms P wasn’t reading anything, she hadn’t even scanned an item. It was sad, she must’ve been quite disturbed. Poor woman. I’d try and help her out next time rather than laugh at her.
But there wasn’t a next time.
A few days later I was at the store once again, same as usual. Mustafa was there at the till and I took my few items up to him.
“Did you hear about Ms P?”
“She passed away here last week.”
“Yeah right in front of the store.”
“Hit by a vehicle.”
“Oh my god… Well was it speeding?”
“I don’t think so she just ran at it.”
“Yeah. Sprinted out the store and into the road”
“Yeah I know… I can show you if you really want. It didn’t get it all but…”
I didn’t understand. I mean, I could understand that Ms P could get hit by a vehicle, that much makes sense, tragic as it is. But sprinted? Ms P pushed a little cart around that pretty much held her up. She moved at the pace of a snail and must’ve been around 90 years old. So yeah, horrible as it was I needed to see this.
Mustafa ushered me round to the side of the register where he had his little laptop to watch his shows and to video call those relatives back in that middle eastern country I couldn’t put my finger on. He brought up a video file containing the stores security footage.
There she was, Ms P. She’s at the checkout machine again, her trolley there next to her. She’s staring into the scanning table. Mustafa skips it forward, she’s there for three minutes.
“Did she say anything?”
“Not a word… look.”
There’s Mustafa there, he’s saying something from behind the till, asking if she’s okay probably. He moves round the till to approach her.
As fast as anything, Ms P barges Mustafa out of the way, knocking him backwards into the front of the counter, then she bolts out the door like an athlete.
At the very top of the screen you can just see the bottom of the car connect with her. The base of her shadow landing slumped at the top of the frame as people gathered around.
“Oh my god.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah I was fine, just so sad you know…”
And that was it. The last we saw of Ms P.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Ms P in those last moments. What did she see there? Where did that energy come from?
Well the next day I went down to Blessed’s again. I knew I was being crazy but I just had to test something, just to be sure.
I waited across the street for a while until the customers to died down and emptied out. Eventually Mustafa went to go round the back to start placing stock, I knew he’d notice me but I wanted a little space to myself.
I went in.
Mustafa was up one of the aisles and looked along to me. I gave him a wave and pretended to look at some stuff so he wouldn’t get weirded out an disturb me.
I moved towards the machine.
The flat scanning bed had a glass panel in the top, underneath it there was this glowing red light.
I inched closer. There was a chamber in there, with this spinning prism inside that reflected the red beam. It was hypnotic and beautiful, hard to look away.
The walls of my vision began to close in.
That prism was spinning so fast.
That red beam.
The space around me darkened.
And that prism, spinning so fast.
I felt I was in that chamber.
With the prism.
That deep red light reflecting.
Through the prism.
That voice, emanating from all around…
“PLEASE PLACE YOUR ITEMS IN THE BAGGING AREA.”
I was so small. I tried to call out…
“But I don’t have any items!”
Then again, that voice…
“PLACE YOUR ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA.”
“What item!? I don’t have any!”
“PLACE ITEM IN BAGGING AREA.”
The light grew redder still.
Burning through me.
Through the prism.
The chamber closed in.
The prism grew nearer.
I had no items.
There was nowhere else to look.
No space to move.
No items scanned.
And the prism.
“PUT YOUR HEAD IN THE BAG.”
Then the light was gone.
I was moving.
My legs were running, or kicking. I’m not sure.
The air around was becoming tighter, it was closing in.
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t breathe!
Then a vague light.
There was rice.
So much rice.
I was on the floor.
Something was slapping my face.
“Hey! Wake up… wake up!”
It was Mustafa. He was slapping my face.
I was in the back of Blessed’s, by the dry food products. My head and neck hurt. I couldn’t see straight.
“You went crazy my friend. I had to take you down before you hurt yourself. We need to get you to the hospital.”
“No… I’ll be okay. I just need to sit down for a minute.”
Mustafa sat me down with some water.
He brought his laptop with him.
He placed it on my lap.
There was the security footage once again. There I was at the checkout, staring into the scanner. After about a minute I took one of the bags from the side and placed it over my head, tightening it around my neck before running straight into the door.
Mustafa had seen me moments before, He’d closed the door so I couldn’t run out then choked me out in a headlock before dragging me over to the dry foods and slapping me awake.
“Oh my god.”
“Yes my friend. That checkout has to go.”
He wandered behind the counter, returning with an axe and a baseball bat.
He handed me the axe.
And flipped the store sign.
‘CLOSED FOR REFURBISHMENT’