To say I’d become adrift in my thirties was an understatement. Imagine a small peddle-boat in the middle of a dirty pond in an abandoned theme park: that was me.
My friends and acquaintances had all acquired things like spouses, careers, and mortgages, while I remained in an arrested adolescence. I lived in a small, one-bedroom flat just around the corner from where I grew up and continued to work in the kind of minimum-wage retail jobs that I’d been working in since dropping out of university over a decade ago.
But I didn’t care, and in some strange way I was happy. There was a pleasing rhythm and routine to my life that I’d grown accustomed to. At school, the biggest criticism I received from teachers was that I was one of life’s ‘coasters’: not a small pad to place a beverage on, but a person who sailed through life without really committing to any effort or cause. And it was absolutely true. I understood on some level I’d probably die alone, skint, and unfulfilled, but I was fine with that outcome.
This was only reinforced on the odd occasions when meeting up with my old mates. They all looked tired, fed up, and bloated. Conversations would usually be about their kids, their debts, or their jobs. Even though I went out of my way not to hide my utter disinterest in their circumstances and responsibilities, they mistook my silence as counsel, so I went out of my way to avoid socialising with them, only relenting around birthdays and Christmas.
I’d worked at The Dosh Shop for about three years. I was proud of the fact that I’d never been promoted or moved anywhere within the hierarchical structure of the company during that time. My boss, a red-faced dumpling called Nige, respected my utter lack of ambition as it brought a stability to the operation. If nothing else, I was reliable.
It was a small shop, and aside from me and Nige, we had two other part-time staff members to round out the ‘team’. Pam, a lovely middle-aged woman who based her existence around bingo and nights out with the ‘girls’, and Steve, a teenage wrestling-fan with shoddy tattoos of heavy metal band logos and a direct line to a regular supply of banging weed.
The past few years of economic downturn had hit Hull hard, and the only businesses that seemed to be flourishing was the bookies, the off-license, and shops like ours. We were located on an estate in West Hull in a cluster of shops and takeaways backed onto to a carpark.
As the week/months/years trickled by, more and more businesses pulled down their shutters, never to pull them up again. Over the course of my three years at the Dosh Shop, I witnessed the shutting of the hairdressers, the Chinese takeaway, the second-hand DVD and game shop, the sarnie shop, and all the rest. When I first started working at The Dosh Shop, it was quite a vibrant area: groups of teenagers on bikes would be hanging about, eating chips and chatting shit; young mams would pushing prams around; pensioners making a day out of a visit to the charity shop followed by guzzling tea in the café. But as the shops closed and the shoppers left, the soul of the estate slowly evaporated.
It was all very sad.
‘It’s all very sad,’ Nige said.
Nige like to stand in the lobby of the shop, peering through the windows at the empty units. Increasingly glum for the past few weeks, his manner was making me anxious. Although not attached to the job as such, I was in no rush to find an alternative. Besides, all the other shops shutting around us meant that it would be difficult to find another similarly dull, yet easy, line of work.
It was like the spark was leaving Nige. Even though we were continuing to do a steady trade, it was impossible not to ignore the downturn. Nige prided himself on being a ‘personality’, and now he didn’t have the opportunity to do things like nip over to the hairdressers to swap some bags of coins and flirt with the receptionist, he was becoming more solemn.
When the first one opened, Nige was ecstatic.
It was very odd. One morning, Pam and I were opening-up the shop and there it was. Located on the corner, across the road opposite our shop. It looked like a discount store, like those scoop and weigh shops that had begun popping up on Holderness Road. But the shopfront didn’t display any logos or branding, beyond a large white sign that said: ‘SHOP’
The large window was tinted with a black vinyl strip covering the bottom half, so it was difficult to make out exactly what the set-up inside was, but from what I could see, it was just a load of large shelving units with a till at the back, a standard convenience store layout.
After Pam deactivated the alarm, she turned to look at me.
‘At any point over the last week, have you seen anyone go into that unit?’
I shook my head.
‘Any lights on? Any activity at all?’
I thought about it for a moment, but Pam was right – no sign any cars or vans coming or going. My flat was near work and I hadn’t noticed anything.
The door of the new shop swung open and a man stepped out. An average looking bloke, average build, average height. Everything about him was average. White, middle-aged, no facial hair or remarkable features. White trousers with a white polo shirt. White apron and baseball cap. White shoes. Much like the shop itself, he was utterly, utterly bland, a complete blank slate. He stood motionless, staring at us. Like he was in a trance.
‘What his problem?
‘Fuck knows Pam.’
We hung around for a while. The whole situation was off somehow.
‘Alright mate?’ I shouted, waving my hand. ‘Welcome to the estate.’
‘What’s his problem?’ I whispered to Pam.
‘Funny looking bugger.’
We let ourselves into the shop. Pam went and put the kettle on.
Steve was the first to go.
The SHOP had been open for a couple of weeks. We never saw anyone go in and out, staff or customers. It was open when we arrived at work and it was open when we locked up to go home.
Nige was worried about the new shop on the block. Standing in the lobby, he would spend hours staring at it through the window. The only change to the shop was a couple of simple white signs stuck across the window in a large, regular black font, no graphics or symbols: FOOD; SUPPLIES; DIY.
I enjoyed being on shift with Steve when Nige was on, because that meant most of the crappy jobs like inventory and repricing could be left to Steve and I could spend the day chatting to Nige about films and sports and stuff. But Nige was quiet. He viewed the arrival of the new shop as a portent, an omen of further retail misery yet to come.
‘I’ve got it,’ he announced, suddenly. And then he snapped his fingers.
The snap made me jump. I came from around the counter to join him in the lobby. Nige was a sweaty bloke and he overcompensated by dowsing himself in cheap spray-on deodorant. He smelled like decomposing fruit, tart and musty.
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s a front. They’re money-laundering. Got to be. Like chicken shops.’
‘Chicken shops. Fried chicken. Notice how there are so many about now? A lot of them are fronts for drug gangs to launder their money.’
‘It’s because people can’t get enough fried chicken Nige. I like fried chicken. And some of them do other stuff, like pizzas.’
Nige turned to look me in the eye.
‘Never buy pizza from a chicken shop, son.’
Steve emerged from the back, clipboard in hand. ‘Done the count boss. Can I go for me dinner?’
‘Of course,’ Nige said. ‘Get us some crisps please.’
‘Are you two staring at that shop again?’
‘Obviously,’ I said, shrugging.
‘Yer fucking mad, both of you. I’m off in.’
Steve’s announcement triggered something in Nige, and he was on it: ‘I’ve got an idea. We’ll set up the little camera we’ve got for mystery shopping.’
Mystery shopping was a mad scheme Nige had come up with a few months ago. He bought a tiny camera with an inbuilt mic which could be attached to a shirt button, wired up to a small recording device small enough to stash in a back pocket. The idea was to take a couple of items of our stock into a competitor’s store to check their prices and overall customer service. It was all the rage with Nige for about a month.
‘Don’t be fucking daft,’ Steve said, grabbing his coat.
‘Come on Steve, it’ll be a laugh,’ Nige pleaded.
‘Yer having a laugh,’ Steve said. ‘I’ll get you some crisps.’
Steve left the shop and went across to the unit. Me and Nige watched him intently. He turned around, clocked us watching at him, put on exaggerated show of creeping, like a cartoon character sneaking up on someone. When he got to the door, he ran his finger across his throat, tongue dangling from his mouth.
‘Twat,’ Nige muttered.
We could see the outline of Steve’s head and shoulders through the top of the window at first, but as he headed deeper into the shop it was difficult to make out what he was doing.
He was in there for ages.
‘Do you think I should go and check on him?’ I offered, and with that, he popped out of the front door. He was carrying a plain white bag.
‘What happened?’ Nige asked as soon as he got in.
‘Nowt,’ he said, reaching into the bag. He pulled something out and tossed it to Nige, who made a big show of catching it like a live grenade or something.
‘It’s just a shop Nige,’ Steve said.
Nige examined the package Steve had tossed over to him. It was bag of crisps. Plain white packaging, ‘SALT AND VINEGAR CRISPS’ in a small, black letters on the front. No barcode or nutritional information, no best-before date or anything like that. It looked like army rations.
We went to the small kitchen in the back. It was a box room with a sink, set of cupboards, and a small fridge built into the corner. A small Formica table with a couple of chairs against a wall, a corkboard with an Owl-themed calendar pinned to it on the wall opposite.
Steve emptied the contents of the carrier onto the table. It was all blank white packaging with literal descriptions of the items: INSTANT BEEF FLAVOUR NOODLES; BOURBON BISCUITS; CHERRY FLAVOUR SPARKLING BEVERAGE; CHOCOLATE BAR WITH CARAMEL, NOUGAT AND PEANUTS.
‘Just a cut-price convenience store,’ Steve said. ‘A really weird cut-price convenience store, but that’s what it is.’
‘I don’t get it,’ Nige said. ‘It’s like ‘Happy Shopper’ stuff but even more bland. I mean, how do they get away with not putting any information or dates on it?’
‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ Steve said, tearing the lid off the INSTANT BEEF FLAVOUR NOODLES.
He stuck his face in, sniffed, and then pulled out a small white packet with BEEF FLAVOURING stencilled on the side.
‘See? Just noodles.’
‘What’s it like inside the shop? What are the staff like?’ Nige asked.
‘White shelves, white stuff,’ Steve said, flipping the switch on the kettle. ‘White staff, white uniform. A white bloke.’
‘Mystery solved then,’ I said.
‘Solved?’ Nige’s face creased up like someone had let one off.
‘They offered me a job,’ Steve said, casually.
‘What? Yer fucking joking?’ Nige said.
‘Course I am,’ Steve said.
Two days later Steve handed in his notice. He was gone the day after. We saw him on his first day at the new job, wearing his white cap, apron, and uniform. He waved to us on his way in.
We never saw him again.
A week later another shop, a shop which was exactly the same as the one opposite, opened in the unit two doors down from the original.
Pam was lovely. Pam was great. She didn’t have a stake in the job; it was something she did, as she put it: ‘For pocket money.’
Stan, Pam’s husband, worked for the council and both her kids had left home, so Pam worked at The Dosh Shop and kept her wages for herself. After spending years as a housewife and looking after her kids, Pam was engaging in new hobbies and interests. Nights out with the ‘girls’ at bingo, swimming, a book-club.
She still had residual maternal instincts left over after her kids left home, so she was always bringing food in for me, Steve, and Nige. Mondays were the best, because it usually meant loads of leftover cakes or pies, or whatever was the outcome of her latest cookbook or fad.
A shift with Pam was something to look forward to, but circumstances had taken a turn recently. After 30 years of service, Stan was made redundant. Although he received a decent pay-off, both of her kids were also having issues, ones requiring financial assistance, so they were in a tight spot with money.
When Steve left, Pam offered to go full-time rather than get someone else in, which Nige was grateful for. Trade, which had been steadily dropping, started to plunge. Me and Pam were more than capable of running the shop together between us, but Nige came in most days anyway. Spending most of his time in the lobby, he intently watched the two identical shops. Me and Pam would take it turns to take him drinks or snacks, try and chat with him, bring him around a bit.
An uneasy atmosphere had descended on the whole Dosh Shop operation. It was getting to us all. One lunchtime, I found Pam blubbing in the back room. Having never been the most tactile of people, I gently placed my hand on her shoulder as a show of support.
‘It’ll be OK Pam, honestly,’ I said, not being honest.
‘Everything’s a mess. Pete – one of my lads – he’s in a bad way. Been gambling. A lot. Lost everything. And all the money Stan gave to him to save his business, his house… it’s all been blown down at the bookies.’
‘Shit Pam. That’s terrible.’
‘His wife and kids, they’ve had the bailiffs at the door. It’s all gone.’
I made Pam a cup of tea and sat with her for a few minutes. I wanted to say things that would comfort her, but nothing came to mind, so I thought it was best to keep my mouth shut.
The cakes and treats on Monday stopped being a thing shortly after that. Some of the light went out in Pam. It was awful. She was the nicest person I knew. All it took was a couple of runs of bad luck to completely fuck up her life. Ruined by circumstances completely beyond her control.
I was worried we were heading towards something. My own little bubble, my little own pocket universe of routine, was under threat. I’d spend my time behind the counter idly scrolling through the job pages online, but there was nothing out there other than care jobs, a role I couldn’t imagine myself doing on account that I could barely take care of myself.
I was reading through job ads one Wednesday when Pam announced: ‘I’m going to have to start shopping across there.’
‘Where? In the fucking Twilight Zone across the road?’
‘Watch your language.’
‘Yes. Across there. It sells cheap food. We know that much about it, she sighed. ‘Can’t be fussy anymore. Janet and the kids are moving in with us next week. While they get somewhere to live sorted.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘You shouldn’t be, I’m looking forward to having the kids around. It’ll give Stan something to do, stop him moping around the house all day.’
Nige was lurking in the lobby, as usual. Pam went and got her coat and went over to him.
He didn’t respond.
Nige was zoned out, arms folded, blankly gazing out the window at the two shops. Pam jabbed him in the ribs with her finger.
‘Pam!’ he yelped.
‘I’m off across the road. Do you want owt?’
Nige brought his hand up to his face, squeezed the bridge of his nose. ‘How long have I been stood here?’
‘Three days,’ I shouted from behind the counter.
Nige reached out, clutched Pam by her shoulders. ‘You’re going across there?’
‘Nige, let go of me or I’ll give you the biggest clout.’
‘Sorry Pam,’ he said, letting go and stepping back. ‘I don’t know what got into to me. Listen, is there any chance you could do me a favour?’
‘I know what you’re going to ask me, and the answer is no.’
‘Please Pam, it’ll only take a minute to set up the camera.’
‘I’m not wearing a wiretap to spy on a cut-price convenience shop.’
I appreciated Pam’s use of the term ‘wiretap’. For a second, I felt like I was in a film.
‘We’re not spying on them,’ Nige said. ‘We’re just keeping an eye on them. There’s a difference.’
Pam sighed. ‘I’ll be ten minutes.’
When Pam left the shop, Nige waited for a second and then followed her out, stood on the doorstep, took his phone out of his pocket. He waved at Pam and pretended to check his texts, moving his thumb up and down, making it obvious he was filming her.
Pam went over to the new second shop, two doors away from the original.
Nige came back into the shop, shaking his head: ‘Why couldn’t she have gone in the one opposite? I could have zoomed in close then.’
‘Nige, why don’t you just go in with her?’
Nige laughed. ‘Don’t be stupid.’
After a while, Pam returned with two full bags. She hoyed them into the back. Me and Nige scurried after her.
The bags were absolutely stuffed, and she was panting as she lifted them up onto the table.
Her face was flushed, but she was smiling. Happiest she had been in a long time. It was like she was high or something.
Nige shot me a look, arched an eyebrow. Pam stood there, beaming through her exertion.
‘They had everything I needed. And it was so cheap.’
‘Are you OK Pam?’ Nige asked.
‘Yes. I am. Going back there to do a big shop at the weekend. It’s just so cheap.’
I peered over at the carriers. Plain white boxes, cartons, and packets of various sizes and shapes poked out from inside the bags. I could make out some of the descriptions: BAKED BEANS IN TOMATO SAUCE; TINFOIL; PUFFED-WHEAT CEREAL WITH SUGAR-COATING; MARMALADE.
‘It’s a relief more than anything,’ she said. ‘This could be the answer.’
‘What are you saying Pam?’ Nige said. ‘Have you heard yourself?’
‘You have no fucking idea what it’s like,’ Pam snapped. Me and Nige jumped to attention like kids being scolded in a school assembly. Never heard Pam shout before. We were shocked, stunned. ‘Trying to feed a family… it’s difficult. Times are hard. I need all the solutions I can get, even little ones.’
Me and Nige looked at each other.
It followed the same pattern after that. Two days later, she handed in her notice and a couple of days later she was gone.
A new shop on the corner of the estate opened the following week.
Trade had dropped off to almost nothing. Nige didn’t bother hiring anyone else. We both turned up day after day, going through the routine of pretending to run a business. If Nige was stuck in a state of denial, I was more than happy to enable him so long as I was still getting paid. I figured that I could hang in as long as he did, I would get a pay-out when the axe dropped, then maybe look into going on Universal Credit after that. Something would turn up. It had to.
Nige was in a bad way, not looking after himself. In all the time I worked with him, I never found out much about his home life or circumstances outside of work other than he had a girlfriend he lived with. He didn’t have any kids, and if he wasn’t talking about work, he would just talk about the superficial things that make up around 90% of all human social discourse and discussion: the news, stuff on telly, and the odd bit of gossip. In a lot of ways, The Dosh Shop was a fundamental aspect of his identity. After inheriting the business from his dad when he was in his twenties, he managed to keep it independent and afloat for years in competition with the franchises like Cash Converters and Cash Express.
But now the estate was being swallowed up by these odd little shops, and Nige was flagging. He rarely shaved, and the dark circles around his eyes, the untucked shirts and creased trousers suggested that he was rolling out of bed and coming straight into work without bothering to look in the mirror.
He brought a fold-up chair to help him with his real job: watching the shops across the road.
‘Do you want a coffee Nige?’
‘I watched something on the telly last night. And now I’m beginning to understand.’
I braced myself for yet another incoherent rant.
‘It was a nature documentary. It was about the largest organism on earth. Do you know what the largest organism on Earth is?’
‘It’s a blue whale, right?’
‘No. You’re wrong. It’s a vast mycelium network, a huge fungus which cover nearly four-square acres of forest. All one huge connected organism. Basically, it terraformed a whole ecosystem into sustaining it. Thousands of years old, they reckon.’
‘I don’t understand what you’re getting at Nige. Are you saying these shops are giant mushrooms or something?’
Nige wilted. He was losing weight. It suited him, briefly, but he looked haggard now. I was concerned about him.
‘I’m not saying that.’ He put his head in his hands.
‘I’ll do it.’
Nige looked up. ‘Do what?’
‘I’ll do it Nige. I’ll wear the wire. I’ll go and do the mystery shop. In one of those mystery shops across the road.’
‘Are you sure? You don’t have to…’
I cut him off: ‘You’re wrong Nige. It’s something I have to do. I’ve been trying to get beyond it, just keep maintaining, but this whole set up is really fucking weird. Like off-the -hook, off-the-chain, Guy Fieri from Diners Drive Ins and Dives, shut-the-fucking front-door fucked up. I’m sorry I haven’t been more active in trying to figure this out Nige, but it activity like that goes against my own internal code. Getting involved in things, I mean.’
‘If this business is going tits up, I’m going to lose my job Nige.’
‘Steady on. No one said anything about closing down.’
‘Come off it, Nige. Anyway, all this shit has been getting to me too, y’know? I’ve been dropping by here the last couple of nights to scope it out. Curiosity more than anything. They’re always open Nige. The lights are always on, but no-one goes in or out. Ever. Doesn’t matter how early or how late. I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but something is definitely up. Let’s bust this shit wide open.’
Nige moved with a purpose and energy he hadn’t displayed in months. His fingers trembled as he fixed the camera to my top button. I tucked the wire down the front of my polo shirt, put a bit of tape on my chest to direct it towards my back. Nige attached the receiver to the wire, put it in my back pocket.
I nodded. Nige dashed into the back of the shop to check his laptop: ‘Check mic.’
‘One-two, one-two, testing, testing, one-two.’
‘Coming through loud and proud. It’s time.’
He followed me to the door and patted me on the shoulder: ‘Good luck.’
I stepped out of our shop and headed across the road, not bothering to look back or wave or anything. This was serious shit, no goofing around.
I made my way to the door, took a deep breath and let the ridiculousness of the situation sink in. I was about to step foot into a little, cut-price mini-market chain, and my heart was thudding like I was about to infiltrate the fortress of a super-villain. Catching sight of myself in the glass of the door, I laughed, shook my head and went in.
It was exactly what I expected. Floor-to-ceiling shelves. Some chest freezers. A row of fridges. All the spaces filled with blank white packets and boxes. I picked up a basket. White of course. I idly walked around, picked up random items and tossed them into my basket. Something about all the white surfaces and blank space started to get to my head. Like snow blindness. I couldn’t orientate myself, and moving into the shop, the brilliant and all-encompassing white became a void, disorientating me until I began to lose all sense of scale and perspective. Looking down, I couldn’t see my body: my legs, arms, and hands were gone. I was detached from everything. My sense of time evaporated until I was nothing.
Until the voice.
I was unaware of how long I was in the shop; five minutes or five millennia. But the voice, the huge, booming voice, brought me back to myself. I became rooted within my physical form again.
‘HOW CAN WE HELP YOU?’
And then, I was back in my body, in my reality, on the pavement outside the shop, carrier bag in hand. It took me a moment to get my bearings. I held my hand up to my face, examined it, gently touched my cheek, just to make sure my hand was real, that I was real.
I took a deep breath and headed back across the road to The Dosh Shop. Nige came flying from around the counter when I stepped through the door: eyes wild, mouth open. He grabbed my arm, shook me.
‘What happened? What the hell happened?’
I thought about it for a moment, tried to recall what I had just experienced. But it was no use. It was gone. All I had was a carrier bag full of items I couldn’t recall paying for. Fragments.
I had to go back.
Two days later, I handed in my notice and a couple of days later
Artwork by Gareth Sleightholme
Joe Hakim lives and works in Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. He is the author of the sci-fi/horror novel The Community and has also dabbled with spoken word, broadcasting, and theatre production with varying degrees of success.