WORKING part-time in retail is, without doubt, one of the most insipid ways to make a living in modern Britain.
Your days are repetitive, you’re not engaged. You flog cheap tat to hard-working people, while the conglomerate in control reaps the profits and pays you a pittance in return. You repeat 128 times a day some variation of, “No sorry love, we haven’t got them in a five.” You start at 6am on Boxing Day.
Its saving graces are few and far between, and consist of simple matters — like gossiping in the staffroom about who’s shagging who, hiding in the toilet for an hour as an extra little break, and spotting somebody vaguely well-known shopping in your store.
And when you work in a department store in Speke, as I did for a few years, the latter is a semi-regular occurrence, whether it be some girl who played a smackhead in three episodes of Hollyoaks, a lad who appeared on an ITV2 holiday programme and got an STD, or a Premier League footballer. It’s kind of like Alma de Cuba on a weekend but with less burlesque dancers and more mannequins with missing limbs.
The first player I came across in the store was instantly recognisable above the screaming children and weary staff, thanks to his giant frame and Lego man haircut — big Brad Jones.
As he approached the counter to pay, I realised I didn’t really know how to act.
The last time I had actually met a Liverpool player was just prior to the FA Cup winners’ parade in 2006, when me and a few cousins blagged our way into the Paddock area beforehand. I got a pat on the back from Rafa Benítez, the excitement requiring me to have a good sit down and huff on an inhaler so I did not pass out, while my cousin refused to wash for a week after shaking Robbie Fowler’s hand.
I recognised that as an 18 year-old talking to a fella that hardly ever got a game for Liverpool, a similar reaction may be slightly over the top, but I still didn’t want to just blank him. So, I thanked him for playing in the derby at Wembley and said that the celebration for Andy Carroll’s winner was something I would never forget. He replied that he enjoyed it too and then I started bagging his stuff.
At this point a colleague came over and pushed a piece of scrap paper in front of him to sign for her son, at which point things began to go badly wrong. She picked up her spade and began digging our hole, “Yeah, to be honest, I wouldn’t have recognised you if Dan hadn’t. I don’t know anything about football. I’d recognise you if you were off Corrie or EastEnders, or one of the big footballers like Gerrard or Suárez.”
Jones developed a grimace as he scrawled his name down while being told he wasn’t successful enough a footballer to be recognisable. What had begun as a pleasant chit-chat was fast developing into a combined effort to inadvertently humiliate the man.
I passed him his receipt and he grabbed his bags and moved along, while I turned around to put away the hangers. As I did my colleague grabbed my arm and asked me, “What was his name again? I’ll have to remember when I get home with this.” I responded, “Brad Jones. You won’t know him, like. He’s the backup keeper for Liverpool. He never plays or anything. He’s fucking shite.”
Except big Brad Jones hadn’t moved along…
As I turned back around he was still stood about two yards behind me as his wife rummaged around in her handbag. His glare was fixed on the counter and did not shift as he waited patiently for her to move. There was a period of five to 10 seconds, which felt like an eternity in purgatory, where we both stewed in the knowledge that he had overheard me declaring he was “fucking shite”.
Brad Jones didn’t need this. Brad Jones came out on a lazy Wednesday afternoon for a bit of peace. Brad Jones only wanted to pick up a few bits for summer — nothing special: swim shorts, t-shirts and the like. Brad Jones didn’t need to have his life’s work slandered by some tit behind a till wearing a name badge and brown brogues that he could only afford because of his staff discount. I genuinely pitied him.
Then I remembered how much he was being paid to sit on his arse on the bench and didn’t really care any longer.
I served him once more, just after he left Liverpool, and asked if he’d found a new club yet. “No,” came the deadpan response. He glared down from his extra half a foot at me — the little divvy who had called him “shite” not so long ago and now had the (accidental) temerity to rub his unemployment in his face, too. Then the till broke and I had to get a manager.
After him there was José Enrique, who took an extended break from his Mario Kart Wii tournaments and visits to Knowsley’s meerkat population to stand on the shopfloor one dismally dull December evening perusing the Christmas trees with his girlfriend.
So, she’s asking me the basics, about sizing and material and what have you. “Well, it’s about 1.75m and then you’ve got to add the stand on,” I’m saying, and then I spot something quite unnerving. Enrique starts getting really handsy. As we’re having a humdrum gab about real vs plastic trees he’s started to grope her a little — nuzzling her neck, stroking her stomach, fondling her thighs, to a soundtrack of Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town on the store’s speakers.
I try to get things back on track by grabbing a display model, but he starts really getting into it now, his arms coming up from round her back like Mr bloody Tickle; enveloping her, caressing her in ways that belong on Sky Channels in the 900s, not a family-friendly shop floor.
I don’t know what to do. Do I look away or keep describing the specifications of this tree, watching on as this fella I spent the weekend screaming at for not stopping crosses gradually becomes more and more aroused?
Thankfully I’m saved from the world’s most awkward softcore porn by the scalliest of Speke-heads, who emerges from the other side of the display trees and bellows, “Do you two wanna gerra fuckin’ room? There’s kids in ’ere an’ that’s discustin’!”
They immediately stopped and left without the tree.
His ping-pong partner, Suso, was in a few months afterwards. After being taken aback by how staggeringly handsome he was (Seriously though. Christ. I know everyone went on about it all the bloody time, but I think my jaw actually dropped) me and a colleague spent the best part of 15 minutes trying to explain to him the difference between a regular-fitted sheet and a valance. To no avail.
— José enrique (@Jesanchez3) October 29, 2014
“Well, you see, this one goes under the mattress to cover the botto…” And as he looked at me with those big, brown, deep Hispanic eyes, struggling to understand my accent, utterly perplexed at multiple kinds of sheet existing, I felt that me and Suso were one and the same — two husks of young men completely incapable of taking care of themselves in the big wide grown-up world.
I wondered whether Suso had ever made a bed before. I thought about whether Suso’s mum also still did his washing for him. I imagined Suso struggling to cook himself anything beyond a frozen pizza. We were no longer multi-millionaire footballer and shop assistant — no longer superior and inferior, just two lads staring through each other, absolutely baffled by the world around us.
As he paid for both types of sheet, just to be on the safe side, I told him I thought he was a good player and asked if he would be getting much game time in the future. “Hopefully, mate. Hopefully,” he replied. I got home that night and read he’d been given to Milan for free.
Following my fleeting encounters with three of Liverpool’s finest squad players, I realised that as I’d grown up, I lost any unerring admiration I had for them and felt mainly a combination of apathy and disinterest upon bumping into them.
I saw them now as regular human beings instead of superheroes. Genuine people with feelings that can be hurt, sex drives that cannot be satiated, and beds that are left unmade. I felt disappointed, as though I’d kind of grown out of my wide-eyed enthusiasm for it all.
But then I remembered the night Luis Suárez came in.
Just to set the scene here — this was peak Suárez. This was 2014, a week or so before the Selhurst Park Incident (I’m sorry for bringing it back up. Please go to your happy places). This was the Suárez who did whatever he liked and nobody could do anything about it. The Suárez who scored every five minutes. The Suárez who every single one of us loved like a brother.
He approached the counter with his family. And I froze. Froze like a five-year old would have. As his wife flung about £200 worth of little girl’s headbands and plastic jewellery on the counter I was shaking pressing the till buttons. He had hold of his little boy behind the desk and I tried desperately to think of something to say but I couldn’t, my mind wouldn’t work.
The best I could probably have managed was, “Ay Luís… You’re dead good at footie aren’t yer?,” so instead I gave his wife her bags and him a nod as walked past me, which he reciprocated. A nod that was my melted brain’s way of saying “Mate, you’ve given me some of the best times of my life, now please win that bloody league.” Maybe if I’d actually said it he wouldn’t have ended up crying on the pitch a week later.
I hadn’t even spoken to him and I was rendered completely infantile — I felt the same giddy jubilation that I had when Benítez gave me a moment of his time all those years before.
I learnt few things from my time in retail, except that bargain hunters will literally push each other over to nab sweat-shop sewn knitwear if it’s going for half price. I hate waking up early on weekends, and £6.47 an hour is really not enough to live on.
But that sense of juvenile joy I felt after being in Luís Suárez’s presence made me realise that I remain a great big Liverpool mad man-child, and I’m okay with that.
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