Six Hours in Dragonville // Natasha Calder

An account of shift-work in the retail sector by Natasha Calder. Natasha is one half of Calder Szewczak, whose book, The Offset, was released in 2021 by Angry Robot. Her solo-authored debut, Whether Violent or Natural, was published in 2023 by Bloomsbury & The Overlook Press. A British & Greek citizen with South African heritage, Natasha is currently based in the UK.




I’m awake before the alarm goes. It’s always like this on a Friday, no matter how worn out I am when I turn in for the night. I’ve been in bed for six hours and can’t have been asleep for even half that time.

   At 05:00, it’s still dark out, the light edging the blinds not the first flush of day but the harsh white of the street lamp that stands sentinel at the window. It’s just enough to see by as I lumber across the room to pick up my towel from its hook.

   Not a shift passes when I don’t consider skipping the shower, allowing myself an extra half-an-hour in bed. But then I’ll clock a colleague who definitely didn’t or couldn’t budget time to wash—there’s one lad I can smell three aisles off—and think again.

   It’s Baltic this morning, so I layer up with thermals and then pull on my uniform: a long-sleeved polo shirt and a matching jacket, both in royal blue with red trim, the company logo picked out in white stitching on the front. Tesco. I’ve been pulling shifts at the Dragonville branch for a few months now.

   In the hall, I rifle through the dish on the table, pick out my keys, employee card, login card, and slip them all into the breast pocket of my jacket. I dig my gloves out of a drawer and put them on, wiggling in my fingers and straightening up the rubber grips. I did my first shift without them and came away dripping blood, cardboard cuts slashed across the backs of my hands, around my cuticles, in the webbing between finger and thumb. I’ve not forgotten the gloves since. Now the grips are wearing thin and I’ve also had to snip off the top of the right index finger to operate the touchscreen of my scanner; the fabric’s frayed where the scissors cut through, rolling into a sad fold that hangs down around my knuckle like a goitre.

   I check the time on my phone. 

   Six minutes. 

   I put on my walking boots and draw the laces tight. The lads in the warehouse get issued with proper footwear, steel toe caps and everything. But me and the ladies who work fulfilling online orders in Dot-Com get nothing, even though we might be tramping about four or five miles a shift. This seems an oversight, especially when compared to the sort of care afforded to most office workers. I distinctly recall having to complete annual ergonomic assessments back when I worked in digital marketing (and, after, in cybersecurity). Now here I am, in a manual labour role, and no one’s breathed a word about arch and ankle support, discussed what sort of treads are best for polished floors, or mentioned how a thick sole is beneficial for insulation. Fortunately, I hike enough to have a pair of decent boots. Like everything I own of genuine quality, they were a gift.

   Two minutes. I wait them out, telling myself that maybe I won’t go in after all. Technically, I have to give a week’s notice, but I wouldn’t be the first to quit by going AWOL. It’s a tempting thought—I could just pack it in, go back to bed. Instead, I turn the key in the lock and slip out of the house into what passes for morning, a scattering of stars still visible beyond the halo of every street lamp.

   The car park’s nearly empty when I arrive. The few vehicles parked up front are lit from within, glowing boxes in the blue-black of the morning, engines idling for the heat. Through the windscreens, I glimpse various of my colleagues staring at their phones and gnawing their fingernails, occasionally glancing up at the still-shuttered main entrance. I could wait here, but it’s cold so I keep walking, trekking the perimeter until I reach the other end of the building. Two lads I know to see but not talk to are milling about the staff entrance, smoking rollies and comparing notes on the night before. Who went where and when. What they drank. How much. I sidle past them, through the door and into the supermarket.

   It’s bright, floodlights glaring off the gleaming floor, and the store radio’s already on, playing the same inane mix I hear every shift. It’s not all bad: there are a few tracks that reliably make everyone break out into song—Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, Oasis’s ‘Half the World Away’—and we also get a couple of reprieves. On Saturday mornings, there’s a quiet hour from ten to eleven, then on Sundays there’s a glorious stretch before the shop opens when we’re allowed to bring in earbuds and listen to what we like. This isn’t without its downsides, however, because this is also when the night team sets up speakers all over the supermarket, creating a localised soundscape in every aisle. In wine, beer and spirits, it’s sports commentary. In fruit and veg, it’s emo classics; Evanescence blasting out from a beast of a speaker propped up by the bananas. My ears bleed every time I have to pick a bunch. But the shift goes much faster in the company of a podcast or audiobook, and the store radio’s greatly improved by being more or less drowned out.

   Having walked the entire length of the shop to get to the staff entrance, I walk the same distance back again to clock in. I glance down the aisles as I go, trying to suss what’s changed. There are a few empty shelves and new promotional signs going up, which probably means several core products won’t be where I expect. Callooh, callay.

   At the back of the shop, I step through a swing door and into the warehouse, passing the cleaning cupboard. This is a frigid cell that houses a few mops, buckets, and the gargantuan walkalong scrubber-dryers. It also boasts an open drain and the smell’s something else: sewage, cloying and acrid. Every week, the intensity of it takes me aback, the inescapability as it infuses my hair and clothes. Come Monday, it’ll still be on me.

   Burying my nose in my sleeve, I hurry through to the staff area. Several of my colleagues are already queueing. I head for the back of the line, listening as the others grumble. As is so often the case, the main point of contention is overtime—who was asked to stop back and when, the way they were asked, the subsequent arguments about contracted hours and childcare—but there’s also some chat about a customer from the day before who wanted to know where the English tomatoes were rather than “all this foreign rubbish”.

   The queue lengthens and a few shouts of “happy Friday” go around—these from full-timers who only work the weekdays. When I joined, it took me a while to get everyone sorted. They’re all much of a type: no-nonsense, sturdy blonde women who’d rather come in with laryngitis than “go on the sick”. 

   Suddenly, the queue starts to move. No bell’s been rung, no alarm sounded. It’s simply time: three minutes to the hour. Not five minutes before and certainly not five minutes after.

When it’s my turn, I take the employee card from my pocket, a laminated square of plastic that’s starting to warp and peel apart from where I’ve accidentally washed it a couple of times. I turn it the right way around, slide the barcode through the reader. The machine beeps, the light flashes green.


   I slot the card away and pace after my colleagues through the warehouse, following the exposed pipes that run the back wall. I pass towering roll cages, plastic pallets, stacks of cardboard boxes packed with crisps, chocolates, sweets, mushrooms, celery, orange juice cartons and long-life milk. There’s a fenced-off section rammed with alcohol, the glass bottles yet to be tagged. There are sliding metal doors that lead through to the fridges. These stink nearly as much as the cleaning cupboard. The cumulative effect of souring dairy stains, perhaps.

   Dot-Com—the command centre for every online delivery and click-and-collect order—is tucked away at the far end. It’s not much: a bank of scanners, a single workstation with a printer that spits out labels. A rack of trolleys has been prepared for us, six blue drawers slotted into the metal runners of each. On the other side of the room, a couple of lads are milling about. When we bring the full trolleys back, they pull out the drawers, stack them on gurneys and wheel them out, either to be loaded into the back of a delivery van or set aside for a customer.

   Manning the workstation today is Debbie. She’s sporting a tallboy of Red Bull, neon lipstick, and the expression of one who’s just been slapped. Or, more likely, about to slap someone else. Hard. 

   Gruffly, she tells us to hold fire because she got a right telling-off yesterday and we all need to get our turnaround time (between ending one ‘trip’ and beginning another) to down below 60 seconds. There’s lots of guffawing at this, and not unreasonably. When we switch trolleys, we often have to wheel in a backlog of full trolleys from the shop floor or clean out drawers, particularly if it’s been raining. Besides, if we’ve only got 60 seconds between one trolley and the next, when are we supposed to drink water or go to the loo? Is the idea that we wait until our (unpaid) break? The lads who pull the trays off the trolleys have no such strictures—they can use the bathroom during working hours, no problem. Does this mean they get paid to piss and we don’t? 

   The mood quickly becomes mutinous. It doesn’t help that this is just the latest in a series of reprimands handed down from senior management. Almost every shift, there’s been something new. We haven’t been clearing cardboard off the shelves, not everyone’s been checking the best-before dates, our availability—the proportion of items in the order that actually get picked, rather than substituted or off-sold—is “not good enough”. (As if the downtick in availability could be our fault when everyone knows it’s the lack of stock. As one of my colleagues said at the time: “If it’s on the shelf, we’ll put it in”.)

   Sensing the mounting frustration, Debbie says she understands, but that this is all coming from the new store manager and it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. One of the pickers asks if she’s going to tell him our concerns. She says she’ll put up a sheet of paper and we can write them down.

   She’s as good as her word. By the end of the day, the piece of paper she tacks up is full—though I reckon the whole thing’s bound for the bin. Since I’ve been here, nobody in senior management has demonstrated the slightest interest in what any of the pickers have to say. They seem to think of us as time-wasters that need to be bullied into action. They call us colleagues but really we’re just tools: mechanical parts of a system that needs to go faster, to produce more, to cost less. We’re certainly the only members of staff who get monitored to such a degree. We’re the only ones who use anything like the scanners, after all, which is how every single aspect of our job can be tracked and turned into a KPI. And is our union rep doing anything about it? Is she, fuck. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her since my induction, when she pressed everyone into signing up then promptly buggered off.

   At long last, Debbie lets us go. I grab my first trolley and make my way to the fridge cabinets, eyes trained on the scanner. I’ve got 72 items to pick. If I’m to make target, I need—on average—to be doing so at a rate of 194 an hour. That’s roughly three to four items every minute, which means this trip should take somewhere between 18 and 24 minutes to complete. I go with an underestimate, pegging my arrival back in Dot-Com at 06:20—a depressingly small fraction of my six-hour shift.

   The mental maths is a bit of a trick, based on a system I first used in sixth form, when—struggling with a change of school—I learnt how to break down each term into its constituent parts, resolving not to be frustrated with the lack of progress, simply recording how much closer I was to the quarter-mark, the midway-mark, the end. I discovered how to go limp, to go along with the passage of time—because the time always passed, no matter what I did—rather than to wear myself out with desperation, wishing there was a way to speed everything up. It’s a lesson that’s served me well, though I never expected to be deploying it in the course of minimum-wage shift work. It’s certainly not why my parents shelled out for those absurd fees—which is in no small part why I haven’t told them what I’m doing. They simply won’t approve. And, right now, I can’t stand to have the (repeated) argument with them, so I’m just getting on with it instead.

   I could have made a hundred choices since university that would have brought me financial stability.

   Plenty of my fellow graduates went on to become solicitors, management consultants, civil servants, academics. Some are, doubtless, struggling more than others, but I’m pretty sure they can all pay their goddamn bills. Some even have mortgages. But I make my living—just about—from writing. That means no salary, no paid holiday or sick leave, no pension. I did get a healthy advance for my solo debut, but this gets meted out to me in thirds and I know I’m not going to make it to my last instalment. Hence the shift work. Before I started at Tesco, things were getting uncomfortably tight. No matter how careful I was—trying to eke out my advance for as long as possible—there was always something. I needed new glasses. My shoes delaminated and had to be replaced. I’d be invited out for coffee, for dinner, for drinks and—though I shouldn’t have begrudged those who wanted nothing more than to share with me a little of their time—I always found myself totting up the expense. Every invitation was charged: it wasn’t that one lunch out would cost the equivalent of my phone bill, it’s that one lunch out would, in time, prevent me from paying my phone bill. As much as I loathed office work, I do miss the security it brought me, being on a full salary. How, when money got tight, all I had to do was scrimp until the next payday at the end of the month, try to wait out the days. Without a salary, every day just brings me closer to going broke.

   Now, though, I have a regular income. What I make in shift work covers my council tax and my half of the rent, so I’m not worrying about money as much as I was before. And, as it happens, the job complements my writing well. It’s not work I bring home with me, so it doesn’t take up much mental bandwidth, and I enjoy its physicality. Which isn’t to say the physicality isn’t a real problem; I can feel it in my back at the end of the day, in the odd tweaks and pains that must, over the course of years, cause serious damage. But for someone who otherwise equates work with sitting extremely still for hours, it’s also a sort of release.

   My shift pattern isn’t without its appeal, either. I appreciate being guaranteed the same hours every week and how the early starts mean I don’t have to sacrifice too much of either my writing time or my weekend. It does mean, however, that I’m effectively working seven days a week and that, for three of those, I have no choice but to be physically in place. That means no travelling at weekends, no heading off to visit friends or family. They all have nine-to-five, Monday-Friday jobs, so if I can’t see them at the weekend, then I can’t see them. It’s awkward, to say the least. As I’m stubbornly not telling anyone about my shifts (it seems wrong to divulge this to friends when I can’t tell my own parents) there’s a limit to how many invitations I can politely decline without raising suspicions and burning through whatever goodwill I’m warranted.




By the time I reach the fridges—aisles 7 through 13—the ticker on my scanner has already dropped from blue (above target), through green (on target), through amber (below target) to red (unacceptable). There’s nothing I can do: it’s just how long it takes. I’m fit, I’m healthy. I wheel my trolley at a fair clip. And still my ticker’s in the red.

   For nearly ten minutes straight, I pick deli meats. There’s sliced beef and corned, roast chicken and turkey breast, salami, pepperoni, chorizo, pastrami. There’s even lunch tongue, taste buds licking the plastic wrap. Then there’s the ham: crumbed, honey roast, Brunswick, Wiltshire finely sliced, dry cured, wafer thin, oak smoked, lean. Most of what I pick’s from the budget range, which has all been branded with the fake name of Woodside Farms, a cynical marketing exercise that in no way makes up for quality. Those pale pink rectangles of set paste don’t look like they’ve ever been within a mile of an actual pig.

   I work as fast as I can. Which, as it happens, isn’t terribly fast, because the night team are still in, swanning from roll cage to shelf without a care in the world. Soon, I’m joined by another picker and—when a third comes along thirty seconds later—we’re practically tripping over each other. I move my trolley to the end of the aisle, trying to clear a bit of space as we side-step and mutter little exclamations of “oh, sorry”.




On a quieter aisle, I pick ready meals, a side of salmon, a pack of seafood sticks. Then I’m on 8, picking diced beef and meatballs and medallion steaks, sausages of all kinds, bacon, chickens whole and filleted, burger patties, pork joints and chops, and more mince than seems possible: 5% fat and 15% and 20%, some in neat 250g portions, others in monstrous 750g packs of raw red knobbles, an orgy of flayed earthworms. Then it’s back to Dot-Com with a brief stop-off for red seedless grapes. The customer has left a note asking for “underripe fruit only”. What, pray, does an underripe grape look like? Beats me. I pick what’s there, wheel the trolley back, scan in and check my stats. My availability’s in the high 90s, but my pick rate’s dismal, a pathetic 148. With a bit of luck, I’ll be able to hike up my average by the end of the day.




The night team gone, my next trip proves a little easier. I move smoothly from aisle to aisle, picking one-litre cartons of juice, packets of fresh tortellini, cellophaned margarita pizzas, sticks of garlic bread. I pick Peperami, Pukka All Steak Pies, Rustlers Essential Cheeseburgers and Fridge Raiders Roast Chicken Bites. I pick Ginsters Slices and Wall’s Sausage Rolls. I pick own-brand cocktail sausages and scotch eggs. I pick Babybels and Philadelphia and grated mozzarella and cheddar mix. I pick Cheesestrings and Dairylea Dunkers. I pick halloumi and pre-sliced Edam. I pick a whole tray of Arla Strawberry Protein Pots. Yoghurts, I think, though they might be puddings—almost anything that can these days has the word “protein” slapped over it. Judging by the way some products advertise themselves, you’d be forgiven for thinking all our customers were body-builders.

   An early shopper asks me where he can find “monty ham”. Or, certainly, that’s what it sounds like. Presuming it’s a particular brand with which I’m not au fait, I offer to look it up on the store app. But nothing. “Am I spelling it right?” I ask.

   “It’s h-a-m,” he says, not missing a beat.




Though the fridge cabinets are well-stocked, the shelves elsewhere are bare. There have been supply chain issues ever since I joined: driver shortages, fuel scares, strikes, bad harvests, disease, war. The supermarket deals with it by spreading available products across the shelves, crates of potatoes lined up where there should be eggs, swedes covering for a missing parsnip delivery. Today, though, there’s no hiding the lack of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. And the pickings get steadily worse throughout the shift. What few eggs there are vanish, all the chicken is nearly out of code and even the broccoli gets decimated. I personally wipe out all the 330ml cans of Tesco Orange Zero—I pick 18 of them for one customer and then, on the very next trolley, go back and claim the final two for another.

   It’s worse when the customers start to turn up in full force. I spot some of our regulars: an old man who wheels his oxygen machine around in one of the trolleys, a woman with a newborn who kicks her shopping basket along the floor while cradling the nursing baby to her chest, a Franciscan monk in cassock and rope belt, unironically picking up a pot of Ramona’s Heavenly Hummus. There are also more folk doing ‘the Dragonville lean’ than I can count—right-angled at the hips, their whole weight loaded on the trolley handle as they push it forward with their elbows—as well as several shelf divers, who like nothing better than to spend an age rooting around in the steaks, up to their waists in it, thinking nothing of blocking access for everyone else. Lots of students, too, traipsing around in groups, deliberating their plans in cut-glass, carrying voices. As ever, the customers are an inquisitive bunch.

   “Where are the normal KitKats now, pet?”

   “What sort of pens would you recommend for exams?”

   “Where’s the ready-to-eat brie?”

   “Do you sell tanning oil for sunbeds?”

   “Do you have any glycerine and rose? I play lawn bowls. It’s for my hands.”

   Some, though, are more rhetorically minded.

   “Doesn’t anyone care this is leaking?” asks one woman, holding a dripping bottle of semi-skimmed. Her irascibility is quickly balanced out by the kindness of a man for whom I have located a packet of steamed salmon. “Aren’t you clever? I hope your shift goes quickly.” 

   It might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.




Soon, the stock levels are beyond dismal. There’s no granulated sugar, no bananas, no diet lemonade, no 24-packs of Diet Coke, no 12-packs of Nestlé water. The bread shelves are half-empty and we get stuck making crappy substitution after crappy substitution. Want Warburtons Old Farmhouse White Loaf? Get Kingsmill 50/50. Want Hovis Seven Seed Sensations? Get Kingsmill 50/50. Then that runs out, too, and everyone spends a long time staring at the empty shelves as if a job lot of white sliced might magically appear. 

   My next trolley takes me into produce, where I pick baby button mushrooms, spring onions, cabbages white and red. I’ve a whole lot of bagged salad as well, which is always a pain. The shredded iceberg’s in case 10 rather than case 8, and the 90g and 200g spinach bags have all been mixed together. I spend a while sorting through them, looking for something that doesn’t make my scanner emit a shrill beep of refusal, then have to start all over again when I realise that the bag of babyleaf rocket I’ve picked goes off today. The other bags have the same dismal date, so I lift up the tray to see if there’s something better underneath, but it’s only worse: a whole crate of babyleaf that expired yesterday. I slam the top tray back down and hit the button to make a substitution. The scanner suggests I pick a bag of spinach and rocket instead—which at least is both in stock and in date. I note, though, that the bag is only 50g and the bag the customer wanted was 100g. So I dither, trying to decide whether or not to override the substitute, throw in two bags instead of one. I’m not sure what’s preferable for the customer: the same amount or half as much of a thing they don’t particularly want. It rather depends who they are, what they’re making and how they feel about spinach. So much to say, I’ve no bloody idea.

   I move on to soft fruit. A customer’s added a note to an order for a 150g punnet of Tesco blueberries that reads: REALLY REALLY GOOD DATE PLS NICE FIRM BLUEBERRIES. All caps. Always a nice touch. How I’m supposed to verify firmness through rigid plastic is anybody’s guess. 

   There are no strawberries in, so I have to off-sell the next ten items on my list, which sucks for my availability and sucks for the customers. It’s all down to luck, as well. There might not be any strawberries in now, but perhaps I’ll go back round in another hour and the shelves will be full. But there’s no holding off, no sending it back to wait and see if the things will improve later on.




My next ambient trolley is the first with a decent list. 138 items. That’s a minimum of 35 minutes, even if I’m fast. Excellent. The scanner takes me directly to the crisp aisle where I stuff every drawer to the brim: multi-packs of Walkers, Hula Hoops, Nik-Naks, Space Raiders, Monster Munch and big sharing bags of Doritos and McCoys, as well as own-brand cheese puffs, onion rings and bacon rashers. I wedge them in as tightly as I can, the foil packets crumpling here and ballooning there. And I’ve still got over 100 items to go. I head into beers, wines and spirits next, where my first task is to pick a slab of Carlsberg. With a grunt, I drop the slab and empty the drawer, piling crisps into the green sling on top of the trolley. Then I slide in the beer and stuff the crisps back in. 

   The re-packing goes on for some time. I pick Fanta, Pepsi and Coca-Cola in two-litre bottles, in fridge packs of ten, in crates of 24. I pick Fever Tree tonic, Ribena, Vimto, Tesco’s own-brand concentrate in all flavours and at quad-strength, cans and cans of bitter shandy, cloudy lemonade, pink lemonade. And that’s just the soft drinks. Bottled water features heavily and so, too, do crates of Foster’s, Carling and Budweiser, individual bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale. There’s Hardy’s Shiraz and Yellow Tail Jammy Red and 19 Crimes Merlot. There’s bucks fizz and prosecco. There’s Baileys and Greenalls and Tia Maria. Bell’s and The Famous Grouse. All bound for drawers already bursting with crisps.




I wheel my trolley past the sugar, scattered granules of caster crunching beneath the treads of my boots, and call in at the bakery to see if they’ll slice a loaf of farmhouse for me, only to find my white-jacketed colleagues fuming.

   “Couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery, this lot,” complains one of them, hustling past with a tray of rolls. “Tried to get Tim’s number off me this morning.”

   The second baker shakes his head. “Imagine wanting to call up someone at eight on a Saturday morning to ask them to come in and do a shift,” he says, holding up his middle finger to indicate exactly what he thinks of that. “They run these bakeries on a shoestring, same as the shop floor.”




I’m on aisle 9 when I come up against that same shoestring. I go to grab a pre-basted chicken only to discover that the wrapper’s split open and the juices are pooling out, cascading from one shelf to the next, splattering the product below and creating one hell of a mess. Not the first time I’ve reached for something on the shelf only to find it’s gone to shite—a tub of yoghurt that’s exploded, a banana that’s turned to flaccid mush in its skin, a packet of seasoned potatoes with a broken seal that leaks everywhere. And now this.

   Grabbing a roll of blue towelling, I wrap up the split bag and place it on top of my trolley, then run round to see if the service desk can send a cleaner over, but they’ve all gone home. “It’s clean as you go,” says my colleague with a sympathetic grimace.

   Not sure what else to do, I grab more paper towels and some wipes from the checkouts. It looks a lot better after I’ve mopped up the spill, but it’s hardly hygienic—and my gloves are soaked through with raw chicken juice, to boot. I carry away the bag and used towels in a cardboard tray, dispose of the lot, then peel off my gloves and wash my hands. It takes a while. Both my pick rate and turnaround time will have tanked.

   Dealing with so much waste—and so frequently—has definitely changed my relationship to the product. At my induction, the store manager said he’d fire me if I was ever caught stealing, a warning I pegged as entirely needless—I wasn’t about to risk my job for the sake of a few groceries. But it’s not as easy as I thought to keep things straight. I’ll be halfway through my shift, stomach growling from having missed breakfast, when I discover yet another half-crushed packet of McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits, wrapping peeling open. Would it be stealing if I took one?




Theres some negotiation on the next turnaround—several of my colleagues are already coming up for home time and need an easy pick to make sure they don’t overrun. A frozen trolley usually does the trick—the pick lists for those rarely run to more than ten or twenty items—but there aren’t many to go around. Somehow, I come out of the scrum clutching just such a label in my hand and then—because I’m a soft touch, really—I trade it with a colleague who has to go early today and head off on an ambient pick that’s unremarkable save for the notes. As if it were in any way useful guidance for the selection of substitutes, one customer has written “like for like” for every single item in their order.




I’m on the bread aisle when the store manager strides past—a rare sighting—belting out bluff “hellos” to all and sundry. I spot one of the stackers checking to see whether he’s looking before she clambers up to put some loaves onto a top shelf. This isn’t protocol—if she can’t reach, she’s supposed to use a kickstool.

   “Did he see me?” she asks.

   “No, I don’t think so.”

   “He must just sit in his office and laugh at us,” she says, watching him go with a look on her face like she’s just been asked to clean the customer loo with her tongue.

   If I’m taken aback by the strength of her antipathy for this man she hardly knows, I nevertheless wonder that he’s done so little to endear himself to staff. At my induction, he gave this whole spiel about how he started at the bottom, stacking shelves. So he ought to know what it’s like being on the shop floor, how it feels to have orders issued from on high with no explanation as to why and no chance to weigh in or respond. Maybe he’s forgotten. Maybe he doesn’t give a flying fuck.




“Where have the chickens gone? Are they somewhere else?” 

   The customer’s gesturing towards the old deli counter, which—as in every other branch in the country—has just been permanently closed. I say as much and the woman looks mortified. 

   “What are you supposed to do for chickens, then?” 

   Judging by the tone of her voice, I don’t think a raw chicken will be much use to her. I tell her there are usually pre-cooked roast chickens available on aisle 12. She wheels away glumly and I find myself wondering if this one chain-wide efficiency, at a time when people are having to choose between heating and eating, has just cost this woman her only proper hot meal of the week.




I’m a half-hour out from my break—I take mine at the end of my shift, so I can be sure to leave on time—when a colleague asks if I want to take over racking up and labelling the trolleys ready for the other pickers. Though this measure’s only sporadically deployed, it does help everyone with their turnaround time. Besides, I’m more than happy to get off the crowded shop floor.

   I’ve got five minutes left when a different colleague—one of the younger girls—tells me Debbie said we should swap, so I hand over, thinking I can just go early for my break. Only then Debbie catches me and passes me a scanner. It’s logged in, partway through a trip with 80-odd items left to go, and belongs to the girl who’s taken over the labels. Apparently, she was being harassed by a customer and needs to stay here—where it’s safe—while he’s dealt with. The poor girl. I take her scanner and head back out.




It’s busy as anything. I help customers find kidney beans, croissants, pease pudding, sausage meat, lamb chops, mango chutney, malt vinegar, mustard powder, sausage rolls. I unhelp several others by establishing that we no longer carry tinned asparagus (white or green), that we’ve absolutely no bratwurst in and that we don’t stock Taylors tea, only Taylors coffee. It’s the same every shift. No one can ever find a thing because everything gets moves around so often—apart from the sugar and eggs, which no one can ever find because they’re miles away from where they should be on the home baking aisle. 

   Inevitably, I finish late. Combined with the break I never got to take, that’s nearly an hour of labour on me, gratis. I clock out and walk home in a daze, pleased to have the first shift of the weekend done but not sure I’ll survive the remaining two. The only saving grace is knowing this won’t be forever. When the final chunk of my advance comes through, I’ll quit. And for all I know I’ll be better off—financially—if I stick it out, I can’t hack this place for a moment longer than needs be.

Natasha Calder // March 2024