Chapter #2 Over the hills and far away – the mission – 2009

heart surgery

I’d been getting stomach cramps quite badly before Post Office Monday.

For Christmas, the previous year, some friends of mine had given me a mountain bike as a present. It was Pat’s and had been in her attic, not doing very much. Her boyfriend, a keen mountain biker, had given it a more than professional service and they’d handed it on to me. I always cycled to work and my old bike had seen better days so it was a most excellent present.

After the obligatory Christmas day test ride, speeding round the circuit with the other eleven year olds, my new steed had been parked until my first day back at work after the festive period. As I worked in retail this was 6am on Boxing Day morning.

Anyway, as I cycled, I got quite a pain. Just below my ribs on the left-hand side and down my left arm. I was more crouched over on this bike than my last and put it down to cycling in a different position and maybe a spot of, ahem, Christmas indigestion.

However, the pain carried on.

Over time I experimented with altering the seat height, swapping my bag onto the opposite shoulder, cycling slowly, sitting more upright etc. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell if anything was helping or not as I didn’t get the pain every day. When I did get it however, it was usually at the same point of my journey, after a slight incline. This was unusual in Portsmouth as being at sea level it’s mostly very flat. At the point it happened there was handily a bench and I would pull over and take 5 until the pain subsided. After this I’d be fine. I didn’t get the pain at work or when cycling home. Cycling to band practice and then drumming in the evening was also pain free. It was for this reason that I wasn’t too concerned. I very rarely had breakfast and had generally had a beer or glass of wine the night before. I explained it away as some sort of culturus bifidus unusualness which wasn’t really life inhibiting enough to bother doing anything about.

My job at this time was as Store Manager of a health and beauty store in a busy shopping centre. I loved my job. Retail is a pretty thankless and underpaid career. But that doesn’t take away the fact that I, and plenty of others like me, do love it. You get to meet people and play shop, with like minded retail loving suckers. And you get to move stuff around all day which, according to Nick Cave, is something creatives love doing. It can be a really good laugh. Tiring, relentless, hard on the feet, unsociable on the hours, rubbishly paid, sometimes thanklessly demanding from head office as well as the rudeness of some customers. But day to day, it’s a very life affirming real time existence dealing with real things and real people.

One beautiful sunny morning my new area manager Maggie arrived. There were the standard expectant customers, two crates of delivery and a flagon of dirty hand washing water. Just another day in health and beauty retail. We administered beauty treatments on the shop floor to wow the customers with our wares but the sinks on the shop floor weren’t plumbed in. Hence we were forever carrying large water carriers of clean or dirty water between these sinks and the taps in the back room.

Maggie and I went through various things in the office and then she suggested we went out for a coffee.

And there it was – that epiphany moment. Sitting in Nero’s coffee shop opposite Maggie, and having a sudden and striking realisation that I would be losing my job within the next 6 months. I’d had a similar feeling before. Sitting around a campfire drinking cider and realising that my first marriage was over. They were both moments of absolute clarity and presence. A singularity of understanding. Interestingly, although both realisations were devastating at the time, neither of them have actually done me much harm in the long run.

The last I knew from the previous business owners, was that our store was doing really well and I’d been given a pay rise and keep up the good work kind of feedback. Bring on a complete structural change of the company. We’re talking CEO, head of retail, new loss prevention department and a shuffle round of area managers and here I am, face no longer apparently fitting in the new shiny corporate world.

I was being bandied with phrases such as ‘If there was another store we could send you to….’ and ‘I wouldn’t want to lose you but…’ and all the while she kept saying eat your pannini it’s going cold. Eat my fucking pannini! I felt sick to my stomach as all this had come completely out of the blue for me. She’d bought me lunch and was now psychologically unhinging my world. I had no words or appetite. In recognition of the fact that she may have had a human soul immovably encased in her icy neo liberalist exterior (there, I’ve got that out of my system), at one point she did have a tear in her eye. I reached out and touched her hand. I am most definitely my own worst enemy.

Maggie proceeded to efficiently fill out three pages of pre written objectives for me:

Thou shalt not make thine own signs for thy shoppe

Thou shalt not request a higher stationery budget per month than thine allotted amount (despite dealing with 80% more customers on a regular basis than the majority of stores in the region)

Thou shalt achieve a conversion of 30%…

This was clever. Conversion in retail speak is the number of transactions that ker-ching through your till as a percentage of the number of people who ker-plunk through the front door. We had two doors. Simply closing one door would decrease the number of people entering the store and up our conversion but I wasn’t generally into playing durty retail to fix the figures.

As Maggie waffled on I really did sit there thinking holy crap, I am being performance managed. I know how this works. I get my objectives and will have a defined amount of time to achieve them. Most of this is pretty achievable but the conversion is cleverly the one thing I can’t see myself changing at my store.

We were well placed in a busy shopping centre. People flooded in all day. 30% of potential customers entering the shop and actually buying something may not seem like much of an ask. But an average conversion for a lot of shops is more like 10%. Ours was currently 16% measured by a footfall counter over the two doors to record how many people entered the shop. We could have 1000 people through the door in a day, in groups of friends, families, coach trips, so to do 160 transactions in a day for luxury and mostly giftable goods rather than anything essential is actually quite a win. And as a team we worked our butts off to get those sales.

I could fight this or I could walk away.

The thing is I couldn’t really see when I’d have time to fight. I was already working way over my contracted hours most weeks just to keep up with the expectations of the company and the shopping centre we were based in.

I went home that night and told Bassalot who laughed and was genuinely really proud of me. For all my coloured hair styles and punk rock drummer attitude I’m actually pretty well behaved and a really hard worker. For me to be performance managed did just seem completely ridiculous and, I guess, was gonna be an experience. I supposed I would have to look for another job. I’m sure B wouldn’t still be laughing when my money ran out and I ‘needed’ more boots…

Maggie left. I hated her. I’ve only hated one person in my life before. Slagwhoreworm, who was the culmination of epiphany moment #1, at the end of my first marriage. Bassalot says hate is a very strong word. And, of course, he’s right. I don’t want to hate any other human being. We’re all getting by and dealing with our own shit in our own way.

But Maggie was so inhuman about her delivery and, now I think about it, she never offered to help or guide me to her way of doing things. Just immediately came in and threw the book at me. I’m not naïve enough to think it was only her decision. My going was part of a bigger strategy in the competitive neo-liberalist world we now seem to inhabit.

But honestly, I can truly say that if anyone deserved a good hating that day, it was Maggie.

Chapter #3, Angel of Death is available now!!

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