Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Journeyman- Chapter 10


       Five am and the forecasters were right about getting the weather wrong. Rain and blustering wind making the airport carpark even less inviting than usual. Transferring cases and rubbish to the hired Granada we left the Sierra clean in case some demented car thief took an interest in it before driving it to a second parking block and re-parking it.

By six fifteen we were peering over the perimeter wall into the supermarkets delivery yard. The quiet and the empty parking slots confirmed the shelf packers had done their job and gone home. A light in the main office told us there were just the night supervisors left. The security men were checking the rejects and returns. Inspecting the torn packaging nicked vacuum packs and dented tins. They were the last of the nocturnal pecking order, got the worst if not the least but their wages only allowed survival not pride. The rubbish skips were in the same position as Thursday and could still be viewed from the manager’s office.

That was the skip I slid into; carefully avoiding tiers of outdated eggs before clearing the corner nearest the wall and cautiously placing the can. I ran the wire up the corner of the skip, sticking it in place with blue tack then pushed all the rubbish over it and the can. After a moments thought, I collected the eggs and placed them round and on top. Shame to waste them I thought as I stuck the wire down the outside of the skip and tucked the reel between it and the wall. Pat was busy down the entrance end of the yard where a huddle of trolleys waited for scrapping or repair. Selecting six he placed two groups of three beside the personnel doors next to the main loading doors. The trolleys had to be close enough to be noticed but not too close to be a nuisance. Damaged and in groups of three they were already practically immovable. To make them more so Pat slipped the Sheffield wedges between the wheels and forks of the front and rear trolleys. The centre trolley had a package wrapped in torn shopping bags. Once the wedges were in place a hefty shove of the trolleys locked them solid. The first of the preparatory stages was over.

Back in the car we stripped off the paper coveralls and cheap trainers and consigned them to bin bags. Glancing at my watch I said to Pat. ‘You realise that took all of seven minutes? Seemed like a bloody lifetime to me.’
Pat shrugged, ‘Really! As long as that. Didn’t bother me but if that’s a cigarette you’re lighting, don’t forget about me.’
‘Why don’t you bloody buy some?’
‘I’m just trying to encourage you to stop.’

Breakfast wasn’t so much leisurely as dragged out. We had a lot of time for the last of the touches but little inclination and I was a bit concerned that we should have done it days before, especially after yesterday. Problem was getting the appointments was like trying to find a fish with fingers and it had to be a quality job. Pat was in one place I was in another. When we met, we’d both chosen a blonde. His dark brown was short and manly my mousy brown was limp and, to put it bluntly poofy. And the bastard had given me highlights. It was one of those moments when we both knew silence said it all. My next visit was to a theatrical costumier’s where I hoped to get the finishing prop to my outfit, a silvered hair wig. Maybe the assistant like the hairdresser was taking the piss but I hadn’t pictured myself in one that left the top bald. Looking at my reflection I wondered whether I was only hours away from really being this ridiculous. The store Pat was in was the same one he’d stared in after the news of Jim. He was first back to the car and had spread his purchases along the dash to encourage my reaction. He got nothing but a laconic, ‘Kind of you.’ The blushers and harvest gold’s all promising to be caring to my skin.

It was two o’clock, too late to eat and neither of us felt like eating anyway, we compromised with half an hour of coffee’s and constant cigarettes. Back in the supermarket car park we found it busier than we’d ever seen it. Forcing us to circle round till we got a slot next to the boundary wall. Here most people drove in and had to reverse out. Pat said it was to do with loading the groceries. I argued it was laziness. The philosophy didn’t matter, merely an attempt to take our minds off the waiting. Pat started softly whistling a tune that half annoyed yet intrigued me. I hummed along with him; see if it would mutate to words – “money, money, money, dah dah de de, it’s a rich mans world.” It shut me up. I wondered if I was about to blow my chance of membership.

I’d to be the first to move. Collecting an abandoned trolley I took a slightly curved route towards the markets entrance. At the drain grid I ran a castor into it, a quick twist of the trolley and the castor was useless. Crabbing it the rest of the way I positioned it just inside the main entrance then rejoined Pat. Having practised many times in Bradford and Halifax we watched for twenty minutes to see if their Leeds cousins would react in the same way. Four people went to use it; all abandoned it as soon as they realised it was damaged. A fifth inspected it. ‘You always get the Jim’ll bloody fixits.’ Pat growled. We watched the fixer straighten up and walk away.  The markets staff were ignoring the buggered trolleys. They’d too much to do keeping a constant supply in the market to bother. We added similarly treated carts to the other entrance, the two emergency exits and the entrance to the off-licence. Just minutes after three Pat dressed in black trousers, blue shirt and with a blue overall coat grabbed the phone and clipboard and made his way into the market. It was melting with shoppers forcing him to excuse and dodge his way through to the rear and found the doors blanking the stock section had been wedged open. 

The left door effectively shielded him. Behind it on a checkers desk was the internal phone. Unplugging it he smashed the handset against the wall and left it in its usual place on the desk. Plugging in our phone he ran the extension behind the pallets of potatoes and placed it between them, the wall and empty cabbage crates. Crossing the twenty meters to the delivery door he’d to duck back as the wagon reversed down to the second door. Pat watched the driver make his way to the phone, give a curse when he saw it broken then bounded up the office stairs. 

        The bloody wagon was a worry. One of the imponderable's greys doesn’t cover. Crouched behind a forklift he willed patience on himself then thought of it being used to unload the wagon. Cursing the time he’d wasted he darted through the door, under the truck and slipped between the skip and the wall. One minute stretched to five and he couldn’t believe it, he found himself whistling the sodding tune. He was tempted to get it over with but knew he couldn’t. There was every chance the wagon would break the fragile wire if it moved, or the forklift when it unloaded it. Footsteps came closer; their legs appeared and climbed into the cab. Seconds and they reappeared following a curse and a dropped anorak. The cab was locked, the anorak picked up and the legs walked away, their working day over. Pat, holding the reel under the clipboard reversed his route to the potato and cabbage crate hide where he wound the last of the wire round the strut of a crate. Checking the phone he dialled 297, got ‘Accounts.’ and broke the connection. Nodding to himself he picked up the empty reel and made his way back to the car. I was already there.

‘The back’s done and the trolleys are as we left them.’
I nodded, ‘Ditto out front. I’ve put the packages in each. A bloke gave the once over in the off licence so I bought some lemonade and added it to the trolley. He wasn’t there when I came out and I’ve checked it since.’
Pat said nothing about the wagon, probably because he didn’t want to add to our build up of nerves. This time he’d to add a box to the clipboard and overall deceit. It contained five packages and, like the nine others, each was loosely wrapped in the markets own bags. Two were for the groups of trolleys by the rear doors; the others would end up in trolleys by the centre support in isles twelve, ten and eight. I was distributing the last four parcels. We only needed three but an arithmetical blank led us to make one extra. Not wanting to waste it I doubled up next to the pastas in isles six the rest covered isles four and two. We’d park the trolley then crouch as though inspecting our shoelace or the groceries on the lower shelves while slipping two wedges in the front castors. From under the groceries stacked in the cart we pulled the wire with its magnet attached and stuck it to the underside of the shelf. It took less than fifteen minutes to cover the three isles with the four carts and then for a while I became an ordinary shopper. Gauging I’d collected about six bag fulls I picked the smallest queue and quietly waited to be processed. Pat gave me quick thumbs up in passing. I was fascinated by the rolls of money being crammed into plastic pods before being wafted to security through pneumatic tubes. Our groceries came to ten pence over one hundred and five pounds. Extravagant, but I regarded it as a short term investment. Ten bags said I overdone it, but what the hell, so I chatted to the girl helping me pack
‘Busy today?’
‘Always is before a bank holiday.’
Ready to go I glanced at the clock. One minute past four. Bank holiday, I hadn’t realised.

I’d no groceries when I got back to the car. They were left by the cafeteria. Pat had already hung two suits from the rear grab handles to give me some privacy as I changed. The shirt I was wearing would pass grubbed up with make-up the rest of my outfit needed no decoration. The trousers had probably seen a better century, were massive in the girth and about an inch short in the leg. Enough to show the kakhi socks with a generous hole in one of them. At the dress rehearsal Pat had commented I’d have to be careful not to be mistaken for a Yank. I didn’t think he was serious. Shoes were ancient brogues of a tan that went with nothing in particular and two sizes larger than my normal. A waistcoat divorced totally from the suit had a front similar to varnished nylon and candidly ponged. Presenting my back to Pat I got the towel that would hopefully look and stay like a hump smacked into place. The tie had a pattern only forensic could identify between paisley and ravioli.
My attempt at make up was more Coco than Chanel. Asking Pat if I looked sick and old I was told.
‘More rancid then sick.’ Then, ‘It’ll be hard to tell without the wig.’ I knew the bastard was waiting for that and, what was more galling; he was going to get his wish. We compromised with the makeup by using it to scruff me up rather than trying to age me. The next item was the bag of communal piss gingerly strapped to my groin followed by the two cushions that would bridge the gap between the trousers waistline and me. The wig- the bastard went hysterical- then greasily matching trilby, scarf, jacket, coat and hideous yellow gloves and I was kitted out for the spree of the century.
‘How do I look?’ Meaning can anything be seen of me.
Pat swallowed, ‘Don’t give you much hope of scoring.’
‘Piss off. Which reminds me.’ Collecting the modelling scalpel from the glove box I slipped it down the index finger of my right glove. ‘Right what time do you make it?’ 
‘Four twenty.’
‘I’ll start at four forty, that’ll give you plenty of time.’
Grinning Pat said, ‘I won’t be late. Wouldn’t be fair to a grumpy old bastard like you.’ The only retort I could think of made me realise how much nerves can affect the vocabulary.

Shuffling, as much to keep the shoes on as to emulate the age and duffer I hopefully looked, I gave the entrance trolleys a last check before going to retrieve my groceries by the café. I slid my way round all the even isles, only one cart had been moved and it took only a glance to see the magnet was still attached. By half past I was beginning to fell as flaccid as I probably looked but apart from veering from me nobody seemed too bemused by my appearance. We’d agreed earlier that getting through the rear supply doors without being seen was worth a delay of fifteen minutes. It wasn’t needed, a loudly tanoyed announcement of reductions on fresh fish prices had the punters milling round the counter. Keeping a mumbling monologue I shuffled through and kicking the wedge from the door swung it closed. I stood for a couple of seconds, an old fool confused as to where I was and how I got here. Nobody was interested. Settling down by the hide I gripped the phone and tried deep breathing to calm my nerves during the minutes I’d to wait. Cold authority was the aim but for now the coldest part about me sloshed whenever I moved. A minute and I connected one wire to the battery as though it was the most delicate connection I’d made in my life. Clearing my throat and wagging my jaw to confirm I still had control, I dialled the direct line number then added the three hundred. It rang five times before it was answered.
‘Mr Grestey?’ I licked my lips.
‘Mr Grestey, I want you to look out your window. The one that overlooks the rubbish skips.’
‘What is this?’
‘Please, just do as you’re told Mr Grestey. You’re free to use one of your subordinates to contact the authorities. For now just look out your window.’
‘Keep your eyes on the skip while I count to three.’

Pat arrived at casualty two minutes before the half hour. He’d exchanged his blue coat for a white one to park in the staff area and walked the short distance to the ambulance depot. He’d no need to be choosy, whatever was easiest would be best and that was front of the line.  Entering by its rear doors he moved through to the front and under the pretence of checking its fire extinguisher checked if he was being watched. He wasn’t and the keys dangling from the ignition said for him the tricky part was over. All he’d to do now was get it out of the hospital grounds. Through his mirrors he saw no response and provided Brian was on schedule he doubted if the borrowing of an outpatient ambulance would be noticed. Parked up a side street with a view of the hospital exit, he added the coat and clipboard to the disposal bag before donning cap and epaulette’s and engine running, settled down to wait.

The bang with its accompanying barrage of eggy debris and screams had a very focussing effect on Mr Grestey. Five minutes before he’d been gloating at the figures and thinking how close they were getting to last years Christmas total and adding it could be at their competitors cost because they were nearest to the motorway. Now this.
‘Mr Grestey?’  Grestey screwed his eyes shut in an effort to stop the tremble in his temples developing into a migraine. ‘You there Mr Grestey?’
‘You’ll have to be quicker than this Mr Grestey. More Attentive! Now I want you to close every door in the building. Every one Mr Grestey must be sealed tight. As of now you have one minute to get that done.’ I heard his response before I’d finished talking. I heard the feet on the stairs then watched two of his staff run to the rear to close and lock the rear doors. I knew overriding the pressure switches would close the rest. My heart started to thump as one of the men walked straight towards me until I realised his intention to use the phone. His single expletive was followed by both of them running back up the stairs.
‘Mr Grestey it’s now almost two minutes!’ A minute was unreasonable but it underlined the need for instant compliance.
‘It’s done.’
‘’Well done Mr Grestey. Beside every door of your building are bombs far more powerful that that little firecracker we used to grab your attention. They’re also bombs in every one of the even isles. Enough to reduce your business to the wasteland it once was. Each bomb is time controlled but can be overridden by other means. I won’t tell you what the deadline is - yet. But in the meantime if you would instruct all of your cashiers to start transferring the money from their tills now, I’m sure you can get some of your staff to check this isn’t a hoax. I can assure you, provided they don’t touch, they’ll be perfectly safe. Try any of the even isles, or any of the doors.’ There was another bang from a door above me then the sound of feet leaping down the stairs.
‘To save time Mr Grestey let me tell you what to do next. First you tell all your customers to leave their carts in the even isles. Get your staff to help with this, carts in even isles, customers in odd. Any trolleys by the doors and perimeters must not be touched. Only after you have this organised as some sort of safety drill will you announce the bomb threat.’ Hearing the announcement over the tannoy a sudden commotion drowned out the final part.
‘I think you better have someone repeat the announcement until this is over Mr Grestey while we get down to business. I want you to get all the money, correction, all the paper money into carrier bags. Fill one bag then put it upside down within an other, then reverse the procedure for a third and so on. Generally we find five is the minimum to disguise the contents. You have fifteen minutes to get this done and Mr Grestey don’t try to be clever or parsimonious. You don’t know all the procedure yet.’
To be fair to Grestey he didn’t need any urging, I was able to hear him pass the instruction on to his staff. I waited until he was finished before chiding him.
‘Mr Grestey, you really should wait until you’re told. Any way no harm done. Where were we? Oh yes. Once you’ve packed all the money some of your female staff will take it to a trolley that’s between the office door and the taxi phone in isle one. Now have you fully understood? If so repeat the time and place for the transaction to be complete.’ I heard Grestey swallow before starting and agreed the time for completion would be seven minutes past five.
‘That’s very good Mr Grestey. Keep co-operating and there will be no need for anybody to get hurt. At exactly quarter past you will open all the doors. That will leave you with exactly one hour and a quarter to clear the building and we’d advise a considerable amount of the surrounding area before it reverts to the waste it once was. Your final task is to wait until five thirty when you will collect the trolley with the money and load its contents into a Volvo estate that’s already in the car park. You have until five forty five to find the estate load it and begin to carry out the instructions you find inside. Should there be any attempt to follow you we will override the timers. Do you understand Mr Grestey?’
‘Yes.’  It was almost a bleat.
‘Any of it you need me to repeat?’
‘No it’s all recor...’
‘We expected that Mr Grestey, thank you for co-operating. Have a nice holiday.’

Wiping the sweat from my face I wasn’t bothered by the rank smell off the coats sleeve. Taking the pad from the phone's mouthpiece, it the phone and the extension went into the coats pockets and our hide was given a check over for debris. By this time the market was bedlam. Bodies were being thrust by the press behind them at doors. Some were trying to ram trolleys through, the crowds surging behind preventing the attempts from gaining any momentum. People were already cramming into the storeroom trying for a way out. I was just an old idiot hiding in fear. I managed a quick glance down the second isle before I was forced by an eddying crowd to ride their tide. But not before I’d seen it packed solid with carts and the people clambering over them. I couldn’t imagine the state of their contents before this was all over.

I wasn’t gloating, not yet. I was starting to worry about covering the twenty meters between me and the exit. It was the first time I’d experience the destructive potency of a hysterical mass of humanity trying for salvation. Picking a bloke who looked calmer than many of the others I grabbed his arm and pointing to the store door shouted. ‘That door's open, I’ve seen it. Help me get to it.’ The hero looked at me then the door. Others had turned hearing the magic of ‘Open door’; grabbing his wife he ignored me and started ramming his way through. It was enough, the wall breached; some turning to follow, others clawing closer to the main exit. Hauling pushing, gouging and generally disgusting I made my way to the taxi phone.

Pat's was the fourth ambulance in the stream screaming towards the market. A police car doing over the ton shot past on the inside and acted as their vanguard. Closer to the market, police were busy diverting confused motorists on to roads they didn’t want and directions they didn’t want to go. Some were showing annoyance by trying to stop and argue their rights. Others added to the confusion by trying to sneak back on to the road they’d been directed off. Pat saw one of those being struck by a fire tender. It didn’t stop, just swiped the car out of its way and left the police to sort it out. He caught a glimpse of the unhappy driver getting an earful off the motorbike cop before he’d to swing across the island and on to the markets access road. He was stopped fifty yards from the entrance by an inspector and told, 'Keep her running. They’ll be getting out at five fifteen.’ Giving a nod Pat looked at the press of people inside and hoped they’d all make it. Dismissing the thought he got his vehicle ready.

Grestey was late. Eight minutes past five I saw the door next to the trolley crack open. About a dozen men shot out to clear the crowd, me included. Shouting to the heaving mass. ‘IT’S NOT A WAY OUT!  PLEASE IT IS NOT A WAY OUT!’
The heaving mass wasn’t interested. It took all their strength to gain enough space for two women to step out and dump the bags in the trolley. Up to that moment, in the interest of fair play I had been adding my weight to their efforts. Now I changed tactics and threw my weight towards the door. Both staff and public swept into the doorway forming a heaving wedge of flesh. I was slewed against the trolley with its handle screwing into my side. I got enough room to give an almighty shove and screaming like a demented idiot poked my finger through the pocket lining and on to the pendulum of piss and cut it through. I gave a millisecond of prayer that the wetness I felt was all amber.

Even with all the turmoil the stench of urine was enough to force people to give me space. Not as much as they would have wanted but enough for my needs. I used the effect to edge back into the crowd and away from the door. Collecting a punch on the face from one bloke when I clipped his ankle with the cart that could have been disastrous if the arm behind it had room to swing. I swung round to check if any of the staff had their eyes on me. None of them were interested; they were all too busy trying to extricate themselves from the door. Just the camera, its Cyclops eye never leaving the trolley, I waited to see if it would search for me. It didn’t; it was concentrated on it and the four bags it held.

Seconds later Grestey's voice was appealing for calm and telling them the doors would open in one minute. This was repeated and the proximity and promise of salvation transformed the people. Some, like me, edged nearer the doors wanting only to get out. Others created some room by starting to raid the tobacco and wine sections and anything else they considered worth having. I thought about getting some for Pat. Five fifteen I saw the doors shudder in their first attempt to open. Only the pressure of people stopping them. The police realising what was happening were pushing back, shouting and signalling through the glass for the front ranks to push back. The people who could see understood, but they were already trying to stop themselves being jelled by the pressure from behind.

Grestey’s voice cut through again, ‘Move back from the doors. Move back from the doors or they will stay jammed. People are already leaving from the back and emergency exits. Please move back from the main doors and they WILL open.’
That did it, the ones who couldn’t see the front checked their rear. The front ranks sensing the pressure ease pushed back. Juddering the doors slid open. I was pushed, rolled, carried and kicked through. Protesting in real pain as the glass edge was pressed down the length of my side while I pivoted after my cart round it. Out and still being pushed into the carpark I discovered I’d lost my left shoe and actually tried to turn and find it. ‘Just you come with me sir.’
‘I turned, slow to move and slow to think.’
‘C’mon pop, this way for the walking wounded.’ Supported on the caring arm of the ambulance man I was lead to his vehicle. My only shout of dissent was when the bloke offered to take my groceries from me. It wasn’t long before the ambulance was full and, once we were clear of the turmoil, possibly slightly less than another ten to get to casualty. I had a good look round the carpark as we passed through it. The shoppers were being herded beyond the carpark and not allowed to collect their cars; and yes there were quite a few. Good reliable cars the Volvo’s if, perhaps, a little uninspired.

Pat drove slightly past the casualty entrance, as though allowing ambulances with more serious injuries access. Helping his passengers out it was the second to last he escorted to the foyer. I was close behind having swapped my four bags for one black and disposable. In the teeming reception I made my way to the toilets and grabbed a cubicle.  I stripped naked before taking fresh clothes and boxes of cleaning wipes out of the bag then stuffing the stinking ones back in. I thought for a moment of keeping the wig as a momento before it joined the rest. Using all of two boxes of wipes the last joined the bags contents and I still didn’t feel clean though I smelt it. Dressed, only the bag and white latex gloves would have marked me for attention when I walked out. Pat already had the car running and while I collected his and stripped off my own outer pair of gloves, he was driving towards the incinerator. He’d already sealed the other bags with hospital closures. I sealed my one then threw the lot into a hopper filled with similar bags. 
Handing me one of my own cigarettes Pat smiled. ‘ Four bags eh? Not bad!’

I took a deep drag as we swung on the same route we came in on. Ambulances were still hurtling past and as we reached the diversion the shoppers were still a milling herd beyond the access road. Volvo owners were being asked to step forward and identify their cars. I asked, ‘How long do you reckon they’ll keep them there?’
Pat shrugged, ‘Until they’re sure its safe and they’ve identified and checked every Volvo owner.’ 
We were leaving the diversion and on to the M62 before I asked my second question. ‘Won’t they send the dogs in sooner?’
‘Doubt it. But if they do they’re peppered enough to cause them to react. Great animals dogs but they’ve never been very discriminating about quantity.’
‘People were clambering all over the trolleys. Whatever’s in them will probably be a hell of a mess.’
‘Oh good. Dogs being dogs that’ll distract them even more. I reckon they’ll wait until the deadlines well past and even then they’ll take their time.’
I lit my second smoke. ‘You know if I was asked, I’d estimate there are more than a couple of thousand trolleys packed in the isles.’
Pat gave a look of mock amazement. ‘Never! And the poor sods will have to check out every one.’

‘YES!’ We exclaimed, in unison and louder than was strictly necessary. I reckoned I’d past the first test of my apprenticeship.

© Eoin Taylor
Chapters 1 to 9 can be found here. with the links to Chapters 1 - 8 at the end of chapter 9. 


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