Before I became a shelf-stacker and spent my evenings and nights in the aisles of the cash and carry market, filling shelves, fetching pallets from high on the storage shelves with the forklift, now and then helping one of the last customers of the evening and getting to know all kinds of food, I’d been working on building sites for a couple of years.
I hadn’t given up of my own accord but I wouldn’t have kept it up all that long, even if the boss hadn’t fired me. I was a builder’s mate, lugging sacks of cement and plasterboard, gutting flats – that meant I knocked the plaster off the walls, tore out fireplaces and chimneys with a big sledgehammer we used to call ‘Rover’, until I was covered in soot and dirt and spent hours getting the soot and dust out of my nose at home. The firm didn’t even pay well and the boss was a bastard. The guy came from Bavaria; I’ve met people from Bavaria who were actually OK though.
I can’t remember exactly when all the fuss with the boss started, but I do know we were demolishing an old roof that day. We found a big pigeon’s graveyard, two pigeons still alive and perfectly still in among all the bones, piles of feathers and pigeon shit and decomposing and mummified corpses, and we could only tell by their eyes and their heads, moving slightly every now and then, that they were waiting. We fetched the Portuguese guys and they killed them with a blow of a spade. Then we tipped lime over the pigeon graveyard and shovelled it all into buckets and tipped them down the rubbish chute fastened to the scaffolding outside.
And after that we didn’t feel much like hard work any more; the pigeons had got to us. We took the tiles off another section of the roof, not exactly motivated, removed the roof battens with wrecking bars, and then we took a lunch break.
We usually had our lunch break at eleven thirty, and when the bells of the church just round the corner rang at twelve we went back to work.
But when the bells rang that day we were still sitting with the Portuguese guys. They were drinking red wine out of cartons, passing them around. The Portuguese guys spoke very bad German and earned even less than we did and lived in tiny basement flats in one of the buildings owned by the boss. They drank red wine at work because they knew the boss wouldn’t fire them – they worked too well for too little money. They did bricklaying and plastering, and sometimes they were builder’s mates like us, lugging sacks of cement, gutting flats until they were covered in soot and dust.
And then when the fuss with the boss started and I’d slapped him round the face on both sides with my cement-encrusted glove, they all came to me one after another and shook my hand, pressed it and pumped it, said, ‘You did good thing’ in broken German, laughed and said, ‘You find new job, you good worker,’ and patted me on the back.
‘Lazy bastard,’ the boss had called me, and I hadn’t even been holding a wine carton any more, I was just sitting on an upturned bucket and leaning on the wall and trying to think of nothing at all.
And I wasn’t a lazy bastard, even if I had overdone it a bit with my lunch break.
And when I started the job as a shelf-stacker in the cash and carry they noticed straight away that I wasn’t a lazy bastard. I’d got the job through someone I knew, a guy who’d been working there for four years.
I’d got him a job seven or eight years ago and he knew I’d been out of work since the fuss at the building site, so when a job came up in the ‘Shelf-filling/Night’ department he’d put my name down for it. I made a real effort, stacking the stock on the shelves where they showed me, pulling a large barred cart along behind me to put empty cartons and packaging into. They explained how to use the little manual pallet jacks for lifting and moving pallets of stock around. They had electric pallet jacks too, called ‘ants’, for transporting several pallets stacked up, but I wasn’t allowed to use those ones yet.
It wasn’t one of those cash and carries that anyone could shop at. The customers had to have a special card; they had to run a company, self-employed people and that kind of thing who were buying for their businesses. We had a food section and a non-food section, but I was only ever on food and beverages. It was a huge market, on two floors with clothing and electronics upstairs. The food section was on the lower floor, and made up of different departments like Processed Food, Confectionary, Frozen Food, Delicatessen, Fruit and Vegetables and a couple of other ones I can’t remember now.
The aisles between the shelves were very wide so there was space for the forklifts. The forklifts operated all day long, even when the market was open for customers. The forklift drivers fetched large pallets out of the storage shelves, which went right up to the ceiling on top of the normal shelves where the customers took the stock from and put it in their trolleys.
To start with I was always wondering why there weren’t any terrible accidents, why no pallets tipped off the forks and crushed ten customers to death, why no feet got squashed under the large iron wheels of the forklifts. But later, when I had a forklift licence of my own and whizzed along the aisles in my yellow forklift, fetching pallets of beer or milk or sacks of flour down from the shelves, I knew it was all a matter of relaxing, taking care and judging distances right – and routine. But the most important thing, I thought, was that you had to be absolutely convinced while you were transporting pallets up or down that you were the very centre of the market.
It took me a while to learn how to drive a forklift. They let me do my practice after opening hours, when the only people in the aisles were from ‘Shelf-filling/Night’. One of the long-term staff was a registered examiner, but another long-term guy gave me practice lessons until I’d managed to learn all the secrets of driving and operating a forklift. Actually it was just the half-hour before the end of our shift at one a.m. Under his supervision, I drove his forklift – which I shared with him later – slowly along the aisles, stopped in the right position parallel to the shelf, positioned the fork and moved it upwards. Then when the fork was at the level of the pallet I steered the truck until the ends of the fork were just above the openings in the pallet. Then I pressed a lever on the control panel in front of me, and the fork lowered and slipped into the openings in the pallet. Then I pressed the other lever and the pallet rose slowly.
‘You’re doing well,’ said Bruno, his big hand next to me on the control panel, ‘just don’t raise it too quickly or you’ll bump it at the top.’
Bruno was a pretty tall, stocky man, actually more stocky than tall, probably in his mid-fifties with white hair, but when you saw him from a distance he looked like a wrestler or a heavyweight boxer. He had a big block of a head that perched directly on his shoulders, almost no neck at all between the lapels of his white overall, and his hands, one of which was now resting on the forklift control panel next to me, were the size of plates. He wore a broad leather cuff around his right wrist to protect his tendons. He worked in the beverages department, where they fetched the largest pallets down from the shelves – crates of beer and juice and other drinks, which were roped together but still swayed ominously to and fro on the pallet as we lowered them out of the shelves.
Bruno had been working in the cash and carry for over ten years, always on beverages, and even though he wasn’t the department manager it was him who kept the place running.
‘You’re doing well, Lofty,’ he said. ‘You’ll soon have your licence.’ He called me Lofty, like most of my workmates did, because I was nearly six foot three.
‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘I know I’m making a mess of it.’
He laughed. ‘Oh, don’t worry. The longer it takes, the better for me. I have a nice quiet time with you. Better than all that hard graft.’ He pointed a thumb over at the beverages section. I heard bottles clinking through the shelves. Another workmate was lugging the last crates of the day.
‘There was one time,’ said Bruno, watching me attempt to get a pallet of salt boxes back onto the shelf, ‘one time I dropped a load of beer. Couple of years ago now. The rope tore. Shit happens.’ He reached into the pocket of his overall and took out a couple of ropes. He never threw them away when we cut them off the big beer pallets with our Stanley knives once we’d got them down in one piece. ‘Always come in handy.’ He had a little farmyard outside of town, with a stable and a few animals. He lived there with his wife; she took care of the animals and everything else while he was at work. Bruno always had this special smell to him, of animals and manure, but it wasn’t as if he stank; he just smelt faintly, and there was something else in the mixture that he brought along from his farm, something strangely sweet, more like bitter-sweet, but I never worked out what it might be.
‘Bring her down now,’ said Bruno, checking his watch, ‘time to clock off.’
‘OK,’ I said. I’d finally managed to get the salt pallet in the right gap. I extracted the fork, moved the truck back slightly, then pressed one of the levers and the fork came down very slowly from the very top, with a hissing and whooshing sound from the air expelled from the hydraulics. I waited until the fork touched the tiled floor and then positioned it so that the forks weren’t parallel to the ground. ‘Only drive with the forks tipped, never with the fork raised except when you’re stacking.’
I’d had to watch a couple of instruction films where they listed all these terrible accidents as a deterrent and then showed some of the consequences. Lopped-off limbs, flattened feet, people skewered on the fork, and the more I saw of this forklift inferno, the more often I wondered if I’d chosen the right job. But the other staff at the cash and carry were nice enough, and I didn’t intend to skewer them on the fork or drive over their feet.
‘Are you coming, Bruno?’
‘No, you drive it on your own, you know how to do it now.’ Sometimes Bruno stood on the tipped forks, even though that wasn’t allowed, and rode back to the recharging station with me. I drove off and saw him walking down the aisle in the other direction. He walked slightly hunched, his arms splayed a little way from his body as if he expected a surprise attack from one of the shelves at any moment. I tried to imagine him working on the building site with me, me explaining everything to him and showing him how to do the job, but I just couldn’t imagine the man demolishing a roof. Maybe it was his white hair, and that smell of his animals didn’t go with the dust.
I drove to the recharging station, right at the back of the warehouse by the delivery bay. I drove along the empty, brightly lit aisles, past the freezers and the long rows of refrigerated shelves against the walls. Ours was the last shift and I only saw a workmate now and then. They were standing in the aisles, doing their last chores, standing at the blue wheeled desks and writing lists of the damaged or torn-open stock we always found on the shelves; others were getting their forklifts ready for the night at the recharging station. I didn’t know all of their names yet, and even later, once I’d been working at the warehouse for a while and had scraped through the forklift test (‘It’ll end in tears, Lofty’), I took a shifty look at the name tags on their overalls when I talked to them or needed help.
‘Thanks, Ms Koch,’ I said, and she smiled and said, ‘No problem.’
I saw her looking at my overall, but I’d lost my name tag and hadn’t got a new one yet.
‘Christian,’ I said and gave her my hand. ‘Marion,’ she said. She’d lent me her forklift because a customer had asked for a bottle of Wild Turkey just before closing time. I’d fetched the whisky pallet down from the shelf, given him the bottle and then filled up the empty compartment. Bruno was using our forklift over in the beer section. It was a Friday, it was summer, and people were buying beer by the crateload.
‘Shall we have a coffee? It’s on me.’
‘OK,’ she said, and then we went to the vending machine. There were two coffee machines in the warehouse, one at the delivery bay and one in front of the cold storage room, and that one was closer.
I’d come across her in the aisles a couple of times before and we’d nodded hello, and seeing as she was quite pretty I’d smiled every time.
She wasn’t there every night, she worked days as well; only me and five other guys were always on nights.
‘You did your test quite quickly.’ She sipped at her coffee, and then she blew into the little clouds of steam. She smiled; she’d probably heard about how much trouble I’d had with it.
‘Bruno was a good teacher,’ I said and looked at the name tag on her chest again. ‘M. Koch, Confectionary’.
‘Bruno’s a good guy,’ she said. ‘You can always go to him when you need help, or when you’re fed up and you fancy a coffee and a chat.’ She smiled and blew into her coffee, then she drank a few mouthfuls.
‘Get fed up often, do you?’
‘Don’t be so cheeky, rookie.’ She held her coffee in front of her name tag and tapped me on the shoulder with the index finger of her free hand. Then she laughed, and I couldn’t help joining in. There was something about her and the way she talked to me that I liked a lot. When I’d sat down in her forklift (‘But don’t make a tour of it, I need it back again’) I’d felt the warmth on the seat where she’d just been sitting.
She seemed to be a couple of years older than me, maybe in her mid-thirties. She had quite short hair that was always kind of messy. We drank our coffee and talked about this and that.
We stood at the vending machine for a long time, and I kept putting more money in and refilling our cups. We were standing behind the piles of crates and stock so the only people who could see us were people who wanted to take a coffee break of their own. ‘Be right back.’ I went to the shopping trolley containing food just coming up to the best-before date. Sometimes there were three or four trolleys, and sometimes it was my job to take the trolleys to the ramp by the delivery bay where the rubbish bins were. Bread, chocolate, meat, milk, all still good for a few more days, and if I was hungry I tried to sneakily stuff myself with as much as possible of the best things before I threw them in the bins. Chocolate truffles, ciabatta with Serrano ham, Kinder chocolate. If one of the bosses caught me I could take off my overalls and leave, but I just couldn’t resist it. The stuff was being chucked out anyway, and I think most of us took the odd sneaky helping.
I tore open the packaging of a chocolate cake, cut two large slices with my Stanley knife, put them in the pockets of my overalls and went back over to Marion.
‘I thought you’d had enough of me.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘not at all. Hold out your hand.’ She gave me a questioning look but then held her hand out flat, and I took a piece of cake out of my pocket and placed it on her hand. ‘Hey, rookie,’ she said, ‘you’re a bit of a daredevil, aren’t you?’
It wasn’t until later that I thought I’d actually put her at risk. If they’d caught us . . . but we were safe behind the crates, and anyway the big bosses had left ages ago and the boss of ‘Shelf-filling/Night’ was pretty relaxed and often disappeared to the toilets for a quick smoke, even though it wasn’t allowed, and I’d seen him with his mouth full and a big salami in his hand before. And Marion seemed to have gauged the risk; she smiled at me and said thanks and ate the cake.
‘Got a bit of a thing about her, Lofty, have you?’
‘No, rubbish! I’m just asking, that’s all.’ It was after eleven and we were stacking large cartons of juice packs on the juice shelf. Bruno leaned against the forklift and said, ‘She’s married. He’s a bastard though. Met him a couple of times, at work parties and the Christmas do. He used to be a nice guy, I heard, but he’s been a right bastard since he lost his job. There’s your chance, Lofty.’
‘Hey, leave it out,’ I pushed two cartons onto the shelf. ‘I just think she’s nice, that’s all.’
‘Oh yeah, she’s nice all right, Marion is.’ He nodded. We carried on working in silence until twelve, then I had to go over to Processed Foods; there was only one woman there, Irina Palmer, and the twenty-kilo flour sacks were too heavy for her. Irina was very nice and she showed me around the processed food aisles once we were done. She smelled quite strongly of cold smoke and she coughed quite a lot, and while I was lifting the flour sacks off the pallet and lugging them to the shelves she’d disappeared in the direction of the toilets.
‘Right,’ she said and led me along the pasta aisle, ‘it’s all a question of practice, you’ll see for yourself after a while. It’s important if a customer asks you.’ She coughed and stroked the lapels of her overall. She was about the same age as Bruno and just about as stocky too, and I’d seen them heading for the toilets together a few times; Bruno liked a quick smoke now and then, but not as often as Irina, and he didn’t cough like she did either.
‘Right, here’s the normal spaghetti, then comes chitarra, that’s kind of straight pasta, we only have one brand though and hardly anyone ever asks for it.’ She was moving quite quickly to and fro in front of the shelf, touching the packets and cartons with both hands. ‘Here’s the fusilli, they’re like spirals, penne lisce, penne rigate, tortellini, tortelloni, macaroni, macaroncini, pappardelle, wide fettucine, then here’s the trenette, the same only thinner, rotelle for soups, orecchiette, they look like little ears, and if someone asks for vermicelli they want spaghetti and they’re from Sicily.’ She pronounced the names of the pasta like a real Italian, moving faster and faster in front of the shelf and showing me all kinds of pasta varieties that I’d never eaten and never even heard of. And then, when she showed me the ‘farfalle’ and the ‘rigatoni’, she suddenly said in the same tone of voice, with the same roll of the R: ‘You like Marion from Confectionary, don’t you?’
I couldn’t help laughing. ‘All I did was get her a coffee.’ And when she nodded and rocked her head like an Italian mama and opened her mouth to reply, I said, ‘Yeah, she’s really nice.’
‘Listen, Christian,’ she took a step closer to me, and because she hadn’t called me ‘Lofty’ like most of the others – funnily enough they’d often called me that on the building site as well, even though there were a few guys there even taller than me – well, anyway I knew right away there was something important coming now. ‘Listen, Marion’s very fragile, I know she doesn’t look like it, I mean, she’s, how can I put it, she’s never at a loss for words, but you mustn’t hurt her, do you get me . . . ?’
‘No,’ I said, not laughing any more. ‘I don’t want to.’
She nodded and said, ‘It’s none of my business, but I like young Marion a lot.’
Then the boss’s voice came over the loudspeakers, telling us we could clock off now; actually he was only the boss when the other bosses weren’t there. I walked over to the staff exit with Irina Palmer, coughing even as she held her cigarettes in her hand ready for the next one, and then we went to get changed.
A couple of weeks passed until I next saw Marion from Confectionary. She’d been working days for a while, but when I didn’t meet her in the aisles or at the vending machine after that Bruno told me she was off sick. ‘Anything serious?’ I asked.
‘Don’t know,’ he said, but I could tell that wasn’t true.
‘Come on, tell me.’
‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘If you like her, don’t ask.’
And then we stacked six-packs of alcohol-free beer on the shelves.
Twenty minutes before the end of our shift – we were on our last round of the beverages aisles – he said to me, ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’
I followed him. We heard Irina coughing in the pasta aisle but Bruno carried on until we came to the fish and shellfish and then he stopped.
We called this section ‘The Sea’. There was a large sales counter behind a roller door. Next to it and behind it and all around it were tanks and small pools of live fish, live crabs and prawns, and crates filled with ice and cooled with the dead fish and shellfish in them. The roller door was already halfway down and we ducked underneath it. Inside, the lights were dimmed, only a few strip lights glowing yellow on the ceiling. He took me over to a large tank with a couple of tubes running in and out of it. ‘The water has exactly the same salt content as the ocean they come from,’ he said. ‘Just a tiny bit more or less and they’d die sooner or later.’
They were large crabs, lobsters or something, lying next to each other and on top of each other in the tank, packed so tightly they could hardly move. I went closer up and saw that their pincers were held together with rubber bands.
‘They stay in here,’ said Bruno, ‘until somebody buys them.’
‘But their pincers,’ I said, and I saw a particularly large crab moving its arms with the tied-up pincers and touching the glass.
‘So they don’t hurt each other, you see, and so they don’t hurt anyone who wants to take them out.’
I squatted down in front of the tank, my face directly in front of the glass. They had strange long eyes, dark telescopic eyes that came out of their little heads like tiny fingers. The lobsters moved around in the water that flowed in and out again through the tubes, but they didn’t have much space and some of them looked as if they were dead already or just about to die, lying still between the others. Their long, thin eyes; I don’t know why, but their eyes really did my head in. ‘Jesus,’ I said, standing up again.
‘Yeah,’ said Bruno. We stood in silence by the tank for a good while then, looking at the water bubbling and the big pile of lobsters.
‘Look at that one,’ I said. ‘The one right at the back, the big bugger. He’s got one arm loose.’
‘Where?’ asked Bruno, and I went round the glass tank and showed him the lobster, which kept opening and closing the one pincer it had managed to get free from the rubber band, opening and closing. It wasn’t moving anything else, as if only its one arm was still alive. ‘If he’s clever . . .’ I said.
‘You mean he could cut the others . . .’
‘Imagine it though,’ I said. ‘They’d have their work cut out tomorrow morning . . .’
Bruno laughed, then he shook his head. ‘I told you, Lofty, they’d just hurt each other.’
We heard the boss’s voice over the tannoy – the end of our shift. We ducked out again under the half-closed roller door, Bruno took the forklift to the recharging station, then we went to the staff exit and the changing room. ‘Shall I give you a lift?’
‘OK,’ I said, ‘if you don’t mind the detour.’ I usually took the last bus but Bruno gave me a lift home now and then, even though he actually had to go in the other direction. We hung up our overalls in our lockers, put away a couple of other things, had a bit of a chat with the others, most of them looking tired, we swiped our cards through the machine, and then we walked past the boss, who shook everyone’s hand goodbye, down to the staff car park.
‘About Marion,’ he said in the car.
‘No,’ I said. ‘You don’t have to tell me.’
‘She has it pretty tough sometimes,’ he said, but I just nodded and looked out into the night.
We were standing outside my house. We’d already said goodbye and as he started to get back in the car I said, ‘How about a beer – you’ve got a quarter of an hour, haven’t you?’
‘Yeah,’ he smiled, locking his car and coming back over to me. ‘My wife’s asleep anyway.’ We went inside and sat down in my little kitchen. I took two beers out of the fridge and opened them. ‘Lugging beer around all night,’ he said and clinked his bottle against mine, ‘makes you thirsty, doesn’t it?’
‘I get hungry as well sometimes with all that lovely stuff we carry around at work.’
‘You were pretty daring, that thing with the cake. That impressed her, that did.’
‘How do you know that then?’
‘It does her good, Lofty, someone treating her nice like that.’
The kitchen window was open slightly and I heard a train crossing the bridge. ‘Help yourself to an ashtray if you want to smoke.’
‘I will, thanks,’ he said. I went over to the fridge and put the ashtray on the table, and he lit up. ‘When you get home from work, can you go to sleep right away?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘not usually.’
‘Me neither. I’ve got this bench, out the front, and that’s where I sit then, even if it’s cold out. I have a wee drink there and I can look at the fields. I like looking at the fields. It’s never quite dark, all the lights from the city, you know?’
‘Have you got kids?’
‘No, we haven’t.’
‘Sorry. It’s none of my business.’
‘It’s OK.’ We fell silent, drinking and both looking out of the slightly open window into the night. He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray and drank up his beer. ‘I’d better go.’
‘I’ll see you to the door.’
We said goodbye out the front. ‘We could do this again, eh?’
‘Yeah, let’s,’ I said. ‘That’d be good.’
He nodded and walked to his car. ‘See you tomorrow, Lofty.’
He was very quiet the next day and the days after; we worked in silence and he disappeared straight away after our shift, and I took the bus home. I was usually the only passenger; the bus drivers knew me by now and said hello or ‘Home time at last, eh?’ And if I wasn’t tired already I got tired on the way, leaning my head against the window, and sometimes I even fell asleep but the drivers woke me; they knew where I had to get off. Then at home I perked up again and spent a long time sitting on my own in the kitchen, drinking beer and looking out into the night and waiting to get tired again.
‘So you’re doing OK are you, rookie?’ She stood in front of me, hands planted on her hips, and gave me an angry stare, two small creases above her nose. Her hair seemed to be even shorter now, and her face had somehow got slightly less angular, but perhaps it only seemed that way to me; I hadn’t seen her for three weeks.
‘How long do I have to work here until I stop being a rookie?’
‘If you help me for a minute I’ll think about it.’
‘Marion . . .’ I said.
‘So are you coming or not? I asked Bruno but he’s busy.’
‘I’ve got things to do as well, but . . .’
‘I can ask someone else.’
She turned away and went to leave, but I was standing behind her and said, ‘Don’t run away, Marion, I’m coming, this crap can wait. I’ll always help you if you want, you know that.’
‘Rookie,’ she said, turning to face me. She pressed her lips together, so firmly that her mouth was a thin line. ‘Marion,’ I said. ‘You talk too much,’ she said. ‘There’s work waiting for us. Well, come on then.’ She looked around but the aisle was empty, then she took my hand and set off. She held my hand quite tightly pressed, and I felt her warmth, remembered the warmth on the seat of her forklift, then she suddenly let go and I walked along next to her.
‘Bruno says you’re doing well.’
‘Oh, does he?’
‘If he says so it must be true. Irina was singing your praises too.’ I wanted to turn off into the confectionary aisle but she took my hand again for a brief moment and pulled me further along. ‘I’m standing in on Delicatessen and Frozen Food today.’ We went through the open roller door to the cold storage room. I saw her looking over at the vending machine. But when she saw me looking at her she turned her head aside. ‘We’ve got to go to Siberia,’ she said. ‘We’d better wrap up warm.’ She went to one of the lockers and came back with two thick padded jackets and two hats. I helped her into her jacket, then put one on myself. She handed me one of the hats and I put it on her head carefully, pulling it over her short hair. ‘Hey,’ she said, and I tugged the hat down over her ears. ‘I need to see, you know. I’ve got a list, we have to get loads of stuff for the freezers.’ She tugged at her hat, then pointed at a couple of trolleys. ‘You go and get two trolleys, or better three, we’ve got quite a lot to fill up outside.’ We put gloves on too, and once we were wrapped up as warm as Eskimos we couldn’t help laughing.
And then we were in Siberia, twenty degrees below freezing, our breath came in clouds, and we took large hunks of frozen pork and beef and threw them in the trolleys; it sounded as if we were throwing stones.
‘Imagine if they locked us in here, by accident I mean.’ I was standing on the little ladder, handing down a large venison loin to her. I could feel the cold even through my gloves.
‘Hey, now you’re the cheeky one.’ I climbed down from the ladder, folded it closed and leant it against the wall. ‘Hmm,’ she said, ‘I guess we’d have to lug meat around all night to keep ourselves from freezing.’
‘I guess we would.’ We pushed the three trolleys over to another spot. We’d already filled two of them. Our faces were red, our skin felt really tight, as if it were about to tear. ‘Brass monkeys in here,’ I said.
‘Don’t be so soft, we’re nearly finished.’ We were standing close together, the tiny clouds of steam mingling between our faces, and as we were piling crates of frozen pizza in the trolley she suddenly turned to me and looked at me, her hat down to her eyebrows. I didn’t say anything, just looked at her. It seemed as if I could feel her breath through the thick padded jacket. ‘Nice,’ she said, ‘it’s nice of you to help me.’ We stood there like that for a while in silence, then I said, ‘Do you know how Eskimos say hello?’ And I was surprised how quiet my voice sounded in the big cold storage room, as if the cold was swallowing it up. She looked at me, and I bent my head down to her and rubbed my nose against hers. She stayed still and quiet, not moving, and after a few seconds I felt her nose moving too.
At some point we turned back to the shelves. ‘Now I know,’ she said. Then we put the last of the pizza cartons in the trolley.
When I got to work the next day I went straight to the beverages aisles. Bruno always came a bit earlier to fetch the forklift from the recharging station, but I couldn’t find either him or the forklift.
There were more customers in the aisles than usual for the time of day. Perhaps there were a couple of good special offers on, and sometimes there are just days when people want to go shopping; I’ve never understood why that is. And I walked along the aisles; perhaps Bruno had something to do in another section, lending a hand, but actually they always gave me that kind of job, and then I saw the boss of ‘Shelf-filling/Night’. He was leaning against the whisky shelf, the customers passing right by him, but he seemed not to notice them at all as he stared at the tiled floor. I went up to him.
‘Hi boss,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for Bruno.’
He looked up and stared at me in surprise. ‘Bruno?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’m on Beverages today, aren’t I?
‘You’ll have plenty to do on Beverages for a while – Bruno’s not coming back.’ He gazed past me and I suddenly knew Bruno was dead. I felt like I had to vomit, and I leant against the shelf next to the boss. ‘He just went and hanged himself. That stupid bastard went and hanged himself.’ I felt a fist in my stomach; it wouldn’t let me go.
‘No one knows anything. I’ve known him for more than ten years. No one knows anything. Get your forklift and take care of the beverages.’
‘OK, Dieter,’ I said. I had trouble walking straight, and I kept thinking, ‘Bruno’s dead. Bruno’s hanged himself.’
I met all sorts of workmates as I wandered down the aisles and then realised I had to go to the recharging station. They seemed to know already and we just nodded at each other, some of them looking at me as if they wanted to talk about it with me, but I kept walking until I was at his forklift. I pulled the big charging cable out of the socket. I’d forgotten to switch the power off first; that was pretty dangerous, all it took was a touch of the contacts. I held onto the forklift and gave a quiet laugh: ‘One down’s enough for now!’ I got in, put the key in the ignition, and then I drove back to the aisles.
There was that smell, of animals and stables. His smell was still in the little cab, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the seat had still been warm. I drove the forklift to Beverages and worked with his smell in my nostrils all night long.
And that smell again, country air, it was fertilising time. I stood on the narrow road leading to the graveyard – I could see it ahead, a little gate, the roof of the chapel – then I turned around and walked back down the road. The funeral would be starting any minute; there were a few workmates there and the bosses, and I’d brought flowers especially, but I walked back through the little village a couple of bus stops outside of town.
I stopped outside his house. It wasn’t far from the bus stop; he’d described it to me a few times. It was a perfectly normal two-storey detached house, like you’d find in lots of villages, not one of those old half-timbered ones or anything. The road was empty and I climbed over the fence. Maybe the gate wasn’t even locked, that’s probably normal in the kind of villages where everybody knows everybody, but I kind of felt inhibited about going into his place through the gate. I walked around the house. A stable, a couple of sheds, chickens pecking away at the ground, further back I saw two cows in a fenced-in field. At first I wanted to go in the stable, but then I saw the bench. It was against the back wall of one of the sheds. I went over to it. I sat down and looked out at the fields. There was a tractor with a trailer in one of them. It seemed not to be moving, and I could only tell by the couple of trees at the edge of the field that someone was driving it. A couple of birds flapped up around it. Why should I go into the stable? I didn’t know which beam it was anyway. I watched the tractor.
‘Raise the fork right to the top,’ said Marion.
‘Hey come on, just do it. Bruno showed me it. I don’t know, I like it.’ I raised the empty fork as high as it would go. The forklift made its usual sounds, a humming and a metallic pling, then I let go of the lever. I tipped my head back and looked up at the fork, still swaying slightly. ‘And now?’
‘Let it down again, but really slowly. And then keep quiet.’
I moved the lever a tiny bit, and the carriage with the fork lowered itself down again slowly. ‘And now? I don’t understand.’
‘You have to be quiet. Really quiet. That sound, can you hear it, it’s like the sea.’
And she was right; I heard it now too and I was surprised I’d never noticed it before. The fork lowered with a hissing and whooshing sound from the air expelled from the hydraulics, and it really did sound like the wash of waves in the sea. The fork came lower; I sat in the forklift, my head slightly inclined. She stood right next to me, one hand on the control panel. ‘Can you hear it?’ she whispered, and I nodded. Then we listened in silence.