Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
Unexpected item in the bagging area
I wrote a short story, here, a while ago with the above title. It was reasonably popular and I was asked to continue it. Well, I’ve taken a few liberties as you’ll see.
Janice stared at the new sales area; she was going mad. She had almost stayed at home, what with the kids mucking up and her migraine. She wished she hadn’t told them to ‘bugger off to school and stay there’ but they’d been monsters and sometimes she wished she was free of the little treasures.
Now this, almost mocking her. She’d missed yesterday’s briefing about the relaunch. She couldn’t work up any enthusiasm, in truth.
As she sat on the bus, reading a message from Sophie, her co-worker – ‘just you wait and see,’ it said – she imagined new paint, more automated check-outs, a customer toilet that worked, maybe a new product line or two.
But this? No, she didn’t believe it even now when she stood in front of it.
The new sales area was covered in a soft reddish material; the guard rail gleamed with cheap varnish; the signage proclaimed a first in the UK.
‘First and last, I shouldn’t wonder,’ she said to herself.
Staring back at Janice were four children aged from about 4 to 7, she guessed. Each was blond, blue-eyed with cute button noses and pink cheeks. Each smiled shyly. Each wore the same t-shirt and shorts in the supermarkets’ corporate colours. Each, she noted with a smidgen of distaste, had a barcode on the back of their shorts and a security clip on their left ankle, rather like those things prisoners on probation wore.
Janice hadn’t noticed Mr Tufts approach. He beamed at her.
‘The press will be here at ten for the launch. It’s going to put us on the map.’
‘These are children, aren’t they?’
‘Of course. What else would they be?’
‘Robots, or some animatronic something.’
‘Everyone’s done robots, Janice.’
‘Vacuum cleaners, not people.’
‘I know it’s difficult, Janice. If you’d been at the briefing…’
She hated how pompous he could be, the way he kept repeating her name because he knew he’d forget it, the dig at her absence.
‘… but this is a big thing for us.’
‘Yes. Huge…’ she felt queasy the way he beamed at ‘huge, ‘…but is this legal?’
‘My dear woman,’ he really was pushing his luck, ‘I can assure you that head office is beyond excited by this. It will be both a major social benefit and an incredible boost to our bottom line…’
She glanced at the nearest child’s bottom with its enlarged barcode and squirmed. ‘Social benefit?’
‘There’s a demographic time bomb in this country. If we don’t have more children we won’t have pensions when we are older. We aren’t breeding enough and adoption as slowed…’
Mr Tufts moved away. ‘I think you need to examine your attitude Janice. Everyone is supportive.’
It was madness. It had to be some sort of joke. Surely nobody wanted this?
She looked at the smiling faces, all turned in her direction. Blond and blue eyed. Not stolen from some poor third world country then. The words ‘ethically sourced’ popped into her head and she felt sick. ‘They’ll tell us they’re organic next,’ she said, she thought to herself but she must have said it out loud because behind her, co-worker Ruth said, ‘Are they? I hadn’t thought about that.’
Janice looked at her friend. There was a dreamy faraway look in her eyes. ‘What do you think?’ She tried to sound neutral.
‘Oh I’m so… erm…’
‘Well, yes that too…’
‘It’s crazy and, well unethical. Where..?’
Janice stopped. Ruth’s expression had changed. ‘What do you mean, ‘crazy’? It’s fantastic.’
‘But you said you were anxious…’
‘Yes in case I don’t get one.’ She shook her head. ‘You know how long we’ve been trying. We’ve waited so long…’
‘I know. And I do understand. Really. But this is like, well, slavery.’
Ruth’s expression became thunderous. ‘How dare you? You have four. Just because you pop them out, doesn’t mean it’s easy…’
Janice held up her hands. Her friend’s expression was changing again; tears were imminent. She stepped forward but Ruth turned and hurried towards the staff room. Janice sighed. She felt the children’s eyes follow her as she headed after Ruth. She felt so tired; all she wanted was to get home and sleep.
Inside the windowless box, eyes followed her as she went to her locker and pulled on her tunic. Most days it was merely depressing with its mismatched chairs around two sides, the lockers along a third and the large table with kettle, cups, milk tea and biscuits filling most of it along the fourth. Today, feeling herself examined and probably found wanting it felt sinister. Six heads moved as she moved. Mr Tufts glared and Ruth squinted. The others looked cautious, angry even. Only N’tensie met her gaze with something less than hostility and the best you could say was it was neutral. She patted the seat next to her with a chubby hand, the three gold rings sparkling from the strip of neon in the ceiling.
‘Good start to the day? Looks like you’ve annoyed Tufty and Ruthie already.’
‘Everyone knew except me. Why wasn’t I warned?’
‘Sophie said she had.’
‘Have you been involved?’
‘I helped set up the stand.’
‘But you can’t think this is a good idea.’
‘What? Helping people who want children achieve that dream…?’
‘But we’re a supermarket.’
‘We meet customers’ needs. And this is a huge need.’
‘You can’t just sell a child.’
‘You can’t just sell alcohol. Or a knife. There are checks. But if we can facilitate… Have you heard of the NAI?’
‘New Adoption Initiative. The Government is trying to speed up the process, trying to break down the inertia…’
Janice stared at the wall opposite while N’tensie droned on. A Health and Safety poster, curling away from the sticky tape that held it to the wall said the premises had been checked and were safe under some Act of Parliament.
N’tensie stopped and looked surprised. ‘Who? The children?’
‘They just stare. You know. Creepy. Smiling. It isn’t natural.’
N’tensie clicked her tongue. ‘They know they might find a home. They’re happy. Tufty has been talking with the social services and this is all above board.’
Janice shut her eyes. ‘They’re… they’re all the same. It’s like they’re cloned.’
N’tensie laughed. ‘Now you are being silly. There’ll be different children everyday. I don’t know for sure but that might be one family out there. Now, come on. Have a coffee. You’re on till four at 8; you’ll need to get a move on.’
When N’tensie went to the ladies, Mr Tufts came over and sat by Janice. ‘I’m sorry you missed the briefing yesterday; it would have explained everything. And I didn’t need to sound rude. I can see you’re a little disconcerted.’
Janice held her head in her hands. ‘I can’t get my head around it. I understand we need to help create families, improve adoption. I get that outsourcing things can be a benefit. But this just seems wrong.’
‘We only charge cost, you know. It’s not like someone is buying a child. We’ll make money selling baby stuff and from the increased footfall. Anyway you can’t sell a child. Not yet.’
‘But why here?’
‘We are used to matching people with their wants needs and desires, more so than local authorities. So you can see if you take our fabulous retailing skills and apply them to adoption it’s a win-win.’
Throughout the day, Janice felt ill, like something horrible was happening. Yet everyone smiled. She watched when the first customer chose her child and had the barcode swiped. The machine, not completely sure, rejected the purchase at first. Janice sighed. Did it take a machine to realise how wrong this was?
The press came, took pictures, barely asked any questions and went. By mid-afternoon the store was full and the children’s section roped off so the crowds could be managed. There was something of a party atmosphere and all the tills were open all day. Mr Tufts could barely suppress the smiles that wreathed his face. He could be heard saying ‘A good day. Yes, a good day.’
At about five, Janice went back to the staffroom to change. She passed a small office outside which a woman sat, clutching her handbag. She was in shadow so Janice couldn’t see her face but she thought her familiar somehow. As she approached the woman sobbed.
‘What’s wrong, madam?’
The woman covered her face and mumbled through her fingers. ‘I wanted a child but they told me I couldn’t have one. I wasn’t suitable. It’s so cruel.’
Janice walked away. Maybe that was a good sign, she thought. At least it meant they were checking the suitability of potential parents. But that small encouragement was overshadowed by the deep sadness he felt for the woman. Tinged with guilt at her own good fortune to have a family already. She wouldn’t take them for granted again..
The staff toilets were on the far side of the staff room; Jance took off her uniform and stored it in her locker before picking up her bag and heading for the ladies. She’d have a pee, touch up her makeup and go home. She needed to cuddle her children, make things seem real again.
As she stood in the cubicle by the sink she glanced at her bag. It was the same as the woman’s. Funny. She looked at her left hand. Her wedding ring was the same as the woman’s too. Her coat…
A cold shiver ran down Janice’s spine. Grabbing her bag she raced through the empty staff room, past the now empty chair and into the store. It was closed. No one, not even a security guard was about.
She pushed open the fire doors, the alarms following her as she ran to the main road, towards her house. Panic thumped her chest. She knew with an icy certainty that when she reached home her children would be gone.