Collectables Customer Service

The shopping centre was, as always, a hive of activity. Young lovers strolled with linked arms through a heaving sea of sweating bodies, all slowly cooking in a combination of mid-June sun and accumulated bio-heat. Toddlers wandered randomly at right-angles to the flow, new mothers shouted and smacked; balding, nervous looking husbands (the ones with credit cards anyway) trailed overly made-up wives bearing uniform expressions of grim determination; flocks of teenagers formed complex phalanxes of sportswear, deflecting the crowd around them as if daring someone to attempt to penetrate the formation. Commerce pervaded the air itself, moving like a nomad spirit over the baking tan-tiled flooring.

And gliding through this throng of perspiring biomass we see our protagonist. Just under six feet tall and skinny as a Yanoama tribesman, our hero observes the crowd with the zen-like calm of a veteran surfer staring coolly out towards a wind-whipped swell. He glides this way and that, seeming to melt around and through the constantly shifting obstacle course, regarding the shoppers with eyes of a particular green colour that nobody can ever agree on, beneath short cut light brown hair. Suddenly our hero’s gaze is captured by a large illuminated sign, high enough to be visible above a hundred constantly bobbing heads. He glides at an angle, barely missing a double-barreled pram that may as well have had whirling blades mounted on the flanks by the way the owner maneuvered it. Finally he passes through the invisible barrier into a sliver of bare tiling, which most people avoided crossing as to do so would constitute an actual interest in the shop’s wares and attract the attention of the sales droids. Taking a breath for a moment, our hero looks up at the internally red-lit sign, which prominently declares in raised block lettering:

                    C  O  L  L  E  C  T  A  B  L  E  S

Lowering his gaze, he takes a moment to take a broad scan of the store layout. Countless glass shelves litter the floor, set at no particular angle to one another, and illuminated by a vast constellation of tiny but brilliant halogen spotlights. The sharp light filters down and is refracted by both the shelves and their contents - which range from beautifully formed crystal paperweights to intricately detailed replicas of country cottages and churches, complete with grounds and occasionally a small stream. In the entire sixty by thirty foot store, there mull perhaps thirty customers. Looking closer, our hero can make out at least fifteen sales assistants, all uniformly attired in purest white starched shirts. Silence was king here, as if the bustling cacophony outside the store was somehow repelled by the same arcane device that formed the invisible barrier. This place could have been a church, if not for the rather gratuitous display of rampant capitalism. Our hero’s reverie is interrupted by a familiar feeling - an incoming assistant. A lifetime of polite avoidance of ‘assistance’ has imparted our hero with keen instincts, and he is able to turn and look the intruder in the eye (something they really hate) just before he, for it was indeed a male android, is able to deliver his pre-loaded ordnance:

“Excuse me, may I help you sir?” The tall assistant regards our hero with such innocence a bystander could be forgiven for thinking he had merely asked for the time. Our hero is unimpressed, and many responses to this question spring into his mind; “I’ve only been here thirty seconds, how could you possibly know what I want?”, “Don’t you have some shelves to be stacking?” and “Kindly insert the largest and sharpest item of crystal sculpture in this entire store into your anus and piss off” to name but a few. However our hero is well experienced in these matters and falls back on good old British diplomacy:

“No thank you, I’m just looking for now.” These words have a startling effect on the assistant. His eyes suddenly glaze over, he takes several abbreviated steps backwards and his breathing becomes irregular. If he hadn’t been grown in a vat in a vast underground cloning facility buried under Yorkshire, one might think he had received news that his parents had been killed in a car accident. The information is subconsciously relayed to each member of the army of automata, and the atmosphere turns sour. Even though our hero actually is searching for a birthday gift for his mother and is carrying a sweaty wad of cash, he is made to feel about as welcome as a Jesuit at a Megadeth concert. Although our hero was prepared for this, he feels another force, darker and more profoundly irrational than the others. It appears that our hero’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for material gain has attracted the attention of the Matriarch, who in this day and age of political correctness is referred to as the Senior Manager (manageress would after all be quite unacceptable). Our hero casts his eyes towards yonder counter to see his opponent, the very stereotype of the creatively challenged, mid-fifties, still-waiting-for-something-nice-to-happen types. Ie - face like a collapsed lung and miserable as sin. She glares at him; thin, wrinkled seen-it-all-before eyes granting him all the respect of a terminally ill lab animal awaiting dissection.

Bored by this obvious stereotyping of people his age, our hero makes for a nearby shelf. He does not care which shelf, as long as has pretty things to look at so he can fight the bile rising in his throat. It is very clear that he has been branded a shoplifter. After all how could the evidence be more conclusive? He has demonstrated no interest in actually buying anything, has actually walked INTO the store so he must be there for some reason, he was very very rude to Micheal (model number SD-MI-0032) in not accepting assistance and after all, he is a teenager and probably cant afford anything in this shop. He must be here to case the joint, foul drain on society that he is. To think that I pay my taxes just so he can….

Anyway, this is clearly the general consensus amongst the assistants, so our hero decides to play a little game. Glancing shiftily from face to face, our hero detects the subtle body language that indicates an assistant is being ‘assigned’ to follow our hero around and collar him should he attempt to shove a faux-antique fucking chess set down his trousers and leave the store. Indeed our hero could take this to be a compliment to the size of his manhood, although manhood shaped like a chess set would be rather cumbersome and quite unsuited to the purpose. Unless he was able to find a girlfriend shaped like a nest of tables….

However. Our hero is wise to the age-old tactics of the sales assistants, and quickly makes for that most jealously guarded of sections - the trinket section. Here there are stacked tiny crystal and porcelain animals, all hand-made and hideously expensive, but still small enough to be hidden in any number of folds and pockets in the average shoplifter’s clothing. As our hero approaches the section it becomes clear who his assigned guardian is. A small, unassuming female assistant separates from her hidden recharging station built into one of the walls and moves quickly to a shelf very near to where our hero is now perusing a tiny model of a happy little teddy bear. The assistant begins to stack, slowly. Very slowly. Ten minutes pass, the assistant becomes nervous. The same set of chinese kitchen knives have been re-stacked six times already, and our hero is very aware of his surveillance. Several times he has cast his gaze back across the floor to the Queen, still glaring and not doing a very good job of hiding her disgust at the very existence of someone who’s age begins with the numeral 1. Our hero turns to the now rather exhausted shelf-stacker:

“I think they’re just about even now you know.” This statement startles the assistant, who promptly flees the new atmosphere of reason. It conflicts with her programming. Our hero once again feels goosebumps form on the back of his neck, and knows that he is once again being stared at by Her Majesty over there, who by now is so utterly convinced of her own superiority she’s likely to spontaneously burst into a rant about Kids Today (which by the way many children now believe is some sort of militant organisation after falling victim to a similar rant, and are actively seeking membership). Our hero meanders from shelf to shelf for a further ten minutes, the assistants having developed a kind of loose zone defense for keeping track of him. Occasionally he picks up something fragile and expensive and examines it as if (for example) judging it’s size (ie - if it could be mistaken for his manhood), or leaning suggestively over small wicker baskets of tiny glass items. Each time he does so, he catches a glimpse of the Manager, who now simply oozes disrespect and disdain.

Our hero decides to leave the store. It is, as he suspected, merely a den for the pseudo-upper class, who cannot afford to shop at good places like Denby Den so satisfy themselves with the overpriced shite this place peddles, all which is probably made by hand, but they are Taiwanese hands likely heavily calloused from eighteen hour days with no air conditioning. Our hero turns to leave, but as he makes for the exit he sees the Manager, still glowering at him as if he were merely a dog turd that sprouted legs and was now leaving a pungent mess everywhere. Although our hero can forgive mere glances or even stares, it is when the Manager’s eyes track him as he walks by her, and she maintains the same expression, that his resolve cracks. Apparently NOT being caught shoplifting here simply means they cant prove you stole anything, but you must have done because you’re a teenager, which means you’re a cider-drinking vandal wasting his youth and conspiring to bring down ‘proper’ society (not by any means an ignoble quest, however). Our hero has had just about enough. For those who have been wondering, this is where the idealism comes in.

He turns to the Manager and meets her stare with his own steely gaze, his eyes taking on the appearance of green steel. His brow furrows and he speaks:

“Is there something I can help you with?” His tone is even, unbiased, which quickly challenges the stereotype under which the Manager has been operating. Emotional maturity isn’t supposed to develop until you are at least her age, you see. The Manager is unfazed but does not respond. Our hero continues.

“Because if there is something, shall we say, amiss, then I’m sure you’d politely ask me about it rather than ruining the back of my shirt with your hex vision, wouldn’t you?” The Manager still does not respond, her programming was set unchangeable once she reached a certain level on the pay scale. Our hero continues.

“Aren’t you going to ask if I’d mind terribly stepping aside so I can be searched? Frisked? Because after all I could have hidden any number of things couldn’t I? I mean let’s face it, I have no morals or standards so I’ve probably only come in here with the express purpose of lifting everything I can get my hands on, right?” Our hero is now thoroughly annoyed, anger creeping into his voice. This injustice has gone unchallenged long enough. His tirade is beginning to attract both other sales droids and customers clutching tiny alabaster figurines and the like. The Manager opens her mouth to speak but our hero is far from finished. “Tell you what, how about I give you a helping hand. Wanna see what’s in my pockets? Ok then, let’s do that.” Our hero begins to search through his pockets. He pulls out a black leather wallet and looks at the Manager. “You’re right of course, I probably stole it from my father.” He says, and drops it at his feet. The other pocket reveals a black cellular phone. “That’s probably not mine either really is it? I mean these things are so easy to pickpocket after all.” The phone is placed next to the wallet. Straightening up, our hero produces a set of keys from the same pocket. “Now these definitely aren’t mine. Keys suggest responsibility, which as we are both well aware my generation is pathologically afraid of. Besides, I probably arrived in a stolen car, and now I’ll be going home in a different one right? And I probably don’t even have a drivers license!” Our hero’s audience is growing, as a couple of Group Four security guards wander in from outside in case it’s some kind of psychopath (because as we all know they’re just everywhere these days, goddamn survivalists…). The Manager has since folded her arms and assumed the ‘now you’re in serious trouble’ expression, as she glances in satisfaction to the security guards who have taken position at the edge of the slowly forming circle of onlookers. Our hero continues.

“But lets not stop there. After all I’m probably really determined to steal stuff. I mean how else am I to pay for my drug habit? Cars nowadays have very good alarm systems after all. Let’s see now….” To the astonishment of the onlookers, security guards and assistants, our hero hauls off his t-shirt to reveal bare white skin underneath. He shakes the t-shirt repeatedly, making a point of listening closely for any telltale jingling. He turns back to the Manager. “Nope, nothing there. But hey let’s not be hasty and proclaim my innocence just yet. After all, I could be really really determined here. I have after all run away from home and am currently surviving by eating cold spaghetti hoops out of tins in back alleys, so I really do need cash.” A startled ripple of sound moves through the circle of spectators, now four or five deep, as our hero’s hands unbutton his jeans. They fall to the floor in perfect unison with the Manager’s jaw, revealing black boxer shorts and rather hairy legs. A couple of sarcastic wolf-whistles rise from the crowd, which our hero ignores. With jeans now resting around his ankles, our hero continues.

“Now this does kind of raise a point doesn’t it, no pun intended. Unless I am really really really determined, I am unlikely to hide things in my boxers am I?” At this point an unnamed female member of the crowd chimes in:

“Well I don’t know, it certainly looks like you’ve got something hidden down there….” A chuckle rises from the endlessly amused onlookers, grins spread across the faces of the security guards. The Manager’s power base is gone. Our hero, bolstered by this response, prepares for the coup de grace.

“So perhaps it is not true that we are all alike. Perhaps there are some people who reach the age of seventeen without becoming drunken thieves with no discernable morals or principles. It could even be said that some of us are more emotionally and morally sound than some of those from your generation, as you have proved today via your obvious and frankly offensive adherence to cultural stereotypes, which serve only to cripple society rather than to protect it. Which is, after all, what you convince yourself you are doing. After all, all fools need a crusade. However you may of course be correct. I may be all of the things you suspect, and the nameless female out there may be right in saying I have a porcelain model seal (for example) hidden in these boxer shorts. Now we are at an impass. Am I free to go and not be labelled by people like you ever again? Unlikely. But I could prove to you here and now that I am not a thief, simply by removing the concealing items. It’s your call, I’m easy either way. It’s pretty hot today anyway.” Most of the crowd break into smiles, others ponder silently the implications of our hero’s words. The security guards turn and leave, disappearing behind a wall of silently amused customers which seals itself behind them. The Manager’s strength crumbles, and she indicates towards the door. Partially relieved, our hero pulls up his jeans, retrieves his shirt and re-pockets his possessions. As he makes for the exit, the crowd parts before him, and a round of applause begins. The applause increases as he walks calmly, closer and closer to the exit, the odd whoop and cheer penetrating the air. Our hero, henceforth known as Paul, exits Collectables for the first and final time.

And as Paul approaches the bus station, he reaches gingerly down inside his underwear, attracting many strange looks from fellow commuters. He produces a tiny model of a seal, beautifully constructed from porcelain and hand-painted in Taiwan, sealed inside a pre-prepared plastic bag to prevent contamination from rather nasty bollock-sweat. He smiles to himself, a fleeting moment of silent victory..

“That’ll do nicely.” He says to himself, as he boards the bus which will carry him home.

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