Shea

Shea works in my local Sainsbury Local, and I don’t know him at all. I like him enormously. He is tall, lanky, probably in his mid-twenties, and he has the confidence of an old hand. He calls all his male customers ‘mate’ and all his female customers ‘darling,’ and he takes excellent care while packing the bags to stack the stuff I buy in them sensibly. The first time I witness him in action I don’t talk to him beyond the ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that get you through checking out, but I’m fascinated by his quiet concentration and diligence that he combines with an unalloyed pride in, and joy for, what he is doing. His long-armed gestures are almost those of a conductor who here does not conjure notes from a band of musicians, but directs these goods from their basket where they need to go in my bag, precisely.

On my next visit to the store, he’s wearing a name badge on which it says ‘Khalid.’ This is the first and so far only time that I talk to him. I say: ‘Last time I saw you, you were called “Shea.”’ He laughs. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I’ve lost my name badge. The other day I was “Matt,” but really I’m Shea.’ This makes me like him even more. Shea is Shea, whether the label says Matt, Khalid or Shea, it really doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter to me.

There’s also a very beautiful and very polite young woman at the same little store who asks me how the writing is going each time she sees me. The exchanges over the few minutes it takes to process a basket of groceries are never profound, but they are profoundly meaningful nonetheless, at that simple, non-directional, subtly subconscious and superficially purposeless level where someone with a utilitarian mindset and an eye on efficiency would argue the interaction isn’t even necessary: ‘It’s functionally superfluous, a machine can do what these people do, why do we pay them a wage?’

Next to the tills there’s a small bank of self-service checkout machines that talk at you. I loathe them. I am no technophobe, in fact the opposite: I embrace technology and think much of it marvellous, and I practically live online. Self-service checkouts with their rigid, robotic, soulless adherence to a stubborn protocol, their loud, unmodulated, miscalibrated tone, and their inability to conclude more than one in three procedures without the intervention of one of their human helpers infuriate and offend me. Occasionally, when there’s a long queue for the tills and I have only a few items, I use them, reluctantly, grudgingly, they way you succumb to the Borg. They may be practical and save you a few minutes, if all goes well, but in civilisatory terms they are an abomination.

A while ago there was a woman called Rose, at the same store. She told me she loved travel, and it transpired she used to be a doctor. She was in her sixties, maybe; well-spoken and dignified. She’d taken the job to get out of the house, to have some human contact, she didn’t really need the money, she just wanted to do something rather than sit at home and read. As I watch Shea take a bottle of Pinot Grigio from my basket, handle it like an object of personal value, remove its security contraption as you would take the hat off a child, and carefully place the bottle in a carrier bag, just in the right position so it won’t crush the apples or tilt over the falafel, having put aside the eggs and the salad, of course, because they obviously need to go on top of the yoghurts, I feel me a great glow of love for him. And for Rose. And for the young woman whose name I still haven’t learnt, though she remembers that I’m a writer. And for the middle-aged lady at my local Waitrose, who greets me like a long lost friend when, having been away for a while, I return to her till. And the young man there too who had to tape up his earlobe with a ridiculous blue bandaid because the store manager made him take out his stretch ring, which rendered his ear so much more conspicuous than if he’d just been allowed to wear the ring, but who carried himself, and carried on with his job, in the finest of spirits, because that’s just the kind of pettiness you have to put up with when you’re a little extraordinary, now and then; and the young woman who greets me with an indulgent smile to this day when she sees me, because one early morning, several years ago, having partied rather too hard through the night, I came to her till a little the worse for wear trying to buy a bunch of ‘personal items’ only to realise I didn’t even have my wallet on me… I’m not friends with any of them. I don’t feel that I need to be either. I just need them to be there and to remind me, every so often, how beautiful humans are, even when they perform the apparently simplest of tasks. You can rationalise away the transaction, but you’re a long way from making me love the machine.

I salute you, Shea, and all your wondrous colleagues: you make this world a little more worth living in, indeed.


< {Irk}       {Coda} >

 

Pyromania [6]

The display on the night was magnificent: the dreadful beauty of destruction. Summer Solstice in Bournemouth and Boscombe would never be the same again. Some people, idiotically, would refer to it later as the ‘Midsummer Massacre’. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. But it was violent, catastrophic. And exceptionally elegant too.

The people in Totland, on the Isle of Wight, probably had the best view, apart perhaps from some revellers who had gone down to the Needles and stayed there till sunrise.

George and Andy never gave a name to what they did, and by no stretch of the imagination could it truthfully be described as a ‘massacre’, either by intention or by effect. That it therefore, somewhat clumsily and by the uncomfortable default that envelops events which happen too quickly and then linger, became known as the Solstice Spectacle, is largely attributable to a couple of unassuming and in most senses of the word pretty average men in their thirties, Stefano and Paul, one Italian, the other English, who had decided to spend the afternoon on Studland Beach and—having previously been oblivious to its naturist stretch—found themselves teased out of their swimwear for the first time in a more or less public place by sheer opportunity.

They had brought along a picnic hamper and two bottles of Verdicchio (Stefano had insisted it not be Pinot Grigio, for once!) and gone through said bottles with unsurprising ease by the time it got dark. After that, they felt comfortably relaxed, but also just a tad horny, and not wanting to risk making a nuisance of themselves or incurring the wrath of other naturists, they withdrew a bit behind some dunes and the long grass, where they no more than lay in each other’s arms and maybe fondled each other a bit before, in the unusually warm air of the night—even for a Midsummer Night on an English beach—they dozed off.

They woke up again at what must have been some time after midnight, maybe close to one, and the alcohol having eased off but not so much their libido, Stefano remembered that he may just have a tiny bit of M left in his backpack, from a session he had been to with a couple of guys a few months earlier, which had been really rather enjoyable.

This proved to be the case, and although the little sachet he’d pushed down one of the outside pockets of the backpack at the time on parting and more or less forgotten about contained just enough for maybe twice two shortish lines, that was certainly enough to give them a pretty good time for the next couple of hours or so.

Stefano was in a blissful place looking out over the expanse of the sea upside down on the sandy slope towards the beach with Paul over him and inside him, the two of them so into each other, so in synch, so absorbed in their rhythm that nothing, nothing else mattered, that everything, everything was good and warm and I-am-you-and-you-are-me, and the way they were together they both got to the point where soon—but please not just yet!—they both would erupt; and they built up to it and they moaned and groaned and called each other’s names and oh yeah and oh god and dio mio and not yet! and I want to cum, and me too and yeah do it and yeah do it and just as they did—Stefano a fraction sooner, which tipped Paul now over the edge too—just at that moment the sky and the beach and the sea lit up and their orgasms lasted and lasted and their happiness and their joy and their union was complete and a chain of lights adorned the coast, in explosion after explosion, like gorgeous fire crackers in the distance, and blue flashes sparked and yellow flames danced and thick smoke rose in the purple red orange skies and both of them lost their minds for minutes and maybe for hours but for these moments they were it all and it all was they and that was the universe and the universe was wonderful and one.

There were maybe two dozen or so other nude people who had elected or ended up spending the night on the beach and none of them had really been particularly aware of these two. Sure, if those who had settled in closest had kept quiet and still for a while they would probably have heard, faint in the distance, the unmistakable noises of two people getting high on a recreational substance and on each other, but nobody did, because they had their own conversations, one small group even had their guitars, some had their whispers and others their quieter unions to celebrate, and so nobody had minded or noted the glorious coming together of Stefano and Paul.

But now everybody was on their feet, by the water, watching the spectacle unfolding on Bournemouth and Boscombe Beaches, all the way from Sandbanks to Christchurch; it was awesome in every original sense of the word: awe-inspiring and profound. Stefano, still high as a kite, and like the others on the beach largely naked—some, perhaps, had put on a shirt or wrapped a shawl round their shoulders—was in a Heaven all of his own, exclaiming in Italian, ‘mamma mia! che bello! dio mio! che spettacolo! che spettacolo! che spettacolo’ and Paul, equally high but less Mediterranean in his expression, kept hugging him and smiling and laughing and smiling and kissing him and then they just held hands and stood there, naked as the universe had made them, among the others who stood there naked and amazed and awed.

And so it came to be that by far the most vivid, most famous, most watched and most liked, most discussed, also, most shared and most, in its own peculiar way, cherished video of the most horrific devastation ever unleashed on the English Seaside was also, and looked and felt and sounded and would be experienced for decades by people the world over as, a fantastic, poetic, ecstatic celebration of humans just as they are, as they are when in love.


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