“You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen,” boasted Henry Fifteen as he rolled through the door of the storeroom. Henry’s Six and Seven attempted to roll their eyes, but found the task beyond comprehension. Henry Sixteen, who had to put up with this shit all the time, stayed quiet. In fact, the whole storeroom remained silent, save for the sound of a daddy long legs battering itself against the light-bulb dangling from above.
“You’re supposed to guess,” said Henry Fifteen, audibly pissed off that no one was taking an interest in his latest exploits. Henry Fifteen’s adventures were all of a similar nature, so the occupants of the room felt they would nail the guess in one go, but couldn’t find it within themselves to care. The awkward silence continued, as Henry Fifteen cast his gaze around the room, searching for even a glimmer of interest. He began to smirk as his eyes rested on young Henry Ten, idling in a corner, clearly trying not to make eye contact.
“You should take an interest in your elders and betters you know,” said Henry Fifteen.
Henry Ten shuffled uncomfortably.
“There’s a lot you could learn about the world, son.”
Henry Ten risked a glance at Henry Fifteen. The trademark smirk was in full view on his huge face.
“Come on then lad,” said Henry Fifteen, “take a guess.”
Henry Ten swallowed, trying to find the words.
“I don’t know, Fifteen.”
A collective groan from the crowd. Ten doesn’t know. Bloody kids. Coming in here, taking up jobs and not knowing the basics, like don’t talk to Fifteen about anything ever. If Ten’d kept his bloody mouth shut then Fifteen would’ve got bored and buggered off. But no. The smirk remained on Fifteen’s face as his verbal assault continued.
“That’s why I said to guess, lad.”
Ten thought for a little. “You found a fiver on the floor?”
Fifteen laughed. “A fiver?” He made a face as though the very thought of a five pound note repulsed him. “You think I’d come in here and tell you lot about a fiver?”
Ten wasn’t very good at guessing games, and he was even worse at trying to convince people to leave him alone. He didn’t have the aptitude for ignoring people; his mother had raised him to always speak when spoken to. He couldn’t tell Fifteen to bugger off either, since Fifteen was big and scary and older than him, and spoke so loudly and so often that Ten rather naively assumed he was the de facto leader of the pack. To disrespect Fifteen would be to disrespect the whole group, or so Ten thought. In fact, shutting Fifteen up probably would’ve made the group more open to Ten. As it happened, they continued to quietly exude disdain to the kid, who was struggling to come up with another guess.
“Someone dropped their membership card?” he tried.
Fifteen frowned slightly. “You’re really bad at this, do you know?”
Ten nodded slightly. He knew.
Fifteen sighed, looked slightly disapprovingly at the kid, and then brought his smirk back into full force and spun round to regale to the entire crowd.
“There I was, patrolling the Women’s Golfwear section,” he began. Another groan was once more collectively emitted, with a couple of “Christ”’s thrown into the mix of barely concealed hatred. Fifteen was undeterred. “I was just going along, minding my own business, when this old dear trips over me. I told her to watch where she was going, but she didn’t hear me. Probably deaf. Anyway, she drops her handbag and everything spills out. I mean, everything; bus pass, purse, Werther’s Originals, the lot. And she bends over to pick it all up – and I’m trying not to look, you know, keeping myself to myself – but I just happen to look up and you know what I saw?”
Only Ten was listening, mostly through a sense of obligation, but he waited the appropriate amount of time for a dramatic pause. Fifteen, however, was not aware of the power of silence as a storytelling tool, and so began to look around for someone to query what it was that he in fact saw. His eyes once again fell onto Ten, who tried his best to stammer out a response.
“Uh… um… her skirt was ripped?” he tried.
Fifteen gave Ten a quizzical look. “A ripped skirt? Are you right in the head, lad? You think I give a shit about a wrecked skirt?” He sighed once more, clearly annoyed at his flow being disrupted. “No, she wasn’t wearing any knickers!”
A few ears perked up, but did not actively register interest. Henry Six began to shift, and then remembered who was telling the story, and thought better of it. Only Ten, who was being stared down by Fifteen, that permanent smirk still prevalent, begging him to respond in some way, dared to provide the appropriate response.
Fifteen lit up. “Aye! It were all just there, blowing in the wind! I could see her tonsils!”
Ten considered this for a moment, but the look in Fifteen’s eye suggested the phrase should not be taken literally, so he moved to his next question.
“So what did you do?”
“I looked away, of course! Bloody hell, you think I want to stare at an old woman’s whoosit? Christ, why would I waste my eyes on that when there’s plenty else to look at? Yesterday, right…”
A third, slightly louder groan was about to find its way into the ether when suddenly the storeroom door flung open and the crowd was saved a retelling of yesterday’s upskirt adventure. A tallish woman walked in and surveyed the room. A hush fell over the room once more, but suddenly smiles were on everyone’s faces, and eyes were widened as far as they would go. Take pride in the job, the older boys said, and make it look like you want to be there.
Ten didn’t want to be there, but he didn’t have much choice. His mother had worked there until she died. His father was still there, but Ten rarely saw him any more. He’d been moved to a different department on a higher floor, so their paths seldom crossed. And Ten’s parent’s parents had worked here. And their parents. Etcetera ad nauseum. Ten was destined to work here and die here, a fate he was none too happy about. So he sat in the corner and hoped he could at least wile away his time without having to do much work.
Today he had no such luck. The others smiled and widened their eyes and waited, but the woman walked over to Ten’s corner and grabbed his handle all the same. Tuts and mutterings filled the air. Always the young kid. Lazy bastard doesn’t even want to be here. Ten was hoisted into the air as it filled up with a collection of quiet verbal abuse, and looked down at a mass of still widened eyes, staring up at him, mouths moving quick and with slight movements until one accidentally shouted “Prick!” and the whole storeroom burst into laughter as the door closed on them.
The woman heard none of this. She had grabbed number ten because it was the newest, and therefore probably wouldn’t break, and she couldn’t be arsed telling her manager about a broken vacuum again. Number ten was barely used and sometimes hard to find, but she had a sixth sense for hunting down the newer cleaners. She carried the vacuum a short way from the storeroom, set it down on the carpet, grabbed its power cord, and went off in search of a plug socket.
Ten sighed lightly to himself. Hiding in the corner never worked. Clearly someone knew something. Maybe he’d have to dig his heels in so his nose got torn, and they’d choose someone else. A broken Henry is a dead Henry, as the older guys said, and Ten didn’t see much point in continuing his existence if being dragged around a shop, day in day out, was all he had to look forward to. No; mustn’t think like that. Dad wouldn’t approve. Ten pushed the thoughts out of his mind, and surveyed the area. Which brought about his next horror.
The lingerie section.
Not that Ten had any problems with the range of lingerie on offer in the shop, of course. Wasn’t that the whole point of lingerie? He had never witnessed it worn, of course, but he understood that it was used by women to allure men, or make women feel sexy, or something. But he also understood that a man wandering around a lingerie section wasn’t exactly welcomed, unless he was buying a gift, and even then isn’t that still creepy? What’s OK about a man deciding what would be sexy for his partner to wear?
Subsequently, Ten began to panic. Only Fifteen would be pleased to be seen dragged around the undergarments of women, and he was an arse. What if someone else rolled past and saw? Would they think Ten was some lewd pervert as well? It was already pretty clear he was disliked, and this would only serve as more ammunition for the others to hate him.
(He was, of course, neglecting to realise that all Henry’s had at one point had to cover lingerie, and felt exactly the same as him about it (unless their name was Fifteen.))
The woman returned, and wondered briefly why the hoover had rolled back a little from the lingerie section, but decided not to press the issue. She knelt down, flicked the switch to ON with a snap, and grabbed the hose. She began to vacuum up the dust in front, then to the side, lifting the nozzle onto some stands that had gathered noticeable colonies of dust and stray fibres that had drifted down from a bra. Satisfied with her progress, she moved to carry on, pulling the nozzle to encourage the rest of the machine to follow.
The machine did not follow.
Ten stood his ground as best he could, which is something when you consider he rested his entire body on four small wheels. He did not want to have to look around women’s delicates, and it wasn’t as though he could avert his gaze. The best he could do was to focus all his weight down.
The woman struggled on for a moment, but gave up. She didn’t have time for this shit. She was due to finish in fifteen minutes and she was not going to let some stupid machine stop her from finishing her last job of the day and cause her to get yelled at by the boss again. She stepped over to number ten, grabbed his handle once again, and carried it to her destination.
Ten hadn’t thought of that. He realised there was no way he could win this.
The task carried on without a hitch from that point. Ten dutifully sucked up the natural detritus, while the women chatted lightly with passing colleagues. Ten didn’t listen to the conversations much; for one thing, he made a hell of a noise when he went about his job. The chance of hearing anything over his own din were slim, so phrases like “new one” and “this one’s pink” went by completely unheard. He tried to listen to the easy listening music that echoed through the store, but it was mercifully turned down low, so again there wasn’t much to hear. He resigned himself to counting how many fibres he picked up. Two thousand and seventy three. Four. Five. Six seven eight what was that?
A pink shape floated by, as though it was rolling on air. Its eyes were huge. Its eyebrows were almost as large. What so often looked like a smirk somehow appeared demure and beautiful, rather than smug. And the nose… so long, so slender… Ten was in love. He watched as the shape was carried past, transfixed. The person carrying it turned a corner and he learned her name. Henrietta Twenty Two.
Henrietta Twenty Two. Henry Ten had found his soul-mate.
The man carrying Henrietta Twenty Two saw the woman dragging Henry Ten and realised that if ever he was going to ask her out for that drink, it had to be now. He had been building up to this moment for days, nay, weeks, and he wasn’t going to chicken out now. He gently placed his machine down and wandered over.
Henry Ten suddenly found himself looking over, directly into the eyes of the woman he had just fallen in love with, who was looking back, smiling. He tried to convince himself the smile meant something. Maybe she was smiling inside. How could he know? And would it matter? They probably wouldn’t even work in the same department. She’d be shipped off upstairs to work at the restaurant and he’d be stuck down here cleaning up the oh shit oh shit he was nose deep in the lingerie section.
He began to yell something about how he hadn’t wanted to be here, share with her his beliefs about men in lingerie aisles, but the distance was too great. So here he was. Whirring loudly, a stupid smirk on his face and his eyes wide and soaking up the lace. If he could’ve turned a deeper shade of red, he would.
The man was having a bit more luck. The woman had been waiting for the man to ask her out for sometime, quietly hoping he was as interested in her as she was in him. She could never make the first move. She’d been taught better than that. But here he was, asking her what she was up to on Friday.
Henry Ten wished they’d hurry up hurry up please please stop talking and GO AWAY.
The man grinned and walked off. His day was looking up.
Henry Ten vainly attempted to look down. Despite all his effort, he failed.
The woman’s hopes rose greatly. She finally had a reason to wear that dress.
Henrietta rose into the air once more, and drifted away.
Henry Fifteen rolled by, being dragged by the nose, muttering about what a lucky bastard his young cohort was.