“Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need” so proclaimed the small, grubby whiteboard hung from the wall. Tim knew little about Voltaire bar that he was responsible for the quote scrawled on the staffroom whiteboard in a rather lacklustre attempt to motivate the workforce. That and he very much doubted that he’d ever worked in retail.
The shop, as usual, was dead and there was only half an hour until he could go home but since he’d spent the last fifteen minutes killing time in the staffroom, Tim slowly made his way back towards the shop floor. He took extra care in pacing his steps in order to maximise the time it took him to get back to the till without looking like he was purposely dilly-dallying. Jean had just clocked off and was talking to Trudy when he got back to his position.
“Are you in on Wednesday Tim?”
“Unfortunately so, why?”
“Apparently we have a training day.”
“Oh joy. Again, why?”
“Management think that our sales might benefit from a bit of a brush up on our ‘customer interaction’.”
“And what does ‘customer interaction’ training involve?” Tim was always dubious when management became involved with anything. They couldn’t organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery.
“How to approach shoppers in a ‘warm and welcoming manner’ and what not.”
“How long have you been working this job Jean?”
“Oh, I dunno? Fourteen or so years I reckon.”
“And they think you need to learn how to approach customers?”
“That’s what the notice says. Anyway, it’s for your benefit too. Maybe they think it’s you who need to be more welcoming to customers.”
“I’m a graduate for God’s sake; I think I can just about manage smiling at the old ladies that come in to buy their winter jumpers.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Yup, see ya then.”
“I’ll be in at half eleven, unless I win the EuroMillions tonight then I’ll call from Barbados to say I’m not coming in.”
“That would be nice, well good luck.”
She smiled and headed for the door.
Trudy was already daydreaming about her hypothetical lottery win by the time Jean was out of sight.
“I think I’d buy a Spanish Villa if I won the jackpot or maybe go to the Caribbean. I’d definitely go somewhere nice and hot.”
“Yeah? I think I’d go the other way. Fly somewhere really cold and walk about in the snow.”
Tim liked the idea of the snow, being swallowed up by the unending expanse of white and never being seen again.
The train ride home was an unpleasant affair. People climbing over each other in a sticky haze of elbows and underarms. Tim remembered seeing footage of a train in Tokyo where the guards physically pushed people into the carriage so as to ensure as many people could get on without causing any delay. He wondered what it was like to be in Japan, to be anywhere that wasn’t here. Somewhere where he didn’t have to spend the first hour of his earnings everyday going to and from work.
When the train slid into his station he had to clamber over bodies in a most undignified and animalistic manner, climbing over the hooting commuters and grunting apologetically to those he may have trod on. He had to get home, he was happy at home.
The only reason Tim felt happy at home was because of his ants. The shuffling little creatures always seemed to have a place and a sense of purpose which pleased him no end. He didn’t know how long he had owned the ant farm but it seemed to him like they had lived an inordinately long amount of time. Old they may be, but they also seemed happy enough. If you can judge an ant’s happiness.
It was this simplicity which had always drawn Tim to the insects, they worked and they were happy, he fed them and they were happy and if they ever did seem a little morose he’d just move them to a sunnier spot of the house and they were happy. He gave them light: they were happy, he gave them food: they were happy, he gave them nothing and paid them no attention at all and they were happy. For those few hours that he spent at home each evening, he could play God and yet do nothing wrong. They were easy beasts to maintain and the social cohesion they had was just another aspect of their nature that enthralled Timothy. How could they be so happy with their lot in life? All they did was work, eat and sleep.
Dropping in the last few scraps of his dinner, Tim watched the insects scurry about with great alacrity over the libations rained down upon them. But there was no tussle for it, no struggle. They all worked together for it taking it down into the bowels of their nest. They sought shelter in their underground tunnels, together. By the time he was going to bed Tim felt very small and insignificant indeed.
It was too hot to think properly and with each person that got on, the train carriage became that marginally bit sweatier and that tiny bit smaller. Yet, despite being surrounded by so many people, Tim had never felt so lonely. He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling from the night before and now he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
He hoped he would be able to forget it once he was at work but it clung with him throughout the day escalating into a sort of high pitched dread that bore down upon him. He could feel a God he didn’t believe in constantly judging him from above and with no one to turn to the pressure was becoming a little too much. He looked at the people he worked with and realised he knew very little about them. They were all much older than he was and he had no intention of ever spending time, outside of the shop, with them. He then looked at the shop itself, he did not want to be here, he had bigger ambitions than this but after he had graduated he just sunk into the position so easily. It was just supposed to earn him some money before he found what he was looking for but that never came along and now he was adrift in the void of his own unwillingness to pursue something greater.
He was unhappy and he needed to do something to combat it so when the time came for him to clock off he left without saying a word to anyone desperate to get home to his ants. They would make him happy, they always did.
The train was packed full with the usual dour faced crowd and Tim looked at each and every one of them wondering if they too felt so small, so lonely. If they too hated their jobs, their lives, their individual predicaments. Soon though, all would be well again and he’d be in control.
Tim had thundered home only to find an empty ant farm which had fallen over -possibly knocked, he did not know and could not think- and each and every single ant had disappeared. Not one in sight. They had not stuck around; perhaps they weren’t happy where they were after all.