Class Monitor No. 8: Checkout women

As she scans my Chilean red wine, I notice that the woman on the checkout has eaten the quick from her fingernails. It also appears that an unkind hand has forced her roughly into her nylon uniform: it struggles to button at the front, and is riding up at the back. The colour is ghastly, an ersatz pale blue reminiscent of prison and Manchester City football club in equal measure.

The coat is designed to render the wearer depressed, and yet the woman smiles. More than that, she talks, nodding at the wine and saying, "You'll
enjoy that, won't you?" I am saying, "Yes, yes I will", when we are joined by the store manager, who has been overseeing a girl stacking own-brand rice pudding.

He barks questions at the checkout woman, although they are less questions than assertions of his authority: "Have you taken your break? Has Susan taken her break? Have you booked your time off?" He is 20 years younger than the woman, yet he feels able, obliged even, to bully her.
Embarrassed on her behalf, I look down at the discounted goods in my basket. The manager goes on, making sure that the world - in this case, me - knows how important he is.

The woman, who really is important, as without her I couldn't buy anything, doesn't react and continues to scan my groceries. He carries on harassing her and she still smiles, as if she has developed the ability to exist outside her circumstances and interacts only with those things she chooses.

She continues to pass my food over the scanner. A single apple bleeps noisily and she laughs, complicit with me in the small comedy of bleeping apples. Inside my head, great violence befalls the manager. I imagine his slip-on shoes, too-tight suit and gelled hair disappearing beneath a bus, which then reverses back over him, just to be sure. Would society still function? Things would be just fine, yet the plan at this high street store is not to get rid of him, but her.

It has found a way to remove the woman from the members-of-the-public/discount-groceries interface. From next year, all the tills will be automated and she will lose the work that quite probably keeps her family above the poverty line. She may be offered a job stacking shelves for less money, but she is too old for hours of bending down and reaching up. The manager knows it.

His will to power sated, he slopes off. The checkout woman turns to me and winks. I'm glad she is a winker. I have no doubt what he is.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End