Friday, 29 January 2016

The War on Silence

My wife was excited when it was announced that a branch of Target would be opening on Austin Highway, just a few minutes from where we live.

'What's so great about Target?' I asked.

I don't remember her answer in detail, but what I took from it was that Target was like a Walmart which had bothered to wipe its ass, brush its teeth, and maybe made the effort to pull a comb through its hair every once in a while. It was just a store, basically a warehouse selling more or less everything from inside a space in which you might otherwise store a jumbo jet. If we're going to accept soulless corporate retail as an inevitably, then at least you don't feel the need to take a shower each time you enter a branch of Target.

We passed by and would note the progress of the building work as what had once been a branch of Hobby Town gradually shuffled towards its new identity. Then the day arrived and the fences came down, and we went in to buy bars of chocolate for the sake of making a purchase in the new store. As I have discovered, despite being the land of unnecessarily sweet unhealthy shite, the United States nevertheless scores poorly when you want a bar of chocolate. Hershey bars aren't entirely without merit, but they're more or less all you can buy of their general type and are no substitute for Cadbury's Dairy Milk. Only certain stores carry proper sweeties as I recognise the category - or candy as I still refuse to call it - and Target is one of them.

We looked around, located the Dairy Milk, then headed for the checkout, and as we approached we became aware of a noise; and as we became aware of the noise we realised it had been there in the background since we first entered the store, something like how whining would sound if it was cheerful. We approached the till and saw that the noise was produced by Douglas, our cashier.

We probably didn't know him as Douglas at the time, although there's a chance we saw his name tag, but for at least a couple of visits he was just that guy.

We waited patiently in the short queue. Douglas was dealing with a woman buying an item of clothing. He was talking about the weather and how hot it had been, which seemed a slightly unimaginative topic given that we were in Texas, and that even I had given up passing comment on days when the river catches fire. Exhausting meteorology as a subject, Douglas moved on to bludgeon his customer into revealing all with his relentless interrogation.

Yes, she was going on holiday.

Yes, this was the reason for her purchase of clothing.

Yes, it was true that she was looking forward to the holiday.

Douglas dropped items into bags and touched virtual buttons upon the screen which operated his till. His voice was loud with an upper register that carried a long way without quite being shrill, and he never stopped talking, sing-song and sounding not so much effeminate as just unnecessarily friendly; and now we were going to learn all about his holiday plans.

My wife and I gazed across the store, considering adjacent queues. There were two other cashiers on duty, each getting on with the job, more or less silent but with an occasional glance in our direction, towards Douglas. Everyone else stared openly in something approaching disbelief.

We made it to the front of the queue.

'Oh I just love chocolate!' he told us with undisguised delight, and then delivered an essay on the subject as though he were a contestant on a game show requiring one to discuss a topic for a set length of time without interruption. I grunted and mumbled to show that I was listening and that I would be paying by debit card, words too brief to reveal my English accent. I already felt certain that he had either been to England, or knew someone who had, or owned every episode of Keeping Up Appearances on DVD and just loved that show.

It's always Keeping Up Appearances.

My wife's family all told me how much they enjoyed it when we were first introduced. Even bag-packers in my local supermarket have told me how much they like Keeping Up Appearances as soon as they've identified my accent. The thing is that I'm not sure I ever saw an entire episode until recently, and that was mainly in order to see what all the fuss was about. I mean it's okay, but not a patch on One Foot in the Grave, and the irony is that my father lives around the corner from the house of the fictional Hyacinth Bucket from the television series in Binley, Coventry. He knows the man who grew up in that house, and who was a child when the BBC chose his home for their outside shots, and who vaguely remembers how he used to wonder whether Hyacinth was an aunt of some kind. Furthermore, the house of Daisy and Onslow from the television series is in Stoke Aldermoor, also Coventry, and I'm fairly sure I delivered mail to it back when I was a postman.

Lacking any pronounced enthusiasm for Keeping Up Appearances, I'm tempted to relate some of the above for the sake of something to say when the subject arises, as it does from time to time; but I never do because I always fear it will sound weird. In any case, it was unnecessary on this occasion as our dialogue with Douglas required only that we listen as he shared his opinions on different brands of chocolate.

We left and didn't think of him again until our next visit to Target. There he was, still holding forth, talking up a storm, oblivious to the stunned expressions of everybody within earshot. What a happy guy, we said to ourselves, loitering with our jar of curry sauce and bag of cat food until the queue went down at one of the other tills.

'You know, when you come in here, you always buy potatoes!,' Douglas warbled to his current customer. 'When you came in I saw you and I said to myself, I know just what she's going to buy.'

'What the fuck?' I mumbled, not quite under my breath. 'Maybe the woman likes potatoes. Who cares?'

The guy working our till rang up our curry sauce and cat food, trying not to laugh.

The next time, Douglas was on the till of Target's in-house Pizza Hut concession, just next to the in-house Starbucks; and after that we spotted him wandering the aisles with a clipboard, still delivering one of his monologues. We got into the habit of stopping off at Target just to see if Douglas was there, and he always was, and with each visit we told ourselves his performance simply couldn't have been anything like so loud or weird as we remembered - he was just a chatty guy who liked to keep the customers happy - and with each visit we realised we were wrong, and that he had been at least as loud and weird as we recalled. He was at college studying something managerial, as we learned over the course of subsequent addresses, and Target was just how he paid his way, and like me, he wasn't native to San Antonio, which possibly explained the earlier discussion of the weather.

Bess took a photograph and posted it on facebook. It was greeted with a flurry of enthusiastic responses. It turned out that everyone knew of Douglas. One of Bess's friends described him as a national treasure. His popularity made sense in so much as that if you'd spent more than a minute within earshot of the guy, you would be unlikely to forget the encounter.

Then the day came when there was no Douglas.

Week after week, he remained absent. Sometimes we went in just to check without buying anything, and eventually my wife summoned up the necessary cheek to ask one of his colleagues, 'what happened to that guy who used to work here, the one who talked a lot?'

'You mean Douglas?'

The cashier immediately knew who we meant, even though it transpired that she herself had not been working there very long. Recalling Douglas referring to some sort of managerial course, Bess and I assumed our boy had been promoted, or moved some way up whatever ladder is available to Target employees, but the woman told us that he'd been fired.

We were overcome with an entirely new emotion, one which had not existed before that moment, a form of astonishment containing no element of surprise.

It has been a full year since we set eyes upon Douglas, or heard that faintly invasive call-centre receptionist voice wailing away in discussion of traffic, pyjamas, places to eat, Texas wildlife, or your plans for the weekend. We don't know where Douglas has gone or what he's doing, or how that vaguely quantified course of study worked out for him, but the Target on Austin Highway is a poorer, quieter place without him. Wherever you may be, Douglas, we salute you and your never ending war against the forces of silence.

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