Content warning: violence/violent imagery
Spray and wipe. Spray and wipe. Nemesis cleaned the conveyor belt until it glistened like the back of a killer whale. Puffy plastic bags and tins and glass bottles would move on top of it until they reached the scanner where she sat and stopped. It used to panic her when she was a customer, the speed. But in time, Nemesis grew to understand the confidence of these check-out girls in her memories, who would spare the relentless shopping a glance at most, or casually say, You can start unloading, if she hung around shyly. Nemesis knew now what they knew then – that the belt would stop; it always did.
But sometimes, if the weight didn’t register, the items wouldn’t stop in time. Bottles of wine, neck first, would catch on the hand-held scanner and then hold up whatever was behind it in a crush. Or, if a customer unloaded their trolley – one of the family-sized deep-dish ones – all at once, the belt would stall, groaning.
Too heavy, Nemesis would explain, while she pressed the switch under the till on and off again like a panic button. This old thing has had enough! It’s gone on strike!
The main conveyor belt was on Nemesis’ left; on her right was a smaller belt, leading to the packing bay. This was where the customers would put their scanned shopping into bags. The packing bay was at an angle. Things would roll, slide, hit the metal rim.
Nemesis got into the habit of steadying onions with her hand, or at least watching sweet potatoes until they made it to the bottom safely. Pears proclaimed that they were ripe and ready; Nemesis wanted them to stay that way.
Just let it roll, a customer said to her once, as she held one fingertip on a pink lady.
It was embarrassing to be observed. For God’s sake, it’s an apple, the customer seemed to be saying. It’s not even your apple. Who cares if it gets bruised?
While she cleaned in the quiet moments between customers, Nemesis watched the stock boys hide behind the cages to smirk at their phones, or disappear into the back.
Don’t let them put you on check-outs, one of them had told her.
It had been the one who filmed skits on his iPhone in the bulkies. Nemesis liked to pretend she couldn’t remember his name because she was embarrassed by her own audacity in fancying him; as if he was the sexy boy in her year, and the only time she’d get a chance to kiss him would be during spin the bottle.
It’s no craic, Pete had explained. It was odd, the way he acted as though any of them had a choice.
The check-out girls messed around too, but less obviously. Banter around the customer-service desk that Nemesis was too queer to understand. The security guards teased them by stepping too close. Two metres! they’d squeal in performative outrage. A reliable punchline.
Still girls, though some of the supervisors were pushing retirement age and bitter about it, like Mandy. Mandy sent Nemesis away from the check-out to clean the shelves whenever she could; sighed when Nemesis asked for help; got her name wrong on purpose. Mandy had blonde hair and pink nails, but a wrinkled face.
It’s not my fault I’m younger and prettier than you, old hag, Nemesis longed to say, but despite the size of the store, there was no one to whom she could safely bitch.
On her first day, she had hovered around the entrance where the trolleys and security guards were. Did she have to join the queue?
I’m here for my shift?
Of course you are! the man in a hi-vis jacket had replied. His grin was friendly, yet professional. He wore a tie, no name tag, and was in his mid-thirties. The manager, maybe? He was kind of hot: he clearly had authority.
A few shifts later, the same man passed by her check-out.
How are you doing?
Great, she said, instead of, Who are you?
By now she was sure he was the manager. Anybody who thought they were your boss operated under the assumption that they didn’t need to introduce themselves.
I was just wondering, she said, I know it’s a temp position, but I was just wondering, how long do you guys think you’ll need me for?
His smile didn’t falter: business as usual. Until all this is over.
As a new employee, Nemesis wouldn’t qualify for staff discounts for another three months, but working at the supermarket had other perks. People thanked her. She was able to leave the flat and go somewhere else on a legal and regular basis. Plus, when the supermarket closed, she could pick up her necessary items and put them through the self-scan herself. No need to be a customer, no need to queue.
But the main advantage was the sheer abundance; her local Co-op a glorified convenience store in comparison. Nemesis could furnish her home at the supermarket, feed, wash and clothe herself with goods from the supermarket.
The shop floor was bright and bountiful, but the staff room was sad and stale. Free Rustlers Burgers, leaflets about Mindfulness. People sat separately while the TV played. News or home renovation shows were all that was ever on. 130,000 Dead. Factory Workers Shot, Somewhere. A Girl In London Your Age Infected, Dead. Domestic Abuse Calls Go Up 300%. Location. Location. Location. Between hearing the fresh horror of the day and being reminded of how things used to be, Nemesis found it hard to decide which was more depressing.
Instead, she liked to spend her break visiting her favourite luxury items, the ones she promised herself that she’d buy on payday. February’s Vogue, Lupita’s lips glistening. Four packs of soft cotton socks. The bottle of Max Factor nail polish, war-time red. Slim stemmed wine glasses, which exclusively came in packs of two.
But she lingered longest by the flowers. Nemesis liked to relax her eyes by looking at the shelves of rich potted plants and imagine herself in a greenhouse: hot, humid air, heady basil smell, quiet. She wasn’t going to buy a bouquet for herself – she’d find a supermarket boyfriend who would.
Her supermarket boyfriend would bring over a bottle of wine and a bouquet of pink, red, and white roses, bustling in clear plastic. She’d put down her copy of Vogue and gasp, Honey! The £20 Simply Organic Bouquet? You shouldn’t have!
Nemesis was a lesbian, but what did that matter in this climate?
Evangelos, she decided, was the best choice. Evangelos wasn’t like the other stock boys: like her, he was exempt in some way. When she forgot where the blue roll was kept, he showed her gladly. He seemed nice; he was the only other person who wore a mask.
Their Thursday night shifts overlapped, and she looked forward to seeing him at 6.45 p.m., arriving at the store in freshly unboxed trainers and an NFA baseball cap. It was cool that he didn’t wear his uniform in – it showed class.
But one Thursday, Evangelos didn’t show.
Self-scan was a whole different ball game. Gone were the peaceful moments in which she would languidly wipe the surfaces in long strokes, or memorise customer announcements. Nemesis would station herself at the head of the four machines, translucent pink D10 disinfectant spray in one hand, blue roll in the other. In the brief window between,
Please Take Your Receipt ?
Please Place Your Bags in the Bagging Area ?
she’d launch into action. Spray! The bagging area. Spray! The basket area. Wrap and wipe, the blue roll turning to shreds around her hand. At this point, Nemesis liked to look up and meet her own eyes on the video screen for a second. Then tssch tssch into her blue-rolled palm and wipe the scanner, the screen, the card machine, before the final flourish, a touch of D10 onto the coin entry slot like a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes she’d sanitise her hands between tills – if there was time. Or drink from her water bottle – sanitise, mask off, drink, mask on, sanitise – but that was time-consuming.
It was when she was on self-scan that Nemesis first saw the man in the green mask. Or no. It wasn’t the first time she saw him – it was the first time she saw him and realised that she’d already seen him that day, and the day before that.
The man in the green mask had short limbs in baggy clothes topped by big shoes, like a puppet gone slack. On the hour, he would arrive and wait in the queue outside for however long. He’d take two bottles of Evian 1.5 L Still Water to the self-scan, feed it pennies. The two bottles would be placed in his plastic bag. He’d take his receipt, and as he was leaving, say,
See you after!
That day, Nemesis began counting sightings of the man in the green mask. By her calculations, he had accumulated fifty-six bottles of Evian 1.5 L Still Water over the course of a week.
Nemesis wanted to ask him, Why? But all possible answers seemed so deeply depressing. Besides, she didn’t want to be friends with him. In general, Nemesis tried to deploy a polite but impersonal attitude with every customer. Regardless of how often she’d served them before, she worked on the assumption that they wouldn’t recognise her.
It’s like, I don’t want to know your whole life story, she said to finish off a customer service anecdote during one Saturday Night Zoom. Her friends from Uni had real jobs and were easily impressed by the callous rudeness of the public: the general one, the one that they did not consider themselves a part of.
She’d said it without real feeling, the same way people complained about the government, but no one validated her. You know, you’re probably all the social contact some old people get right now.
After that, Nemesis decided she would no longer be accepting developmental feedback from people with desk jobs.
Mandy wasn’t in. Her supervisor was the check-out princess. Younger than Nemesis, but slightly superior; therefore, the check-out princess considered being condescending towards Nemesis one of her sacred duties.
Hey, what’s with that guy? The guy in the green mask?
The princess looked up from Pete’s phone, the TikTok looping.
Oh, he’s a freak, man, Pete answered. I heard he makes Holy Water, that’s why he buys so much. Yeah, it’s true! He used to be a priest.
The princess was looking up at Pete, eyebrows raised. You’re bullshitting.
I’m not! He told Evangelos that once, word for word! I swear.
Evangelos! Nemesis tried to be subtle.
Where’s he at? Haven’t seen him around in forever.
Dunno, Pete said, but his shifts got given out. Maybe he quit.
Nemesis’ heart sank.
Oh, that reminds me, the princess said, looking at Nemesis. There’s some overtime going. I’d usually take it, but I have my exams coming up …
Oh, did someone else quit? There had been a lot of shifts needing covered recently: Nemesis couldn’t remember when her last day off had been.
Nah, she said. Who’d quit at a time like this?
It was always so shocking, blood, though Nemesis should be used to it by now. Mandy usually sent her to clean it up – Give you a break, hen.
She’d been well prepared. There had been a fifteen-minute instructional video on cleaning up food, glass, and biohazards, with a multiple-choice questionnaire at the end.
How often does that happen? she’d asked the assistant manager, who was looking at his phone while the video rolled. On the tablet screen, a woman calmly assured the customer that they could continue to use the aisle while she cleaned up the vomit.
Ha. More often than you think, he said. The mince leaks onto the shelves sometimes.
Oh, meat. She’d been vegetarian for so long that she forgot about it sometimes. Weird to scan. Chicken was disgusting, but bland, staring up at her like a pale unspeaking face. Out of water, fish looked fake, like taxidermy. At least the cubes of pork were pretty: halfway between raspberry and blood.
Soaking up the blood with cat litter, Nemesis was glad of the mask. Something embarrassing about it all: bending over; the blood itself; the cat litter, as if she was picking up shit. Under the lights, the red pools were as bright as a Kit Kat Multipack.
But she was in a good mood. She’d found a new boyfriend candidate, this time a customer. A pizza delivery guy. It was a sexy job in these times. Cosy, complete. They could drive around all night, the roads empty but for ambulances and police cars. Nemesis rarely ordered pizza, but when she did, she thought about it obsessively for hours, sometimes days, beforehand. Perhaps she could date this pizza delivery guy. Kisses like hot cheese on the inside of your lip. Their relationship would be sponsored by Coca-Cola. In the morning, she’d open the pizza delivery guy’s fridge, backwash into a carton of OJ in a too big t-shirt and sports socks.
The tiles were still red. As she gave it one last wipe of D10, she felt a looming presence above her. She gave it a couple of seconds before it became clear that the customer wasn’t getting the message. Couldn’t they see she was busy? But it wasn’t a customer.
Evangelos! I thought you quit!
He stared down at her, ashen-faced against his uniform. My mother died.
Oh my god, she said, stupidly, still on the floor. I’m so sorry.
I wasn’t there to bury her.
How many people were allowed at funerals these days? Nemesis couldn’t remember.
Oh, god. That’s awful. You can’t go home? Wherever that was. To be with your family?
Evangelos shook his head. Can’t leave.
He had a Cupid’s bow; she’d never seen it before. What happened to your mask?
No point, he said. I’m gonna die here, anyway.
The pink was so pink and the red so red that the colours bled into the space around them, and the translucent cellophane wrap filtered it hazily like flickering neon lights. This close, Nemesis could smell them. When she thought of roses, she thought of the soft baby-powdered cheeks of the old woman everyone could picture but no one had ever met, broken veins like prunes. But these roses were not sweet, they were green and living: truly organic, and flown all the way from Turkey to be with her.
Nemesis liked the novelty of pushing her items in the trolley, enjoyed weighing fruit and vegetables, placing the stickers on top of her sheer reusable bags. The big shop was anticipated: during her small sips of solitude between customers, she would write out her grocery list on blank receipt paper again and again, getting it just right.
The £20 Organic Bouquet was at the head of the trolley, like the mast of a ship. It was unprecedented. She’d visited that bouquet many times, seen it out of the corner of her eye, and loved it in secret. But tonight, something had been different.
She had needed it. More than two hours of labour worth of flowers. She didn’t regret it. Nemesis had to work so she could fill the trolley, and these items were her rewards. Treat yourself! She deserved to, didn’t she? After all, she worked.
The items on the self-scan were too heavy: the red light flashed. She could log in herself and fix the problem, but she was not allowed to while she was a customer.
The man at the next machine was the man in the green mask. His two bottles of Evian were already in his shopping bag, and he was waiting for his change.
She wanted to ask him, Why are you here?
She wanted to ask him, What happened to Evangelos?
He looked at her and said, See you after!
Nemesis loved working mornings, the way the supermarket smelt of fresh bread. Morning shoppers tended to be either quiet or cheerful: pleased with themselves that they had woken early enough to beat the queue, certain that they’d got their day off to a good start.
Her first customer was a well-dressed retiree: cash, shopping organised by weight, experienced. She bemoaned the lack of flour. It does come in, but it flies off the shelves. Nemesis said this often, but she didn’t have the time to stop and examine the truth of the statement.
Her next customer wore a protruding mask, like the snout of an anteater. Big shop, bananas and bags of crisps stuffed between tins. The man of the house, who had only taken up the duty of shopping now that it had become dangerous. Nemesis could hear his rattling breath through his mask, like Darth Vader. In his ski gloves, his hands were like paws, but he unloaded his shopping onto the belt efficiently.
Nemesis wanted to ask how he could stand the mask, but she knew his answer would be her answer to the same question: You get used to it. It was funny what people could get used to. A couple of weeks ago, she’d put her head between her knees on the bus because she’d just checked the worldwide stats and the figure had made her want to be sick. 44,000 – something like that.
It hit her somewhere vital. 44,000 was more people than she’d ever know, or even know about. Gone. Nemesis didn’t know how she could possibly get up, ring the bell for her stop, go somewhere, talk to someone. How could anything mean anything again? From that moment, it felt like nothing would ever have a taste. Everything she’d ever eat would surely be stale. Just ashes.
Yet, weeks later, here she was. Still living. Looking for a boyfriend, wondering what she’d have for dinner. And 44,000 was just a number. A low one, comparatively. It was funny what you could get used to.
I’ll just have to get my supervisor over to take this tag off, she said apologetically to the anteater, as she waved frantically yet demurely for Mandy. Nemesis was now practised in the motion of removing the tag from alcohol – cracking it smartly against the magnet like a walnut – but razorblade multipacks always threw her.
He didn’t react. Probably couldn’t hear her. Nemesis forgot that the mask she wore and the Perspex screen were like soundproofing both ways.
Despite the fact that Nemesis was currently serving their only customer at the only open check-out, Mandy wasn’t looking at her. Chatting some shit to the balding security guard, as usual. Nemesis wasn’t a slacker, and she resented when her colleagues were, especially when they were her superior.
Eventually, Nemesis yelled. High and breathy, with a question mark at the end, but still a yell.
Mandy … ?
Mandy arrived at her till, as effervescent as ever, already sighing. Yeah?
Nemesis held up the razors. Can you possibly help me get the security tag off these?
Jesus, she thought. Please, sir, cannyave some more?
Mandy and Nemesis swapped places. Mandy took the razors. The anteater watched without understanding, but with patience. Slamming the razors against the magnet, Mandy slipped the tag off, and handed it over. They swapped places again, Nemesis back in the check-out.
Mandy put her thumb into her mouth and sucked it as she walked away.
That’ll be £89.50, Nemesis said to the anteater. He couldn’t hear her. She pointed. Do you have a points card?
Spray wipe. Spray wipe. Her next customer arrived quickly: it had hit 8 a.m., and the store was busying up. Nemesis didn’t acknowledge them immediately, giving them a polite moment to unpack. Spray wipe. Spray wipe. It wasn’t until Nemesis turned her hands to the antibacterial pump that she realised they were wet; it wasn’t until she was rubbing the gel in that she realised they were wet red.
The belt kept running, there was nothing weighing it down. The blood on it was a spreading, it would be in the machine now, underneath, uncleanable.
She looked up. At the end of the belt was the man in the green mask. In his hands he held a human arm. The end of it – where it would usually be attached to a shoulder – was dripping on to the belt steadily. Inside was not like the clear-cut diagrams she’d seen of the human body in school. It was just red and pink and yellow and white bone, somewhere, flesh.
Nemesis’ brain wanted to reject the truth of what she was seeing, but she knew the blood was real because she could smell it and she started to scream, because that was what you did when you were afraid, wasn’t it?
I found this, he said over her screams, gesturing the arm towards her. The fingers bounced: pink nail polish.
Nemesis wanted to run. Could she? She cringed away instead and kept screaming, though the sound was contained and quiet over the conveyor belt, still running; she was on till eleven today, the one with the squeak; where the fuck was Mandy, where the fuck was the manager?
Did someone forget it? he asked. It was on the floor. Is there a lost and found?
Her hands, her hands; his hands, his hands. Put it down, she said, her voice hoarse. They needed hand sanitiser.
The man in the green mask put the arm on the belt. It slowly came towards her, so much smaller and more manageable now. Shorter than a baguette, about the same length as a bouquet. Nemesis jumped away, out of the check-out, her chair wheeling back with the force of her movement and hitting the other side. She thought the conveyor belt would register the weight of the arm and stop, but it didn’t. The arm was pushed through dumbly where it was wedged between the hand-held scanner and the card machine, fingers crushed by the force of the belt pushing it, blood getting caught in the grooves. She’d have to clean, she would have to clean it up.
The manager arrived. Everything alright, Nemesis? Looks like we’ve got a queue.
Nemesis pointed, her hand shaking. Yeah, I’m alright, just …
The manager looked at the arm.
Ah, he gave the man in the green mask a little embarrassed smile. Sorry about this.
The manager reached around the screen, and gave the arm a little push. It loosened from where it was caught. The momentum of the belt carried it down into the metal loading dock. Peeling an orange plastic bag free, the manager picked up the arm by the wrist and smartly dropped it in.
There, he said, smiling. Don’t worry. It can’t hurt you. Shall I open another check-out, or will you manage?
The man’s basket was barely full: The Daily Record, microwavable nips and tatties. Semi-skimmed milk, with a green top. Nemesis knew that when she lifted the milk to scan, she’d be able to feel the cold liquid moving even through thin plastic. Already, he held cash in his hand.
Under the mask, she smiled. If you’re paying with cash, would you mind using the self-checkout?
No, he said. I don’t like them. I prefer to be served by a real human being.
Once Nemesis had scanned the three items, she took his bill and opened the cash drawer. Counting his change, she dropped it into his hand with the receipt folded around it. Despite this, the tip of her index finger brushed his hand. As she sanitised, Nemesis wondered exactly what it was about her that made him think she was a real human being.