A Shift in the Life of a Retail Worker

Millicent Van Der Walt

My feet are aching standing here in these heels. It’s fine, for the first few hours. I can walk around the store with ease, greet and assist customers with a smile – all pain-free. But then my big toes start to hurt like someone is slowly pushing a needle through my nail. I jig uncomfortably on the spot, rearranging my feet to try and relieve some of the pain. But now they’re hot, a little sticky, and all the friction is causing the glue in the sole to melt. The artificial leather is bunching up under my feet, creating a gross, moist, lumpy shoe that I have to wear for at least four more hours. I’m trying my best not to think about it. The more I do, the worse it is.

Instead, I bring my attention back to the current task; steaming. What once was a pretty good way to pass the time — and make money—has now started to become a bothersome chore. The pile is never-ending. I finish steaming one thing only for it to be instantly replaced by another. A customer buys a dress, a new one must be steamed and put out on the floor. New designs come in and the whole collection must be done. It’s a similar frustration to doing the washing-up when people begin to stack more dishes up beside you to be cleaned. It’s a weird thing to get mad over but when it happens the only thing can do is clench my teeth, force a polite smile and say; oh, no worries, it’s all good.

It isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound – the steaming I mean, not the shoe thing, though my feet still feel like I’m standing in a hot tar pit – the one thing I do like is how mindless it is. Such a simple task requiring zero mental effort. All you need to do is focus on the creases and that’s it. I will admit, it is satisfying watching the crinkles and folds fade away into a smooth fabric.

My mind likes to wander while I’m steaming, thinking about anything and everything. I think about university and all the study I have to do, when my next assignment is due, how I’m going to manage part-time work as well as the education that’s putting me on the path to my dream job. I daydream about my shift being over, going home and make good use of the time I have left in the day to study until I fall asleep. This is an encouraging daydream to have, though it never happens. My nights should be for relaxing after a long day of being on my feet, not more work. I shift my thoughts to something else, something a little more uplifting, something that makes me smile. Like the day I’ll have the money to travel overseas, to live in another country, what I’ll do for work in a place where I can’t speak the local language. Teaching English seems popular and the pre-requisites are usually pretty easy to meet. Most places even prefer that you don’t speak the local language so that the students are forced to communicate with you in English.

I can see myself as a teacher overseas. I picture my classroom and all my students at their desks in front of me. I wonder if I will have to wear a uniform or if I can choose my own outfit. I imagine the cute ensembles I’ll put together for every day of the week and how I will teach the class. I ponder what it will be like to go home in the evening to my apartment or house, make myself dinner and then mark the student’s assessments.  Come Saturday I’ll explore the country I’m in, visit somewhere interesting or just walk until I don’t recognise anything.

“Ow, shit.”

I pull my hand out from under the skirt I was working on, steam trapping itself in the pockets of the fabric, burning my hand. There’s no red mark on my palm and I quickly look around, making sure no customers heard me swear. There’s no one in the store, quiet as usual.

I continue steaming the skirt, resuming my daydreaming. Now I think about the distant future. How one day I’ll write a best-selling novel and make so much money I won’t know what to do with myself. I’ll live in a beautiful house. Maybe in the city? No, the country? Maybe I’ll settle down overseas? Or stay in Australia? With all the money I’ll make maybe I’ll buy myself a French chateau and live like a shut-away noble, consumed by my own novels. I smile at my silly fantasies.

Taking the skirt, I move it to the pile of clothes ready to be put out on the floor and coming back to the next item in the steaming line I groan. It’s a boiler suit, which means it’s a pain to get all the wrinkles out.

I begin steaming and my daydreams turn to something more realistic. What if I don’t end up being a world-famous billionaire author? What would I do then? I’d open a bookstore, I think. Something cute, vintage, and full of personality. Unlike everything else I’ve seen around. The store would be a forest of oak shelves with secret reading nooks scattered all over. Having a café would be a good idea too. People would come and grab a coffee then sit and read to their heart’s content and…

“Millie, your shift is over hun. You can head off now.”

“Wow, it’s five o’clock already? Time flies when you’re working hard, I guess. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Nice and early, there’s plenty more steaming to be done.”

Author: Millicent van der Walt is a fourth-year creative writing student at QUT. She has a passionate love for fantasy writing but is trying to break out of her comfort zone by exploring different genres.
Artist: Sarah McLachlan is a third year Bachelor of Creative Writing student who likes to draw in her spare time. She wishes to combine both her art and writing skills to create a webcomic of her own one day, but she’s also open to illustrating for books and book covers. Sarah is also a major The Legend of Zelda fan and can be found drawing a lot of elves. You can find her at @hideriame02 on Instagram.

Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey