I never wanted to be a retailer. It was one of those things other people just fell into. For me, it was a means to an end – some much-needed money to pay for my university course. My parents were right behind my academic endeavours. Well, right until they needed to give me some money so I could continue them. Since I was young, film had enraptured me, so naturally that’s the path I wanted to travel on; directing, screenwriting, set design, acting – I just wanted to be a part of it.
Happily, a rather prestigious film school in London had taken a shine to my college portfolio and had offered me a spot. Not being able to rely on any wealthy benefactors, I calculated that I’d have to work at least 2 and a half full-time jobs to cover the tuition fees and the dreaded London rent, and this was before other trivial matters such as food, clothes and utility bills.
So, I did an art degree while working a full-time job in a video game store. I found the job to be fun, and I seemed rather good at it. So much so they offered me a store manager’s position by the age of nineteen, with a decent wage for a working-class northern lad. I figured I could easily juggle the job, the degree and a healthy amount of social time, which really means drinking. I was wrong.
My art degree wound up where most art degrees do; stuck in the retail job with no idea of what to do next. I was twenty-four, burnt out and on my second mortgage because of the urgent advice of friendly bankers for the need to be on the market ladder. I’d become a little too fond of the old drink, too. My loving parents had moved back to Ireland a few years previous. With no real family around to anchor me or to dole out what I needed; an arm around the shoulder and a bit of advice. I drifted through life instead. Drawing upon the vast well of knowledge my twenty-four years afforded me, I surmised a new challenge was in order.
Now, in retail, a new challenge means ‘getting a new job’. It’s a buzz phrase that recruiters absolutely fucking love and amusingly means fuck all. An actual new challenge would have been to do something with my studies, to travel the world or to do a new, worthwhile degree. Anything else than to find another management job in retail. This is how I found myself, at almost twenty-five, being the only male member of staff managing a team of teenage girls at a rather well-known, create your own teddy bear, establishment.
As the name would suggest, my day-to-day involved building bears for little children. The wee ones arrive in store and select what the more macabre side of my brain delights in referring to as “the skin” – an empty animal husk. Next, we attach the lifeless sack to an enormous tube that breathes life into it. I say life, but fluff would be a more accurate description, and we can make it as rigid or limp as anyone would like. We call these workers the “fluffers”, which is also a title for a person in a certain section of the film industry, but means something rather different. The job description is similar.
It doesn’t end there. The next task is to place a heart, filled with love and wishes, into the bear and to brush its polyester exterior with a tatty old comb. We can’t allow our newly created minions to escape the workshop naked, so we’re driven to sell a plethora of clothing accessories to these eager kiddies and their soon-to-be out-of-pocket parents. Last but not least, they create a birth certificate. I’ve seen some wild and fanciful names. Also, Ben. A thousand times, Ben. I used to like that name.
I barely care about any of this. Ironically, I find it quite a challenge to inspire my colleagues who, to a person, would rather be anywhere else on a Saturday than having created forty-odd teddy bears before noon. We have to be happy. It isn’t a choice. We’re rated on exit surveys on how happy we were whilst making the cuddly little bastards, and anything less than an eight isn’t good enough. Personally, I find a day where I’m a six to be quite the splendid achievement.
My life is far from ideal, and my work offers no escape. I’m going out with a girl who doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not happy. She says it’s just a phase I’m going through. I’ve tried to break up with her occasionally. The last time she told me that redecorating my house would make me feel better. I consider telling her I’m gay, just to see if that will end things.
I don’t want to think about my house. There’s this thing happening that people in the know are calling a ‘recession.’ All I know is that my mortgage payments have gone through the roof. I was cheerfully told to take out a variable interest rate as I would save myself plenty of money in the long run. My £250 a month fee has now turned into £600. I’m told by the advisors at my northern England-based lender to just sit it out and that “At least you’ll be chipping away at the interest!” Where would the world be if the banks weren’t so honest and helpful?
I find myself trapped at home and literally trapped at work. More often than not inside the shell of a six-foot-tall female bunny named Dot. I am the only person able to fit the suit properly, and so it has become my burden and nemesis. On a weekend, I wear the suit for at least six, forty-five-minute stints, and some days I’m encased for the entire day. My only relief is escaping into the storeroom to remove my rabbit head for some blessed fresh air, only for an eager seventeen-year-old to ask me what’s the best way to ensure a customer takes a pair of shoes and wig for their new best friend.
On one occasion, I’m told to carry out a disciplinary meeting with a seventeen-year-old-girl who I’d caught stealing bear clothes. I could understand if it were money, or even the teddies themselves, but I found myself bewildered at this amateur thief’s idea of a big score. Unfortunately, the interview ended up being scheduled in-between parties, and timing forced me to conduct the disciplinary in the suit, minus the head. I can only imagine what she thought. Inevitably, she became unemployed, and I escorted her off the premises, as protocol dictates. This meant walking on to the shop floor, in the full mascot outfit; the customers cannot see a bunny with a human head in any instance. I frog marched the guilty party away from the store forever, a solemn six-foot tall bunny hanging its head in regret and shame at the doorway.
It is another busy Saturday and the heat inside the mascot suit is unbearable. My nose tells me that our petty cash budget doesn’t cover dry cleaning. I take comfort because it is my sweat, as I stand in just my underwear so I don’t pass out. Then I realise I’ve only worked here for six months and that someone else must have perspired just as profusely as me inside this monstrosity. We use the mascot suit for children’s parties, which we hold in store, and is a most desirable bit of business for us. Dot is a big attraction for the partygoers. I could feel the love emanating from the kiddies if I wasn’t so numbed to basic human emotion. There’s dancing but no singing, as my voice would shatter the illusion that I am not in fact a giant female bunny. I entertain myself between hugs and photos with the image of whipping my rabbit’s head away to reveal the horrifying, sweaty reality beneath. A more rational thought takes hold. Perhaps I just need a new challenge.
David Green is a fiction writer based in Co Galway, Ireland, and has been published in North West Words, Nymphs, and will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Black Hare Press, Nocturnal Sirens and Iron Faerie. David is the host of ‘Off The Page’ a monthly open mic designed for aspiring writers to showcase their work.