Big Store Baoding
In Big Store Baoding, employees are not permitted to faint.
However, since sitting or standing still are also forbidden, and shifts can last up to 12 hours - interrupted only by an Official Urine-Wardrobe Relief Break or a timed visit to the Team Eating Cubicle – it is not unknown for some of my less stoic co-workers to collapse from fatigue or dehydration.
Unconscious employees are discretely removed by a Tactical Staff Retrieval Team to the Cupboard of Disgrace before their idle behaviour can be witnessed by customers. In Big Store Baoding, the customer is king. Their shopping experience must not be spoiled by the physical failings of lazy, weak-willed, attention-seeking employees.
Employees are forbidden to make any sound in the presence of customers. They must not speak or whisper. Shoes are not permitted to squeak and clothes must never rustle. Employees must be – sssssh! – silent at all times.
The only exception to this rule is if an employee is directly asked a question by a customer. In which case, the employee’s response should be courteous, concise and clear; his demeanour humble, helpful and happy. On no account should eye-contact be made with the customer; instead, the employee should direct his gaze to a point approximately 1-3cm in front of the customer’s shoes.
And woe betide any employee who fails to answer a customer query! These witless and unworthy individuals bring shame upon their aisle! In such instances, the employee should beg forgiveness from the customer before politely directing them towards one of the tram-stops that have been constructed at 500m intervals along all the major arterial traffic-aisles in Big Store Baoding. From here, they can be transported to the nearest Customer Advice Hub where a specially-trained Advocate can deal with their query in a prompt and efficient manner.
All breakages, spillages and signs of disobedience or laziness are punished immediately. Employees are routinely beaten - sometimes randomly - but never in front of customers. Beatings take place in the rarely-used sub-aisles that house products from the heritage states of Themepark Europe. On these occasions, the aisle lighting is dimmed and the malingerer beaten by soft coshes spun from vegetable pulp in a 3D-Weaver. It is important that customers are not subjected to unsightly bruises on the faces and bodies of employees. Bleeding is, of course, forbidden.
Personal possessions are not permitted. Every morning a dispenser provides a tiny sponge and a 4cm recyclable towel which we use to wash and dry ourselves. Breakfast is a tray of noodle-cubes and onion-tea.
We exercise and practise our Retail Stances. Sweating is encouraged; it cleans the mind and purges the body of aspirational toxins.
Memorising Company Songs is compulsory. At night we organise ourselves into work-choirs and perform some of the hundreds of inspirational tunes available in the Official Repertoire.
For fare that’s fresh and clean and sweet
For super clothes and juicy meat
For prices that are hard to beat...
The company has no name; instead it is represented by a complex ideogram that translates into Neo-Cantonese as [Image blocked until royalty payment received]. The Chairman is also anonymous, his airbrushed features indistinguishable from those of his predecessors. Their faces merge into one; a procession of interchangeable CEOs – a dynasty – each glacially auto-morphing into his successor, from one generation to the next. Eternal by default.
The Chairman is omnipresent; he looks out at us from copies of The Little Red Employees Handbook, his face bland and expressionless, yet still somehow registering disapproval. Eyes rendered in stereogreyscale follow us from waferscreens as we move from aisle to aisle, from cradle to grave.
No one knows the exact size of Big Store Baoding – I have not left the Flannelware Section in over six years – but it is rumoured that it now occupies all of Dongguan Province. It may even be bigger than Large Store Shandong, though I sincerely doubt that, since there would have been a war if it were true.
Our lives are measured by targets and bullet-points. Time has slowed down for us and solidified; it is just a presentation-tool now, the axis of a graph. A never-ending slide-show of births, injuries, and death.
We have been erased from History.
In Month Seven I attended a Section Briefing where we were informed that all the objectives of the previous Five Year Fiscal Push had been met. Each milestone was greeted with spontaneous clapping and cheering. The Department of Avian Bio-Diversity announced the sale of its 250,000th re-gened archaeopteryx and the launch of a new range of domestic guinea-fowl and dodos. The Monument Department explained how it mass-produced and sold full-scale copies of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of [Redacted]. At night, boasted the Department of Celestial Mechanics, the sky over the 200-storey Lotus Blossom Pagoda & Food Hall was now filled with miniature artificial moons, each tethered to a 10 petawatt turbine.
But something unexpected happened while The Forestry Department described the expansion-program that had upsized its retail-estate to 150km². There was a brief flash of green as an aerial stereopeg was inadvertently displayed above the Section Leader’s lectern. The software immediately auto-censored itself, of course, but it was too late: the image had already imprinted itself on my retina and I felt the awkward, unwanted ache of an emotion that no longer had a name.
I closed my eyes and saw it again: a vast expanse of virgin woodland occupying the reclaimed flood-plains that sat beneath Giant Dam Gezhouba. My imagination filled in the details, extrapolated the scene out into fractal-like detail, a vision so vivid and rich that I wanted to step out of myself and enter it.
The forest was almost certainly managed by machines – organised in rows; each tree a disease-resistant clone planted at an optimum, orderly distance from its neighbours – but my mind conjured up something far more chaotic and unruly. It roamed through groves of Silver Tallow, down ivy-choked pathways lined with Persian Lilac and Goldenrain. Sunlight dappled my skin with shadow leaf shapes; the air shimmered and came alive - a pointillist landscape painted in apricot, pink, and emerald green.
What sound does a leaf make? I wondered, and tried to give my world a soundtrack, but I failed. Was there - had there once been a word to describe that sound?
The Department Manager continued, enthusiastically explaining how their new All-in-One Micro-Alpine-Habitats were particularly popular with Ukrainian and Finnish shoppers who wished to recreate their own personal wilderness experience. But his voice seemed to fall away from me, each morale-boosting factoid growing more and more distant, as if the words had become some abstract, meaningless echo of themselves. I feigned interest, clapping on cue along with the others.
That night, I meditated on the forest’s vastness from the confines of my Utility Sleep Drawer. My heart filled with a thousand questions. What did bark feel like - was it rough and calloused, like the hands of an elderly, long-serving employee? I tried to imagine its texture, its smell, the swirl of knots and grain.
The trees in my forest were like people, I decided; each one superficially similar, yet uniquely different. Even though they were immobile and could not speak, each tree was a recognisable individual, readily distinguished by its markings or bearing. The Willow stooped low and humble, while the Popular stood proud and tall.
As I drifted towards sleep, the rings of a Great Cork Oak opened up and revealed themselves to me, vascular echoes that slowly rippled outwards, each year’s passage marked by a gentle impression. A tree’s interior, although normally unseen, was a measure of its growth. The rings moved forward through Time – were part of History - even though the tree itself remained rooted to the spot. They were invisible, yet they still left an indelible mark.
Above my Drawer sat shelves stacked with kilos of hand-towels. Normally I sensed their weight hanging over me – an oppressive mass that bore down on me in the dark like a coffin-lid. But now it seemed to lift and melt away.
Over the next few days, I drifted into a waking dream.
A space had opened up inside me, an imaginary bolt-hole that I could retreat into and hide. But the fantasy grew quicker than my ability to control it. The forest was too big – too vast – for one individual to hold onto. It leaked out into the physical world, putting out invisible tendrils that probed at the ground, searching for sympathetic soil to grow in. It was as if an AR app had been spliced into my optic nerve; I saw the world with fresh eyes, through a veil of green.
I would linger for an extra second beneath the vent of an A/C-unit and pretend it was a breeze. I imagined the huge support-struts that bisected our aisle were the trunks of an ancient Sequoia or a Californian Redwood. The leaf motif on a bar of Mao Zedong Hand-Moisturizer became a botanical totem. The most banal of objects now possessed a rich inner life that only I could detect. I invented new smells…
At night, my dreams were full of saplings and germinating seeds. I navigated my way through a maze of Chestnut trees, pulling brambles from their trunks until I had cleared a path that lead down to a turquoise lake. Branches and twigs came to life around me, twisting themselves into the shape of forbidden characters and words. I covered my eyes, too afraid to read, but the wind whispered encouragement. A shape was starting to grow inside my head - a symbol whose meaning was slowly coming into focus.
I reached out to touch it, but it remained tantalizingly out of reach.
I applied for a transfer to The Department of Succulents.
I knelt in The Supervisor’s work-pen, my hands folded on my lap as I quietly and carefully explained how a lowly and inefficient employee such as myself might assist The Perpetual Consumer Revolution by tending cacti.
She eyed me suspiciously. “Are you...unhappy in your work?” she asked, her iris-cam scanning my physiometrix for signs of ideological weakness. “The desire to nurture is not uncommon in girls of your age. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but do not allow it to distract you from your work. It will not be long until your Proscribed Breeding Period.”
The Supervisor stared at her in-tray for a moment before clearing her throat. “However, in the meantime, it is important that you do not masturbate! Masturbation is forbidden. It is…unhealthy. It saps the will, makes an employee languid and lazy, prone to... impulses…” She trailed off, no longer able to make eye-contact.
She stood up and began singing at the top of her voice, encouraging me to join in with the chorus of Women’s health-Song #17:
Douche your vagina every day
Touch to wash, but not to play
Making babies for The Store
Is an honor, not a chore...
My application was rejected.
I tested the chopstick, bending and pushing it against the underside of the table to see how easily it would snap. I needed something I could break into a splinter that was sharp enough to puncture my arm. I had it all planned out: I would retire to my Utility Sleep Drawer and tear open an artery. My heart would empty itself of blood; I would drift off and dwell amongst the trees forever.
But self-stabbing was now the commonest form of suicide amongst employees, so it had proven difficult to obtain a sharp, unmonitored tool that I could use to kill myself.
Hua Xin Hui 972 saw me slide the chopstick up inside the sleeve of my work smock, ready to smuggle it out. His eyes probed mine. “No,” he silently mouthed.
I lowered my head as he discretely took the chopstick and dropped it into the recycling chute.
In Big Store Baoding, suicide is not permitted.
The Work Recall Fanfare sounded. I thought he might report me, but instead he whispered, “Suicide is a sin against Life.”
I nodded and slowly stood up. My body seemed heavier than I remembered. My heart weighed more than an anvil.
He half-covered his mouth, feigning a cough in case our interaction had caught the attention of some lip-reading snoopware.
“Be strong,” he said.
The buzzer sounded. A voicebox on the door said: “Please exit the Wardrobe immediately. If you require additional time to void your bowels, then enter your personal 10-character pin on the keypad and scan your wristcode. Lost time will be added onto your shift, along with a 15 minute penalty.”
I flushed the bowl and stood up, studying the character I had just drawn on the wall with a stolen indelible marker. In Neo-Cantonese it translated as [Like trees, we will one day grow in the sun].
The ideogram resembled a tree, with calligraphic descenders forming its branches and roots. It was bounded by a pair of circles that represented the sun and the rings that lay hidden within the trunk of every tree.
I had found the symbol in a clearing, deep in the forest, where it was waiting for me to claim it. Written in a circle of woodgrain, it hovered in the air like a lignified sun - a holy tablet inscribed with some religious or philosophical proclamation.
In my dream, all the paths converged on that one clearing. In fact, now that I thought about it, I realised the paths themselves had also been laid out in the shape of the symbol.
I had woken up knowing exactly what needed to be done.
They came for me disguised as customers.
The taller of the two wore Kim Lo-Kool Casualware and a Saigon Raiders baseball-cap. He flashed a stereobadge that read “IN-STORE SECURITY” and they frog marched me off to a tram-stop.
The carriage was a mag-lev retro-dressed to look like a trolley car from Shanghai, 1932. Foreign shoppers thought it looked “Folksie”.
We sat outside on the runner, our knees up, smiling and waving as we passed children and family groups. Posed for photographs. The other cop hissed in my ear, “No fuss, no noise.” He was chubby and his breath smelled of strawberry bubblegum. “Be quiet and behave normally or this will go badly for you.”
The taller one blew a digital dog-whistle and the track bifurcated, sending the fake tram-car off into a hidden Police siding where I was bundled onto the platform and handed over to my torturers.
The room was unlit. Hidden flatcones played pink-noise and 7Hz waveforms to disorientate and make me afraid.
There were two of them in grey fatigues and Anonymity Huds.
Collars around their necks projected a stereofield that pixelated their features, turning their faces into flickering Rubikforms that the human brain finds impossible to solve. Looking at them gives you a headache. They are designed to dehumanize both the torturer and the torturee. Artists in the Eastern Former USA sometimes use these devices to create ‘ironic’ narratives in their installations, but without any real comprehension of what they actually represent.
I retreated into my forest.
I found the path that lead down to the lake. I dipped my hand into the water, earthed myself with the coolness of its touch and looked out across a field of lily pads. A thousand crowns of pink and white.
They made me strip. Pointed and poked at me, laughing at the smallness of my breasts.
One of them danced around me, mocking. “Ha! Yes, what man would want you as a wife, you skinny little whore?”
He spat on me, his Anonymity Hud rippling with the passage of spittle. The other pushed and slapped me. I shivered and hugged myself for protection.
The first one snickered like a schoolboy and I finally saw them for what they really were: a pair of frightened children who had been given the smallest taste of power. They had no grace or dignity; no beauty or stillness within them. In some other world - some place less…rigid – a loving mother and a firm, caring father would have molded them into something worthwhile.
They must have seen the contempt in my eyes because one of them punched me in the face and sent me spinning.
He pulled a cosh from his overalls and threatened me with it, holding it in his fist and shaking it as if it were his manhood. “We could do anything to you,” he sneered, this boy who was trying so hard to behave like a man. How he thought a man behaved.
“Yes, anything…” echoed the other one.
“Anything we like. And no one would see or know or hear…” The words of Women’s health-Song #17 cycled inside my head like a child’s nursery-rhyme. I couldn’t shut them off.
“No one can hear you. And who would believe what you said, anyway, you fucking whore. We’re in charge here…”
The second one produced a cosh and slapped it against his hand as he advanced.
I dived through the lily pads and down into the water.
“No, no, no…” said the Re-Educator. He had entered the room unseen through a seamless door. “This is not how we do things here. Brutality by itself is inefficient and wasteful.” He scolded my tormenters, pushed them aside. He put his hand on my jaw and held it firmly while he spoke. His voice was soft, perfectly modulated. “What is the point of brutality – of damaging an employee – if nothing is learned as a result? A lesson must be properly taught. Information memorized and retained.” He attempted a smile. “Otherwise, what is the point?”
His entrance had almost certainly been choreographed - timed to maximize tension and induce a sense of relief and gratitude – but I was too frightened to realize that at the time.
I watched him from inside a bubble. Through a veil of green.
His face was smooth as porcelain. Unremarkable, almost androgynous. An everyman. He was a Generic, specially bred and visagesculpted so that he resembled a billion random strangers.
He stood back and appraised me. “Did you really think you could get away with this? Language is the property of the people; it is not owned by any one individual. It is not for you to invent new words. They can only arise by consensus – through the collective will of the people.” By “people”, I knew he meant [Image blocked until royalty payment received].
My voice shook, was barely audible. “I…I don’t know what you mean.”
I am not brave. I am timid and inefficient. The lowliest of creatures. These men could break me into pieces and I had no power to stop them. Perhaps I thought I could make them angry and over-zealous. Perhaps some part of me hoped I could goad them into killing me, and then it would all be over and done with.
But I don’t know that for sure. I don’t think that I really knew anything at that moment, apart from the fact that I now had somewhere else to go to. A place that I could retreat to and never return.
An unexpected stillness descended on me. The forest within me grew quiet, as if evening was drawing close.
The Re-Educator gestured and the walls became stereoscreens. They showed ancient, self-animating images of Nanking, clips of peasants starving in their thousands during the Great Leap Forward. Purges and Exiles and Forced Mass Migrations, babies with radiation burns caused by a dirty-bomb in Pearl City One.
“Would you have us return to this?” he asked and I realised that I was expected to show shame and remorse for past atrocities that I had no part in. That I was supposed to atone for some collectivised form of guilt. “Time cannot be reversed. We cannot step outside of History, only learn from it. We have built a new Business Model, one that will stand the test of time. But if we deviate from this course, then we will bring disaster down on ourselves again.” He nodded towards the scenes of poverty and despair that were being re-enacted on the wall beside him. I tried to look into his eyes, but there was nothing behind them. He was just a hollow vessel, a conduit for empty dogma. “The Theory of Productive Forces still holds true. Strength and Unity through Perpetual Growth. There is no other way...no other words. Do you understand?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
I was beaten with a cosh. Each blow was punctuated by a ten second gap, during which The Re-Educator said, “There is no room for new words.”
I was forced to repeat the phrase and wait for the next blow. On and on, it went. Education by rote.
I imagined I was an oak, encased in a thick skin of bark. My cells were made from cork, supple and elastic, able to soak up the pain.
But I shuddered with every blow. My bones ached. When I staggered and fell, one of the man-boys hauled me to my feet and held me, his Anonymity Hud flickering as his face reconfigured itself at 50 cycles per second. “Employees are not permitted to faint,” he said.
The Re-Educator’s ear rang.
He took a few steps back and answered the call. Behind him, a stereoscreen showed footage of a burning city. “Yes. I see. Very well, then…”
He touched his lobe and walked back towards me.
“Get dressed and return to work,” he told me, dismissing the others. “There’s been an administrative error.”
In the few hours that I was incarcerated, my symbol began to appear elsewhere – on the wall of another Urine Wardrobe; on the pillar of an aisle – causing the supervisory staff to believe I was not the culprit. I had not expected anyone else to copy it. It had been a private thing. A form of release.
In the days that followed, it appeared throughout our Section, and then spread to other Sections. Other Departments. As soon as it was scrubbed away or painted over it would quickly appear somewhere else and multiply.
It became a Meme.
There were beatings and interrogations, meetings were held and edicts issued. But the symbol spread and could not be stopped.
Leaflets were distributed. We were warned to be vigilant. The store had been infiltrated, they claimed, by a cell of Taoist Anarchists. Enemies of Capital and The Next Fifteen Year Push Towards Greater Profitability.
But my co-workers and I walked with straighter backs now. A second secret smile sat beneath the cheerful mask we normally wore while we worked. We were Oaks, not Willows.
The symbol evolved into a gesture, a subtle hand-sign that we used to recognise one another. In time, it changed into a posture, an attitude, a Way of Being.
Hua Xin Hui 972 and some of the others have already incorporated it into their Retail Stances. We will educate our co-workers – and our customers - by our example.
When Li Zhi 1126 was arrested as an agitator, we staged a Mass Passivity. Hundreds - thousands - of us completely stopped moving and stood still. We formed a human forest - shamed Big Store Baoding with our inactivity; caused foreign customers to comment and stare - until our brave co-worker was finally returned.
The beatings continue, of course, but there is hesitation - even a trace of fear sometimes - in the eyes of our persecutors now. There are rumors of possible concessions, of changes to quotas and shifts.
New words appear every day and old ones are rediscovered. The soil in Big Store Baoding is far more fertile than anyone ever imagined.
I am humble, timid and inefficient, the lowliest of all living things.
I am a seed.
Hua Xin Hui 972 would make a wonderful husband, I think. There is much to admire about him. I have seen the way he tends his shelves. The way his long, slender fingers fold the bath towels and stack them in piles. He possesses a quiet inner focus, a gentle strength.
He lobbied Jiang Jinxiang 51, our Section Leader - flattered and quietly bent his ear - subtly planting the idea until the poor man became convinced he had thought of it himself. And now it seems our aisle will soon have a shelf stocked with sponges and loofahs designed to complement its range of soft, luxuriant Flannelware.
Loofahs are the dried fruit of the plant Luffa aegyptiaca.
Hua Xin Hui 972 suggested to him that I might be the member of our team best suited to supervise such things. Such selflessness without thought of reward deserves a new word of its own. Perhaps I shall grow one especially for him.
It will not be long until my Proscribed Breeding Period. When my baby arrives I shall watch over him. He will be mine to love and hold, but I will not allow anyone – not one single person - to ever believe they own him. His life will belong to him.
I shall live to watch him grow.
About the Author
Kek-W lives and works in Yeovil, in the rural South-West of England. He is a writer, artist, musician, programmer and general good-for-nothing refusenik.
His short-story “The Making of True Confessional #7” is currently being adapted into a film. He is one half of improv junk-electronics duo Hacker Farm with fellow saboteur Stephen Ives.
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