There has been a lot of promotion about the doing away of single use plastic bags at supermarkets. The following story I wrote a couple of years ago and have since rewritten. Before you read it, let me say I am all for getting rid of plastic, but we must attack the whole problem and not allow ourselves to diverted and reassured by the small concessions of big business…
Through the plate-glass window of his office, Bjorn saw him coming. The man was descending on him with purpose. The new manager was a force to be reckoned with. The door to the office slammed open and in he strode with a scowl on his face. Bjorn Adrum jumped to his feet like a soldier to attention. A large cigar jutted from the corner of his boss’s mouth, moving back and forth as he spoke.
‘You’ve got a week, Adrum!’
Like a rabbit caught in torch-light, Bjorn stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. ‘Oh no,’ he thought. ‘He’s onto me. I’m fired.’ He gave his best, obsequious smile as he replied, ‘Sir?’ The word squeaked from his constricted throat.
He had to play for time, find out exactly what ‘the man’ knew and if he could get around him by blaming something or some-one else.
‘I’m told you’re the best man for the job!’ growled his intruder. ‘The big bosses want more profits. They’re putting pressure on me, so I’ve been digging around and everybody seems to think you’re it. You’ve got a week to come up with some ingenious way to pour more money into the coffers, or else you’ll find yourself facing early retirement, know what I mean. And remember, it has to look good; like we’re doing something for the community; something touchy-feely so the bleeding-hearts fall for it.’
He paused to take a long drag on the now dead cigar. He turned it around to examine the burnt end. With a disgusted look, he threw it into the pot-plant. ‘Get to work!’ he barked, then turned on his heel and left.
Bjorn slowly lowered his thin, shaking body back onto his plush, leather chair. Its warm embrace, which usually calmed and reassured him, felt a little less secure.
He had been with Wolf’s supermarket chain since he left school, just before final exams for Year Ten.
His parents begged him to think again.
‘You have been doing so well! Why give up now?’ they pleaded.
He stubbornly shook his head and said, ‘I can’t stay at that school. You don’t know what it’s like.’ He had to convince them. He forced a tear to trail down his cheek and get lost in the peach fuzz on his chin. He couldn’t take the chance that they’d find out that he had been cheating. They had moved him into Boys’ Grammar, in the hope that his marks would improve. And improve they did.
At first, he just cheated from the students in neighbouring desks, then he started filching others’ work; sneaking a look into teachers’ bags; breaking into the staff-room to find the up-coming exam papers. All the while, he made sure he appeared squeaky-clean. He never made the mistake of sharing his knowledge. He knew others weren’t to be trusted. He justified his actions in his own head. After all, he wasn’t hurting anyone; his parents were happy; the teachers were happy and he was happy. Such a happy world he lived in.
One day, for reasons unknown, all the security at the school was beefed up.
‘Uh oh,’ he thought.
Combination locks appeared everywhere. Junior (Year Ten) exams were coming up. He panicked. He didn’t have time to learn all the necessary combinations. He took the only course available to him. He lied.
‘Mum, Dad…I know you’re going to be disappointed in me but I have to confess.’ He spoke softly with just the right amount of humility and bravado. ‘I don’t know how it happened but I’ve…I’m addicted to drugs.’ No need to be specific. They were idiots, who wouldn’t ask questions or doubt him. ‘The school is rife with them. I know it’s wrong to do drugs, but after just one little experiment I was hooked.’
He sobbed into his mother’s ample bosom. She was such a soft touch. ‘I want to get clean, but I can’t if I stay at school.’ He sniffed pathetically and his father reached out and patted his shoulder. ‘Don’t ask me to dob on any of my mates. I can’t. I won’t.’
He lifted his head and smiled through his tears.
‘I’m clever enough to get a job anywhere, no worries!’ he assured them.
The trouble was, for some-one without a Year Ten pass, the only job Bjorn could get, in his small town, was Trolley-boy at Wolf’s, the local supermarket. He got the job easily enough, but had forgotten how miserable life could be for those on the lowest rungs — the drudgery, the actual physical hard labour, the lack of power. He set about making a niche for himself. He played one stupid boy off against the other; became the wise counsellor and arbiter of justice, making sure the easiest to influence and control came out victor.
Promotion to counter work was usually in order of date of employment, which meant he had quite a time to wait. Dumbo Donaldson was next in line. Bjorn wasn’t about to wait to be noticed. A plan took shape in his mind.
He stole money in the lunch-room; planted it on Dumbo.
‘Mr Grey I don’t know how to say this and I don’t know if I should even tell you. I hate being a snitch, but Donaldson has been taking money from the lunchroom. Please, don’t fire him. He must need it for something important.’
‘Don’t you worry about him, boy. You’ve done the right thing.’
A week later he was called into the manager’s office. ‘Well done, young man. You’re honesty does your parents proud. As a reward you are to be promoted to cashier, starting immediately.’ As a bonus Dumbo, who had resisted all efforts to be suborned, was fired.
Being a counter-jumper, or check-out-chick was better than trolley work but Bjorn was ambitious. The register did all the calculation for him and, to his delight, he soon realised that quite a number of customers didn’t pay careful attention when receiving change. Batty oldies were easy targets, as were harassed mothers with more than one child in tow. He usually took an extra $100 or so home each week, but was careful not to over-spend.
He took pains to keep up his reputation as an honest good-guy, He would occasionally chase a customer. ‘Sir, sir you left your money on the counter.’
He stopped old ladies. ‘Here you are Missus you dropped this note on the floor.’
‘Oh no, I’m so sorry I made a slight error counting out the change.’
Using these ploys and adding to his bag of tricks along the way he had moved speedily up the ladder, until, here he was… middle management of the largest supermarket chain in the land, with a tidy nest-egg hidden well away from prying eyes.
Usually, reminiscing about his past, clever successes suffused his world with sunshine, but today he was worried. One week. He sank deeper into his leather chair. He had got this far by strategic plotting, keeping his head low, never bucking the system. Now, he was in a cushy job where he did nothing except dictate a few letters, shuffle papers across his desk and make sure he took full credit for his subordinates’ work while assuring them he had ‘put in a good word’ for them.
One week. He felt a panicky little flutter in his chest rise up into his throat, threatening to cut off his airways. He scrabbled in the desk drawer for a moment before producing an asthma puffer. Sucking hungrily on it, he closed his eyes fighting for calm and feeling his airways loosen and expand. When he opened his eyes Al was standing in front of his desk, with the door closed behind him.
‘Christ!’ Bjorn spoke his shock. How did he do that? Appear from nowhere. It was down-right spooky! ‘What the hell do you want Al? I’m trying to think here!’
‘Seen the new boss-man chattin’ with you. Wondered what he wanted. Thought you might need my help.’ Al’s round face broke into a beatific smile. At close to fifty he still had an angelic innocence about him that belied the cunning behind his small, blue eyes.
In Bjorn he recognized, not a friend (dangerous things friends), but a member of the same species. Here was someone who understood him, and whom he understood. No, they weren’t friends. They were something better, allies, accomplices — each recognizing the other’s strengths, and weaknesses. They had had no need to vocalize what each knew instinctively. They simply fell in together, backing each other up and covering the other’s back. Bjorn and his side-kick, Al… good mates working hard for the good of the company and its customers. They were happily treading water at their present level, aware that it would be pushing things to try to advance higher up the corporate ladder; foolish to risk all they had achieved, especially with retirement not too far off.
‘Oh, God!’ Bjorn sighed. ‘He’s given us one week to come up with some magical way to save the company a shit-load of money, or our necks are on the chopping-block.’
‘Just pass it down the line, like we always do.’
‘Can’t. He made it clear the buck stops here, or else.
‘Sounds like this calls for a Counterie,’ grinned Al. ‘Yes, an around the table conference — at the company’s expense, of course.’ Al’s favourite conferences involved food and booze, in that order. Bjorn preferred his booze straight.
He buzzed his secretary. ‘Penny, Allan Firestone and I will be in conference all afternoon.’ The prim Miss Penelope Fountain, safely out of view, rolled her eyes. ‘ Pen, make sure those letters I dictated are ready for the morning mail before you clock off. See you tomorrow.’ He licked his lips in anticipation of the fiery taste of his favourite cocktail. ‘Come on then. I’ll need something to help me sleep tonight.’
‘There you are at last!’ Beatice, Bjorn’s wife, groaned as he entered their penthouse apartment. It was he who insisted on living in the city because he needed to be close to the office, but he made a fine show of commiserating with Beat about having no garden to lovingly tend to. She had reluctantly given in and filled her need for the great-outdoors by joining the local Landcare group.
‘Look at this! It’s so cute.’ She smiled triumphantly, as she pecked his cheek. ‘Yuck! You smell like a brewery. Don’t forget Puss-puss needs walkies, and the rubbish needs emptying. Make sure you sort the recyclables, won’t you!?’
Bjorn nodded and smiled before shutting the door on the sway of her retreating rear. He glanced down at the flier she had shoved into his hand. ‘Beat Adrum for President’. He snorted, screwed it up and tossed it into the bin.
‘Stoopid woman! Stoopid Landcare! Stoopid cat!’ he slurred, as he aimed a kick in Puss-puss’ general direction.
He changed into one of Beat’s best dresses; gave the cat too much food; emptied the bin (unsorted) down the shute and plonked himself in front of the T.V. to watch the latest ‘Chick-flick’. He fell asleep just ha quarter of the way through.
He sat bolt upright. ‘That’s it!’ he shouted. He looked around startled. Where am I? In bed. How did I get here? Doesn’t matter! He glanced down at his wife, who was still snoring with a soft gurgle, open mouth dribbling into a small pool onto the pillow.
‘A pen. Pen. Must find pen and paper!’ He flicked the bedside lamp on. ‘Three-ten! Dear God, I must be mad!’
Nevertheless, he ran into the lounge-room and grabbed a biro and notepad from the computer-desk drawer. He scribbled down the bare essentials of his idea. It didn’t take long. It was simplicity itself.
‘They are gunna love this!’ he chortled. He rang Al, ‘Meet me in the office, now!’ He hung up without waiting for a reply.
Bjorn plugged in the coffee machine and filled the office with the delicious odour of hot caffeine. Al sat, yawning, in the easy chair.
He groaned, ‘Bloody Hell! I was fast asleep. This had better be worth it. Owwww! My head! Give us something for me headache with that, will ya.’
Smirking, Bjorn threw the box of pain-killers to him.
‘Okay, so what’s so bloody important?’
‘I’ve solved our problem. We just need to iron out some details, and I need you to do the typing. Don’t want anyone stealin’ this one, or the details leakin’ out. This will need to be completely hush-hush!’
Al raised his eyebrows. ‘Okay, shoot!’ he said as he swung his laptop onto the desk.
Bjorn outlined his idea and Al’s large, stubby fingers tapped out the main points with a curious dexterity and speed. As Bjorn came to a stop, Al looked up from the screen and said, ‘Load of crap! It’ll never work! Ya can’t do away with free plastic shopping bags! People like ‘em. Use ’em as bin-liners.’
‘Exactly! Exactly!’ Bjorn’s voice rose with excitement. ‘Don’t you see? That’s where we move in, and make even more money. Not only do they have to buy re-useable shopping bags, but they now have to purchase bin-liners as well.’
Al, waking up at last, grinned, ‘And, we sell them the re-useable bags. They’ll keep forgetting ‘em, of course, and, ‘cause we’ve made a big song and dance about how bad plastic is for the environment, they’ll feel guilty and buy some more. We’ll have stacks of ’em near each check-out.’
‘They’ll have to be cheap and strong.’ Bjorn meditated aloud. ‘Plastic will be the cheapest.’
‘Plastic? Aren’t we supposed to be getting rid of plastic?’
‘Ah my friend, you need to keep an eye on the bottom line. It’s single use plastic bags everyone is focussed on at the moment. We may have to change eventually but for now we can still have our cake and eat it too.’
The big man nodded. ‘Ah, I see. Still cheap and nasty just not visibly so.’ He paused for a minute. ‘We can get away with it, I reckon.’
’We’ll have to see what we can source from China, or even India.’ Bjorn grinned. ‘Wonder if they can be made to look and feel like textile? Giving the Third World employment, while getting rid of those nasty, nasty single use plastic bags.’
‘Green!’ ejaculated Al. ‘We’ll make them green, to show how environmentally friendly we are. I can see the headlines now, ‘Wolf’s: leading the way in green ecology.’’ He laughed out loud.
Just then Penny poked her head in the door.
‘Hey you guys, what are you doing here?’
Bjorn yawned theatrically, ‘Pulled another all nighter.’ He grinned behind his hand and winked at Al. ‘Penny, ring the new mug and tell him we want a meeting with the board and Mr. Wolf. asap.’
Bjorn and Al finished their presentation and glanced at each other. Al wiped his sweating face with a large handkerchief and Bjorn licked his dry lips. Christ, he could do with a brandy about now. No one at the table moved or spoke. Mr. Wolf leaned forward, the fluorescent light making a halo of his woolly, white hair around his benign, ovine face.
‘Let me get this straight.’ He paused. ‘We do away with single-use plastic shopping bags at the counters, thus saving us a packet right there…We launch an advertising campaign to show the world what good guys we are, trying to rid the world of all those single use plastic bags.’ He glanced around the room at the now smiling and nodding management committee.
‘People now have to buy ‘green’ re-useable shopping bags, from us at a dollar, or maybe more, a pop…not just once but every time they forget to bring some with them, because they feel guilty if they use single use ones…On top of that is the bonus that they now have to buy plastic bin-liners, once again, from us…’ He was grinning at the two men before him.
‘And, for launching this huge money-making venture we, I, get lauded as a saviour of the environment!’
He fell back into his chair, dollar signs blurring his vision.
(c) Rosa Christian