I’d only been working as a shift runner at Blockbuster Video for a few days when the incident happened, and I remember thinking that it was a perfect reflection of my luck that had it happened just a week before none of it – none of it – would have been my responsibility. I could just have continued to do stock rotation and left the entire messy business to somebody else.
But it did happen….and, somewhat typically, it happened to me.
So, it’s a rainy Monday morning and nobody is out in Ramsgate. The guy I’m on shift with seems badly hungover and is constantly complaining that he hasn’t had any breakfast, and I’m in a thoroughly bad mood because I frequently was on morning shifts at Blockies. Eventually, I lose what little tolerance I have for the other guy’s whining, and – using my newly invested powers as a shift runner – I send him off to get some breakfast at a local cafe. I know he’s going to take the piss and be gone for at least half an hour, but by this point I’m actually struggling to care.
Off he goes, leaving only myself and the extremely unique individual we have as a part-time cleaner in the building who laughs at the walls, mutters to himself and leaves most of the actual cleaning to me.
…and that’s when it happens.
They say people don’t have a sixth sense, but I distinctly remember getting a bunched up feeling in my stomach and a really grim sense that something bad was about to happen. As it turned out, I was right.
So….the front doors swing open and, stepping through the wind and the pouring rain, in come two extremely worried looking men in what I would describe as slightly medical clothing. That is, they’re not exactly wearing a uniform….but they certainly don’t have on casual clothes. The thing that’s particularly arresting about these two gentlemen is that they immediately fan out and begin to approach the middle of the store – which is fairly enormous – on either side of me.
Sensing the worst, as I always do, I immediately reach down for the chain I have on my keys and begin to wrap it around my fist.
That’s my mental process. That’s how utterly broken I am. Two men enter my place of work in a strange manner and, immediately, I’m ready for a fight on the ludicrous assumption that they’ve come for me.
Naturally, they pass me on either side….but begin to pick up the pace. As I head – trying to be as nonchalant as I can – towards the counter, they complete one circuit of the shop, ignoring the videos and DVDs completely, before making for the front door. As they pass the counter, a third guy rushes in through the entrance, holds out his hands and shouts: ‘Well?’
Both men shake their heads. ‘He’s not in here.’
And then they’re gone. All three.
I just stand at the counter, still holding the squirty spray I use to clean the shelves, wondering what the hell just happened….and who it is they’re looking for.
Five minutes later, I find out.
The doors swing open again, and this time all three men sweep in…..but they have a fourth man with them.
An old man.
A little old man.
He isn’t dressed like the others: he’s wearing arguably the most ridiculous outfit I’ve ever seen in on an actual person, and he looks a bit like Pinocchio. He has a ragged little beard and a happy demeanour, but the men around him are not happy. They look absolutely terrified, as if they’re expecting something truly horrible to happen.
To my absolute amazement, the old guy begins to look around the shop, picking up DVDs and turning them over, presumably reading the covers and deciding what he wants to rent.
All quite normal.
Normality expires, however, when one of the three guys with him comes up to me and – completely out of the blue – says:
‘We’re with Niall, today…and he’d quite like to rent a DVD himself. We’d gladly do it for him, but he wants to do everything: come up to the counter, get served, pay the money, everything. Here’s the card we use: I’ll give you the security information.’
I just look at him, blinking a few times. Then I run the card through our computer, noting that the group in question have a note on their account that says ‘get these people in and out of the store as quickly as possible’.
I look up, smile and say ‘No worries’.
‘LISTEN,’ says the guy, suddenly leaning over the counter and smiling, but through clenched teeth. ‘A few rules. Don’t look him in the eye, not even for one second. When you serve him, make sure you keep it chatty and – crucially – take the DVD case from him flat on.’
‘Yes, FLAT ON! Don’t point an edge at him: don’t show him any edges. If it gets out of hand, we’ll step in straight away.’
Now I’m absolutely shitting myself because I’m utterly convinced I’m going to be beaten to death with a DVD box wielded by a little old man dressed as Pinocchio.
It takes what feels like an hour for Niall to choose a DVD, but by the time he approaches the counter my attitude has changed completely.
I earned £4.50 an hour when I ran shifts for the first time at Blockbuster Video. I worked out that, in the time it took to serve Niall, I earned approximately £2
Feeling a flood of anxiety mixed with resentful anger at the fear rising within in me, I found myself drifting into a state of icy calm as I served the old man.
I was brilliant.
I smiled, chatted to him a bit, took his DVDs flat on, scanned them through and asked for the money.
That was when Niall barked.
BARKED. Like a dog. Not a big dog. Not a Labrador or an Alsatian. This was the ‘rrrrrrrrrrrruffffffffff!’ you’d expect to hear from a smaller dog like a Jack Russell Terrier or a Corgi.
I absolutely burst out laughing. I just couldn’t help it.
I laughed so much I actually doubled up and almost dropped to my knees.
I laughed and laughed and laughed.
When I finally regained control of myself, I peered through tear-streamed eyes at the three shocked and terrified men….and then, finally, at Niall.
‘Sorry about that,’ he says, staring me straight in the eyes.
I swallow, and take a deep breath. ‘No worries, dude. Enjoy the DVD.’
Off they go…..Niall and his three companions…..into the wind and the rain.
After a few minutes, the door swings open again and our Employee of the Month strides back in with a bacon sandwich. He meets me going the other way.
‘Where are you off to, Stoney?’
I don’t even bother to answer. It’s my turn to go for breakfast.