Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in Ellipsis Zine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and the Trouvaille Review.
In my family, we were taught to take things back. If we needed something, and if the “What with, shirt buttons?” mantra had been repeated quite often enough, then there was always that option. It might be a book or a video. For me, it was usually a video – VHS in those days of course. A tape was £9.99, so any £9.99 receipt would do because Woolworths didn’t have itemised receipts then – they didn’t scan bar codes until somewhen in the mid-90s. And heaven alone knew what system they had to record stock, because it quickly became clear to me that a £9.99 receipt and a tape that looked reasonably new – and I looked after my stuff, I had to – would always be accepted by the bored middle-aged woman behind the counter. I never once felt sorry for them when I went in to lie about my incorrect purchase or the fault that they wouldn’t find even if they were minded to look for it.
They’d believe me. I was such a well-spoken boy. I was plausible.
Woolies woman would be someone else’s mum, of course. She wouldn’t let her own kid out alone to commit fraud, so why would she expect it of me?
“You want it, you know what to do. They don’t mind, these people. What do they care where it came from or whether there’s anything wrong with it?”
She’d worked once, my mother, in Savages supermarket in town. Two days, she’d lasted in the job. Her boss asked her to answer the phone on day two and she hadn’t come back for the third. She’d never dealt with returns herself, but she knew these people, she said, from the playground, she said.
Which was funny because it was Dad who took us to school.
So, yeah, if we didn’t have the money and there was something new I wanted – and, hell, I was always being told off for wanting something new like PE kit that actually fitted or trainers that weren’t held together with tape – then I was free to take something back. Something of my own, of course. Not something of hers. She had her own stockpile. I’d choose something that I’d watched and didn’t think I’d want to watch again. I’d check it over with the duster for finger prints and I’d find a receipt with as few identifying features as possible. I knew which day the least interested of the bored middle-aged women worked and I never once looked at their name badges as I handed the item over.
They wouldn’t ask.
But there came a time when I wanted to tell.
Two or three moves along from that town, and long after the much defrauded F.W. Woolworth had ceased trading, I decided that it ought to be told.
The phone calls, by then, were fewer and further between even than when I’d first moved out. Ordinarily, the phone would ring and ring and I’d let it – I’d thought I was punishing her with my persistence, but – for all I knew – the jack was out of the wall. She’d do that. She’d done that to dad, too. Every couple of months, though, she’d pick up, and I’d listen to the stories of how hard it had been for her and how little anyone understood and, whatever was happening in my own life – and she wouldn’t ask – I’d make all the right noises in return. All the right noises by her, that is. And I’d end up feeling like – well, I didn’t know what until I found the receipt.
It was still tucked in the video box, as if living for another day, when it had been invalidated and there was no way I could dare try my usual trick with it. Even if I wanted to.
“Returned for another video,” said the childish scrawl. “Jean,” said the signature. So at least one of the Woolies women had a name. And it reminded me that not all of the returns had been for the greater good. I had been selfish. I had just wanted more “stuff.” Like I was told I didn’t need and never appreciated.
And that made me feel guilty even before I brought it up, but I needed to. Mum had answered the phone. She’d left me a gap in between talking about Tom Hanks and the church she had never once gone to or mentioned throughout the entirety of my childhood. I needed her to take this.
“You remember what we used to have to do…” I began, using “we” to avoid it being all about me, as it always was in her eyes. “When we were short,” I added, using her word for it. One of her words. There was also “skint” and “brassic,” of course. “You remember how I’d have to…” And I thought of the words that would hurt least, as if I was capable of such consideration. I certainly didn’t say, “you remember how I’d have to go to my shelf and choose what I thought I needed least because there was no milk or the electricity meter had run out, or you’d worked your way through the last of the bottles. Again.”
I knew I had the receipt but knew, too, that it was well out of date. I wouldn’t have risked it with one of the Woolies women, even if they did think me a clean, well-turned out lad. And perhaps I shouldn’t have risked it with mum, either. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so insistent that she understood what it had been like for me back then.
But I needed her to know.
I needed her to know that I had reflected on what she had taught us. When I committed to those words, in that very last call, I needed her to know that things had changed.
I needed her to know I was no longer going to be taking things back.