"If you're - ha ha - looking for something to do," I say, trying to make a joke of it, the fourth time she makes the journey from the basement to the shop floor empty-handed, "you could bring up some books so I can refill the self-help section; somebody's just bought a huge stack of them." I smile in what I hope is an ingratiating fashion.
She looks at me blankly. "The self-help section?" She repeats the words as if I've asked her to bring books for the stoat-raping section, or something even more distastefully incomprehensible. I return the blank look for the time it takes me to determine that she's not merely objecting to me asking her to do anything, she genuinely doesn't understand. I elaborate, with a nod of my head in the direction of the offending section: "The pop-psychology stuff, you know. Frances priced a big pile of them, so I thought we might as well refill the shelves. You know. While it's quiet."
"Oh." There's a long pause. "I'm amazed that... you know, that anybody buys all that stuff." There's a glimmer of hope for her, then, if she scorns the likes of Men are from Myers-Briggs, Women are from Quizilla and Better Living Through Couscous, so in desperation I try to make more conversation.
"Yeah... there was one man, bought a stack of them this high." I shake my head in overacted disbelief. "So anyway, Frances said she thought she should write a best-selling book on how to fight addiction to self-help books," I say, smiling, waiting for the small laugh before going in with the borrowed punchline: "... and then write a sequel."
There's a pause.
"Well ... it's a good idea, isn't it," says Liz, vaguely.
Ten minutes later she passes me again, empty-handed, with a kind of half-smiling shrug. I wait until she's more or less passed me, then roll my eyes exaggeratedly and mouth something childish before looking around guiltily to see if any customers have seen.
Deciding that discretion is the better part of not getting sacked, I take out my frustration by viciously price-labelling boxes of Sesame Snaps. Each box contains three layers of two rows of four packets, which adds up to twenty-four packets in each of the seven boxes. And each packet contains three thin credit-card-sized slices of snacky goodness in the form of sesame seeds trapped, like bugs in amber, in some kind of semi-solid honey-coloured tooth-rot. A packet of the plain stuff costs 19p, and a packet of the chocolate-covered variant costs 29p, and the pricing gun spits out a legibly-printed label about one time in three.
I contemplate putting the pricing-gun to Liz's head and threatening to price her at tuppence unless she actually does some useful work, but reflect that it would probably only backfire.
Roger wanders upstairs, muttering about the strain that the stairs are putting on his back and his knees. He's not supposed to be here at all, but he's come in to get some accounting and admin done without interruption. Unfortunately he's in the sort of mood where he can't sit still. He starts pottering around, moving boxes of food products. It appears that everybody is short of something to do except the person who's volunteered to do the boring job that stops them doing anything else so that the important people can get on with their important jobs.
"They're a co-op, you know," says Roger, apparently irrelevantly.
"Suma. They're a co-op." Suma are the people who supply us with some of the hand-knitted organic biscuits and designer social-conscience teas and coffees that we sell at exorbitant prices.
"Oh right," I say, non-committally.
"Everybody gets paid the same wages."
"From the guy who picks the tea to the CEO."
"Same wages, all the way through."
"That's great." I'm trying to keep just the right tone of enthusiasm mixed with Being Busy Doing Something Else, in the hope that the conversation will be nipped in the bud. I'm not busy doing anything else -- if I was I'd be exchanging pleasantries with customers instead -- I'm just not in the mood.
"Same wages for everybody."
Just as I'm giving in and trying to muster an opinion that's bland enough for small talk, I spot a customer approaching like a two-legged water-dispenser in a conversational desert. He bounces up to the till with a spring in his step that makes his rucksack and his beard quiver, and hands over a couple of modern fiction paperbacks and an arty greetings-card. I start ringing them in, trying to resist the urge to read the blurb on the back just for a quick fix of moderately-coherent verbal input.
"It's a very good idea, that," he says.
"Yes, a very good idea." I rack my brains, and then light dawns: he's actually continuing the conversation that Roger's been trying to have.
"Oh, the co-op thing," I say, brightly. "Yes, it's great that people are doing things like that, isn't it?"
"It's a funny thing, because we have this thing in the UK."
"Oh?" I can't think of many UK-based tea-picking co-operatives off the top of my head, but I'm prepared to be enlightened.
"This thing. Where we ask MPs about this."
"Mm-hm." I nod sagely, feeling that I've missed a vital link in the conversation.
"We ask them. How much they earn. How much money they get, you know."
"Oh, right. Ah-hah."
"How much money they get, from, from different things. Different sources."
"Right, right." I should have just had the conversation with Roger.
"We ask them this."
Or Liz. I'm longing for Liz's lucid conversation.
"How much they get, from different sources, from one place or another."
I'm all out of enthusiasm for making vague noises. I try to muster an enquiring expression, but I suspect it comes out looking merely constipated.
"But. We ask them this, but." He pauses, as if about to deliver the climax of his stirring speech. And here it is: "we don't ask ourselves!"
It's my turn to look blank. I smile vacantly, hoping that he thinks I'm stupid rather than rude, and try to respond appropriately. "Haha. Yes. Right. It's crazy, isn't it. That'll be £6.98. Do you need a bag?"
Crazy just isn't the word.