Saturday, August 19, 2006

The boy in the supermarket
I'm looking at the young guy who works in the mini-supermarket. He's 16 going on 35 and appears to have the entire weight of the world on his shoulders as he scans the endless shopping that passes before him. I have never seen him anywhere but in the shop. Does he have a girlfriend, a souped-up car, an alter-ego that goes out dancing and gets drunk on tequila slammers at the weekend? I doubt it somehow, and suspect he may spend his spare time playing computer games in his bedroom.

Today he's wearing a large pink, padded neck brace and can only look around by turning his upper body sideways. In contrast to most of the local Spanish youths who are slender and tanned from swimming and diving off the pier or playing volleyball on the sand, he's plump and out of condition. He has full lips, thick black hair, and the saddest eyes imaginable, their size increased to owl-like proportions by the thick lenses of his spectacles. A faint adolescent moustache adorns his upper lip, and, despite the air-conditioning, sweat trickles down his forehead as he performs his monotonous task. Looking at him as I queue up with my bottled water and bread I am vaguely reminded of a Velasquez portrait, but I'm not sure which one.

He rarely smiles, and speaks quietly, only in Spanish, although the majority of his customers are either German or British. Perhaps the effort to learn a few useful foreign phrases would place a final, insuperable burden on his already weary shoulders. When the total cost of the shopping is calculated he gives it in Spanish and gestures lazily towards the small screen beside the till where it is displayed. He always avoids eye-contact. Even a sympathetic enquiry about the neck-brace from a local shopper only draws a mumbled monosyllabic response from him. It's unclear how he hurt himself, and he appears to accept it as part of of his lot without complaint. I notice that the shop is entirely staffed by women, he being the only male among them, but he is obviously in a position of authority so I surmise that he may be the son of the owners.

But why so miserable, day in day out? A few days later I get a possible answer. His mother, who is evidently in charge of the business, is there (I guess she is his mother by the strong family resemblance) and today she is directing affairs like Napoleon marshalling his troops, bossing everyone around, arguing and gesticulating with a disgruntled customer about a packet of sausages, standing defiantly with hands set firmly on her hips surveying the queue at the till. The rest of the staff cower before her, but the boy appears totally unfazed by her domineering ways. When she speaks sharply to him about the till receipts which are littering the floor he merely shrugs his shoulders and retreats into himself like a tortoise confronted by a cat. Everything about him, his body language, his lugubrious expression, seems to say 'it's a dog's life, isn't it?'