The assigned task was to write about my first job in under 1500 words.
MY FIRST JOB
When I was 14 I went into a new pet shop which had opened. I was a shy, plump, late developing pre-pubescent who felt more in common with animals than people. Now I am forthright, post menopausal, plump once again, and I still feel more kinship with animals than with people. So, there I was, communing with the creatures, when the proprietor came up behind me and asked if I would like a job, cleaning out the cages after school a couple of afternoons a week. I said I’d ask my Mum. On my first day, the proprietors heavily pregnant wife was in the shop, and she showed me how to weigh, measure, and tie up bags of dried food to restock the shelves. The next day she wasn’t there, and the man insisted upon showing me how to tell the difference between the male and female animals – not at all obvious in creatures like guinea pigs. I was crimson with embarrassment because he made me hold the hapless critters on their backs and squeeze their genitalia. He told me it was natural and not to be so shy, which only made me blush more. The next day he locked the shop door and took me down the cellar to bring up some stock, but I did not like the way he deliberately squeezed himself past me, I did not like the rasp of his breath on my neck as he bent over me, so solicitously guiding me in the semi darkness, I panicked and ran back upstairs. He laughed at me mockingly as he opened the door to let me leave.
“You are a timid little thing aren’t you. I will see you tomorrow” it was a command. I didn’t want to go back the next day, but could not tell my Mum what had happened. Because nothing had happened, really. Yet I knew I had been violated in some invasive way. It was the same horrible feeling I had got when a man exposed himself to me when I was only 3. But nothing had really happened then either, because he did not touch me. The effects of these two nonevents have blighted my whole life and marred my relationships with men.
The man’s wife was in the shop again the next day, and I was so relieved, but when she asked me to weigh out some rat food my hands were shaking and I couldn’t read the dial properly. She said I had measured it all wrong, and tore open the bags to redo them herself. She gave me another job to do:
“Take these water bottles over to the far wall and put them next to the dog leads” she said.
I peered into the blurry haze but could not make out any detail. Exasperatedly she said:
“Just along from the Pedigree Chum tins!” and pointed.
The blur only intensified, and there was no way I could read what was printed on those tins.
“What do you mean you can’t read them? Look! They’re right there”.
“I can’t see that far away” my voice said.
“You need glasses then! Go home and tell your Mother to take you to the optician!”
The day before, my eyesight had been perfect. In fact because my older brother had worn glasses since he was 5 Mum had often tested me, asking me to count the horses in a distant field, or read road signs, and I could do it better than she could, and she never wore glasses. Suddenly my vision had shrunk back into my head, and I was rendered myopic overnight, condemned to be a spectacle wearer.
But at least I did not have to go back to that dreaded pet shop.
I thought about how I had been given a choice to leave, and about all of those who were not able to walk away from abusive situations, oppressive work, or unbearable terror. Such as the innocent vulnerable animals incarcerated in those cages. Just because humans found them cute and amusing and wanted to possess them. Innocent beings separated from their families and carried off in a cardboard box to be locked in a wooden box and given dried food and water, dragged out and played with at random times, then shut back in their lonely prison. And these would be the luckier ones, whose owners neither tortured nor abandoned them, or neglected to clean out their cages, freshen their water, or drop a piece of fresh leafy food in once in a while. I comforted myself with the thought that OUR pets at home received the very best treatment, including my duty to go out and pick fresh dandelions clover and cow parsley for them. How our pets got released into a run on the lawn which was moved around daily, provided with shelter from the sun and rain. The truth however, was, that theirs was merely a slightly larger prison, they still had no choice, no freedom to roam, find mates, run or hide. No right to pursue happiness in whatever way this manifests for guinea pigs. It was necessary to keep them safe from danger and predators, Mum said.
On Sundays after church and lunch and washing up I sat alone in the living room watching “The world at war”. There was graphic actual footage of the concentration camp victims, naked and impossibly emaciated, and piles of corpses heaped up. It struck me forcibly that there was no difference between this and the way laboratory animals were treated the world over.
Traumatised and sorrowfilled I stood at the kitchen sink, washing pigs hearts ready to be stuffed with sage and onion for our roasted dinner. A clot fell from one of them, and I felt slightly sick, it was not nice to be reminded that blood had been spilled for this meal. Mum said it was just the way it was. I washed the next heart, and another clot fell out. Suddenly and irrevocably I realised that this heart in my hand was until recently beating within the chest of some living being who wanted to live, who was terrified, who sensed and heard and smelt the murder of his or her companions on their enforced journey to the slitting knife. I wanted to take this pure heart and wrap it in a blanket and bury it, like I did when one of my beloved pets died, placing flowers on its grave and letting it know it was loved and not forgotten. My Mother got angry with me, but I could not ever again eat the dead animals we so heartlessly and thoughtlessly graced our table with.
The rift between myself and my fellow human beings widened, whilst the gap between me and the suffering creatures on this predatory planet shrank. It was to be years before I met a vegetarian, by which time I was vegan because of the reality of the dairy industry where lady cows are raped, and their babies are stolen away, so that unweaned man can gorge himself on their milk. Boy calves are usually slaughtered at birth, and the plaintive grieving noise of bovine cries resounds in my ears. I was 14 when I got sacked from my first job. I sometimes wonder if that paedophile is still alive preying on someone else’s youthful innocence, destroying someone else’s life. Do I have blood sisters out there similarly blighted? Is it my fault for not speaking out? The unhealed wound I have carried these long isolated years; the shame and the guilt, the muted rage, the sorrow of silence. . And then I am perversely grateful to him for being the catalyst of my awakening to the many injustices, cruelties and evils perpetrated so casually by one forcibly dominant species over every other lifeform on this beautiful, benighted planet. Man the guardian and custodian ravaging and destroying the paradise garden. Oh for pity’s sake have mercy!