CW: Mental health. Brief sexual references.
I feel a little shaky about my first shift as a twilight stock replacer. It’s 3 a.m., and I’m in the staff room of Savers supermarket.
‘Are there any questions?’ Mandy, the manager, asks the team.
The teenage girl, who came in late, raises her hand. 'Is it true that Mr Blubby is coming to open the store?’
‘Yes, I've already covered that. Let’s get to work, everyone.’
Every member of staff sleepwalks out of the staffroom. Except me. Mandy apprehends me in the doorway. ‘Jeff, if you’d like to follow me to the biscuit aisle, we’ll get started there.'
'Are you a Blubby fan?’ she asks.
Blubby—something about that name makes me feel woozy.
‘Jeff? Are you listening? Can you help me with the ribbon-cutting ceremony when Blubby gets here?’ ’
'Mhmm,' I say.
‘This is all my fault.’
That’s what I said when the Mr Blubby controversy began. The public was disgusted when the TV star’s nefarious activities came to light and his Saturday night slapstick-shenanigans quickly lost their appeal. As his agent, I could have probably done more to boost Blubby's profile, but it was the 90s; the halcyon days of primetime TV in Britain. I was too busy riding the tail-end of Blubby-mania, ordering BBC runners to fetch me cocaine and hookers. I didn’t so much bite the hand that fed me, as I neglected to wash, moisturise, and manicure it.
I’m making it sound like Blubby’s downfall was my fault, but he was, and still is, the loosest cannon I know. It may come as a surprise that the man whose juvenile televisual antics, which were lauded by children everywhere, also pioneered the glory hole by travelling from service station to service station, drilling holes in toilet cubicle walls. Let me tell you, the man is a pathological liar. He will deny everything, but we got up to some seedy stuff in the 90s. I mean, some really lewd things. I’ll spare you the gory details.
In 2020, Channel 4 has commissioned a docu-soap entitled Blubby and Me, where a TV crew will have unlimited access to Ian’s home and workplace. But will Ian’s maverick charm have the nation fawning or yawning? If his offbeat persona resonates with enough people, Blubby could be on his way to prime-time again. On the flip side, Blubby and Me could end up a tragic portrait of a washed-up TV star. Either way, I’ll be quids in. I signed the contract.
The oblong biscuit packets tessellate pleasingly. I push them all the way to the back of the unit carefully, so as not to break a single biscuit. When I pick up a packet that has been compromised, I spill cocoa-scented crumbs everywhere.
Better get a broom.
‘Jeff,’ Mandy says. ‘Sweep that up, quickly.’
Her nagging is already becoming tiresome.
‘You’ll have to pick up the pace a bit. We’ve got the whole aisle to re-stock before opening.’
Pick up the pace? I’m not an athlete. This is supposed to be part of my rehabilitation, not a race.
‘Don’t spoil the big day for everyone. Don’t spoil it for Mr Blubby.'
Mr Blubby—real name Ian Collins—opens the front door of his house wide enough to peek at the film crew behind me. ‘You’re early,’ he says.
I point to the camera. ‘We’re rolling. Are you ready for us?’
He digs nuggets of sleep from his eyes and wipes them on his pyjama top. ‘Yes, come in.’
I push past Ian and head to the kitchen. ‘Any chance of some coffee?’
Ian remains in the doorway, winding the TV crew up in a booming, jovial voice. ‘What’s your name, then?’ He asks the camera man. ‘And who might you be?’ He asks the sound man.
Neither of the crew respond. Documentarian bootcamp has trained them well.
‘They won’t speak, Ian.’ I shout from the kitchen as I rummage through the cupboards. ‘Where are the biscuits?’
Ian walks into the room grinning; he seems pleased about having the cameras around. ‘Chocolate bourbons,’ he says, pointing to a high cupboard. I reach to the back of the unit, pull out a packet, and shower the kitchen floor with crumbs. I hear a woman’s voice telling me to clean up the mess, and I turn to look over my shoulder. No one is there.
Better get a broom.
‘Have you got company, Ian? I thought I heard someone saying—’
‘No, she left earlier,’ Ian says.
The sound of the kettle boiling muddies our conversation.
Ian shouts over the din. ‘Do you think they need me to put the costume on?’ He turns to the cameraman. ‘Do you need me to put the Blubby costume on?’ They shuffle around, trying to get an over-the-shoulder shot of Ian. The kettle finally clicks off.
‘I think it’s best to just be yourself,’ I say. ‘Just be Ian.’
‘When should I be Blubby?’ He asks.
I pour the water into the French press. ‘Be Blubby when work calls for it—at the pantomime. No need to put on a show at home. People love the minutiae of behind the scenes things these days. That’s the whole point of these docu-soaps, so I’ve been told.’
Ian stares wide-eyed down the barrel of the lens.
Is he listening to a word I’m saying?
‘I pioneered the glory hole, you know,’ he says to the camera.
I slap my forehead. He has a knack for saying the most inappropriate thing in any given situation. I press the plunger down on the French press; that always relaxes me.
‘I’ve set up more dogging networks than you’ve had hot dinners,’ Ian brags to the sound man.
‘You will cut that out in the edit, won’t you?’ I ask the TV crew. They stay silent—like they have been this whole time.
‘Jeff, hurry up and finish stacking the eggs, will you?’ Mandy asks. ‘You can pick up more than one box at a time, you know.’
Oh Mandy, you came, and you ruined my life.
As per her instructions, I pick up five boxes of eggs, and drop two of them on the floor immediately. When I try to pick those up, the rest of the boxes crash to the floor too.
‘Jeff, what are you playing at?’ Mandy stands with her hands on her hips. ‘Check the condition of the eggs. Discard any broken ones.’
When I sift through the wreckage, several yolks ooze onto the laminate floor. Mandy orders me to fetch a mop.
Lucky for you, m’lady, I’m a dab-hand with a mop. I've cleaned many a hallway.
Blubby’s head is pink and bulbous, as are his limbs. Green eyes are fringed by oversized lashes. Ian is pacing the dressing room, calibrating the voice-box. Its otherworldly jibber-jabber is piped through two pink hot-dogs sewn together and frozen in an unnerving smile.
Ian sits down and takes the head of the costume off. His fingers are not dexterous enough to peel a banana with the suit on, so I have to feed him before he goes on stage. The dress rehearsal for Aladdin starts soon.
Ian puts the Blubby head back on, tests the voice box one final time, and heads for the stage. He arrives in the wings--ready for his big slapstick scene. The director calls ‘Action’ and Blubby takes to the stage animatedly. He fumbles with pots and pans in the kitchen whilst attempting to cook breakfast for his master. When he drops a box of eggs on the floor, he slips on the slime, kicks the air, and lands on his back. His wailing and squirming are cut short by the director.
‘Too big, Ian,’ he says. ‘This may be a pantomime, but we have our limits.’
At least he’s trying to impress the cameras, I think.
I can’t see his expression, but I can tell Ian is annoyed. He wants everything to go well with the TV crew here.
‘The alcohol aisle is the last to be restocked every morning at Savers,’ Mandy says.
She used to manage another branch. That’s why she’s such a know-it-all.
‘Don’t drop any of the bottles of beer, Jeff,’ she says. ‘They come out of your wages if you do.’
I carefully restock the shelves as Mandy watches.
‘Stop,’ she says. ‘You’re putting the alcoholic beer where the non-alcoholic is supposed to go.’
An easy mistake to make, I think. They look exactly the same. Why don’t the manufacturers design the labels for non-alcoholic beers differently?
As Mandy walks away, I exhale. My breath ruffles my fringe. I continue to stack the bottles—this time in the correct place. She stops and turns around.
‘If there isn’t enough stock to fill a shelf, pull the bottles to the front.’
Yes, Mandy. Thank you, Mandy. Oh how wise you are, Mandy.
‘We want to look good when Blubby arrives,’ she says.
I place the pints carefully down on the table, making sure that Ian gets his non-alcoholic beer. ‘You’re not doing anything wrong, Ian. He’s a finicky one, that director.’
‘Let’s not talk about it,’ Ian says, quaffing his 0.4% lager.
I raise my glass. ‘Well, here’s to embarking on a lucrative televisual adventure. It feels like you’re back, Ian.’
‘Cheers,’ Ian says. He drinks a long draught. ‘Do you remember in ’96 when I attended Alcoholics Anonymous?’
‘A.A was too evangelical for me. They had me beating myself up about craving oblivion, so I devised my own system—one that embraces craving.’ He holds up his alcohol-free pint. ‘I neck a few of these, and my brain can’t tell the difference.’
‘Whatever works for you, my friend.'
The inexhaustible TV crew—who have taken no food or bathroom breaks—finally crack, and scuttle off to the gent’s toilet. Then they bring four pints over to our table, including one for Ian and myself. With Ian being a well known alcoholic, I don’t feel the need to check if they've bought him the right stuff.
When the beers are quaffed, filming resumes. The crew follow Ian to the bar. He has decided that he wants another drink. ‘A real one, this time.’ He belches. ‘Just one. I can fool my brain.’
I watch as he hobbles over to the bar; there’s something different about his gait. ‘You pillocks! You bought him an alcoholic beer, didn’t you?’
The camera pans to me as I dash over to the bar to intercept his drink. I order a non-alcoholic beer and switch his pint with mine. Phew. Bender diverted.
What other stunts like that are the TV crew going to pull? I’m not Ian’s full-time minder. I can’t keep a close eye on him constantly. I’m just his agent.
After seeing Ian goaded in the pub, I took no further part in the filming. He has been swept up by the sauce again. When he visited my office, he was sozzled; belching and bragging about the docu-soap. He told me about his savvy new agent. Has he forgotten everything I’ve done for him over the years? It seems as though one beer was enough to light up the hedonistic 90s party-pathways in his brain and make him abandon his loyal agent of 32 years. Embittered? That’s an understatement. Now that I’ve seen how the proverbial ‘sausage’ is made, I don’t wish to humour Blubby and Me's constructed reality. But it looks as though the docu-soap is catching fire. If its large viewership is anything to go by.
My first shift on the checkout has ended just in time for Mandy to show up again. ‘Jeff, Blubby has arrived. He’s here!’
Blubby. Why does hearing that name make me feel ill? It has my stomach in knots—knots that are worthy of a boy scout badge.
Mandy glances at her watch. ‘Ribbon cutting time, Jeff. Can you help me run it smoothly?’
We walk to the entrance, and she hands me the keys for the automatic entrance doors. ‘Set the doors to the open position,’ Mandy says. ‘Remember how I showed you earlier?’
I open the doors. Mandy hangs the ribbon up. I watch as Blubby fumbles his way out of a limousine. He waves at cheering crowds behind barriers as he walks over to the entrance. A mass of Blubby fans are gathered. Blubby stands next to Mandy, wielding the big scissors. But he does not have a chance to cut the ribbon. I will not allow it. I put my key in the door controls and flick the setting to 'closed'. The glass doors slide shut quickly and trap Blubby in place. He drops the scissors. Mandy hops out of the way and shouts through the glass at me. ‘Open these doors!’
Mandy tries to lever the doors open with the scissors, but she gives up and bangs on the glass. The doors are shut too tightly for Blubby to wriggle free. When I see a security guard jogging towards the entrance, I sprint for the emergency exit at the back of the store. After pushing through the doors and activating the alarm, I bend over to catch my breath by the bins.
Blubby has caught fire, alright. Did you see that crowd? They were lapping him up. And do I get a word of thanks from Ian? No. Not one word of appreciation—after all I did for him. At least my other clients respect me. What a complete—
A hand touches my back. I spin around and see a burly security guard. He looks me over and checks my name badge.
‘Jeff?’ He asks. ‘What are you doing? What was all that about?’
I am panting too hard to answer. He wraps his big arm around me and walks me back into the store. ‘Come on, let’s go up to Mandy’s office.’
As we climb the metal stairs leading to Mandy’s control tower, I see a pair of bulbous, pink legs through her blinds. I try to struggle out of the security guard’s grip, but once we are on the landing, he physically persuades me into the office. My eyes meet those of the man in the Blubby costume. He is seated across from Mandy, the head of his costume in his lap. ‘You’re not Ian,’ I say ‘Where’s Ian?’
Mandy signs a cheque and hands it to the young man. ‘Jeff. This is Will. I’m glad you’ve come to apologise.’
Will seems puzzled. ‘Who’s Ian?’ He asks.
‘Yes,' Mandy says. 'You’ve been mumbling that name all morning while replacing stock.’
I point to the pink, bulbous idiot seated in front of me. ‘He should be apologising to me,’ I say.
‘Me?’ Will asks incredulously.
‘No, Ian,’ I say. ‘Ian owes me, big time. He’d have never made it without me. Blubby would be nothing without me.’
Mandy glowers at me. ‘Cut it out! Apologise to Will, right now.’
I look up at the ceiling tiles. ‘I hope you’re happy, Blubby. I thought we were a unit; a national institution.’
‘Jeff, as of this moment, I’m terminating your employment with Savers. Please hand back the key I gave you.’ She waves her hand to the security guard. ‘Henry, please escort Jeff from the premises.’
I hand the key to Henry. He takes me by the arm again and walks me down the metal stairs to the shop floor. As we walk to the entrance, I can’t help but notice a huge pyramid of Blubby cereal. ‘Was this here before?’ I ask.
‘Err, I don’t keep track of what comes and goes,’ he says.
‘Please, can I have a look for just one second?’
Henry glances up at the manager’s office. ‘Be quick, though.’
I pick up a box of cereal and read the print on the back. The text is rippling, but I manage to read some of it.
Blubby and Me, Friday nights at 8pm on Channel 4.
Also on the back of the packet is a promotional photo of Ian Collins smiling in his costume. The text shimmers again, and the photo blurs too intensely for me to focus, but I can’t stop looking at the box.
‘Come on, then. Let’s go,’ Henry says. ‘You’ve had a minute.’
Henry tries to snatch the cereal box from me. I pull the box away from him. We tumble into the tower of cereal and it collapses around us. Henry tries to grab my ankle, but I spring to my feet. I run through the entranceway and into the car park, where a familiar voice causes me to stop in my tracks.
‘Jeff, where are you going?’
The portly woman is wearing a parka coat over her nurse's uniform.
‘Sharon?’ I ask.
‘Yes. I’ve come to see how your first day is going.' She looks concerned. 'What are you doing out here?’
I fight to catch my breath. ‘I’m looking for Ian.’
Sharon glances at her feet and sighs. 'Ian's not real, Jeff. We've been through this. Have you been taking your medication?’
‘Never mind about that. I should have taken better care of Ian. He was my best client.’
'I'm sure he was,' Sharon says. Her familiar scent wafts over to me.
'I'm glad you understand,' I say.
She takes me by the hand. ‘Let’s go and find him, shall we? We can go in my car.’
We walk over to Sharon's blue hatchback, and I climb in. A glass dolphin dangles from the rearview mirror. The car's suspension dips as she sits down, and I hear a rattle coming from her coat pocket.
A pill bottle.
I think about flinging the car door open and bolting. But something about Sharon's comforting scent and her matronly manner have me fixed to the spot. She turns on the radio and drives me away from the supermarket.