Guy Mitchell works full-time as a law librarian and has been writing short fiction in his spare time since 2006. He was the 2008 Bridport Prize runner up, and his story “Going for a Turkish” was published in the Bridport Prize Anthology. He was born in London but grew up in Hong Kong and Devon (what is considered the countryside in Britain). Guy is currently working on a story collection, Men, Women and Children, and a novel set around the time of the London Poll Tax Riots of 1990. He lives in North London with his wife and two young children.
Winner of the 2014 Esoteric Contest (UK-inspired theme)
I keep thinking something must have happened. Because you do, when people change.
“Morning, Susan.” Reg touches his cap, towering over me at the staff entrance.
“Morning, Reg.” He’s the only one who calls me Susan not Sue. I’m sure they only keep him on as a guard out of kindness. Don’t get me wrong—Reg is a sweetheart—but really, what’s he going to do if someone tries to force their way in? He’s as old as the hills; he’d topple over in a stiff breeze.
I get in the tiny locker room, coat off, smock on, off to get my lists for today.
“All right, Sue? There you go.” That’s Mark, the Store Manager. He’s all right—he’s nice really—but useless. We call him The Chocolate Teapot. Younger than me; not much older than my daughter. Fancies himself. Always has his shirt coming untucked.
Here it is: her list. This is what I mean—why is she changing everything? I get a trolley and bags, then off down the aisles. I spend a lot of my life in the store. It’s colourful and neat, and it means I know about something: I know about groceries, a part of everyone’s life. We’d have never got by without the staff discount from here, and look at Carly now. I said, “Get a job in the store, then you can save up for college,” but she wouldn’t have it. Tele-sales executive. Highest ever commission in a first week. “I’ve got the gift of the gab, Mum!” Like your father. Only I didn’t say that, because I never have. It doesn’t help her, does it? I remember her telling me all her plans, so happy. University—degree in management—accountancy exams. “Accountants rule the world, Mum. And I can pay my own way now. We could even treat ourselves sometimes.” So pleased with herself, just beaming. Funny thing is, suddenly I wasn’t sure if I wanted her to start paying her own way, not yet. And do I need treating? Since when is life about being treated?
I do the fish counter, customer services and the tills. But I like putting together the internet shopping orders best. It’s early in the morning, it’s quiet, and you get to see in someone’s shopping basket; which is seeing their life. Which is why I know Lucinda’s life has changed.
Lucinda Swift. I remember thinking “What a lovely name,” and I always noticed her orders after that. They used to be so interesting, Lucinda’s shopping orders. Luxury virgin olive oil, sundried tomatoes, Chinese water chestnuts, capers, figs, fair trade coffee, mangos, celeriac.
She’s got long brown hair, because she buys chestnut conditioner for long hair. She works, obviously. I imagine her as a doctor. She enjoys cooking, but that’s mostly at the weekends, it’s posh ready meals for the week. She drinks wine; probably she drinks the white and he drinks the red. She has a little girl, same as me. I like to think it’s a girl, anyway: she orders nappies and had those pink drinking cups that time. But as well as being a high-flying doctor (Doctor Swift!) she knows what’s in the fridge, she does the shopping orders, runs the home. Always the way, isn’t it?
But picking the stuff off the shelves now, I’m more sure than ever. It’s not a one-off, it’s a change—Lucinda Swift has gone all basic: own-brand. The stuff in the trolley is just boring. The products that have to be abbreviated on the receipt because they all have to fit the word Basics in front of them and you can’t work out what they are. Like Basics A/Prp Clnr or Basics Jumb K/Rol. What happened to Berryman’s Sophisticated Aromatic Shower Essence?
I’ve heard people say the name-brand and the own-brand are all made by the same companies and put in different packaging. That’s rubbish: Berryman’s proves it. I got it once—staff discount—and it’s really lovely. It’s got a deep, heavy smell like an exotic flower, and when it goes on it makes this warm buzzing all over your skin. Not something for me, but it was perfect for her. So I put it in one week as a substitution, and after that she always had it. Until now. You see I knew she’d like that I could just tell. Obviously substitutions are only supposed to be for when what they ordered is out of stock, but sometimes “out of stock” really means “couldn’t find it on the shelf” or “didn’t have time to look for it” or even “it’s the last one on the shelf and I’m having that for my staff discount shopping basket, thank you very much.” Sometimes out of stock means “I put this in because I thought you’d like it and it’s nicer than what you ordered.” That might just be me.
Can this be the same woman? This order needs something—anything—to perk it up. Canadian Mature? (I’m in Dairy). Even I wouldn’t buy the cheddar on this list. Too yellow. She doesn’t deserve that. She deserves some kind of treat. Could she have lost her job? But doctors don’t really lose their jobs; unless they get struck off. It must be the husband. He might be a doctor too though, because they marry each other, don’t they?
I do the other orders then. I’m just putting some two-for-one meat offer ribeye steaks into the trolley when I realise they’re saying something on the tannoy.
“—that’s Susan Jones, to the Manager’s office.”
I run up there, tucking bits of hair behind my ears and knock on the door of the horrible, grey little office. There are piles of old newspapers and stacks of polystyrene cups. Mark, the Chocolate Teapot, is there, looking grim as I don’t know what. Reg is there too.
“We found something at the fish counter which we have reason to believe you are responsible for.”
Oh bloody hell, what now?
“Reg, will you pass me the evidence?”
Reg passes Mark something on a paper plate which he then gives to me. There’s a funny smell. I look at the thing and suddenly there’s loads of people popping up and craning round the door and everybody’s laughing.
“You absolute bastards!” But I’m laughing too. The thing on the plate is a fish with icing on it and a lit candle sticking out. The Chocolate Teapot leads them in Happy Birthday and hands over a massive pink card with everyone’s name in. Reg takes his cap off and gives me a too-wet kiss on the cheek. Everybody claps.
“But I didn’t say it was my birthday –”
“I have your file miss,” says Mark, tapping his nose. “And it is a special birthday , isn’t it?” He winks at me in that way that everyone in the store just finds really annoying.
I can’t keep from smiling and I’ve blushed right up, but I never wanted a fuss. I hate fuss. Special birthday my arse.
“And—you have an admirer.” Mark brings out a big bouquet of flowers with an Interflora tag. “Oooh…!” he says, raising his hands to get people to join in, which they do. “Anything you want to tell us, Sue?”
This was nice, but I’m getting a bit fed up now. I stuff the Interflora card in my pocket and say it’s just a friend, which it is really. I see Mark looking round and raising his eyebrows. Nobody knows about Neil, and I want to keep it that way. Silly man, sending me flowers. He’s not my boyfriend. I can get flowers at a discount from the store anytime. I mean, Neil’s lovely; well, maybe not lovely, but nice. Short, mind, and not young. Carly’s dad was a tall man, I’ll give him that much. I like seeing Neil, but where am I going to find time for a boyfriend?
People start to drift off which means I can do the same. They’ve asked me to the pub after, but I’ve told them me and Carly are doing something.
End of the day I’m on Customer Services. A bloke comes up with one of our bags and a receipt and says he wants to make a complaint.
“And I want to return this.” He gets out a block of cheese and holds it towards me. My heart starts going, because I know straight off. It’s like being a kid, caught out in a stupid lie. The name on the receipt is Lucinda Swift. I don’t touch the Canadian Mature because you mustn’t accept items off them unless you’re definitely going to take them back. He’s wearing a grey suit ’starting to go baggy, tie undone, looks like he’s in a hurry. A bit sweaty. I explain we can’t take back items needing refrigeration; they have to be returned to the driver.
“But I wasn’t there—my daughter accepted the order.”
“Your daughter!” I can’t help it—the nappies, the pink drinking cups. Then he looks pissed off. Stupid really. The baby must have been a boy after all. Or maybe they had a baby girl and an older girl. God, he just doesn’t look like he should be Lucinda’s husband, either. This sweaty, knackered, scruffy bloke. I start saying something about his wife.
“Yes, yes, I know, it’s still her name on the orders. I just haven’t had time to change it.”
I go cold. Women don’t leave. They do not leave. Men leave; everybody knows that. So that means, it means—I know what it means. It means something awful, awful, too horrible to think about. Oh my God. I can’t look at him. I’m in a panic, scrabbling with the bag and the receipt, reaching for the cheese and accidentally grabbing his hand. Him looking at me like I’m a total idiot.
“Look, I just want to stop all these ridiculous substitutions. I’ve tried phoning.”
It’s not you they’re really angry with; that’s what they tell you on the training day. I’m trying to see a sad man, even a grieving man. But he’s just a customer: a stranger who wants the shopping over and done with so he can get on with the important things. Another stranger who doesn’t even want to come to the shop and see somebody like me, just wants to press a button. I can’t ask him—I can’t ask him anything about anything. I say I’ll call the Store Manager.
I could ask him now; we could have a chat while we wait for Mark. I could say “I know it’s hard being a single parent.” I could say “I’m sorry for your loss, I know she was very special.” But what if he turns around and says “What do you mean ‘loss’?” Or “How the bloody hell do you know?” Or “Mind your own business?” So I just smile in an I-don’t-make-the-rules kind of way. He puts the cheese down and keeps running his fingers through his hair, which is getting thin and grey.
The Chocolate Teapot comes along, tucking his shirt in. Big smile.
“All right Sue, I’ll take it from here.” And he takes Mr Swift away and I don’t see him again—if that’s even his name; he doesn’t suit it.
The thing is I wanted to call my little girl Lucinda—look at me, she’s eighteen!—but I knew her dad would have never agreed to that. You get used to any name after a while. I am so proud of Carly, I truly am. She’s so clever. My life is fine, though. My life is my daughter. But hers will be … I don’t know; whatever she wants. I want to have grandchildren, mind. I do want that. Everyone does.
For the rest of the shift I tell a woman where pickled onions are kept and sell three packets of cigarettes.
. . .
Soon as I get beyond the loading bay, I phone Neil to give him an earful; I never call him from the store.
“You big pillock, I’ve told you there’s no point buying me flowers.” He’s not there, so I’m talking to his voicemail.
In the flat I sniff the leftover white in the fridge and pour a glass. It was a lie, of course. About doing something with Carly. But I didn’t want to go to the pub. It never works, does it? When you’re put on the spot and supposed to enjoy yourself. Too much fuss. Carly did offer to stay, but think of all the people she’ll meet at this conference thing. That’s her future, for goodness’ sake. I’ll have a birthday every year ‘til I pop my clogs.
I take the wine and peep round her bedroom door. The room’s still very pink—her idea—she’s still got that stuffed donkey and that photo of her and me on the beach squinting in the sun and laughing like idiots. Next to the computer she paid for herself and the books from the Institute of Chartered Accountants. I suppose this is what it will be like soon. The flat, empty.
Then I remember Neil’s flowers. I cut the stems and stand them in the tall vase in the kitchen-diner. A dozen red roses. Must’ve cost a bomb, silly man; they won’t even last the week. Silly man, falling for a cow like me. If he has fallen for me. I expect he’ll ring soon, give me what for, offer to come round, or take me out when I say I’m on my own. I put my glass between the phone and the roses.
I’m not good looking or anything, and that’s okay. It’s a mug’s game worrying too much about all that. I have got very blue eyes though. Carly’s dad used to say that and it’s true. When I was a little girl I looked in the mirror and held my eyes open until tears were running down my cheeks; and that made my eyes look really, really blue.
I pick up my glass and look across at the reflection in the door of the microwave.
Go on, you bugger. Go on.