Chicken and Sweetcorn
London was a big place, it sprawled out like an endless materialistic hunger. Concrete and brick and plastic and steel. But the steel of the suburbs was lucrative for Lucy, she watched it every day and waited for the chance to ambush it with yellow paper. The more yellow paper she could share the more minted paper she could spend, commission wasn’t a bad thing, in fact it was a dynamic motivator for traffic wardens. She did enjoy making money, since her last disastrous relationship had ended it had become the core meaning for her existence.
In the hours away from work she scoured her weekly magazines and newspapers for bargains to find and competitions to enter. More recently the Internet had become a great tool for finding voucher codes and online contests.
She did have standards though, she never gambled and absolutely would not play that awful online bingo thing. Her numbers came up every day through efficient time keeping and vigilance. Yes, registration plates were far more lucrative than the odd full house.
Walter worked mostly in the office, as an assistant manager with a financial background he was a hub of knowledge and efficiency that head office valued. Therefore they avoided overtly challenging him about his lack of presence on the shop floor. The staff called him telescope because of his attention to detail, he never missed a thing and was the force behind the many prosecutions of local shoplifters. He lived a fairly quiet life away from work. Sometimes he’d play a bit of golf but most of his time was spent visiting his beloved Mother who had just passed her second year in a nursing home. If he could have he would have provided a place for her to live with him in his flat but it was too impractical for a once active old lady who now needed round the clock care. But to those who knew him it was beyond doubt that Walter would do anything for his Mum.
Lucy had a designated area that she was expected to work within, hotspots that provided consistent parking offences. Most of them were side streets within walking distance of the commercial suburban area of Brixton. But often she had noticed that some areas slightly outside from her patrol zone went unobserved. She worked every weekend and so one bright Sunday morning she headed to a quite popular spot and made her authority felt there, it gave her an extra ten tickets to process and she felt a little warm glow when she saw her wage slip at the end of the week.
One day, not long after that, her supervisor called her in to his office. He looked pensive and tense as he began to speak.
‘Lucy, about these tickets you issued outside the church’.
‘Yes’ she replied sharply ‘what about them?’
He cleared his throat.
‘Well, you know it could be thought of as rather inappropriate to fine Christians for attending church’.
‘Oh’ Lucy sounded surprised but noticed he was wearing a crucifix on a silver chain around his neck.
‘You see, Lucy, our job is to be professional but also in a practical way’.
Lucy nodded as he continued.
‘Do you know that Jesus said we’ll reap what we sow?’
After the talk Lucy felt sick. What is it with all these Christians she thought, always giving their righteous opinions? Well righteousness never made anyone rich thank you very much Mr. Supervisor.
It was a Wednesday when the call came. As usual Walter was checking the progress of the stores weekly target when the Nursing home called about his Mother. His mobile phone sat frozen in his hand long after the caller had hung up. She had died in her morning sleep after breakfast.
‘If it’s any consolation Mr. Mathews, she felt no pain at all’ the home’s nurse warden had sympathetically pointed out to him.
But it wasn’t any consolation, it was loss, cruel and terrible in its immediacy and irretrievable in its effect.
A vast wave of emotion overthrew him and with great effort he spoke calmly to a member of staff before leaving the store and returning to his flat.
There were not many that attended the service, it was a sullen affair anyway as all funerals usually are. He stood at the front of the church with the rest of the family, Aunt Mary and her son Geoffrey. Walter was an only child and the product of a brief affair her Mother had with a cad of an English pilot while she was an air- hostess with British Airways. It had happened long before the days of child support but after certain Church regulations for unmarried Mothers had been reviewed. He was a lapsed Catholic, he knew that, but he felt comfortable as the priest offered up prayers for the deceased and blessed the coffin. Then when the service had ended he led the pallbearers at the front and they carried the coffin to the hearse waiting outside. When the hearse was ready to go he spoke briefly to his Aunt and walked around the corner to get into his car. He needed to drive to the grave alone.
Lucy had just plastered a bright yellow ticket on the vehicle when what seemed to be the owner dressed in a black suit confronted her.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she turned and saw a short set dark haired clean-shaven man with a set of keys in his hand.
She responded sharply.
‘No, what do you think you’re doing, no return after one hour here I’m afraid, can’t you read?’
The man breathed deeply as though trying to control his actions.
‘I have just been to my Mother’s funeral, this is church parking’
For a moment Lucy felt slightly unnerved by his words but her uniform reminded her who the boss was here.
‘You have twenty eight days to pay the fine or you’ll be summoned to court’ before she stepped away from him she noticed he’d closed his eyes and couldn’t resist adding ‘and your prayers won’t help you either I’m afraid’.
He kept his eyes closed straining against every sinew in his being to not react and after a minute or so when he opened them he saw the traffic warden take off her black hat just before she disappeared around the distant corner.
Lucy was doing well, her wage had increased since she’d been working the church patch and gathering extra commission from the tickets there. The supervisor hadn’t spoken to her since last month’s meeting and she thought she’d tell him how she stood by buying a crystal pentagram which she hung on a chain around her neck and casually brought out to run her fingers over whenever he was around. As usual on her day off she was looking through some of the magazines when she saw an advert for cheaper food at a local supermarket. She needed to do a shop today so she’d pop in there and see how much she could save. She spread her legs out on the leather sofa and thought happily to herself
‘Lucy you really do know how to survive’.
Walter was quieter than usual when he returned to work. The staff felt aware that he was having personal difficulties and did their best to keep everything running smoothly in the store. After a quick sandwich at lunch he had busily scanned the recent stock sheets and tallied them against previous supplies. He liked to know the subtle changes within popular and not so popular products and kept a log on the statistics of seasonal trends. He sat back in his chair and looked out of the one way window and across into the shop floor. He recognized her instantly even though he’d only seen her hair for a brief instant. It bounced obliviously on her shoulders as she scanned the near aisle for the advertised bargains.
Lucy liked all foods but had a special liking for Chinese cuisine, she reasoned that it was healthier than most other foods. There were discounted packets of stir fry and jars of sauces all along the aisle and she was pleasantly surprised to see further reductions than had been advertised in the magazine she’d read. There was only one issue that Lucy had with food, she couldn’t eat anything with nuts in it. She picked up a packet that had the picture of a delicious serving suggestion and held it in her hands as she looked for the list of ingredients.
Her face frowned.
Walter watched her as she approached one of his staff, he could see her pointing to the product she held in her hands and the member of staff becoming placatory in his gestures. He soon began walking towards the office where Walter waited.
‘Sorry to disturb boss’ he was a young lad and Walter liked his polite enthusiasm, it was why he had hired him out of the many whom had been interviewed. He nodded for him to carry on.
‘There’s a lady outside who is asking about why the ingredients listed on the back of some of the Chinese cuisine promotion foods are'nt in English?’
‘Why does she need to know?’ Walter asked.
The lad continued.
‘Well the thing is that she says she’s got some allergic reaction thing to eating nuts’.
Walter looked across at the woman through the one way window, she looked angry and he imagined that her life must have been dreadfully unhappy to have made her this way. He thought of his Mother and the event after her funeral. He thought of how fickle life really was.
The boy stood waiting.
‘What shall I do boss?’
Walter turned to face him.
‘Go and ask her what products she’s interested in and bring them to me when she’s picked them’
The boy nodded.
‘O.K. boss, thanks’ and he headed out to the shop floor.
When he came back he had two products with him.
He didn’t knock this time.
‘There you go boss, she wants these’
Walter took the two packets from him.
‘Okay fine, go and serve them other customers and come back when you’ve finished’
‘But boss, won’t she be stood waiting a while’
‘She’ll have to wait then won’t she’ replied Walter.
After he’d left the office Walter entered the bar code information into the computer and the ingredients of the products came up on the screen, he saw that the sweet and sour stir fry had no trace of nuts but the chicken and sweetcorn noodles did contain some traces. He glanced up through the window and could see that the woman had begun pacing up and down with her hands on her hips.
Lucy was annoyed, she’d been left here in the aisle standing around while all they had to do was tell her if some of her favourite Chinese dishes had nuts in them or not. ‘What is happening to good customer service these days’ she thought angrily. The boy she’d spoken to was back at the checkouts and she decided that she would go and remind him she was still waiting.
He looked a bit flustered as he scanned the foods for the last customer in line but he was nearly finished now. She stood near the checkout glaring at him.
He looked up at her.
“Yes madam, just a moment”
He quickly handed the receipt to the customer who was still packing items into a sustainable carrier bag and almost ran into the office where Walter stood.
Before he could speak though, Walter handed him the two packets.
“This pack has nuts and this one doesn’t” he said and placed each bag in a different hand.
“And tell her that her food is now complimentary because of her wait”
“O.K. thanks Boss”
The young lad rushed out of the office and Walter closed the door behind him and sat down. He would start going back to church he thought to himself as he picked up his mug of lukewarm coffee and drank it’s bitter liquid. It would be what his Mother wanted and he thought of her and how she had always believed in the essence of goodness.
“Never repay bad for bad Walter, the mills of God grind slowly but they grind exceedingly small”.
He never bothered to look back out of the one-way window at the woman as his member of staff handed her the packet.
Being in such a rush to keep the lady happy he’d stumbled on his way back to the shop floor and dropped both items before hastily picking them up again. He was sure he’d got them in the correct order that Walter had given them to him. He’d feel stupid going back to the office to disturb him again. He looked at the packets as he approached the angry red haired woman and saw that one was a sweet and sour stir-fry and the other was a chicken and sweetcorn noodle mix.
‘Well that’s obvious isn’t it’! He thought.
‘Who would put nuts in Chicken and Sweetcorn?’