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‘Their Finest Hour’ - Ant and Bea on the Front Line

Supermarket sleuths Ant and Bea have always been the heroes of Rachel Ward's cosy crime series. Though their detective work would likely have to be put on hold during lockdown, their work at Costsave would only have become more demanding. Here's the first ever Ant & Bea short story by Rachel Ward, celebrating the work supermarket staff are doing at the moment.

‘Firstly, I want to say how tremendously proud I am of you all.’

Access to the Costsave staff room was restricted to two people at a time, so, at the start of week three of lockdown, Neville was conducting the morning huddle on the shop floor near the entrance, with staff dotted around the fresh fruit and veg area, two metres apart.

‘I’ve been in touch with George and she’s doing well. As you know, she’s out of hospital now and recuperating at home. She thanks us for all the good wishes and the Costsave fruit basket and hopes to be back with us as soon as possible. Until then, though, we must carry on doing what we’re doing.

‘This is not a time for sales figures and targets – although our sales are doing very well indeed – this is a time for safety and service. We mustn’t be complacent, but we’ve put together the safest way of working possible. It’s not business as usual – of course it isn’t – but it’s business the Costsave way. Our customers need us.’ He checked his watch. ‘Okay, it’s nearly time. Let’s open those doors, smile and give our customers the Costsave welcome they expect, at a safe distance.’

Bea wanted to whisper to Ant that the strain of store management was starting to show on Neville. Now, as people started drifting to their workstations, he was still rooted to the spot, clutching his Costsave tablet with one hand and massaging his forehead with the other. Instead of nudging Ant, she cleared her throat, said his name, and nodded towards Neville. Ant, one of the store’s First Aiders, looked across and said, ‘On it,’ and walked a little closer to Neville.

‘You all right, Nev,’ he said.

Neville brought his hand down from his face and blinked. ‘Yes, I’m fine. Bit of a headache.’

‘Nothing else? Got a temperature or anything?’

‘No, no. It’s … you know, I’m not sleeping very well.’

As it happened, Ant did know, as he was lodging with Neville and his family. During his own sleepless hours, Ant had noticed the landing light flicking on and heard Neville’s tread on the stairs.

‘You all set?’ Neville said now. ‘Got everything you need?’

Ant was on trolley duty. Normally a mindless and unrewarding task, it had now taken on more significance, with Ant required to follow customers to their cars, then spray and wipe down each trolley before returning it to the front of the store.

‘Yeah. I’ve got everything.’

Bea was on the checkouts as usual, but now she was shielded from her customers by a Perspex screen. The checkout next to her was closed. Normally, Dot would be sitting there, almost back to back, but for the time being she was on number four, and the chance for a chat – or gossip – between customers was greatly reduced.

‘All right, doll?’ Dot called over as they ran through their start of day routines – logging on, wiping down, applying hand sanitiser.

‘Yeah, you?’

‘I’m all right.’

‘How are you getting on locked down with Bob?’

Dot glanced over towards her and winked. ‘He’ll do,’ she said and started laughing. Bea started cracking up too. There was something wonderfully infectious about Dot’s laugh.

‘Is it a private joke or can anyone join in?’ Eileen asked as she walked past.

‘Just Dot being naughty,’ Bea said. Eileen rolled her eyes. ‘You on self-checkouts again?’

Eileen nodded. ‘Not my favourite job, but we’ve all got to pitch in, haven’t we?’ She’d been noticeably happier at work since her son, Dean, had been re-employed in the stores. Although it felt like he’d never been away, Bea had noticed a change in Dean. He was less snarky and had really been knuckling down to help deal with the rapid restocking of essentials. An element of cockiness remained, but it was rooted in pride in the job now. ‘You can call me the Bog Roll King!’ he’d declared at the beginning of lockdown, as he trundled a trolley piled high with packets of toilet tissue through the store, and somehow the name had stuck.

Eileen marched away, ready to wipe down the touch screens and keypads and help customers negotiate the rather temperamental machines.

The front doors opened and as the first customer strode in, Anna’s reassuring voice came over the public address system. ‘Good morning from all of us at Costsave. Please observe the marked areas. One customer per zone. We have a one-way system in operation for your safety. Please follow the arrows. If you need any help, or are unsure about anything, our staff are all happy to help.’

This being Thursday, the first hour was for older and vulnerable customers. Bea had been encouraging her favourites to stay at home and do online shopping or ring up and order a standard Costsave food box, but some of them insisted on coming in. Now she noticed that Norma was first – lilac-tinted hair still immaculate (proving once and for all that it was a wig, not that Bea had ever really had any doubt), tartan trolley at the ready. She walked steadily through the fresh produce heading for the ready meals. She bought one a day, plus a pint of milk, cat biscuits, or various other sundries.

Anna’s voice rang out again. ‘Please use the self-checkouts, if possible. They are clean and safe.’

Norma ignored this and headed for Bea’s checkout as usual.

‘Morning, Norma,’ Bea said, starting to beep her shopping through. ‘Do you want to go back and pick out another meal? Then you won’t have to come in tomorrow.’

‘You trying to get rid of me?’ she said, and Bea could hear the genuine hurt in her voice.

‘No, of course not. It’s just that, for the time being, it’s safer at home, isn’t it?’

‘Costsave’s beautifully clean, always has been.’

‘Well, yes.’

‘If I didn’t see you, I wouldn’t see anyone. You’re a tonic, you are.’ Bea felt a strong urge to hug her, but, of course, resisted.

‘I like seeing you every day, Norma. Wouldn’t be the same without you.’

Bea tried not to think of the customers she’d never see again. There had only been three reported deaths from the virus in Kingsleigh, but she’d known two of them by sight. One of them had been a regular at the Legion.

The morning passed pleasantly enough. In between announcements, Anna fed cheerful music through the PA system and several times Bea found herself singing along in unison with Dot, and it was almost as if everything was normal, until Bea remembered again. Just before half-past twelve, Ant sauntered in. He and Bea had got into the habit of having a lunchtime sandwich outside together, perching on one of the low walls at the edge of the car park, at a suitable distance, of course.

‘Nearly ready?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. Wait a minute, though.’ Bea glanced over to the self-checkouts.

She’d noticed Eileen going for her break a few minutes before, and Neville had stepped in to cover the self-checkouts. Now Bea could see some sort of kerfuffle going on. A customer was shouting about the machine not recognising a barcode. From a safe distance, Neville, looking flustered, was asking him to type in the number on the barcode, but the guy wasn’t listening. Bea suspected his outburst was less about barcodes and more about the frustrations of life on lockdown. They’d been seeing quite a bit of this in Costsave.

‘You do it, then! Go on, you do it!’ The man was screaming now.

Neville, looking decidedly pasty, had got a hanky out of his pocket and was dabbing at his forehead.

‘If you move away from the screen, then I will.’

The man moved one step backwards, but not far enough. Neville shooed him further away, but then seemed to sway where he was for a moment and then collapsed in a heap. The man backed off then. In fact, he left his shopping and started running towards the entrance.

‘Ant! Quickly!’ Bea shouted. Ant looked round, spotted Neville and sprinted towards him. He crouched down and started talking to him.

‘Nev, can you hear me?’ Neville was semi-conscious, and Ant helped him to lie more comfortably on the floor and grabbed a pile of plastic shopping bags to use as a pillow. ‘Someone ring 999.’

Bea stayed at her checkout, but other staff ushered customers away. By the time an ambulance arrived, Neville was sitting up and Ant had given him some water. The medics did a quick assessment and then helped Neville to his feet and led him away. Bea closed her checkout and went over to Ant. He held his hands up.

‘Keep away, Bea,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve got to isolate. He said he was having trouble breathing. It could be the virus. I’d better ring Maureen and tell her and then see if I can go back there, shut myself away for seven days.’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

‘Go straight back now, then. Don’t go to the staffroom or anything. I’ll tell Anna what’s going on. Take your clothes off when you get back, bung them in the washing machine and have a bath.’

She watched Ant leaving, wondering when she’d next see him again. Working in the store, investigating mysteries together in their spare time, she’d got used to seeing him pretty much every day. He’d proved time and again that he’d got her back, and she’d done the same for him. All the way through lockdown, they’d helped each other get through the weirdness. It suddenly struck her how different Costsave would be without him.

Someone had clearly told Anna what was going on. ‘Cleaner to self-checkouts,’ she announced. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please use the staff checkouts for the time being. The self-checkout area will be available when we have ensured your health and safety. Thank you for your patience.’

Walking home after work, Bea was grateful for the warm evening sunshine. If this whole thing had happened in November, it would have been a hundred per cent more depressing, she thought. She stopped outside Charles’s bungalow. He was one of the customers she’d persuaded to stay at home. He was looking out for her at his front window as usual and now came to the door. His golden retriever, Goldie, stood next to him, but made no signs of dashing down the front path.

‘Evening, Bea,’ he said. ‘Goldie’s had a walk. A nice young lady from Kingsleigh Cares came round an hour or so ago and took her out. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘Oh, of course not. I could do with getting home actually. It’s been a long day. Are you okay?’

He gave her the thumbs up. ‘I’m okay, Bea. Keep buggering on, eh?’

‘Ha! That’s the spirit. See you tomorrow.’

‘See you, love.’

She strolled across the rec, along the row of shuttered shops, and home to Poplar Street. Queenie was already home – she spent mornings at the food bank now, but came home in time to cook an evening meal for Bea who was putting in longer shifts. Bea found her voice wobbling a little when she told her about Neville and Ant. Queenie added an extra spoonful of sugar to Bea’s tea.

‘It’ll be all right, darlin’. You’ll see.’

At eight o’clock they stood on their front doorstep and joined their neighbours clapping for the NHS. The novelty of the Thursday clap had worn off, but Poplar Street was ringing the changes by banging pots and pans and playing musical instruments. This week, Bea and Queenie were startled to hear the mournful sound of bagpipes drifting up the street.

‘Crikey, that must be Cameron from number thirty,’ said Queenie. ‘Someone said he was playing those in the garden the other day.’

‘If he was playing them in the garden next to us, Mum, I’d wrap them round his neck,’ said Bea, wondering if it was time to stop clapping yet, but not wanting to be the first.

‘Bit harsh,’ said Queenie. ‘Come on, love. Let’s go indoors. I’ve had enough today.’

Ant rang Bea later that evening. ‘They’ve let Neville out of hospital,’ he said. ‘They checked his oxygen levels and everything and he’s good to go. They’ve done a test but haven’t got the results yet. He’s got to isolate here for seven days, and I’ve got to do fourteen. God, Bea, I don’t know if I can hack it.’

‘Two weeks isn’t all that long.’ Bea was trying to reassure but she couldn’t keep the note of doubt out of her voice. Two weeks chez Nev was not a prospect she could imagine coping with.

‘It’s not just being here with them,’ Ant lowered his voice. ‘It’s not seeing anyone else. Not seeing you, Bea.’

Bea closed her eyes, glad that this wasn’t a video call so he couldn’t see her reaction. What did she actually feel? Would two weeks’ absence really make her heart grow fonder?

‘It’ll whizz by. You’ll see,’ she said. ‘Are you feeling okay physically?’

She could hear him sigh at the other end of the line. ‘Bit tired, hungry all the time, coughing a bit when I’m having a fag – just normal really. I’d better go. Maureen’s knocked on the door. I think that means she’s left a tray outside.’

‘All right, then. Take care, okay?’

‘Yeah. You too.’

The next day, as one of Costsave’s most long-standing workers and manager of the meat counter, Bob led the huddle. First of all he gave an update on Neville’s health, then he started giving a pep talk, but kept stumbling over his words.

‘Oh blimey, I’m not a public speaker.’ He looked round the assembled staff, scanning each face in turn and stopped when he spotted Bea.

‘Bea! You’re good at this sort of thing. Come on, love! Come up to the front and set us all up for the day.’

Bea hesitated, fervently wishing for a hole to open up beneath her and swallow her up. When it didn’t, she realised that everyone had turned to her. They were all waiting.

‘Bloody hell, Bob, talk about dropping me in it,’ she said. ‘I’m not going up the front. I’ll just do it from here. Look, I don’t know about you, but when I get upset by stuff on the news, my mum always says to me, look for the helpers. With so many staff off, and the news getting worse, it’s definitely squeaky bum time, but let’s look around now. Go on, look around. At Costsave, we are all helpers. That’s our job. It always has been and it always will be. I’m proud of working here and I’m proud of working with you lot, so let’s do what we do and make Neville and George proud of us.’

Bob started clapping loudly and soon everyone was joining in, with Dean whistling from the back. They soon dispersed and set about the business of the day.

Bea and Dot settled into checkouts six and four.

‘VE Day today, isn’t it?’ said Dot. ‘Is your street doing anything?’

‘I don’t know. I think there was a WhatsApp thing, saying to have a cup of tea on your doorstep at four or something, but we’ll be here, won’t we?’

‘Yeah, I just hope people don’t go silly.’

Just before eleven the background music stopped and Anna announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, seventy-five years ago today it was announced that hostilities in Europe had ceased. Please join me in two minutes’ silence as we remember the sacrifices made at home and abroad in both world wars.’

There was a customer at Bea’s till, but she caught Bea’s eye and without words they came to an agreement to pause. Bea pushed her chair back and got to her feet, as did all the cashiers. Across the store, people stopped pushing their trolleys and stood quietly.

After two minutes, music started crackling through the PA system again, but customers and staff didn’t instantly resume what they’d been doing. They listened and then one or two started singing and soon everyone was joining in. On instinct, Bea dug into the pocket of her tabard and drew out her phone. It was strictly forbidden to have them on the shop floor, but there was no Neville today to tell her off. She dialled quickly and it was answered almost immediately.

‘Ant,’ she said, ‘you awake? Listen.’

She held the phone out and started singing herself, and she and Dot and all of Costsave sang to the very last line, ‘…some sunny day.’

She held her phone back to her ear. ‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, bit soppy, wasn’t it? Nice, though.’

‘Got to get back to it. I’ll see you soon, okay?’

‘We will meet again. Miss you, Bea.’

‘Miss you, too, Ant. Stay safe.’

Rachel Ward

Rachel Ward