On The Blog: The Cost of Living (An Ant and Bea Mystery)
The bottle wobbled with every movement of the conveyor belt.
‘You’d be better off lying that down,’ Bea said at the exact moment that the wobble turned into a nosedive. The woman made a grab for it. Too late. It hit the floor, glass and brown sauce exploding horizontally over a surprisingly wide area. The little boy started crying. The girl in the trolley seat clapped her hands and crowed with delight.
‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ The woman crouched down by her son. ‘Mason, are you hurt? Let me look at your legs.’
There was sauce splattered on the thick fleece of his jogging bottoms, but nothing worse.
‘I’m so stupid.’
‘Is he all right?’ Bea asked.
The woman was scrubbing at her son’s legs with a used tissue.
‘Yeah. Just in a mess. I can’t believe—’
‘It’s all right,’ Bea soothed. ‘It’s just an accident.’ She pressed a button on her desk, lighting up the cube that identified her till. ‘It’s fine. Honestly. I’ll get it cleaned up.’
‘I can’t do anything right. I can’t do anything.’
The deputy manager, Neville, walked briskly towards them along the back of the tills, clutching a clipboard. As soon as he saw what the trouble was he swivelled on his heel and retreated to the customer service console. His nasal voice rang out through the tannoy system.
‘Cleaner to checkout six. Cleaner to checkout six.’
The woman stood up, settling her son onto her hip. The sauce on his joggers made brown smears on her cream-coloured mac as she hitched him up.
‘They’ll be here soon,’ said Bea. ‘I’ll get someone to fetch you a new bottle of sauce. Take the kids through. Sit down if you want. I’ll do your packing.’
There were still a few items in the trolley. The woman’s hands were shaking as she loaded them onto the belt. Her little girl was still clapping. ‘Stop it, Tiffany. You’re doing my head in.’ She reached down to the bottom of the trolley for a tin of sweetcorn, squashing her son against the wire edge. His grizzling increased in volume. ‘I’m just so stupid,’ she said, her voice full of self-loathing. ‘It’s been that sort of day. Dave’s right. I can’t do anything.’
‘Everyone has that sort of day. Luckily not all at the same time,’ Bea said.
‘I lost my wedding ring yesterday,’ the woman confided. ‘Dave went mad.’
She was gripping the handle of the trolley now, pushing it through to the packing area. Bea could see the pale line on her finger where her ring should have been.
‘It’ll turn up, I bet. By the sink? Or in it? Worth taking the trap apart.’
‘It had better. My wedding ring. Dave’s so upset. He thinks I’m . . . ’ The end of the sentence was lost as she dissolved into tears.
A tall, lanky youth was shambling towards them along the adjacent aisle, pushing a little cart with a mop handle poking up and an array of cleaning sprays, wipes and buckets on board. His progress was glacially slow.
Bea sighed. So this was the new recruit they’d been asked to ‘welcome to the team’ at the staff meeting. Ant Thompson. She remembered him from school. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been painting some railings in the park, wearing a hi-vis jacket with the words ‘Community Payback’ plastered across it. Big Gav had plumbed new depths with this one.Top management decision.
Eventually Ant got to the end of the aisle and looked along the row of checkouts. Bea waved at him.
‘Here!’ she said. ‘Right in front of you.’
She pointed to the mess, which looked like it could have been featured in a cartoon with the word SPLAT! in the middle.
‘Yeah. Got it.’
He stood looking at it for a long time, rubbing his stubbly chin with his index finger, like a professor of maths facing an insoluble equation on a blackboard.
‘Brush the big stuff up first, then mop up the rest,’ Bea said.
‘All right. On it.’
He started unpacking stuff from his trolley. Bea returned her attention to getting the shopping scanned and packed. There was a copy of the local paper, the Kingsleigh Bugle. The headline caught her eye. ‘Is There a Kingsleigh Stalker?’ Bea frowned. There had been rumours doing the rounds for a few weeks about women in the town being followed at night, but nothing concrete. She bleeped the barcode and moved on to the next item.
‘Ah,’ she said to the woman, who was now dabbing her face and taking some deep breaths. ‘The three for two on the four-pack of this is actually better value than the value pack.’ She held up a packet of toilet paper. ‘Ant will get it for you. And a new bottle of sauce. Won’t you, Ant?’
‘You’ll fetch three four-packs of loo roll and a brown sauce for this lady, won’t you?’
He held his arms out wide, a brush in one hand and a dustpan in the other. ‘What do you want from me? I’m not a chuffing personal shopper.’
‘Please? Just to be nice?’
Bea creased her face into her smarmiest, sarkiest smile and batted her false eyelashes at him. He looked a bit confused for a second or two, then broke into a grin.
‘Okay, but you’ll have to tell me where to go. I haven’t the foggiest.’
‘Aisle three for the toilet tissue, aisle eleven for the sauce. Thanks, babe.’
His grin got wider. He dropped the brush and dustpan on the floor and set off.
‘You’ll get in trouble for that,’ said a deep voice from the next till. ‘You can’t call people babe, babe, he’ll have you for sexual harassment.’ There was a volley of husky laughter.
Without looking over her shoulder, Bea called back, ‘He should be so lucky. Anyway, you just did it to me. You flirting?’
This time she did turn around, and caught her neighbour’s eye.
Dot, late fifties and beautifully quaffed and manicured, winked. ‘You should be so lucky.’
By the time the shopping was packed and loaded back into the trolley, there was still no sign of Wonder Boy.
‘He won’t be a minute,’ said Bea. Her customer was fumbling in her purse. She drew out a little wad of notes, ready to pay, but kept her purse open. Like a lot of people she had a photo in the plastic window where you can keep cards, a family snap – her, Mason, Tiffany and a smart-looking man in an open-necked shirt. A library card was peeking out of the other side of her purse, bearing the name ‘Julie Ronson’.
At the other end of the checkout, shoppers kept approaching and then moving on, pulling faces at the mess on the floor.
Ant lumbered round the end of a shelf and headed back. Bea was relieved to see he’d managed to pick up the right stuff.
‘At last! Thanks, b—’ She stopped herself just in time. ‘Thanks, Ant.’
She ran the items through the till and took the cash, while Ant started cleaning up.
‘There we are,’ she said, handing Julie her change. ‘No harm done.’ Bea smiled and Julie managed a watery smile back.
‘Thank you,’ she said. She put Mason down again and made him hold on to the trolley and they set off for the exit. Bea watched her go, then turned her attention to Ant, who was slopping soapy water around the floor with the mop. After a minute he ground to a halt, holding the mop with both hands and leaning his chin on top.
‘You need to put your triangle out now,’ said Bea. ‘The wet floor one.’
‘Okay. On it.’ But he didn’t move. ‘I’m knackered,’ he said. ‘Don’t know if I can hack this.’
‘Shh, not in front of the customers. Go and empty that bucket in the drain outside.’
‘Yeah. Right,’ he said. He found the yellow warning cone and shambled off, leaving a good-sized puddle on the floor behind him.
When he’d gone, Bea clasped her hands together then turned them inside out, stretched and cracked her knuckles.
‘Don’t reckon he’ll make it to Friday,’ she said to Dot.
‘Ah, don’t be harsh. It’s his first day. Remember yours?’
It felt to Bea that she’d always been there, although it was only five years since she started as a Saturday girl. She’d been full-time since she left school just after her A-levels, a couple of years ago.
‘True enough,’ she said. ‘First days suck. If it’s okay, I’ll take my break now – it’s only five minutes early – and no one’s going to come near Lake Geneva for a while.’
‘All right, doll.’
‘You can’t smoke out here.’
Ant was in the service yard, leaning against a wall, head back, blowing smoke into the drizzly air.
He grinned when he saw Bea. He knew there’d been a spark between them. She was a good-looking girl, too, with curves in all the right places. With her coat draped over her shoulders and that scraped-back ponytail, there was something about her, some old-school style.
‘Can’t leave me alone, can you? Can’t keep away.’
She narrowed her eyes and nodded towards the ‘No Smoking’ sign directly above his head.
‘I’m on my break. I wanted some fresh air,’ she said pointedly. ‘Not a lungful of second-hand smoke.’
He took another long drag, then dropped the cigarette end onto the concrete and ground it out with his shoe.
They stood side by side for a while, in silence, then Ant said, ‘How did you do that thing with the bog roll?’
‘How did you know what was better value?’
She shrugged. ‘Simple maths. You either divide the totals by the units to get a unit price, or multiply the costs up until you’ve got the same number of units. I usually do both ways, just to check I’m right.’
‘In your head?’
He pulled a downward smile and nodded. ‘Impressed.’
‘I’m not just a pretty face, you know.’
‘What?’ she said, ready to start a fight.
They lapsed into silence again. Ant sighed and closed his eyes.
‘I meant it about not hacking it. I dunno if I can do another three hours of this.’
It was Bea’s turn to snort. ‘That’s what I said to Dot. Reckon you’re a quitter.’
His eyes shot open. ‘Shut up!’
‘Well, what else are you if you can’t hack seven hours work for one day?’
‘Oh, come on, it’s dead boring.’
‘It’s not that bad. It’s what you make it, like most things.’
‘So you’re not bored?’
‘Yeah. No. I mean, I try not to be. I try to be nice to my customers, save them a bit of money, have a bit of banter. It makes a difference. I like it. And there’s staff discount on everything.’
‘I don’t get the discount. Not till I’ve done my probation.’
‘There you go. Another reason to stick at it. Saves an eff-ton of money for me and Queenie.’
‘Queenie! What do you call her that for?’
‘Revenge. She called me Beatrice after the princess. Minging name. So I call her Queenie. Trouble is, she likes it.’
‘Ha! Mine’s just as bad. With her it was Tony Blair.’
‘I’m Anthony, after Tony Blair. Things could only get better in 1997. Apparently.’
Bea started to laugh. ‘Parents. What are they like?’
‘Saddos with no imagination?’ Ant was laughing now too.
‘Anthony and Beatrice,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Fuckin’ ’ell.’
He held his hand up and, rather to her surprise, Bea found herself high-fiving him.
The door behind them blasted open.
‘Anthony! What are you doing out here?’
A man stood in the doorway, almost filling it – the boss himself, Gavin. His white shirtsleeves were rolled up. One of his buttons had come undone revealing a swell of pale hairy flesh between the bottom of his tie and the top of his belt.
‘We’ve been looking for you. You’re needed inside. Eileen’s going to show you how to stock the freezers.’
Ant looked at Bea and raised his eyebrows.
‘I’m needed,’ he said. ‘Hate to tear myself away.’
‘Come on! Chop, chop! I’m giving you a chance here. First day. A new start. Don’t mess it up.’
Ant peeled himself from the wall and disappeared inside. Bea stayed in the yard for a few minutes more then went up to the staffroom. The rest of her shift dragged a little. There was the usual lull after lunch. Things picked up a bit around the end of the school day, with parents popping in to pick up some things for tea and kids doing their sweet and crisp run. At five o’clock, she handed over to Marcus gratefully. He was student at the university nearby and, like several others, he did three or four evening and weekend shifts to supplement his student loan.
‘All right?’ he said, as she logged out of the till.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
He sat down and started getting comfortable. His glasses slipped down his nose when he bent sideways to adjust the chair.
‘Did you see the paper today?’ he said, pushing his glasses up again.
‘Something or nothing, I reckon,’ said Bea.
‘I dunno, I know one of the girls that got followed. You take care, okay?’
‘I’m okay. I can look after myself,’ said Bea. ‘But thanks.’
She headed towards the back of the store. She’d pick up tea for her and Queenie on the way out, after she’d got changed. Wednesday today, so it was chicken and vegetable rice. Queenie liked routine. She fetched her handbag and coat from the ladies’ locker room and went into the staffroom. Ginny, another checkout worker about Bea’s age, was on her way out.
‘New boy’s in there,’ she said to Bea. She rolled her eyes. ‘He’s in a bit of a mood.’
‘Ha! First day blues,’ said Bea. ‘I think he’s all right really.’
Ant was standing near the kitchen area, stripping off his branded polo shirt.
‘Oi!’ said Bea. ‘Not in here. Go in the men’s.’
‘I don’t want to be in this thing another minute,’ he said. ‘I hate chuffing uniforms.’ He balled up the shirt and threw it into a corner. His body was so skinny Bea could see each one of his ribs. If I ran my fingernail up and down, he’d make a noise like a xylophone, she thought, although she had no desire to actually touch him. He caught her looking, though, and the grin was back. She did her coat up. Now he was perched on the edge of the one of the old beaten-up armchairs, watching her as he rummaged around in his pocket, apparently readjusting his groin.
‘God! Stop it. There’s ladies present, you know.’
He grinned. ‘Unexpected item in bagging area.’
Bea gave him a withering look. ‘Nobody’s interested in your bagging area. Nobody.’
His grin remained.
‘They’re queuing up, girl. Join the back, if you want. I reckon that Ginny girl’s interested for starters.’
Bea opened her mouth and stuck her fingers in making a retching noise. ‘In your dreams,’ she said. ‘Seriously, take your hands out of your pocket or I’ll report you.’
Ant sighed and reluctantly complied. As he brought his hand out, something fell onto the hard floor with a light,
‘What’s that?’ Bea asked.
‘Nothing.’ He moved his foot quickly, trapping something underneath.
‘What’s under your foot?’
She walked nearer to him.
‘Nothing.’ He tried to look at her, brazen it out, but couldn’t meet her steely gaze.
‘So move it.’
She folded her arms across her ample chest. She could easily take him in a fight, or at least barge him away from whatever he was guarding, but then she’d have to actually make contact with him and, well, you didn’t know where he’d been. No, she’d wait it out.
‘Are you just going to stand there?’ he asked.
He moved his foot a few inches to the side to reveal a gold ring lying on the floor. They both swooped down to grab it and their heads clashed spectacularly. Bea ended up planting her bottom firmly on the floor, feet flying out. She went rolling backwards, like an upended turtle. Ant managed to put his hands down to stop himself and while Bea was righting herself, he picked up the ring.
‘You little bugger—’
‘What on earth—?’
Ears still ringing, Bea looked up to find Dot looking down at them both.
‘We don’t normally do the initiation ceremony until
the second week,’ she said. ‘You’re getting a bit ahead of yourselves. And why’s he still got his trousers on? You’re not doing it properly.’
She held out a hand to Bea and helped her up.
‘Ha, ha. Very funny. We just . . . I just . . . bumped,’ Bea said, dusting herself down. She was annoyed to see a big ladder in her tights.
‘Hmm. Play nicely, you two.’ She turned to Ant. ‘You’re coming back tomorrow, then? Don’t let her frighten you off.’
Ant was rubbing his head.
‘Yeah, I guess. I’m not a quitter.’
He and Bea exchanged looks. She watched him pocket the ring again. He put on a T-shirt, picked up his uniform from where he’d thrown it and sauntered out of the staffroom.
‘Wait!’ she said. ‘Sorry, Dot. See you tomorrow.’ She gathered up her bag and went after him. He was rounding
the corner of the building when she got out of the staff exit.
‘Ant! Wait!’ He showed no sign of having heard her.
‘Goddamn it.’ She was going to have to run, something she avoided in the normal course of events. Huffing and puffing, she caught up with him halfway across the car park. She reached forward and tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Didn’t you hear me?’
He unplugged one earphone.
‘Animal magnetism,’ he said, grinning. ‘Pheromones or something.’
‘It’s not you I want, Romeo, it’s that wedding ring.’
‘Bea, I like you and that. You’ve been a laugh today, but we’ve only just met—’
‘I think I know whose it is.’
He kept walking.
‘Yeah, so do I. Mine.’
‘It’s not yours, though, is it? Is it?’
She jabbed her finger into his arm. He stopped walking and turned to face her.
‘It’s my grandma’s, okay?’ he said. ‘I keep it with me. It’s sentimental.’
Wrong-footed, she wondered fleetingly if he was telling the truth. But this was Ant, wasn’t it? Expelled from school. In and out of trouble before and since.
‘That’s really nice,’ she said. ‘Do you mind showing me?’
He pulled a face, but fished it out and held it in the middle of his palm.
‘Can I—?’ She picked it up and inspected it. On the outside it was a plain gold band, but there was some writing inside. ‘So when exactly did your grandma get married?’
Ant shuffled his feet.
‘1970?’ he guessed wildly.
‘You asking me or telling?’
‘So not the twenty-first of June 2008 then? Like the person whose ring this is.’
He puffed out his cheeks and blew out some air.
‘Okay. It’s not my grandma’s. I found it. So it’s mine. Finders keepers.’
‘Where was it?’
‘In one of the freezers. Eileen made me get all the chickens from the bottom, and then put in some new ones and put the old ones on top. I nearly got chuffing frostbite.’
‘You were wearing gloves, weren’t you?’
‘Stop whining then. And the ring was in with the chickens?’
‘Yeah. It had dropped down and was wedged in a layer of ice.’
Bea closed her hand around it. ‘The woman who dropped the brown sauce told me she’d lost her ring. She was so upset. I bet it’s hers. I’ll hand it in to Big Gav first thing tomorrow.’
His face darkened. ‘Na-ah. I found it. It’s mine. I could get twenty, well, a tenner for it down the Prospect. Give it here.’ He held his hand out and beckoned to her with his fingers.
‘No way. It’s not yours. You can’t sell it.’
‘Do you know what they’re paying me for this so-called great opportunity? Less than minimum wage.’
‘It is an opportunity. Who else is going to give you a job round here? If you’re good enough, they’ll keep you on. Think about it. What’s the alternative?’
‘You sound like a probation worker. I was starting to like you, too. Thought we could have a laugh.’
Bea put the hand holding the ring into her pocket and clasped the strap of her bag with the other, pulling it into her body.
‘Yeah, so did I, but I don’t “have a laugh” with tea leaves.’
He looked at the ground and kicked at some loose stones.
‘You’re just like everyone else, after all. Labelling me. Writing me off. I’m not a thief.’
‘That’s a matter of opinion.’
She sniffed hard and stalked off in the opposite direction. She reached the main road and pressed the button at the crossing. A gust of wind caught the back of her neck. She shivered and turned up the collar of her coat. The traffic lights showed amber and then red. The green man at the crossing control lit up, but Bea stayed where she was. The driver of the car which had stopped for the lights sounded the horn. Bea glanced up and saw him gesticulating, palms up. He was mouthing something. Bea just shook her head, turned around and started running again.
She guessed that Ant lived somewhere on the ex-council estate, near the school. She jogged down an alleyway which led off the High Street and into the heart of the estate. She hadn’t been this way for years – the alley was longer than she remembered.
About halfway along, she saw something blocking the light ahead. A figure, a man, was walking towards her. She felt a familiar frisson of alarm, made sharper by the words ‘Kingsleigh Stalker’ which were fresh in her mind. She checked behind her. It was as far to go back now as it was to press on. Why should she turn back? She had a right to be here. And this was just a bloke going for a walk. She shouldn’t assume that all men were potential attackers.
As he got closer she could see that there was something walking alongside him, a dog of some sort, and she relaxed. A dog walker wasn’t nearly as threatening as a man on his own.
She held her head up and kept walking. Everything was fine. A few metres away from her, the dog started barking and straining on its short leash. Bea stopped in her tracks. She could see now that its owner was only a lad, younger than her. He struggled to get the dog under control, swearing at it, and eventually gripping its studded collar and hauling the dog close to his legs.
‘’S okay,’ he said. ‘You can go past. He won’t hurt yer.’
She skirted past them and jogged to the end of the alley. She decided to go left, rounded a corner and almost ran smack into Ant. He put his hands out to ward her off and ended up holding her shoulders.
‘You again,’ he said. ‘This is getting silly. You’re starting to creep me out.’
Bea needed a few moments to get her breath back. She stood in his arms-length embrace puffing and panting, mouth gasping like a fish out of water.
‘Here,’ she said, eventually. She held the ring between her thumb and index finger.
Ant let go of her.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Take it,’ she said.
Slowly, he reached forward. His fingers pinched the other side of the ring, but Bea didn’t let go. He pulled a little harder. So did she.
‘I’m not like everyone else,’ she said. A little rivulet of sweat trickled down the side of her face.
‘No, okay. No offence meant.’
‘So I’m giving this to you and I’m trusting you to do the right thing.’
‘Take it back to work? Hand it in?’ He blew out through his mouth, making a raspberry with his lips. A fine spray of spit reached Bea’s face. She didn’t flinch.
‘Take it back to work,’ she said, steadily. ‘Hand it in. I trust you. I’m not like everyone else and neither are you.’
She let go of the ring.
‘Goodnight, Ant. See you tomorrow.’
She turned around and started walking back towards the alley. When she was sure she was out of view, she extracted her hanky from up her sleeve and rubbed her face until it hurt.
Bea spent a restless night. As she tried to drop off to sleep she was haunted by her stupid impulsive behaviour. She had had Julie’s ring in her hand and she gave it away! To Ant! What was she thinking? Let’s face it, he wouldn’t be back at work tomorrow, so then what would she do? Find out where he lived and go and see him? Plead with him? Buy the ring back herself? And what if he’d already got rid of it?
She tossed and turned, and when she finally drifted off, her sleep was tormented by twisted hobbity nightmares – a gold ring, dragons, dwarves, freezers and mops. She woke up at half past five in a hot sweat. As her eyes flicked open she remembered what she’d done.
‘Stupid. Stupid. Stupid,’ she said out loud, then looked at
her alarm clock and groaned, and however much she tried
she couldn’t get to sleep again.
‘You all right, love?’ Queenie asked as Bea shuffled into the kitchen at quarter past seven. She’d set the table for breakfast like she did every day: boxes of cereal in a neat row, milk in a jug, bowls, plates, spoons and knives at the ready. ‘Reckon you’re a bit out of sorts, what with forgetting the rice yesterday, and now not sleeping. I heard you get up and go to the bathroom this morning. What was it? Five o’clock?’
Bea sighed. She loved her mum, but despite all the evidence over the years, Queenie had yet to grasp that Bea wasn’t a morning person. What bliss it would be not to have to talk at least until after her first cup of tea. All she could manage today was a sort of grunt as she sat down opposite her and reached for the Rice Krispies.
Later, as she walked to work, she felt a twinge of guilt. Her mum probably wouldn’t talk to anyone else until she
came back from the supermarket in the evening. She should have made more effort. She’d try harder tomorrow.
In the staff loos Bea leaned close to the mirror. Her golden rule for bad mornings was to dab a good layer of concealer under her eyes, make the eyeliner thicker, add a jaunty flick at the corners and stick on bigger lashes. Despite the little pink veins sullying the whites of her eyes, she wasn’t looking half as bad as she felt.
A cistern flushed behind her and one of the cubicle doors opened. Dot emerged, looking immaculate as ever – her uniform crisp, her hair lacquered to perfection, her nails glossy and red.
Bea had a sudden flash of insight that she was looking at her future. She wouldn’t mind looking that good at
fifty-eight, but did she still want to be at Costsave?
‘Rough night, doll?’ said Dot.
‘How can you tell? Do I look minging?’
‘No, you look lush as ever, but you’ve got your megalashes on. I know you.’
‘Yeah. Thank God for these babies.’
Dot washed her hands, then joined Bea at the mirror.
‘You all right?’
‘Yeah. Just couldn’t sleep. The thing is, I did something yesterday—’ She stopped. What was the point of telling her?
The ring was gone, wasn’t it?
‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter.’
They walked into the staffroom.
‘No sign of Ant, then,’ Bea said morosely. ‘What did I tell you?’
Dot tilted her head towards the corridor.
‘He’s in with Gav,’ she said. ‘Turned up five minutes before you did.’
Bea looked at her.
‘Close your mouth, love,’ said Dot, with a little smile of triumph. ‘Slack-jawed isn’t a good look on anyone.’
She checked her watch. ‘Time we weren’t here. Ready for another day in paradise?’
They made their way onto the shop floor with everyone else. Even though it felt like she’d been here forever, even though it was a middle-of-the-range supermarket not Harrods, even though the first customer through the door would be Smelly Reg here to buy his Racing Post and a packet of fags like he always did, Bea still felt a tingle of anticipation in the minutes before the store opened. She made herself comfortable at checkout six, adjusted the chair back to where it should be, punched her ID into the screen and put on some hand cream. Beside her, Dot stretched out her arms and wiggled her fingers like a concert pianist
preparing for bravura performance.
‘All right, Gav?’ Bea called out to their manager as he bustled along the row of tills towards the front door, a
bundle of keys jangling at his waistband. He always liked to do the unlocking himself.
He winced visibly. ‘Mr Howells, please, Beatrice. You know the rules.’
‘Yes, Mr Howells. Sorry, Mr Howells.’
Dot raised her eyebrows and wagged a finger at Bea. ‘Youth of today. No respect.’ She winked.
Bea spotted Ant at the far end of the aisle opposite her. He appeared briefly, pushing his cleaning trolley towards the fresh veg section. He wasn’t shuffling today. There was something jaunty about the way he was moving – it was almost a swagger. He glanced in her direction. She was embarrassed to be caught looking, but he grinned and gave her the thumbs up. Bea shook her head, smiling. He’d done it, then. Good for him.
The morning started slowly. Bea had a few of her regulars through – the ones that looked out for her and came to her checkout even if there wasn’t a queue at one of the others. She liked to think of it as building a fan base. A smile here, a compliment there, went a long way. Some of the over-sixties liked to flirt with her. She didn’t mind it up to a point, encouraged it even. It all helped to make the day pass more pleasantly.
She didn’t see Julie until nearly lunchtime. She was pushing Tiffany in her pushchair with Mason trotting along
beside her, trying to keep up as she powered up and down the aisles putting a few bits and bobs into a basket. Bea lit up her checkout number to summon the floor manager. It was Neville again today, clipboard clasped firmly, biro at the ready.
‘The woman with the pushchair and the little boy, the one in the leather jacket—’
‘She lost her wedding ring, but Ant found it and gave it to Ga— to Mr Howells. Can you go and tell her?’
Julie was walking rapidly away from them. Neville ducked down the next aisle aiming to intercept her at the other end. Bea leaned sideways as far as she could, but she couldn’t see what happened next. A couple of minutes later there was an announcement over the tannoy.
‘Cleaner to management suite. Cleaner, Anthony, to the management suite, please.’
At lunchtime, Bea found Ant in the yard again. It wasn’t drizzling today, but there was a cold wind whistling through the metal gates.
‘You on your break too?’ she said.
‘Yeah. No. Bit of a nicotine top-up.’
She didn’t bother pointing out the sign again.
‘You brought it back then?’
‘She was dead chuffed, you know. I could see when she came out of Big Gav’s office. You did a good thing there.’
There was a pause, then, ‘So did you. You made me think.’
‘You made me think what it would be like to be her. To lose something that means so much to you. Ach, sounds soft when you say it out loud.’ He couldn’t meet her eye, and instead looked at the ground and scuffed his toes in the gravel.
Bea looked down too. She was wondering what it would feel like to love someone so much you’d want to wear their ring. She wondered if it would ever happen to her.
‘Mr Howells was well pleased,’ said Ant. ‘Treated me like some sort of hero.’
‘Good. That’s nice. You can’t call him that, though,’ said Bea. ‘Everyone calls him Gav to his face, Big Gav behind his back. It’s the rules.’
Ant grinned. ‘I like those sort of rules. They’re the sort I can sign up to.’
He held his hand up and, again, Bea found her hand moving to meet his.
The door to the store was open. The sound of the tannoy drifted out. ‘Cleaning team to aisle four. Cleaning team to aisle four.’
‘Uh-oh,’ said Bea. ‘That’s not good.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s code. “Cleaner” is food spillage. “Cleaning team” is something biological – urine, vomit, and if you’re very
‘You’re kidding?’ He searched her face, looking for telltale signs of a wind-up. Finding none, his shoulders sagged. ‘Oh crap.’
‘Very likely, mate. Welcome to paradise, Ant.’
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