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Glenn n’ Meadows
He would never admit it to Claire, but Jenkins always felt a sense of guilt-tinged satisfaction when he found himself “forced” to take the late train home. At that time of night, the carriages were almost always empty, and he often ventured out of the first-class carriage like a child sneaking out to explore the rougher part of town. He strolled along the carpeted aisles surveying the refuge of the day: old sandwich packets, drink cans, newspapers thumbed a thousand times with headlines now firmly in the twilight hours of the daily news cycle. The solitude made him feel like a survivor, the winner, the most committed of the team.
In the morning commute, they packed in together like sardines, yawning coffee clouds over their iPads and laptops, and the opening of the train doors at Paddington was like a starting gun on an endurance race that most couldn’t sustain until the end—clocking off, dropping off, until only the hardened few were left, still punching numbers and talking shop even as the cleaners asked them to lift their feet so they could hoover under the desk. As far as Jenkins was concerned, if it wasn’t dark when you left and arrived back home, one didn’t have the right to call oneself a professional.
He would text Claire one stop away from home, and she’d have a cup of tea prepared, a bottle uncorked, and a meal-on-the-go right as he stepped through the front door. Certain sections of society were pushing “tradition” further and further toward the pejorative, but who could begrudge a time-honored ritual that worked with such seamless efficiency? That had served the household, the economy, the country through so many turbulent decades? They could sneer all they wanted into their bowls of fair-trade quinoa but no bloc, caliphate, commune, or “new big idea” had yet destroyed this basic, steadfast tenant of a man, his briefcase, his wife, and his castle.
On Thursdays, he and Claire would make a slight departure from the usual routine and Jenkins would stop off at the late night branch of Glenn n’ Meadows, the reassuringly expensive food store chain, incorporating all the predictable and comforting familiarity of the corporate chain but with the pastel colored minimalist décor, high-quality products, and a culinary lexicon just esoteric enough to intimidate the everyday riff-raff from venturing inside.
At Glenn n’ Meadows, one could pick up a ready-made main course, side dish, dessert, and free bottle of wine, all for the bargain price of ten pounds. This Dinner for Two deal had been the talk of the town for some weeks, and Jenkins had entered into and overheard many a giddy conversations enthusing over the value, choice, and overall brilliance of the Glenn n’ Meadows ten-pound meal deal:
“It’s a bargain, a steal, brilliant!”
“You just can’t say no to that kind of value, can you?”
“We’ve had the parmesan chicken three weeks in a row, so I’m trying to persuade Sarah to try the slow cooked duck.”
“Well, you can’t go wrong with either at that price.”
“Exactly, ten pounds!”
“I know. You can’t say fairer than that, can you?”
“It’s a steal.”
“Anyway, see you at the three o’clock debrief.”
It had transformed the soporific morning miasma in Jenkins’ commuter carriage in those first weeks of its release. Coffees went cold in their cardboard take-away cups, as Glenn n’ Meadows’ marketing department genius induced the kind of febrile excitement normally associated with those weeks preceding the office Christmas party, another round of bonuses, or a royal wedding/jubilee four-day weekend.
Jenkins didn’t know exactly how a “Lochmuir” Scottish salmon differed from other salmon from Scotland, what “en croutes” might translate as, or how a batch-produced lasagna served in a foil container could possibly be “gastropub,” but to question why was to miss the point—the point being that whatever foreign-sounding word they prefixed those dishes with, they all roughly translated as “for us, of the sophisticated palate” and, as importantly, “not for them, the ignoramuses.” It represented everything that was right with the world. There was market choice, a certain autonomy, but contained and shielded from anarchy and confusion by a clear set of rules that guided the consumer through the process. Privilege, but with limits. Freedom with boundaries. One main dish. One side. One dessert. One bottle of wine. In short, there was contained in that transaction everything that made Great British capitalism the perfect system that it was. And for ten British pound sterling? Well, I mean, one couldn’t say fairer than that, now could one?
He quickened his step as he turned the corner to the shop, and was temporarily forced off the pavement as he skirted around a group of teenagers in tracksuits fighting over a plastic bottle of cider. Jenkins put a few meters distance between himself and them before muttering an insult under his breath the likes of which could get a BBC morning disc jockey sacked on a slow news week. As he entered the shop, he held the door open for a man in a well-cut suit he thought he might have recognized from a conference but couldn’t be sure. He gave him a friendly nod as he passed.
Apart from the gentleman, he was the sole customer in the shop. Upon arriving at the relevant aisle, he stood for a moment, surveying the prizes in front of him. It wasn’t a matter of deciding—he knew what he wanted, what he and Claire had tacitly agreed on—but admiration. It was the view he was enjoying, the range, the magnificent elegance of it all. As he bathed in the golden light of the chill cabinet, he became vaguely aware of the afore-encountered gentleman also beginning to peruse the shelf. No matter, there was plenty for everyone, Jenkins thought, as he grasped first a Californian white, then the lemon and thyme whole chicken, the peach roulade, and finally the minted new potatoes…
Except just as he bent at the waist in the direction of the sides, and moved the dessert box to the crock of his elbow to free his hand, the gentleman at his side swiftly scooped up what looked like the last of the minted new potatoes. Jenkins remained in his stooped position, his eyes fixed on the empty space of shelf where the small tub of be-minted potatoes used to be. He regained himself, then cleared his throat, altering the pitch and tone of the last expulsion of air to change it from a cough to a carefree laugh.
“Excuse me, sir, but I was just about to take those potatoes for myself.”
The man, having already turned to go, looked over his shoulder. “Is that so,” he said simply, and took two steps towards the checkout.
“I was hoping you could return them to me,” said Jenkins, maintaining a conciliatory lightness of tone to better resolve the misunderstanding.
“There’s plenty more side options left,” said the man, gesturing to the shelf with an open palm, even as he yet again turned his stride away from Jenkins and towards the cashier.
“But the potatoes go particularly well with the lemon and thyme chicken,” insisted Jenkins, a little more curtly this time, and holding up the packet of chicken so that the gentleman might observe the demonstrable obviousness of Jenkins’ logic for himself.
“And even better with the Scottish salmon,” replied the gentleman, holding up his own main.
“I think we can both agree I was here first and saw them first,” said Jenkins.
For the first time, the gentleman dropped his air of indifference and faced Jenkins.
“I didn’t notice you make any attempt to take them until you called me back here.”
“I held the door for you back there; it’d be the decent thing to do,” said Jenkins.
Now it was the gentleman’s turn to laugh, not conciliatorily, but dismissively. “I would’ve done the same—it’s common decency, not a debt obligation.”
Jenkins held the man’s stare for a second, then shifted his glare over his shoulder towards the checkout worker, a scruffy thirty-something of indeterminable gender idly prodding away at their phone and paying so little attention to the unfolding situation that Jenkins had to call twice to catch their attention.
“I said excuse me.”
“Hello,” said the youth without looking up.
“Are there any more minted potatoes?”
“Whatever’s there is what we have.”
“There’s nothing in the stock room?”
“Whatever’s on the shelf is what we have. First come first served.” The youth looked up for the first time. “And can you hurry this up a bit? I’m meeting my date in, like, five minutes.”
“You’ll get nowhere with those people,” said the gentleman, shaking his head. “They exist to disrupt.”
“You’d think Glenn n’ Meadows would employ better.”
There was a moment of quiet truce between the two of them while they contemplated “those people” and stared at the shelves of food.
“Look,” said Jenkins. “I’ve got the last bottle of the Californian white. I see you’ve settled on a red. That won’t go with the fish, so how about I give you the white and you trade me the potatoes.”
“The wine’s negligible. I get a far better range through my wine society membership. I save this stuff for the gardener at Christmas. Why don’t you just settle on another side?” The gentleman picked another from the shelf, apparently at random. “Here we are: ‘Boston beans.’”
Jenkins frowned and kneaded his eyebrows with his thumb and forefinger.
“Boston—Are you—They’re just glorified baked beans! They’re the worst of the lot—no one ever gets the Boston bloody beans!”
“An interesting take on a classic, if you ask me. Add a few potato wedges and it’s an improvement on the classic British chicken and chips,” said the gentleman.
Jenkins gripped his lemon and thyme chicken so hard his thumb was in danger of perforating the plastic film.
“I’ll ask you not to patronize me.”
The languid voice of the checkout worker cut through the tension. “Like I said guys, five minutes ‘til closing. I’ve got a date and I’d like to nip to the bog and change my undies before she gets here. You know, freshen up in case—”
“Yes, we quite understand,” cut in Jenkins sarcastically.
“Look, I wasn’t trying to patronize you; I’m merely looking for a solution to your dilemma,” proffered the gentleman.
“Well, we need to find you an alternative to the potatoes, do we not?”
“Those are my potatoes,” spat Jenkins, gesturing with the bottle of white at the potatoes under the arm of the gentleman. “I have a moral claim to those potatoes and I’ll ask you not to shift the paradigm of the argument, sir.”
The cider squabblers from the street outside had began to press their faces against the window at them, distorting their features into squashed, grotesque caricatures.
“I think I’m being more than generous by still being here and humoring your bizarre claim on these potatoes.”
“Stop this idiocy and give them to me,” said Jenkins, taking a step towards the gentleman and holding his hand out expectantly.
“I always get the minted potatoes. My wife likes the minted potatoes. Give me the potatoes.”
“‘Always?’ ‘Wife?’ You can’t honestly—neither habit nor taste gives you any more right to it than anyone else. If it matters so much to you, why wait until so close to closing time to buy it? And then linger over the shelves when you were so set on this particular product?”
“It’s first come first served and whatever’s there is what we have, or you can wait ‘til tomorrow morning for the new deliveries,” came the cashier’s voice once more. “Also: two minutes.”
Jenkins remained in his position, hand outstretched, a fierce glare on his face and his breathing becoming heavy and labored. He said nothing. The gentleman seemed caught in two minds, one eye trained on the mute Jenkins while he made a half-turn towards the till. The lingering silence seemed to unnerve him slightly.
“Look,” he said, finally. “Let’s re-think the whole thing. How about you abandon the chicken and go for a different main that you can combine with one of these other side dishes.” The gentleman studied the shelf for a moment. “How about this one? Vegetable pasta melt, that’d go well with the Mediterranean seasoned vegetab—”
The gentleman was cut off by the slap of Jenkins’ peach roulade hitting the shop floor.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid fool!” spluttered Jenkins, annunciating each word with a slap of his own forehead. “The vegetarian ones are false economy! No idiot in their right mind pays the same for a bit of pasta in tomato sauce as two pieces of chicken or a steak. Everyone knows—that’s basic, basic maths. You’re patronizing me and I won’t have it. Now give—”
Jenkins made a lunge for the potatoes which the gentleman swerved, slapping Jenkins’ hand away, and knocking two bags of organic peanuts and dried fruits from their hanging.
“Steady on, now,” came the semi-concerned voice of the cashier again.
Jenkins kept a hard gaze on the potatoes while the gentleman looked alarmed but prepared. This time Jenkins went with his full weight, leading with his shoulder and upper arm, and attempting to wrest the prize from the gentleman’s grasp. They struggled there for a moment, before both men lost their grip on their bottles of wine which smashed on the floor, drenching their shoes and the cuff of their suit trousers.
“Oh, fuck’s sake!” shouted the cashier. “Right, I’m formally asking the both of you to leave now!”
“I’m not leaving without my minted potatoes,” bellowed Jenkins.
“Neither of you are leaving with anything,” said the cashier. “I’m not serving you, and if you leave with any of those items, that’s theft and I’ll call the police.”
“Well, that’s settled it, then,” said the gentleman, tossing his salmon back onto the shelf. “I hope you’re pleased with yourself. You’re a very petty man,” he said to Jenkins.
“Give them to me,” hissed Jenkins.
“You mad fool, did you not hear the—”
Jenkins grabbed the man by the lapels of his jacket and they recommenced their clumsy dance, now even more ungainly thanks to the wine-soaked floor, on which their work shoes failed to find any grip. Eventually they tumbled together into the shelf adjacent to the chilled food section, sending even more packets of peanuts, dried fruit, and chocolate covered almonds skittering across the floor. The gentlemen struggled to his feet, only to be tackled round the waist by Jenkins, who held on, his cheek pressed up against the buttock of the struggling gentleman, who continued to wriggle and writhe for freedom.
Jenkins, eyes closed and oblivious to nothing but the pounding of blood in his ears, was suddenly aware of a strong hand on his shoulder. It could only have been the cashier. He spun quickly onto his back. “Get your hands off me, peasant!” he screamed, still with his eyes closed, before hearing a familiar voice, both fearful and angry.
“Richard! What the hell are you doing?”
Jenkins opened his eyes and looked into those of his wife, dressed unusually casually in jeans and a T-shirt, with her slightly graying hair hanging loose. He was lying on his back, his hair drenched in wine. In the clenched fists of both hands, he gripped two bags of dried bananas so strongly, in fact, that they looked as though they’d split open. Behind him, he was aware of the gentleman slowly getting to his feet.
“Claire,” he gasped, still on his back. “I was just… it’s Thursday, so I was just… Dinner for Two… just picking up the usual. Ten pounds. You can’t say fairer than that.”
From behind him he heard a faint mutter. “It’s a steal.”
Claire, meanwhile, said nothing, but continued to stare at her husband in disbelief.
Jenkins stared about himself as if coming round from a deep concussion. Slowly, with some difficulty, he staggered to his feet. He picked up a crushed, wine-saturated box of lemon and thyme chicken and the flattened peach roulade.
“Look. I’ve got your favorite. Our favorite. We might have to skip the wine,” he whispered. He didn’t mention the potatoes.
Claire looked from the chicken to the roulade to her husband’s damp, reddened face. “Actually, I’m not too fussed about the chicken, or the roulade, or any of this stuff.” she managed.
“But—it’s our fav—”
“I don’t think you ever asked whether I liked it. And in fact, this is just the kind of thing I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, these routines we’ve got ourselves into. I wouldn’t mind a bit of—your attitude in the last couple of years—and now I find you brawling in the aisles of Glenn n’ Meadows…”
Claire trailed off, and an uneasy silence descended between them.
“Right, you ready then?”
It was the cashier, changed out of the Glenn n’ Meadows apron and standing with an all too familiar closeness to Claire.
Jenkins stared at the two of them a moment and something clicked into place in his mind. “What are you actually doing here, Claire?”
Claire stared at the floor sheepishly then turned her gaze to the cashier beside her. “Well, this is Fran, we met online. Like I said, I was meaning to talk to you about making some changes to the marriage. Except you never seem to be around.” She continued to stare at the floor, then said hurriedly, “I left a note. On the fridge. And some defrosted pork chops for dinner. I just want a bit more excitement, Richard.”
Jenkins said nothing. From the packet still in his hand, he ate a piece of dried banana.
“So this is the husband?” said Fran brusquely. “Figures. By the way, Richard—it is Richard, yes?” Claire nodded. “The police are on their way, the emergency maintenance crew can deal with this shit, and it’s all on CCTV anyway. So I guess we can be on our way.”
The two of them turned and headed for the door. Still avoiding his eye, Claire said, “I’ll be back late. We’ll talk in the morning if you don’t leave too early.”
And with that they left.
“I knew I should have just gone to McDonald’s,” said the gentleman, squinting against the blue and red lights that flashed through the shop window.
John Miskelly lives and teaches in Gijón, Asturias, on the North coast of Spain. He is thirty-one. Other short stories written by him can be found by clicking this link.