‘Don’t look back, is what I say,’ Garth said. We were in the yard of Boggart Hole Organic and he was at the end of an anecdote. ‘That’s the way things went and you can’t change it.’ He flashed me his pirate grin.
‘Uh huh,’ I said. It wasn’t like I had been even listening.
‘Yeah. Forget about it. Move on.’
This was The World According To Garth, and for as long as we worked there, I would receive regular updates.
I liked things about the job – one of which was Garth, funnily enough. He was a year younger than me, but not bad to look at. Also, it was close to home, it had a laidback tone and my friends actually saw it as quite a cool place to work. On the other side of the balance sheet was Norman, the manager in this non-hierarchical workers’ co-operative. The rest of the staff were nice. They let Garth and me take our breaks together. I imagine the thinking was that we were younger than everyone else so we would probably want to hang out together. Garth wanted to hang out with me, so they got that half-right.
‘Got the new Strokes album at the weekend,’ Garth continued. ‘I’ve been trying to learn how to play like Albert Hammond Jr.’
Often, I only had to nod.
‘Yeah, he’s about the most out-there guitarist there is just now. I actually kind of think that his technique might be beyond me. There’s a kind of fractured thing he does that’s really hard to pull off.’
I rolled a thin cigarette, licked it and sealed it. With him, part of the appeal was that he was both an expert on all things and at the same time could be entertainingly innocent.
‘Norman said he thought this should really be a vegan establishment,’ Garth said. ‘He said he’s been a vegan for fifteen years or something. What is a vegan?’
‘Don’t you know? It’s an alien with pointy ears.’
I wasn’t really giving it up for Lent. Sure, that was something to hang it on, a way I hoped I might disguise my motivation. But that wasn’t it.
At Boggart Hole Organic, people were asking each other what they planned to give up for Lent. Some were hoping to manage for the six weeks without coffee, or alcohol, or television and somewhere in there I hit on the idea of Lent as camouflage.
‘I thought I might give up chocolate,’ I said when Katie asked me.
‘Kind of savvy of you, Lucy. Norman will be impressed that you are learning to fit in so well.’
Boggart Hole as über-green – organic, vegetarian, fair trade, local, sustainable, very knit-your-own-yoghurt. Pulses, nuts? Check. Seeds, grains? Check. Sausages? Nix. Sugar? Nix. They didn’t sell anything related to sugar, not even chocolate.
‘Chuh,’ I said. ‘I’d have to give up sirloin steaks first.’
‘Bit of a tough one giving up chocolate, though.’ Katie liked to describe herself as “chubby”. ‘I find it enough of a challenge trying to snarfle a Kit Kat without getting caught.’
It really was a tough one. Probably no one but me knew quite how tough it was going to be. There would be no large bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble on Friday nights and no Twix while I skulked around Levenshulme on my lunch break. And these were just the hardships that presented themselves immediately. There would also be no hot chocolate, I realised, which was a problem, because in cafés it was the only drink I ever had. And – wait – no Nutella on toast for weekend breakfasts. And no Creme Eggs – which was a minor tragedy as Lent is pretty much the only time of year when you can buy them. But it would be worth it, I told myself. It would really be worth it.
The first time I saw him I could never have imagined that he would be the cause of so much self-denial. I was on the checkout, still feeling relatively fresh. One customer had moved on and the next one was shuffling up to begin her transaction. When I looked at her – you’ve always got to look at them – to say hello, I saw him over her shoulder. Looking cool, I thought, although later I realised he wasn’t so much slouching like a bored model as skulking. He was maybe in his late twenties, and dressed in black with a nice grey shirt but, really, no oil painting. Bit of a monkey, in fact, although being a monkey is actually quite an asset in my book. I like my monkey boys.
But the woman schlepping her items onto the conveyor belt was speaking to me.
‘Sorry, what?’ I said.
‘You seem to be out of rice milk. Are you, do you know?’
‘Ahh…’ Really I was still looking at old hunky pants over there. There was something funny about his eyes. I couldn’t understand how it might be possible, but the irises looked out of focus. He wasn’t very tall either, although he was slim. He had that going for him.
‘It’s usually beside the soya milk,’ the woman went on. She was wearing a worn red Cotton Traders anorak. ‘There is soya milk.’
‘Right,’ I told her. ‘Soya milk no good?’
‘I prefer rice milk.’
‘I can get somebody to check for you?’
‘The thing is I always have a limited amount of time to shop as I have to walk the dog before I pick up my granddaughter from school.’
‘So you don’t want me to check?’
‘No. I expect there’ll be some here when I’m next in. There usually is.’
When she had a hold of all her hessian bags and was heaving her shopping towards the exit, hunky pants, old Monkey Boy strolled up and set a £1.50 bag of almonds down in front of me.
‘Hello,’ I said and gave him a smile.
He nodded. I got the impression he might have been a bit of an anxious type.
I took the fiver he was holding out and decided I might flirt a little. ‘Do you come in here much? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.’
‘Hm,’ he went, and kind of winced. He was a nervy one all right.
Norman – der Führer – looked like a control freak from central casting: shaved head, twitching temples, blazing eyes. In certain circles, he was regarded as a bit of a hero. He had been an eco-warrior and was involved in the protests against a third runway at Manchester airport. Whatever, it didn’t take long on the job for me to see that he was hard work.
Somebody must have told him that I was studying English, because I hadn’t spent more than a week on the duties he had given me – restocking the shelves, inspecting sell-by dates, taking a turn on a checkout – before he suggested I might like to try writing some of the homemade adverts they displayed on blackboards around the store. (They would never have used the word “advert”, though; “customer messages” was how they put it at Boggart Hole.)
‘Would that interest you?’ he said.
‘Yeah, I mean – great. I’d like that.’
‘Excellent.’ The Blackberry in his hand chirped and he looked at the screen. ‘See what you can do.’ And he walked away, but seconds later, turned on his heel, still brandishing the Blackberry. ‘Just put your ideas down on paper – not on the boards before I approve them, yeah?’
‘Terrific,’ he said and then he was gone.
The day went by like that and it was close to home time when I ran into Norman again.
‘Hey, Lucy.’ He was really down with the kids, Norman.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Got anything to show me?’ he said.
‘Sorry?’ I noticed the corners of his mouth were flecked with foam. He talked a lot, just not to me.
‘You were going to sketch out some ideas for the customer boards?’
I was always aware of being taller than Norman. I could tell it made him bristle. ‘I know, but I haven’t had a minute all day.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I see.’
The funny thing was, I didn’t find giving up chocolate all that hard. For one thing, I had the prospect of Monkey Boy to keep me motivated. He would saunter in, see my new sylph-like shape and find himself unable to ask me out. Or failing that, I would ask him out. Even so, in the first week or so, I would have admitted to anyone that if a Yorkie bar were to present itself, I certainly would not have snubbed it. But the stabs of longing were fairly mild and I would distract myself from them by thinking about what I might come up with for Norman – what I might write to advertise products to customers. While I was thinking about this, I thought about the name of the place.
Boggart Hole Organic took its name from Boggart Hole Brook, a very minor Manchester river. To me, the name Boggart Hole had a good ring to it, but you would have thought that people might have thought twice about using the word ‘hole’ in a name for a business. But the place was more environmentally friendly than a wind farm, so who was I to carp about a little word-blindness?
After the second week, the giving up became a little easier. It felt like chocolate must just have been a habit and now I had a new habit – not eating chocolate. What was difficult, though, was the rabbit food lunch I made myself before leaving home each morning: a little plastic box of lettuce, cucumber and pepper. I excluded tomatoes on the grounds that they tasted sweet, so how could they be dietary? For protein there was one skimpy slice of ham and for carbohydrate, nothing. Weren’t carbohydrates what made you fat?
But no sign of a return visit from Monkey Boy. No sign that he had found himself mysteriously drawn back to Boggart Hole Organic.
The day after Norman had asked for them, I came armed with some draft customer messages I had written at home the night before. But I kept the notebook they were written in firmly tucked in the back pocket of my jeans: no way did I want to appear keen to impress.
The first time I saw him that day, I was kneeling down to shelve some packs of cashew nuts near the fridges. He walked by with his nose in his Blackberry. The Norman uniform was cargo pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, but he was so tightly wound up and thrusting he really should have been wearing an Armani suit.
At lunchtime, because he asked about them, I showed Garth my customer messages.
‘You like alliteration,’ he said.
It was probably horrible of me, but I thought this was pretty clued up for an Engineering student.
‘This supplier spotlight thing is a good idea,’ Garth said.
Because it’s way more enticing than the rabbit food, I took a first bite of the ham in my lunch box.
‘And devoting a board to listing local suppliers is good, too.’ He closed the notebook and gave it back to me. ‘You ought to show these to Norman.’
Just then, Norman emerged from the store.
‘Uh yeah…’ I said.
‘Guys,’ Norman said, passing us with a nod.
‘Lucy has written some great customer messages,’ Garth said.
Norman stopped. ‘Has she?’
‘Really good,’ Garth said.
‘Is that meat?’ Norman asked, staring at my slice of ham I was holding between finger and thumb. You would have thought he had found a slug in one of Boggart Hole’s organic lettuces.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Is that a problem?’
‘Don’t you think employees eating meat could look hypocritical to our customers?’
‘Maybe, but I don’t think any customers are going to be able to see what I’m eating back here.’
Norman stiffened. ‘But you do understand how it conflicts with our ethos.’
‘Ah, yes – ‘
‘Well then,’ he said and moved on to wherever he was going.
I looked at Garth and neither of us said anything for a moment or two. I think we were waiting until Norman was out of earshot.
‘Shee,’ Garth said.
‘Stalinist or what?’
The stuff I had written for the customer messages boards was never mentioned again.
It’s not that I’m un-green. I’m all for it. Most of my journeys are on my bicycle, I’ve been buying fair trade since I was twelve and I recycle everything I can. But it got my goat that he wanted to dictate to me what I ate. Actually – that wasn’t it. I just didn’t like him. If there’s one thing worse than a prick, it’s a short prick.
So of course the next thing that happened that day was Katie coming round on a community initiative.
‘It’s Norman’s birthday on Friday,’ she said. “Thought we should all club together and buy him a cake.’
Before Friday rolled around, though, there was some bad news. With having once been an eco-warrior, I suppose it was music to Norman’s ears.
I knew something was up pretty much as soon as I arrived at work. The tension in the place was almost shrill. It reminded me of an occasion in Forbidden Planet. I wanted to find a birthday present for my geeky brother. The shop was crowded and the agitation in there was like a physical force. Turned out a big-name comics writer was about to do a signing. It was similar to that in Boggart Hole on the morning I’m talking about. You could sense the pressure on your chest and you just wanted to run, to get out of there.
Over by Beans & Pulses, Norman was in an earnest head-to-head with Lillian, one of the assistant managers, and wherever you looked Boggart Hole workers in twos and threes were murmuring. The only ones not having a pow-wow were on the checkouts.
‘Lucy,’ Garth said from over my shoulder, startling me.
I turned to face him. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Tesco want to open up, right across the road.’
I must have looked puzzled. ‘But how can they do that?’ I was picturing a supermarket, and I couldn’t see where it would go.
‘Try stopping them.’
‘I mean, there’s no space to build.’
‘There is. You know the furniture place the other side of the lights in the centre?’
‘What, so they’re opening a convenience store?’
He smirked. ‘Not if Norman can help it.’
Friday lunchtime, all of us bar Garth, who was lumbered with running the checkout, gathered in the staff room and when Norman had been surprised and blown out the candle, Katie cut the cake into generous slices. ‘It’s all right,’ she whispered to me. ‘It’s carob, so you can have a slice.’ She held the plate there, more or less beneath my nose.
I could feel my saliva flow, but I shook my head. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘But I’m allergic.’ I pulled a face. I didn’t even know what carob was.
Nobody asked him to, but Norman decided to give a little speech.
‘I guess you’ve all heard about that Tesco plan to open a convenience store across the road,’ he began. We all nodded and went Mmm. ‘Every little bit hurts,’ he said and waited for a response. A few laughed knowingly. ‘I know it’s not news to any of us that supermarkets may not be all that super, but when Tesco moves into an area, small shops suffer the most. We’re in a position to do something about it.’ He flashed his take-no-prisoners smile. And we will.’
We applauded in a modest way. It was only polite.
‘But anyway,’ Norman said. ‘This was very nice of you.’ And he nodded and went back to work.
‘Oh go on,’ Katie said, thrusting the plate at me again. ‘It’s cake. You’re a woman, aren’t you?’
Two weeks into eating like a supermodel and still looking like a member of Weight Watchers, I got on the scales again – hoping, hoping. No clothes, no watch, no glasses. I was four pounds down from my start weight. I looked at my toes and grinned.
The good feeling lasted until early afternoon, when I realized that I hadn’t seen Monkey Boy for almost three weeks. A chill went through me. Maybe he wasn’t coming back?
During the afternoon, as I checked the stock in Flakes & Grains and Syrups & Spreads, I was now and again aware of going through the sort of apprehension I get when I realize something has gone wrong. I was collecting tubs of tofu spread from the stockroom when Katie wandered in, chewing on one finger of an illicit Kit Kat and toting an empty shopping basket. She snapped off another one and offered it to me.
I was beginning to suspect that she was trying to torment me. I waited for the penny to drop.
‘What?’ she said.
‘I gave up chocolate, remember.’
‘Doh!’ She pretended to slap her forehead. ‘Sorry, Lucy.’
But the Kit Kat was still there. Katie was looking for something on the shelves, pulling out boxes and shoving them back in a slapdash way, the hand that held the Kit Kat flopped casually, the chocolate bar in its opened wrapper leaning carelessly away from her, as if she might at any moment drop it. She settled on a box of gluten-free grain bars and, while she squatted to open it, set the Kit Kat down on a shelf right in front of me.
I studied the crisp-looking fingers, the finely formed chocolate edges, the cream and tan horizontal lines of the wafer. Why not? I thought. I would probably never see Monkey Boy again. I imagined snapping the remaining fingers apart and biting into the first of them. I conjured up the sound of it breaking in my mouth, the crunch between my teeth and the creamy, sweet but slightly dark taste of it as I chewed. He probably wouldn’t come back. Even if he did, who was to say that anything would come of it? He might be married. He might be gay. He might simply not be interested in me. But chocolate…
‘Right,’ Katie said, shooting to her feet with a sheaf of grain bars in her shopping basket and snatching the Kit Kat off the shelf. ‘See you!’
I huffed. ‘Yeah.’
When I came back from lunch on Thursday, I crossed paths with Norman, just leaving.
‘Back soon,’ he said brightly. Maybe he was making progress in thwarting Tesco.
Unusually, there wasn’t a customer in sight. Katie was on the checkout, looking bored. I greeted her.
‘Hey, babes,’ she said. ‘Love your Uggs. They new?’
‘January sales last y – ‘ I realized that Katie was staring past me.
Beyond her, Garth emerged from beside Herbs & Spices and he, too, stared past me. What was going on behind me that was so fascinating? When I turned, I saw a man in an orange Michelin Man coat, who wore a beanie pulled down to his eyebrows and a green scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. It was quite a striking sight. He was looking at Katie.
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘I’m not a customer.’
His glance shifted my way and back again and right away I recognized those out-of-focus eyes.
He cleared his throat and stepped in front of Katie. He nodded at the display of Boggart Hole Organic hessian bags hanging on the wall behind Katie. ‘Can I have one of those?’ And he set a £20 note on the conveyor belt.
‘Sure,’ Katie said and set the note on top of the till.
The guy twitched a look at me.
‘And everything in the till,’ he added.
‘What?’ Katie said.
‘All the cash in the till – give it to me.’ His voice was rasping. I couldn’t have lived with that voice.
As Katie stared at him, he pointed something at her from inside the right-hand pocket of his coat and a peak arose from the fabric. She held up her hand like a policeman directing traffic, emptied the till and set the money on the conveyor belt.
The man – Monkey Boy – gathered it up and fled, thumping into the outside door with a crash and disappearing into the afternoon shoppers.
Katie shook her head and fanned her face with her hand. ‘Idiot,’ she said.
‘What?’ I said.
‘There was seven quid something in there, and he left this.’ She picked up the £20, which was still sitting on top of the till. ‘Not much of a thief.’
I stared at the £20. I pictured him again that first time I saw him. I remembered his confidence, his intensity, the thing with the eyes. But more than that I remembered Katie’s Kit Kat and the carob cake for Norman’s birthday. All I had resisted. Carob. Chuh.
‘Give me that,’ I said.
Katie didn’t lift a finger. ‘Why? What do you want with it?’
‘We’ve over a tenner ahead on the deal. I’m going out to buy a large bar of Galaxy Cookie Crumble and a couple of slices of death by chocolate cake.’
Katie reached me the note. ‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Why not?’
Robert Graham‘s short stories have appeared in magazines and on Radio 4. He is the co-author of three Creative Writing handbooks. His other publications include a novel, Holy Joe, (Troubador, 2006), a short story collection, The Only Living Boy (Salt, 2009), and a novella, A Man Walks Into A Kitchen (Salt, 2011).