Open Or Wrapped
As Francine wipes down the glass on the hot food cabinet she checks to see if the kid is there again. And he is, leaning against the bus stop, his faded and scratched rucksack crumpled on the pavement. He smiles quickly then looks down at his feet, as if he's frightened of seeing what response he'll get from her. He's been there nearly every day for two weeks now, turning up before they open at five and hanging about until seven. A couple of times she thought he was going to come in and order some chips but he only ever got as far as the door and then he turned round and wandered back to the bus stop. She's rarely seen him leave, just looked out through the plate glass window as she's been wrapping someone's tea and noticed he was gone.
But he's a distraction from the attention she's been getting recently. It's been a long, hot August with a Summer Beer Festival spread between the dozen pubs in the town which has meant more drunks than usual calling in after chuck out time. Most of them over forty five are harmless, just rock back and fore on their heels, with glazed eyes and pink cheeks, and ask her What's a lovely girl like you doing in a place like this? But then there are the younger ones who assume ten pints of real ale add to their charm and wit and Francine's heard very variation she can think of on sausages - Do you fancy a bite of my saveloy, love; large cod - Large everything me; and open or wrapped - You can wrap yourself around me anytime you like, love. And each time she's just ignored them, taken their money and asked 'Next?' Arseholes.
Just three more weeks and then she can tell them all to piss off. She's surprised how much it's getting to her, after all she's had her fair share of unwanted attention ever since she was 12 and needed a 32B bra when all the other girls in her class were still wearing crop-tops. If boys weren't trying to flick her nipples, then uncles with boozy breath were grabbing hold of her at Christmas and pretending to tickle her. And then there was that fat, greasy slob at the kiosk in the Co-op who always tried to rub her palm with his index finger when he gave her change.
Her mother had never been any help, couldn't understand how upset she got. 'It's just boys being boys. Don't take it so seriously.' And later, after her dad left 'You should be grateful for the attention, my girl. Wait until you get to my age. You'll be complaining no-one's bloody looking at you.' And she'd bleed her lips on a Kleenex and waft off to the Social Club on a cloud of Poison.
But last night had frightened her, brought her close to tears, when one of the late crowd lunged at her across the counter and managed to break off the top button on her overall, slurring What you keeping under there then? She whacked the back of his hand with the stainless steel tongs she was holding and carried on shovelling pies into the cabinet but felt the fear spread from her neck to her scalp. All his mates burst out laughing, the pack of them jeering and egging him on. And Brian hadn't said anything, just carried on shaking his bloody chips. Not that she'd ever expected him to defend her before but maybe this time he should have seen things had gone too far.
Brian had been running the chip shop for as long as Francine could remember, over 13 years, and she'd always got on well with him. Even as a school kid coming in for a bag of chips in her lunch hour. He always remembered her name but never played any of the creepy tricks other men tried, and she never felt as if he was gawping at her chest when she was talking to him. And he had been good enough to give her the job when she saw the 'Full-Time Help Wanted' sign sellotaped in the window even though she only needed it for three months until she went to University in October.
'Are you sure?' she asked.
'Yes, of course, love. I can always advertise for someone else later. It'll be nice to have a face I know around. And a pretty one at that.'
She wished he'd been more helpful last night. He hadn't even said anything when they'd closed up, not even Don't pay any attention to them, love or It's just the beer talking. Nothing.
She finishes the glass and comes back behind the counter to check the hot oil and she notices the kid again. He's a real scruffy kid with trousers that don't quite meet the tops of his shoes, revealing collars of grey sock, and his shirt is always sticking out from the bottom of his school sweater which, for a reason she can't figure out, he wears back to front so the arms of the 'v' travel across his shoulder blades. A couple of days earlier, she'd waved to him and was about to shout an offer of a bag of chips, on her, when a gang of girls pushed through the door and yelled their orders. By the time she'd finished serving, the kid had picked up his rucksack and gone.
She can hear Brian out back pouring blanched chips into a couple of buckets and notices that they're short on pickled eggs. They meet in the narrow corridor that joins the two rooms of the shop, and she squeezes past him, gently prodding either side of his waist as she does. He's been so quiet since she came in and she wants to cheer him up.
'You want to watch those love handles, Bri,' she jokes and heads for the back room.
As she's standing on the stepladders, reaching up with both arms and levering the jar off the top shelf, she feels a hand grab the back of her knee. She yells and spins round, steadying herself against the cupboard door, but the jar slips out of her arms and smashes on the floor.
'For fuck's sake Brian!' she says and he just stands there, stuffing his big hands into the pockets of his striped coat, watching the eggs skate around in pools of white vinegar. From where she is on the top step she can see the crown of his head, a thinning patch she hasn't noticed before.
And then he says to the eggs, 'I was only messing about, like you do. And you don't seem to mind when the others have a laugh with you.'
'Others? What others?...' Her voice starts to shake. 'You mean the prats who come in here and think they're funny? And you think I like it?' She doesn't know whether to kick him in the chest or just climb down and leave.
'I'm sorry,' he says and looks up at her and she sees his eyes are red-rimmed and watery.
She wants to say You bastard, I thought we were friends but he looks so pathetic she can't get any words out and then a customer bangs on the locked shop door, a muffled shout saying it's gone five, and Brian walks away.
Francine climbs down and starts to pick up the bits of glass from the puddles of vinegar, herding all the rubbery eggs into a row against the plinth below the cupboard door. The smell of vinegar is overpowering and she can feel her eyes starting to brim, the breath in her throat backing up. She won't start crying now, she bloody well won't.
She hears the sizzle as Brian lowers the first basket of chips into the fryer. She unspools absorbent paper onto the floor and scoops the eggs into a carrier bag, except two. She lines these up in front of her and lowers the sole of each foot over them, slowly and deliberately crushing them until the powdery yolks squeeze out from either sides of her trainers.
She can't even be bothered to smile now when she goes out front to serve, even though it's Sunil, the Indian boy with bad skin, who helps out in the Newsagents next door after school and who has only ever whispered 'chicken pie' to her.'Open or wrapped?' she asks. And just then she sees the scruffy kid poke his head around the right side of the plate glass window then duck back out of sight.
'Oh you fuck off too,' she mutters to herself, but Sunil hears, his eyes widening with hurt, and he slaps his £2 on the counter and grabs his pie, before she has a chance to explain.
At her side Brian is working hard at keeping as far away from her as possible, as if now, not touching her has turned into some great tactical problem. He leans over to his left with the full basket of cooked chips to drop them into the steel chute, his arm trembling with the effort of holding it so far out.
'Oh for God's sake give them here,' she snaps and for a second their hands touch as she takes the basket from him. She feels him flinch.
'I promise I won't scream,' she says with a glare.
It's then that she sees him again, the scruffy kid, but this time he's taller and then she realises he's being carried piggy back by another boy. A fat boy whose long grey trousers are concertinaing around his ankles and whose head and shoulders are bent over with the weight on his back. She stops with the chip basket in mid air as they stagger across the pavement in front of the shop window, slowly at first, with the scruffy kid tugging at the knitted shoulders beneath him in an effort to keep himself up. It's only sixteen feet from one end of the shop front to the other but it seems to take them forever. But then the fat kid stops to hitch his rider higher up his back and seems to find a second wind and picks up speed and it's only when they're nearer the door she realises that the fat kid's lips are moving and she hears a faint 'you' and then the scruffy kid turns to look at her with a smile that cracks his face like light and she sees he has one broken tooth. And the fat boy's looking straight ahead now and passing the door, starting to gallop as if the weight doesn't bother him anymore, and he can run and speak at the same time, his voice as clear as a newsreader's - The boy on my back loves you. The boy on my back loves you. And then they're gone.
She turns back to the full basket of cooked chips in her hand and watches them as they tumble against the steel. And she's already asking a waiting customer what they want, slipping two fishcakes onto a pile of chips, shaking salt and vinegar, pointing out the box of wooden forks.
'What was all that about?' Brian asks, staring at the open door. Her eyes are stinging again but she feels a smile break past her lips, and spread over her face.
'I think it's called "having a laugh",' she says.
And she starts to laugh too, wiping the tears away with the edge of her sleeve.