When Major Bellingham-Stornbeck reached the back aisle in his local supermarket, he felt a chill breeze around his ankles. He ran his eyes along the bottom of the fresh fish counter, searching for a possible vent. There wasn’t one. He closed his mouth, pulled in his chin and pondered alternative possibilities as to the source of the draught. Perhaps a delivery door remained open around the back.
‘Good morning, Mr Davies.’ Despite the large, cod-white sign above the counter declaring ‘Fred the Fish’ open for business, the major always addressed Mr Fred Davies in an appropriate fashion. He refused to succumb to the local habit of addressing relative strangers by their first names. The modern tendency to dumb everything down, the ubiquitous need for consistent, senseless gaiety and other such happy slappy nonsense, was tiresome and unnecessary.
The Major ignored the drone of tedious chatter and watched the fishmonger at work. The lights glared onto the glass display unit before bouncing off myriad stainless steel trays and utensils littering the bed of ice. Little wonder so many people felt the need to wander around in sunglasses.
Mr Davies wrapped a small mackerel in some paper, shook out a plastic bag with a snap, and called with market-flair finesse, ‘Anything else, my lovely?’
A tiny, hunch-back woman with a floral headscarf and huge coat shuffled closer to the counter. ‘No thanks, that’s about it for this week, Fred.’
A sticker with a barcode doubled as a seal to keep the bag shut. For a moment the pair lost sight of each other as the packet exchanged hands. Mr Davies’ mouth opened as he peered over the counter, trying to catch her eye, ‘Can you manage? I’ll come round if you like.’
‘No, no. I’ve got it ta.’ She placed the packet into the corner of her trolley. ‘I do like a bit of fish on a Friday.’
‘Well, you take care now. Make sure you watch your step with all that work going on down the road.' He peeled off his plastic gloves and wiped his hands on a towel. ‘They’re making a right mess of the pavement. I’ve a good mind to write in about it.’
‘Oh, I’ll be alright.’ The old dear leaned on the handle of the trolley. ‘I’m tough as old boots me, Fred.’
The major was unaccustomed to having to queue. He rocked onto his toes and back onto his heels and glared. At one time an entire troop would rattle in their boots under his steely eye – Major Belly Storm they called him, because being on his watch made the fear in their guts rumble like thunder. Those were the days; people had no respect anymore. He blinked and refocused. Mr Davies really should get a shift on; his role was to serve the fish was it not? When had he been appointed Health and Safety advisor to little old ladies?
There was a further delay when Mr Davies became distracted by a young shop assistant with stiff, spiky hair and an earring through his nose. This boy, presumably it was a boy, interrupted Mr Davies from his duties quite shamelessly. Mr Davies seemed unperturbed and nodded with a thumbs-up gesture and then, finally, he raised his eyebrows and asked, ‘What can I get you, Major?’
The major watched the assistant scuttle away. They made brief eye contact, and the manner and speed with which the lad looked away made it quite obvious he was up to some mischief. Still, it wasn’t the Major’s problem, and so he returned his attention to the matter of purchasing his supper.
He’d considered perhaps cod, but Beryl preferred haddock. ‘I’ll have some of your finest haddock please, Mr Davies.’
‘Coming right up, Sir.’ He extracted a fresh pair of gloves from a small tissue-like dispenser on the end of a table. ‘And how are you keeping, Major? All well I hope?’
‘Yes we’re fine, thank you.’
‘I saw you up the field yesterday with Bessie. She’s getting on a bit now, isn’t she, bless her.’ He placed a piece of haddock on a wrapper and tilted it for the major’s inspection.
The major nodded. ‘Plenty of life in the old girl yet.’
The fish was placed on the scales. ‘Yes, she looks good I’ll give her that. Five-fifty for that bit, is that okay?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
The fish got bagged and sticker stuck. ‘Good company, aren’t they?’ The bag passed over the top of the counter. ‘We wouldn’t be without our Flops. Part of the family she is now.’
The Major reached and accepted. ‘Thank you.’ He placed the packet into his basket and gave Mr Davies a curt but adequate nod before he moved away, back straight, head high.
The Major continued his walk with a purposeful gait and followed the line of counters along the back wall; past Dai the Pie and Jed the bread, but he paused at Jake the cake. There were many people milling around at this end of the store. A coffee shop in the corner served single mothers with too much time on their hands mugs of milky coffee and bacon rolls; their offspring ran squealing between shoppers’ legs causing the single men to scowl and tut. Large ladies with sensible shoes and greasy pony-tails discussed how many pounds they’d lost over the week, and so justified their treat of a custard slice. Oh, and whilst they were there, make it worth the trip, a couple of small doughnuts and an apple tart for good measure; why not?
When the Major stood amidst the chatter and inhaled the warm smell of fresh bread and proper coffee, he wondered where and how he should position himself for the best chance of gaining prompt service. People stood in huddles and clumps, facing every direction – utter bedlam. No respect for order or simple organisation, just rude, manic chaos.
He nudged his way to the front and squinted at the display. Behind the glass were row upon row of bright, iced and sugared creations. There were mice and cats; fire engines and trains; teddy bears with chocolate ears, and hedgehogs with prickles made of candy.
‘Good morning, Major. What can we get for you, Sir?’
‘Good morning.’ The Major's face fell slack with indignation when he realised they must have been moved the lemon slices to a different spot. He knew all about their new-fangled marketing tricks. They tried to confuse people in an attempt to encourage them to buy more than they intended, tempt them with bright green and pink junk – professional mugging he called it. His jowls wobbled as he struggled to find sufficient words to remonstrate.
‘I’ve saved you some of your usual if you’re interested, Major. Had a bit of a run on them this morning so I put a couple out the back for you. Shall I get them?’
‘Yes. Yes please. Very kind of you. Thank you.’
‘Would you like to sit over in the cafe while I root them out?’
The Major frowned. ‘No, thank you. I’ll wait here.’
‘Okay, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.’
The Major stood holding his basket in one hand; he felt it bump against his left knee. He looked down and saw a small child sucking the corner of her sleeve. The little girl stared up at him with big brown eyes in shiny blue-white whites. She must have been crying as her long eyelashes glinted with tear-drops in the harsh light. She patted her mother’s arm with her free hand as she kept her eyes trained on the major’s face. He ignored her, looked up at the sign above the counter, and plotted his route around the rest of the store in his mind. He would have to head back towards the entrance to pick up his fruit and vegetables before calling in at the dairy aisle for his milk. It wouldn’t take long.
The basket steadied, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the little girl’s mother coochie down to whisper something into her ear. They both smiled up at the major before the mother led her little girl away towards the coffee shop. The child kept staring and she almost tripped over her feet before she turned and trotted at her mother’s heels, sing-songing, ‘But why is he in his pyjamas?’
A hand touched his elbow. ‘Hi, Granddad.’
The Major stood to his full six-foot-four and thrust his chest forward. ‘Ohh, Hellooo, Cory, lad.’ He wrapped his free arm around his grandson’s shoulders and squeezed. ‘How are you, son?’
‘I’m fine, Granddad. Thanks. What are you up to then?’
‘Oh, I’ve just come to pick up a bit of your Nan’s favourite cake.’ His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘She’s always had a bit of a sweet tooth.’
Cory grinned and hooked his thumbs in the back pockets of his jeans.
The major’s eyes widened as a thought occurred and in his haste to get the words out he stuttered and something caught in his throat. ‘W . wuh would you like one? I can ask him to put in an extra one.’ His hand shook. He hoped they had another one left after their ‘bit of a run’ in the morning. He stretched his neck to see further beyond the counter in order to spy Jake and ask him for a third slice.
‘What else have you got in there then, Granddad?’
The Major looked back into his basket. ‘Just a bit of cod. It’s Friday.’ He held the basket up in front of him with two hands and they both looked at the white plastic bag nestled in the corner.
Jake appeared at Cory’s side and handed over the cake box. Cory accepted it with a nod and a smile, and laid it in the basket in the opposite corner to the fish.
The Major gathered himself, wouldn’t do to be too demonstrative in public, even if it were his grandson. ‘Right then.’ He coughed into his fist. ‘Come with me while I locate the necessary perishables and then we’ll head home. Your Nan is going to be delighted to see you.’
His grandson took the basket from his hands and gestured a further thank you to Jake. ‘Actually, I think there’s enough food at home already, Granddad. I’ve got the car outside, I’ll give you a lift.’
‘Oh, Okay then. Have we got potatoes? We need potatoes to make some chips to go with the fish.’
‘Yep, plenty of potatoes.’
Cory waved a greeting at Mr Davies as they walked back past the fish counter. Mr Davies responded by showing the palm of his hand and calling out, ‘You take care, now.’
The Major lowered his voice. ‘He thinks he’s in charge of everybody’s wellbeing that one. He was nagging some poor old lady earlier about where to put her feet, bless her.’
They walked around the supermarket, the Major tall and proud beside his grandson. He was such a strapping lad and well-disciplined too. People looked at them, young girls smiled, even the blokes nodded in greeting.
Cory chose the checkout with a pretty young thing; all blond curls, black eyelashes and the sweetest white smile.
Cory grinned at her as he emptied the basket onto the belt. ‘Hiya.’
She blushed. ‘Hi.’
The Major pretended to read the leaflets. He firmly believed the young needed a bit of space. A supervisor arrived and beckoned to Cory. They huddled and whispered to each other as the fish and cakes were packed into a carrier. Major rummaged inside his coat pocket for his wallet. It wasn’t there. He stopped to think where he may have left it, on his bedside table perhaps. ‘I seem to have mislaid my wallet.’
The cashier didn’t appear to mind too much and Cory handed over a note without any fuss.
‘I’ll give it to you when I find the blessed thing.’ He stopped patting his hips and put a hand across the belt onto the pretty girls arm. ‘Oh I’m sorry, pet. Pardon my French, won’t you? I’m just so tired of forgetting where I put things.’
Cory put the change into his pocket and picked up the carrier. ‘Yeah, you will too, Granddad, I’ll make sure of it. I’m a poor student don’t you know.’
The Major hurrumphed. ‘Yes, well.’
Cory grinned. ‘I tell you what Granddad, why don’t you wait here while I nip and get the car. I had to park all the way over the other side of the car park. It’s busy today.’
‘Good plan, lad. Good plan. Shall I take charge of the bag?’
The supervisor reappeared with a plastic chair. ‘Would you mind sitting on this chair for me please, Major? People keep moving it around and we need it left here, at the entrance.’
The Major agreed. ‘Shame people can’t leave things that don’t belong to them alone, isn’t it?’
‘It certainly is. If you sit on it, it’ll help me no end. There you go. Thank you.’
As soon as he sat, it dawned on the Major how tired he felt. He closed his eyes and took time out for some deep breaths. All the noise and chaos exhausted him. He would ask Cory to give Bessie her run today. He was a good lad, he wouldn’t mind.
‘Hello, Major. How are you keeping?’
At the familiar voice he opened his eyes, then struggled to stand and greet his wife’s oldest friend. ‘Oh, hello, Marge. How are you?’ He sat down again with a bump.
‘Oh, you know, Major. Struggling on, eh? I’m missing Beryl like I’d miss my sight. Everybody down the community centre is missing her. And at Bingo. We’re all wandering about the place like lost souls we are.’ She shook her head and looked at his feet. ‘Are you waiting for somebody?’
Major followed her gaze to his naked toes, which he wiggled, and became somewhat bemused when they moved in line with his thoughts. He looked up, and beyond Marge’s frown people paused to stare.
Marge smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. She stood next to him, quiet and unobtrusive, staring at those who paused too long until Cory returned, jangling his keys from his fingers.
The Major stood and touched her hand. ‘Thank you.’ He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and walked out of the shop with his grandson at his side.