She dreaded going to work on these February mornings. Elizabeth undid the padlock and pulled open the hasps, feeling her gloves stick to the cold metal. Her breath plumed from her mouth as she pulled the door open. It was just a huge shed really, the vegetable warehouse, with a damp concrete floor and perfect air circulation via the gaps in the roof and windows. The only good thing about February in a wooden warehouse was that the fruit and vegetables that had gone off didn’t smell so rank, though they still provided an unpleasant surprise if she stood on them, or found something mouldering in a just-opened crate. A couple of times she had loosened a lid and some insect had leapt or flown out though never anything deadly like those spiders you heard about. Elizabeth was very tentative around bananas.
Though she often worked in the cold warehouse she liked to think of herself as the company administrator, with her own office that she had made cozy and efficient, even if it was only a garden shed inside a drafty corner of the warehouse. She had a computer and a three line telephone system, two filing cabinets and a heater provided by her boss, though on the coldest days she still had to work in her duffle coat until lunch time. She also had three indoor potted plants (suffering a little in February), an ethnic rug and an articulated work-light that she had personally bought from IKEA to make her office look modern. Being delivered today was a work-station chair, ergonomic, that had been on special offer in the Office World catalogue which would replace the rickety Thonet chair her boss thought good enough for her.
“It’s the wrong height for the computer,” Elizabeth had pointed out. “I could get a repetitive strain injury. A workplace injury.”
Negotiations had been protracted and had involved working late at the day rate before her boss had agreed to buy it. It was upholstered in a “leather-effect” material and was fully adjustable for height and tilt. Elizabeth liked working the lever that made the adjustments. It was just like the hand brake in her car.
Once inside the main door, Elizabeth collected the morning’s mail from the ex-supermarket basket that her boss had rigged up under the letterbox, also hacked out by him to allow for large envelopes. She had shown him neat wire mail boxes in the Office World catalogue and pointed out that large letters often skated over the edge of his construction and lay on the damp floor, but he was adamant. Business was tight enough without buying folderols when you could make do. He was dour company at the best of times and Elizabeth enjoyed best the first hour of the day before the men arrived. There was the boss and five others, two drivers and three porters and sometimes a couple of teenagers in the school holiday who were usually useless, spending their time smoking and avoiding work.
Elizabeth had just reached her inner sanctum and was sifting through the mail when the phone rang. She glanced at the clock. 7:58 am. Not strictly open until 8:00 am but she picked the phone up.
“Good morning. Shelford’s Fruit and Vegetable Suppliers. How may I help you?”
Elizabeth had recently been on a training course, at her own expense, and had gained a distinction in several subjects including Business Telephone Etiquette, which she now felt obliged to practice.
“Is that you, Lizzie ?” the voice on the phone asked.
“This is Elizabeth Maynard speaking. Can I take your order?”
Elizabeth was dying to have a touch tone telephone installed just so that she could make a recording that would instruct people to press 1 for fruit, 2 for vegetables, 3 for invoice enquiries and 4 for any other matter.
“Three bags of Maris Pipers, sack of onions and some of them peaches we had last week. For Smeddums. Can you deliver today?” the voice asked.
“One moment, I’ll just check for you.” Elizabeth knew the delivery rota by heart as did the man at Smeddums, but she thought it never did any harm to do things properly and things would never get better if someone didn’t insist on certain standards. She inspected her nails and ruffled some papers. She thought she heard him mutter “Come on, Lizzie” so she ruffled some more.
“Yes, that will be fine. About 4:00 pm this afternoon. Is there anything else we can do for you?” Her voice suggested endless patience.
“No,” he said and rang off.
She didn’t need to write it down. It was what Smeddums always had apart from the peaches, which had been her idea in the first place. She had noticed that there were often half boxes of fruit left after the week’s orders had been made up, so she had taken to putting a couple of items in with regular customers’ orders with a little card she had made on her computer that said “Gratis” in a copperplate font, in the bag. He was the second customer this week to have ordered more. This gesture had not been popular with the men who were used to taking spare vegetables and fruit home themselves, especially the soft fruits. They had not been so keen to offer brown streaked bananas instead of luscious leaking peaches to their wives, but Elizabeth had insisted it was a good marketing ploy and would lead to increased sales. The boss had shrugged and told her to get on with it.
Elizabeth chalked the order up on the board and went through to see what there was in the way of peaches. The soft fruits section in winter was completely different from the summer environment when intoxicating aromas of fruit in its natural ripening state rose into the warm air. There was no smell except that of packing materials and when she unfolded the plastic netting from a box of peaches the rows of fruit looked hard and artificially uniform. She prodded a peach with her forefinger. It was hard. No peaches today then. She sniffed deeply and turned toward a faint wisp of sweetness in the air. Beside the stack of peach boxes lay a tissue-strewn open crate. Spearing up from the inside, the punk spikes of four pineapples showed themselves. Elizabeth grunted in satisfaction. This time her forefinger made an impression, releasing more of the honeyed musk. She did a rapid calculation; one pineapple that we can’t sell after today in place of six peaches that will be soft enough to sell by Friday. Good stock control. She bagged the pineapples individually and took them back to her office where they perfumed the small space all round her. She printed out and trimmed four Gratis cards on buff card and set them on her desk beside her memos.
These she flipped through rapidly. They were mostly regular orders but one was a scrawled note from a telephone call taken yesterday after she had gone home – Elizabeth kept white collar hours finishing at 3:45 pm each day instead of the warehouse 4:00 pm. The note said “phone Jimmie, Princess”.
Now what? Elizabeth had not spoken to Jimmie since a certain embarrassing incident at his chip shop. She had even wondered if she should stop going to his chip tasting sessions, in case he was angry with her for giving him an unexpected erection in the middle of a frying. Strictly speaking, the erection had been hoped-for rather than unexpected on Elizabeth’s part. She had fantasized about Jimmie for a long while, placing him in all her imaginary romances. She had picked up signs that said he wasn’t indifferent to her too, but to go from a brushing of hips to a full-blown hard-on in front of a bubbling chip-fryer? That had surprised them both.
“Phone Jimmie, Princess.”
That had to be an endearment, didn’t it? Perhaps he’s lain in bed beside his heavily pregnant wife and relived the moment in the chip shop over and over. Elizabeth had, but her midnight memories had been followed by floods of guilt. Jimmie was married, had two daughters and another on the way. She had wanted him to flirt with her, maybe steal a kiss or two but the rest she preferred to contain in her imagination. What if he hadn’t fled the scene? The vision of being fucked against a hot fish fryer was not one that Elizabeth wished to dwell on. But it was something to be called Princess, even just on the phone. No, she pulled herself together, shed have to be firm. Kind, but firm. She dialled his number.
“Hi, Jimmie here.” He sounded busy.
“It’s Elizabeth. I’m returning your call … Prince.” She couldn’t stop herself.
“Eh? Oh Prince. I thought the guy who took the message wasn’t listening. No, it’s not Prince, it’s Princess. Can you get me some?” Now he was laughing.
“Get you some what?” Elizabeth played for time, thinking furiously.
“Princess First Earlies. They’re French, hard to get hold of so I thought if you ordered them now, I’d be at the head of the list.” Jimmie explained enthusiastically.
“Oh. Potatoes,” she said, all expectation draining away.
“What else would I be asking you for, Lizzie?” There was no innuendo in his question. He really was ordering a bag of potatoes. She became brisk with disappointment.
“I’ll try and source your order from one of our European contacts. We may have to make a search charge and add a small order supplement. It may be some time.”
“Fine, Lizzie. Ill wait to hear from you then. Oh, that reminds me, I’m not doing any more chip testings until Sheila has the baby and a bit after. I’ll let you know. OK?”
He sounded so genuine, so innocent, that Elizabeth felt an illogical irritation with him. Had it meant nothing? Had he forgotten?
“I might be busy anyway. My belly-dancing class is preparing a demonstration for the Twelve Bells. Have to get supple.”
She hoped she didn’t sound peeved.
“Great. We’ll come and see you. Bye for now.” Jimmie rang off.
Elizabeth blinked away sudden tears and took several deep breaths, then ripped the memo in two and dropped it in the bin. Then she made herself a coffee.
The morning turned out to be a busy one. Someone opening a new Thai restaurant in the town was looking for a local source of lemon grass and root ginger, a branch of the Women’s Institute wanted to celebrate National Marmalade Day just when the bitter Sevilles were running out and a school that was taking Jamie Oliver seriously ordered whatever was edible but cheap. Elizabeth calmed the put-upon school cook down as best she could. They kept Elizabeth moving between office and warehouse until lunch time.
She loved these special jobs, knowing which phone call would get her what she wanted, which of her contacts would know a man who knew a man. Best of all, she loved making the phone call back that said, Yes, they could do it. By the end of the morning she had negotiated successfully with a Chinese market supplier, located what was probably the last remaining crate of Sevilles in Britain and managed to make up a colourful mix of vegetables under budget for the school. Elizabeth wished she had someone to share her success with but the bent backs of the porters and the swift turn-around of the drivers did not encourage superfluous conversation. The boss gave his habitual shrug, farted and said “Right.”
By three o’clock Elizabeth had finished the day’s invoices, processed the wages spreadsheet and logged the outstanding orders. She had eaten her solitary lunch in her pineapple-perfumed office, eating prawn sandwiches with the Office World catalogue on her knee. In her mind she had chosen which of the bright filing cabinets would replace the scruffy foolscap-size box files on the high shelf above her desk. She had to stand on the Thonet to get them down and it was so inefficient, dangerous even. Thonet chairs were not meant to be stood on by size 22 girls. It made creaking sounds that made her nervous. Ah, well, I’ll be rid of it today, she thought, though she had tried to tell the boss that it might actually be valuable. She had seen one like it on a television game show, where people had to guess the value of old things, it had made £200. He had looked at her in disbelief and snorted “S’only fit for firewood. Chuck it.”
She was rearranging the contents of her stationary-tidy when there was a tentative knock on the door. Elizabeth looked up and saw a young man with “Office World” embroidered on his jacket. He was looking at a clipboard with a delivery note pinned to it.
“Miss Maynard? Shelford’s?”
“Delivery for Miss Maynard,” he announced and handed her the note. “Ill just get it.”
He was back in moments wheeling something black and silver draped in yards of fluttering silky cellophane. He lifted it into the office and pushed it into place beside the unwanted Thonet. Elizabeth’s heart leapt.
“Sign here,” the young man said, proffering a clipboard with a cracked Bic wedged under its clip. “Got any fruit going spare?” he added, hopefully, sniffing.
She scrawled her initials quickly and, in a flush of gratitude, handed him one of the bagged pineapples from her desk. He put his clipboard down, looked into the bag, gaped and then tossed it awkwardly from hand to hand as if it were a primed grenade. He wondered if the enormity of the gift meant more than he had asked for. A whole pineapple? He should, at the least, make sure.
“Wonder if it’s as sweet as you.”
He wriggled his crutch.
“Thank you. That’ll be all.”
She didn’t even look up at him. Even though she knew she ought to inspect the chair before she signed for it, Elizabeth couldn’t wait to get rid of him. She pushed his clipboard into his free hand and shut the door on his disappointed face. Peeling the cellophane carefully, tearing it where it was stuck to itself, she worked until the ergonomic creation was revealed in all its gleaming splendor. She put the operating instructions on the desk, unopened. She reached forward and spun the back. It turned toward her smoothly and silently, in invitation. She reached forward and pressed the seat. Her finger sank into its springy surface, which sprang right back when she removed it. She sniffed and inhaled an aroma she associated with newness—warm off-gases and virgin plastic. The phone rang. She switched it to answer—phone without a glance at the clock, which said 3:40 pm (still on Shelford’s time then) and turned the volume down. Its red blinking eye accused her but she ignored it.
Elizabeth took a deep anticipatory breath. Placing herself in front of the chair, resting her hands on the armrests, she lowered herself slowly into the seat.
There was something wrong. Instead of sinking into the seat Elizabeth found herself gripped firmly on either hip by the armrests. She pushed a little but there was a strained sound from the chair, so she stopped. She wriggled herself sideways and sank onto the seat on one buttock but when she tried to roll herself upright, the armrests jammed her about three-quarters way round. She had to roll back on her side in order to get up at all. She stared at the chair in perplexity and reached for the operating instructions. There were three pages of drawings of the chair and all its possibilities, adjustments to height and tilt, locking and unlocking of wheels but nothing about the armrests. She looked underneath the armrests to see if they could be removed but there were no screws. They were fixed and fixed too tightly for Elizabeth’s body.
It was after 4:00 pm when Elizabeth shut the door of the office and walked into the warehouse. All the men had gone including the boss. A single naked bulb had been left on acknowledging her late presence. She had already made the phone call that would see to the collection of the useless chair. She had spent a little time afterwards browsing the well-thumbed Office World catalogue. She noted the special offer on slimline laptops.
She walked slowly down the aisles of vegetables and fruit. A crate of marbled melons caught her eye. Crazy to have melons in Scotland in February, she thought, as she reached forward to cup a loose one in her palm. It was soft, starting to discolor, like some people, she thought, going from unripe to rotten with no perfection in between. She weighed it in her palm, up and down, up and down, while she thought of her boss, of Jimmie, of the discarded Thonet and the humiliating ergonomic chair. Then, with unexpected grace and accuracy, she pitched it into a high arc toward and into the naked light bulb above her. There was a faint tinkle, the light went out and the melon hit the ground beyond her with a pulpy squelch. She walked right through its split debris and into the cold of the February dusk, visualizing her new, infinitely more pleasing desire.
vivien jones lives in Scotland on the north Solway shore dividing her time between writing prose, drama and poetry and devising reading events, often with music. Her short stories have been widely published and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. She is working on a first themed collection.