“Just these please, sweetheart,” she says in her deepest voice, which isn’t all that deep. It’s passable though,
so it’s a shame when the fake moustache slips ever so slightly on the “heart." She can feel it flapping against her bottom lip as she adds, “and twenty Marlboro Reds please, darlin.’” She doesn’t smoke, which is precisely the point.
It’s a hot day, and the wig is quite warm. Warmer than the last. She almost regrets selecting such a thick red mullet. She feels beads of sweat running down her cheeks, but as she subtly adjusts her moustache, she reassures herself it’s ok to be a sweaty man. Maybe it’s good, even. And if not good, at least in keeping with the aroma she created. Modelled on the last man she kissed, this morning she made a paste of onion, Peperami, and soil, and rubbed it into her armpits. As the day wears on, it’s growing ever more convincing.
The Till Lady has a look of amusement about the eyes. “Yes, sir,” the Till Lady says, emphasising the “sir” in a way that makes her nervous. She watches as the Till Lady grabs the cigarettes, then runs them up alongside the steaks, lager, pork scratchings, and finally the items the others were selected to camouflage: two large bottles of olive oil. Her pulse races as she sees 'limit reached' appear on the screen. Nothing to worry about, she reminds herself. Limit reached, but not exceeded.
“Thanks, love,” she says as she hands over the cash. Paying in cash avoids potential awkwardness caused by incongruous names on cards. She learned that the hard way. She carefully transfers the items into her huge backpack, trying, and mostly failing, to prevent them clinking against bottles from her previous stops. As she takes the change, she gives the Till Lady a wink and a “catch ya later, sweetcheeks” and then, under the weight of her heavy load, she swaggers towards the exit with her legs bowed like John Wayne.
She’s feeling good, like maybe this was one of the best yet, but her stride is perhaps a little too wide, and just as she considers going the extra mile by advising a fellow shopper to smile as it would render her more sexually attractive, she feels a rather large ball of socks dislodge from her crotch and escape the bottom of her left trouser leg. She decides against further dialogue. Instead, she simply tips her head to the security guard – who's distracted by what seem to be socks rolling across the floor – and leaves. When she’s comfortably out of sight, she stops at a bin to dump the meat products, because she’s vegan for environmental reasons, and the lager, because she’s more of a natural-wine drinker. She decides to keep the cigarettes for a rainy day.
It's a relief to lay the hefty bag down when she reaches home. But she can’t relax yet. She has to stash the loot without her housemate seeing. This is somewhat easier now she no longer has to transport it through the flat,
on account of her room already being full to the brim. It’s worth it, of course, but it does mean she’s unable to invite anyone over, and certainly not for bedroom action. If a potential suitor saw everything she has, they might steal from her, and even if they didn’t, she’d always wonder if they were only with her for her oil. Better to keep people away.
Obviously, given the situation, sharing a flat is less than ideal. But she hasn’t had a pay rise for three years, and a Guardian article told her she’d actually been suffering pay cuts, in real terms, for the past eight. So getting her own place isn’t really an option. It could be worse, though, as her housemate generally keeps herself to herself, and when she did the hair-across-the-doorway trick for a while, it was never disturbed, so she’d wager she’s not a snoop. Still, to be absolutely certain, last week she installed a lock on her bedroom door, and if her housemate’s ever in the hallway when she needs to leave, she’s taken to exiting via her window to avoid revealing a glimpse of the goods.
This latest haul is bound for the basement, where she hurries now, as quietly as possible. It’s in the building’s communal area, and officially belongs to the landlord, but he has lots of properties, and it’s creepy and damp down there, so no one ever uses it. Apart from her. With the recent rent rises, she’s felt entitled to get more bang for her increased buck. Over the past few weeks, she’s filled the entire space below the basement’s stairs with oil, and she’s made a good start on the back wall too. It’s mostly olive, plus a fair amount of groundnut, the latter of which, in truth, she doesn’t really care for, and only bought to prevent the neighbour upstairs with the nut allergy from pilfering it. She hopes it might be the push she’s needed to finally get into Asian cooking.
She’s also taken to storing her disguises here, so as not to elicit awkward questions when entering or exiting the flat. She changes into her own clothes now, and her own face and hair, storing 'Lad’s Lad' next to 'Buxom Babe' and 'Monocled Gent'. When she adds the ten new bottles to an already crowded shelf, she’s dismayed to realise the tarp she’s been using to cover them won’t quite stretch far enough. She knows she should avoid using Amazon on ethical grounds, so she often tells people she avoids using Amazon on ethical grounds, and indeed sometimes she even does avoid using Amazon on ethical grounds. But this is an emergency, she can’t risk anyone finding her stash, so she orders two more tarps to be delivered, thankfully, that very day. She really can’t knock that kind of service.
She refrains from making further inconsequential adjustments to the current tarp placement and stands back to admire the fruits of her labour. It’s not that she wouldn’t share these fruits, she thinks, if it came down to it. She’s given it a lot of thought, actually. And she would. Share. A bit, at least. But not with just anyone. Only with people she feels would share back, people she imagines might be generous in her position. Which wouldn’t be many. And she’s not a monster; others could buy some of her oil – oil that is rightfully hers to sell – if they wanted. But, she always concludes, sensible people wouldn’t even need her to share. Anyone who values the Mediterranean diet and has two brain cells to rub together would be building their own reserves. Sure, she’s been pretty innovative and smart. She’s acted early and invested wisely. She’s proud of that fact. But it doesn’t take a genius to spot the obvious loophole in the two-bottle-limit system, so people with their heads screwed on won’t come knocking at her door; they’ll be enjoying authentic stir fries behind their own.
There must, she concedes, be people who can’t afford to stockpile to this degree. She knows there must,
and it makes her feel bad, sometimes. But she doesn’t feel bad for very long. Because then she wonders why exactly they can’t afford it. Like, whose fault is it? Not hers, certainly. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and maybe it has to stop with them. Maybe people like that simply aren’t willing to work hard and sacrifice the way she has. Wigs are more expensive than one might think, and those voice-training classes didn’t come cheap. She’s had to tighten her belt. She’s making her own granola now. Darning her old socks. And when her latest Soul Cycle package comes to an end, she’s considering switching to a Better Gym. Or a Nuffield Health, at least. If others don’t have her work ethic or willpower, if they’re making the wrong choices, then maybe they don’t deserve moist salads. Maybe they wouldn’t appreciate moist salads if they had them, or not as profoundly as
she does. Maybe they’re used to dry salads, if they even eat salads at all. Maybe there’s no space for sympathy during times like these.
Satisfied with her day’s work, and happy she’s hidden everything as best she can, she makes her way upstairs. But halfway up, she changes her mind. She heads back down and, deeming it the best fit for the aroma she’s still emitting, dons 'Teenage Goth'. With her face caked in white makeup and half-covered by a lank black wig, she grabs her backpack and sets out for the shops again. There are still empty shelves in the basement, after all, and she does have that extra tarp coming.
Effie Black has an Undergraduate Degree, two Masters Degrees, and a PhD in science. Effie started writing fiction relatively recently, taking a 6-session City Lit evening course in 2019, where she produced a short story, ‘Small p’, which was published by Litro. Effie has also had the short story ‘TW’ featured in our Withdrawal themed é-zine edition.
Of the story featured here, Effie says:
‘The theme of shortage inspired me to explore the attitude of scarcity we can all feel in a world of such abundance, and growing inequalities between the haves and have-nots.’