1,600 words

The chips didn't seem to be as greasy as Joyce remembered them, but that had been over twenty five years ago. At least the same old raincoat still fitted her and she was still able to squeeze into the narrow cubicle seat from where she used to watch the world go by without it staring back.
The windows would have dripped with condensation if they had not been wiped with detergent to allow a clear, albeit streaked, view across to the boutique. Young trendies used to buy overpriced clothes hardly able to cover their embarrassment there; now it was a new age store where not so young people in hair extensions considered papier-mâché ornaments and tunics made in Nepal.
Joyce sliced through a fish finger with her fork and dipped it in the puddle of tomato ketchup. A lifetime of being determined to fit into that same old raincoat until the day she died had made her forget how moreish cheap food was. However, the tea hadn't changed and was still corrosive enough to polish brass. She dragged streaks of ketchup through the sauce of the baked beans with her knife and marvelled at how badly the two colours blended. At least meals here were still served on plates and not in polystyrene as though the management wanted the customers out before they started to wonder what went into the food. Gabriella, the current proprietor, was proud of the plates she filled for the early morning cabbies and porters who had a citation run up in appreciation, though a heart clinic would have preferred the local council to close her place down.
Joyce stiffened her resolve and once more ploughed into the chips. Half a lifetime of sensible eating had shrunken her stomach and determination wavered when the apple crumble and custard arrived. On the aisle table next to hers a pair of hungry eyes also analysed the dessert, instinctively sensing it would go begging at any moment. Joyce picked up the dish and, without a word, pushed it towards her neighbour, adding the spoon as an afterthought just in case he was desperate enough to tackle it with those long nailed fingers.
A gnarled hand gave a half salute. 'I thank you, Mum.' The dessert was rapidly fed through a grizzled beard so unkempt it was a wonder he could remember where his mouth was.
Joyce lightly buttered a piece of white bread, placed six chips inside it and nibbled her way through them. It was amazing how much better things tasted when in a sandwich, even one made of bread with the texture of finely sliced cotton wool.
A small, wrinkled woman hugging a much used carrier bag came in and sat opposite the bearded man. Without looking up, he rubbed his spoon clean on a discarded paper serviette then pushed it with the remaining apple crumble across the table to her.
Common sense nagged Joyce not to do it, but Gabriella was looking straight at her over the counter unit crammed with Danish pastries, sausage rolls and sandwiches. 'A cappuccino, please.' She pointed to the adjoining table, 'and whatever they want.' Joyce discreetly flourished a £20 note.
The proprietor wasn't fazed. Given the number of late night revellers still feeling good about the world, who passed through in the early morning, the occurrence couldn't have been that unusual.
'That is most kind of you, my dear.'
For a moment, Joyce wasn't aware that the voice had come from the small, creased woman.
'It's okay.'
Within half an hour the couple had devoured between them two all day breakfasts, four rolls, two cheese sandwiches, bread and butter pudding and three mugs of drinking chocolate. Joyce could remember being that hungry; fortunately not very often.
The bearded man jabbed the air with a teaspoon. 'Much better than hostel food.'
'Kitchen there's got cockroaches,' agreed the woman. 'This place is clean.'
Joyce made an effort to sound interested and was surprised how easily the ability still came to her. 'Have you far to go then?'
'Only round the corner. We have to be in by eight. Could lose the beds otherwise.'
Joyce half smiled. The couple seemed content enough so there was little point in bestowing sympathy on them as well as a meal.
'What do you do for a living, my dear?'
Again, the small woman's question was as unexpected as her plummy voice.
Joyce had to collect her thoughts. 'I, er, pickle things.'
'For a living?'
'Oh yes. Great market for it. You can make chutney with almost anything, you know.'
'What do you pickle then?'
'Sweet corn, celery and capers, cherries in rum, bamboo shoot pickle, walnut, carrot and mango chutney. Oldest profession in the world. Humans wouldn't have survived if they hadn't learnt how to pickle food.' Joyce was aware enthusiasm was running away with her tongue and stopped herself from going into the manufacturing processes involved.
From under his outgrowth of hair, the man had fixed her with a beady look. He leaned over and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, 'Then what are you doing in a dive like this?'
Joyce edged closer to the smell of tobacco and carbolic soap to tell them, 'I'm celebrating.'
'In here?'
'Twenty five years ago to the day I set up my business. Over this very table,' she tapped the chipped Formica, 'I took my first order for Mr Levison's delicatessen.'
'He's gone now, you know,' the woman observed. 'Son didn't want the business so he sold up and went into wholesaling. Old place is a betting shop now.' She turned to watch a young man in chauffeur's livery enter, buy a mug of tea and go to a table by the door. 'Hope he doesn't leave that Rolls there long. Kids round here haven't got any respect for paint work.'
Joyce gave a small giggle at some private joke.
The old woman guessed what it was and wondered why the chutney entrepreneur had limited some important occasion to a plate of Gabrielle's fish fingers and chips. 'Going on somewhere else then?'
'In a moment,' Joyce told her. 'I had to eat something to line my stomach first in case I end up drinking more than is needed to be sociable. And I have to give a small speech.'
'Family affair then?'
'They wouldn't come.'
'Why not?'
'I made it clear I was leaving everything to charity.'
The man spluttered on his tea as the comment struck a chord.
The woman laughed. 'Simon's family tried to persuade him to give them power of attorney. They wanted to put him in a home so they could get their hands on his property. So he gave it all to a seaman's retreat.'
The businesswoman in Joyce couldn't see the joke. 'But surely ... Wasn't that pulling the rug from under his own feet?'
'Now they leave him alone. He's better off in a hostel than some old people's institution. You know what they do to you in those places?'
Joyce nodded.
'Fill you full of tranquillizers and leave you on the loo,' the man added. 'When I go I want it to be sudden and with a bit of dignity.'
The woman pulled back several sleeves to reveal an expensive watch. 'We had better get going, Simon. You don't want to sleep in the underpass in this weather.'
The man muttered a few things as he fastened one of the cardigans under his greatcoat. He rose and gave a nod of gratitude to Joyce.
The woman took his arm to steady him. 'Thank you for the meal, my dear, it was most appreciated. Perhaps we will see you again some time?'
'If my family doesn't succeed in having me committed to an institution in the next few years, you probably will. This chipped Formica holds fond memories.'
As they left, a small man bustled from the kitchen and cleared away the plates before Joyce could leave a tip under hers.
She waited until the cafe was empty, apart from her waiting chauffeur, before easing herself out of the cubicle seat to remove her old raincoat which she handed to him. Joyce straightened her shot silk business suit and touched up her face with lipstick and powder.
'How long will it take to get there, Tony?'
'About five minutes, Madam. The theatre traffic has slackened off.'
'Good. Drive to the emergency exit. I don't want to meet the press. As soon as the takeover is announced I want to get away fast before my brother knows what hit him.'
'Surely he must have suspected that you were the one buying up shares in his company, Madam?'
'Not him. He's too arrogant to think I would dare, and the dealers were careful to cover any tracks that could lead back to me.'
'Your brother can hardly be prepared for it.'
After a brief wave goodbye to Gabriella they stepped outside where they didn't need to keep their voices down.
'Good. Nor was I when he assumed control of my company fifteen years ago because I was naïve enough to trust him with the accounts.' An icy smile crossed Joyce's face. 'It's nice to have a loving family, Tony, but never trust them with your money. If I'd known that to begin with I wouldn't have had to spend ten years building up a second business so I could regain control of my original company.'
And Tony knew all too well who would be first to go. At least his job as a chauffeur to the owner of one of the world's largest pickle manufacturers would be secure.

Back to Short Stories