'Four Cans of Baked Beans' by Claire Williams
LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist 'Four Cans of Baked Beans' by Claire Williams
Four Cans of Baked Beans
Two pints of milk, two tins of cat food, two white loaves and four cans of baked beans travelled down the Aldi conveyor belt. Tracey squinted at the calculator on her phone.
The crack that ran down her phone screen sliced the 6 in half.
A robotic voice droned from above. ‘Till 2 is now open.’
A woman pushed forward. Her tight grey curls neatly packed under a clear plastic rain headscarf dotted with white daisies. Her trolley clipped the ankles of a bearded man in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket. The packet of Eccles cakes he carried, fell to the floor.
He shot the woman a glare. ‘Love, you nearly took me ankles off there!’
She slammed a four pack of Strongbow on till 2’s conveyer belt. She looked him up and down and tutted when she saw his dust covered boots.
Tracey smiled at the cashier, her eyes widening. The middle-aged woman, too large for her small stool, stared back, her lips parted. Tracey’s shopping were already piled at the end of the checkout waiting to be packed.
‘Oh, finished already? Fastest scanner in the west.’ Tracey laughed.
‘That’ll be £8.95 please.’
Tracey grimaced, her mouth dry. ‘£8.95?’ She looked again at her phone screen. What a stupid cow, she thought.
She picked up the tin of cat food. ‘I need to put something back, love? Like this.’
The cashier mumbled something under her breath which Tracey didn’t catch and leaned forward across the conveyor belt to observe the queue, now at least 10 deep. She tapped on the till keys and scanned the tin. The till beeped. The cashier frowned, her finger tapping the same key three times. The till beeped again. The cashier reached underneath the counter and a light above flashed red. Silent but deadly.
‘Kevin!’ the cashier shouted. ‘I can’t do this refund. Can you come with the key?’
Tracey placed her palm flat against her cheek. Her skin burned hot.
The man in the hard hat, leaned forward and whispered. ‘Excuse me love. How much you short?’ His hand dug in his jean pocket. A jangle of keys and coins. He offered Tracey his upturned hand, a coin in his palm.
‘Pound, do you?’
Tracey shook her head, her throat tightening. She pictured a sink hole. She’d read once that they appeared out of nowhere. She looked down at the grey machine buffed floor and wished it would open right up and swallow her whole.
‘It’s okay love, honestly. Take it. Only going to make me fatter buying more of these.’ He offered up his Eccles cakes as evidence.
She met his gaze and smiled. He weren’t fat. He were handsome. Rugged, like the type she’d used to go for. A long time ago back when she felt pretty.
‘Thanks,’ she said as she took the coin. It slipped over her palms, wet with sweat and into the hand of the cashier who sighed as she handed back the receipt.
Tracey left without looking back. She didn’t need to. Sure, there would be the odd look of pity, but mostly she knew they brimmed with annoyance, their time taken from them by some no hoper who couldn’t afford to pay. She took in a deep breath of cool evening air and blinked back tears. She rubbed her nose on her sleeve which left a stain of snot on her green parka sleeve. Stop whinging, Tracey Beecham. ‘Just stop it.’ What else could she do? Since her divorce from Gaz, she’d tried to get back a foothold. A few part-time jobs here and there. More often than not though, they fell away along with her confidence. Just lately, she relied on child benefit payments more than she’d like to admit.
The tins of beans, like the humiliation, weighed heavy on her shoulders as she walked. God, she felt tired. Bone tired. Like even putting one foot in front of the other had suddenly become too much. The drizzle came, curling her short brown hair at the tips and dampening her cheeks that still burned hot. She pulled her fur-lined hood up over her face and felt relief at being able to hide. When she reached the door of number 22, the streetlight above flickered. An intermittent glow illuminated the wet red bricks of the terraced house they’d called home for the last year. She reached down to the kerb and picked up a stone. She threw it up. It bounced off the plastic and fell to the ground, skittering over the pavement slabs. That bloody light would keep her awake all night again. It would flicker through the net curtains of her bedroom window and create shadows on the wood chipped wallpaper. It became an hourly reminder in the liquid darkness that she couldn’t afford curtains. She’d lie awake and wonder when the council would ever get around to fixing it.
She missed her old place in Friar’s Lane; a three bedder with a garden overlooking school playing fields. Now three of them shared a two up, two down, with a back yard that stunk of cat’s piss. She thought of Gaz sitting on his balcony at his flat in the centre of town, the canal barges below gently lapped by water, a cold artisan beer in his hand, like the type she imagined you drank in when you lived in a place like that. She’d been there once to drop the kids off and seen the white laminate, stretching out like a sheet of ice. She couldn’t imagine he’d ever keep it clean, and she’d said as much before he’d ignored her and shut the door like she weren’t there at all. She wondered where he got his money from lately. God only knows she were seeing none of it. Weren’t it the woman who were meant to win at divorce? All’s she’d managed to win were their 5-year-old Candy washing machine.
She twisted her key in the lock and sighed. A high-pitched screech thundered down the stairs.
‘Mam! Ethan won’t let me go on the X box!’
‘Ethan!’ Tracey shouted. The smell of cat’s shit squashed under her boot drifted upwards. ‘For fuck’s sake!’
‘Wot?’ Ethan shouted back.
‘You know what! The pair of you haven’t let the cat out and now she’s shat all over the mat.’
Ethan appeared at the top of the stairs, X box controller dangling in one hand, the other clutching his stomach in silent laughter. ‘Ha-ha, hilarious Mam. The cat shat on the mat!’ He twirled around, his trackie bottoms heading south, and swished his hips from side to side. ‘The cat’s shat on the mat! The cat’s shat on the mat!’
Tracey glared up at him, shopping bags still in her hands. ‘Ethan, if you don’t get your puny little arse down her now and clear up this mess there will be hell to pay.’
Ethan shook his head, unkept brown curls cascading over his eyes. He smiled revealing his missing bottom tooth, knocked out at football training last month. Tracey had called Ethan the Cheshire cat ever since he were born. His heart shaped lips curled up at the sides like he were in a permanent state of happiness. How can something so sweet turn into a such a pain in the arse, Tracey thought?
‘And make sure you let you sister play on the X box!’
Ethan turned around, wiggled his bum, and jumped back up the single step into their room. The cat skulked towards Tracey, winding itself around her legs. It meowed and tugged at the bag with its paw.
‘Yeah, you little shit. If you think you’re getting any of this, when this is the mess you leave for me, you’ve another thing coming!’ Tracey dropped the bags, pinched her nose, and undid her boot laces. The squelch of shit against the mat, the word welcome emblazoned at its centre, made her gag. She hated cats. The kids had persuaded her to get one. It were a guilt purchase after the divorce, but after a week they were already bored of it and left her to keep it alive and clean up its shit.
She opened the door and tossed her boots and the matt outside onto the street. They’d have to wait. Even if they got nicked from the doorstep.
The cat’s green eyes blinked nonchalantly. ‘Go on then. ‘Get your whiskers on and beat it!’ The cat twisted around her calves and slinked out the door.
She walked into the kitchen and dumped the bags on the worksurface. It were a galley kitchen with no table. Usually, they’d eat tea on trays on their laps in the living room. And it were a mess. As usual. The breakfast dishes hadn’t been cleaned up since the morning, the Weetabix welded onto the bowls like cement. Tracey sighed and switched on the kettle. And then snapped it off again, wondering how much credit were in the electricity meter.
Rosie, Tracey’s 16-year-old daughter, appeared at the door and leaned her shoulder on the frame that were blackened with the grease from countless hands. Her eyes watered as she blinked, long black false eyelashes fanned out underneath her eyebrows like spider’s legs.
‘New eyelashes chick?’ Tracey asked.
‘Yeah, only just put them on but they’re reet stingin’. Knew I shouldn’t go for that cheap crap at Superdrug.’
‘I’m surprised you could afford that!’
‘Just been paid, extra too for working that shift last Sunday.’
Rosie had been working at The Borough Arms as a waitress for the last 6 months since her 16th birthday. To be honest it had been a godsend, the tips getting them out of a hole or two.
‘Don’t suppose you could lend me a tenner until the end of the week, could you?’
‘Oh Mam, not again, I were going to get my hair extensions done next month and were saving up. God knows they need doing - look at them, they’re halfway down me ’ead as it is.’ She twirled a strand of her long black hair around her forefinger and black painted nail. A diamante on its tip glinted from the strip light above.
‘New nails as well, I see?’
She fanned out her hand. ‘Dad took me up town to get them done. Nice, aren’t they?’
‘Oh, go on love, it’s not like you won’t get it back? I get paid at the end of the week.’
‘You always say that.’
Suddenly, Rosie launched forward into the kitchen, her hands reaching out to stop her fall. Ethan stood behind; his arms outstretched. Rosie righted herself and pushed him back against the cupboards. ‘Ethan! You little shit. You could ’ave broken my neck then.’
‘Chance would be a fine thing! Anyway, what’s for tea Mam? I’m starving.’ He slid himself up to sit on the kitchen worksurface.
Tracey sighed. ‘Beans on toast,’
‘Nah, you’re kidding me. Beans again? I’ll be farting all the way to Kendal.’
‘Well, that’s all we have. So, eat it or go hungry. It’s your bloody school trip that cleared me out.’
‘Well, ’bout that Mam. I need some walking boots apparently.’
‘Walking boots? What the bloody hell do you need those for? Won’t your trainers do? Surely an 80 quid pair of trainers will do just fine.’
‘Mam, it’s a walking holiday. You know you go walking so therefore I need walking boots. Comprende.’
‘Aye, I comprend alright but comprend this sunshine, I don’t have the money for new walking boots, so 80 quid trainers will have to do.’
Rosie’s nose wrinkled. ‘Mam, you know they’ll be on at him at school. Mr Barlow is a right twat for that. I remember when I went on that walking trip. I were teased endlessly for those red plimsoles you made me wear, remember?’
Tracey winced. The memory of Mr Barlow pulling her to one side and reprimanding her for sending her girl on a walking trip in ‘wholly inappropriate footwear’ cutting through her. In front of the other mams as well. What made it worse were Rosie had stepped off the bus and run into her arms in floods of tears. She’d been teased mercilessly by that little cow Isla Walker whose mam had got her a pair of leather walking boots from Trespass. They were all the rage. Apparently.
‘Yeah, I remember.’ Tracey reached in her bag for a packet of ciggies. She dangled it between her lips and leaned over the gas hob. She pressed the button, the ignition clicking until a blue flame shot upwards.
‘One of these days you’re going to blow your head off doing that.’ Ethan said. ‘Boom! That will be your head.’
‘Either that or you’re going to die of cancer,’ Rosie said.
‘Sweet release if you ask me. And besides when is it a crime to smoke? Back in my day…’
‘Oh, here we go. Back in my day…’ Ethan sighed and jumped down, his bare soles slapping against the tiles. ‘I’ll just have to ask Dad for them.’
‘You do that Ethan. I’m sure he has more money than sense.’
‘You could always do the lottery, Mam. Did you read in the paper about that cabbie winning £96 million on the Euromillions. A multi-millionaire. Just like that.’ Rosie said.
‘Since when do you read the paper?’
‘Well, you know I like to keep up on current affairs.’
Ethan sniggered. ‘Current affairs? The only current affairs you know is when the latest Kardashian sex tape is coming out.
Tracey clipped the back of his head with her hand. ‘Ethan! Enough.’
‘Ow! That hurt!’
‘No, it did not.’
‘You big wuss.’ Rosie said. ‘I’ll show you what hurts, grabbing his forearm and twisting the skin with her hands. Ethan reached for her hair, but she moved away and ran up the stairs. Ethan followed close behind. A thunder of steps rumbled through the ceiling.
‘Don’t go starting another game of Fortnite! Tea will be 10 minutes,’ Tracey shouted.
Tracey unpacked the tin of beans and emptied the can into the one clean saucepan. The beans bubbled and popped orange liquid onto the white tiles and released the familiar smell of sweetened cheese. She’d give tea a miss tonight. Besides she couldn’t face more beans. Perhaps after she got straight, she would treat herself to a takeaway curry. She hadn’t had one of those in ages. That were something to look forward to it least.
‘Mam?’ Rosie had reappeared, her hand outstretched, a crisp new tenner between her thumb and forefinger.
Tracey blushed. ‘Thanks love. Come ’ere, you big softy.’ She pulled Rosie towards her and kissed the top of her head, the smell of Silvikrin hairspray catching at the back of her throat.
It were better than cat shit though, she thought. Better than cat shit.