Sandra & Hugh Short Stories
Two of the bloggers I follow, Marian Allen and Jo Robinson, are writing a short story every day during the month of May. They have actually signed up to do it…officially! I have been very impressed with Marian because she has done it, a story a day every day so far this month. Jo has just joined in. Inspired by their commitment, I think I’ll give it a try, unofficially, at least for this coming week. ‘A Story a Day for a Week in May’ may not have the same cachet, but it does have a certain ring about it, wouldn’t you say?
I’ve taken as my writing prompt an exercise suggested some time ago by one of my cohorts in PenPals, the writing club I belong to. She suggested we take one of the characters we are writing about in our novels or other work, and send them to buy a pint of milk. An everyday task: a way to get to know the character.
So, here is my first effort:
For Monday, May 20th
Milk, Don’t You Know!
It had been a rubbish day at work. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong and, by the time Sandra walked home she was as thoroughly depressed as she’d been in a long time. When she opened the door to find Hugh curled up on the sofa with a book, his Basset-Hound-Puppy tail wagging to greet her, she felt herself falling apart. She flopped into the chair, her head back, tears gathering behind closed eyes.
“Bad? Dare…dare I ask? Bad day, was it?” Hugh did dare, carefully letting his book drop to the floor beside the empty mugs that had gathered there during his day.
She didn’t open her eyes, knowing, that once opened, there would be nothing to hold back the tears.
“Exhausted, you look exhausted,” Hugh consoled. “Cup of tea? Can I? Would you like…?”
“Please,” she nodded and, while Hugh fussed in the kitchen, she gave a long shuddering sigh and mentally drew all her scattered fragments into a tidy pile, ready to be put back together by the promised restorative cuppa. “Oh, yes, please,” she sighed.
“Ah, yes,” he said from the doorway. “Bit of a problem, there, with the aforementioned beverage, don’t you know.”
The fragments started to slip away.
“Milk. Didn’t happen to bring milk, did you, I don’t suppose?”
Tears trickled from the sides of her tightly shut eyes.
“Mmm. Take that as a ‘no’, then should I? Mmm.” Hugh raked his hands through his hair. “Next problem, no money. Don’t suppose you…?”
Silently, barely moving her position, she reached into her bag. Once found, she unzipped her purse and held it upside down letting the coins fall where they would.
“Yes, well.” Hugh bent to pick up the few pennies. “Not enough, not enough really, is it? Sixteen P? Pint of milk? Sixteen P?” He looked around for what he could sell. “Cushions? Do we really need cushions on that chair?” he asked.
And that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back! “Those cushions were embroidered for me by my sister. They were part of my wedding trousseau.” Sandra was on her feet. “An old fashioned concept, I’ll grant you, as is the silly, outdated notion that it should be the man who goes out to work his butt off for his little woman,” she fumed, eyes wide open now, no effort to stop the tears of anger and self-pity. “If you don’t get out there, find some way to buy a pint of milk and make me that cup of tea,” grabbing up the cushion, “without, without, selling off the last of my treasured possessions, so help me, Hugh, I’ll…”
He held his hands aloft. “Point taken! Yes. Milk. Tea. On to it.” He snatched his jacket from the sofa where it had been thrown earlier. “Going. Milk. Yes.” And he rushed out of the door, embarrassed, she knew, by her tears, cowed by her anger.
She sat down again, her knees drawn up to her chin, her head in her hands, crying in earnest now. “Oh, God,” she prayed. “What am I going to do? He can’t even buy a pint of milk!”
It wasn’t that Hugh meant to be vague. In fact, mostly, he was unaware of his mental peregrinations. Looking back, even when chastised at school for his inattention, it always came as a surprise to him that his mind had strayed so far from the point of focus. He knew others were frustrated by this quality in him, but he couldn’t quite work out what to do about it. Survival instincts threw up soft, billowy clouds of insouciance to shield him from the harsh glare of censure.
He scrabbled up the money by dint of searching through the pockets of the coats that hung in the hall, and sifting through the ‘bits and pieces saucer’ on the kitchen worktop: nothing larger than the sticky ten pence piece he rescued from his jacket pocket, but together, enough for a pint of milk.
‘Milk,’ he mused as he ran down the stairs.
‘Milk,’ he muttered, slowing to let the traffic pass. ‘Funny thing, milk. Become a necessity, what? How does that happen? What did people do before there was milk?’ ‘S’pose always been milk, really,’ he replied, wandering along the street. ‘It’s tea that’s newer on the scene, don’t you know.’
‘Tea,’ he thought, looking in the book shop window. ‘Funny thing, tea. Become a necessity, sort of. Like coffee. Suddenly, everybody needs coffee to start the day,’ he observed as he fingered the row of second-hand books laid out on a stand in front of the window. Finding an Ian Rankin he hadn’t read, he checked the price pencilled inside the front cover. ‘Hmm, not quite enough,” he realised, counting the coins in his pocket. Then remembered that he had come out with a purpose.
‘Coffee,’ he reminded himself as he strolled into the All Hours Minimarket at the corner of the street. ‘Needs sugar, actually, coffee, can’t take it without sugar.’ He shuddered at the very idea.
‘Sugar,’ he mumbled, as he browsed the shelves. ‘Sugar. Ah, yes, there it is.’
‘Just about got enough for a small bag, ‘ he said, counting out the coins. He smiled as he handed the pile of copper over, winning a responsive smile from the assistant despite the inconvenience the counting of the small change would give.
‘Mmm,’ he hummed, entering the stair. ‘Can almost smell the coffee. Hope Sandra remembered the milk!’
Okay! So it’s bullocks cooling off in the pond in the field over our hedge, not cows, and so they’re only distantly related to a pint of milk. But, then, so is my story for Day 2 of ‘A Story a Day for a Week in May’ only distantly related to buying said pint of milk.
In today’s effort for ‘A Story a Day for a Week in May’, we meet Sandra again, Hugh’s long-suffering wife in yesterday’s story. She’s supposed to be buying that pint of milk, but it isn’t working out too well, as you’ll see.
Dogs and Cats and Cupboard Clatter
Early morning sun filtered into the waiting room through the newly cleaned vertical blinds, showing it to be empty apart from some floating dust motes and a wet mop which was just out of Sandra’s reach.
She’d forgotten it in her haste to get into the cupboard herself. ‘I mean, is he early? Or am I late?’ she muttered. Five more minutes, just five, that’s all she’d needed! Or ten. To be realistic, probably ten!
At least he’d gone, for the moment.
She opened the cupboard door a crack and blindly groped for the handle of the stray cleaning tool. When her disembodied hand failed to locate it, her head followed like the slow emergence of her childhood tortoise. The mop was stubbornly out of reach.
She pushed the door open a little more and hastily looked around. Seeing nobody there, she reached further out of the cupboard, was just about to snatch the mop when Doctor Watson popped back out of his consulting room.
Head and mopless hand retracted swiftly into their protective shell.
Doctor Watson, a dapper little man, white shirt neatly pressed, dark suit immaculate as usual, walked with a flat-footed roll, studying the papers in his hand, his manner that of a preoccupied penguin. Used to cutting his corners fine, his way was barred by the mop.
A wider sweep round that particular corner would have missed it, but Doctor Watson was proud of his economy of movement: the straight path, the direct route, these were his choices. So, he encountered the mop.
He stared at it. It stood its ground. When it refused to step aside, he lifted it and with a loud ‘Tut!’ he opened the cupboard door and plonked the offending implement inside and onto Sandra’s feet.
Thankfully all of this was accomplished without any inspection of the interior of the cupboard, where Sandra stood flat against the wall hoping to be mistaken for the hoover.
When the wet mop draped itself round her ankles, she decided against exclaiming loudly because, basically, she didn’t want her boss to realise she was there.
When Sandra applied for the extra job as cleaner, he had been aghast. ‘Not fitting, Mrs Gilmour. Not fitting at all,’ he’d tutted. ‘How would it look if one of our patients were to realise that you, the receptionist, were also the cleaner? It would undermine your position here at the desk,’ he’d stated.
There was no arguing with him: he’d decided.
‘No! We’ll go through the Agency as usual, Mrs Gilmour. Perhaps you’d put that in motion, would you?’
But she needed the extra work, so, although she had gone through the Agency, she had made it clear to them she had a cleaner already, but would like payment and conditions etc. to be arranged through them. That way, The Penguin need never know how she had accommodated both of their wishes.
Now here she was, trapped in the cleaning cupboard, the door firmly closed, no handle on the inside.
Her ear to the door, she listened as his footsteps receded along the corridor to the records office. If things went to plan, he would stay there for ten minutes, more if the first surgery was heavily booked: files to look out, records to study.
The next person in the main door should be the post boy: a potential rescuer.
Sandra waited, breath held and released as softly as possible, her face flat against the smooth, painted surface of the door, listening for footsteps.
On hearing them, she knocked softly on the cupboard door; not loud enough to attract attention from the records office, loud enough, she hoped, to be heard by the post boy, if it was indeed his scuffle.
She heard the lad stop in his tracks. She imagined his head cocked like a spaniel’s, listening. She knocked again. There was the sound of a little startled jump, followed by a rush to the desk and it took little imagination to see him practically throw his bundle down before turning tail and bounding out of the building.
Hearing his retreat, Sandra sighed. She should have guessed he’d be too timid to investigate anything so mysterious. He blushed if anyone so much as said ‘Thank you!’ for the mail: practically wet himself with excitement when given a smile. She always felt like patting his head, ‘Good boy!’ and offering him some chocolate buttons.
Time passes slowly when you’re cramped into a small cleaning cupboard, surrounded by all the necessary tools of the cleaner’s trade: when the gentle aroma of spray polish mixed with the stronger smells of toilet cleaner and bleach threaten to overpower you: when there is insufficient light to check your watch but you know instinctively that you are going to be late for your ‘proper’ job, and you haven’t bought the milk yet for everyone’s cuppa at breaktime.
The Bulldog should be next. Yes, here he comes, barking out his orders for the day, only no-one is there, at the desk, to heed him. She should be there, smiling sweetly, saying ‘Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir!’
“Where is the woman?” he barked in his best British Bulldog Voice.
Sandra pulled a face behind the cupboard door.
At last, Pussy-Cat arrived. Dear, sweet Colleen, not quite a Sex-Kitten but a very Cuddly Tabby: single, thirty-something, curly blonde hair piled on top of a round, permanently flushed face; tight skirt, clingy top.
“Where’s Mrs G?” Bulldog demanded.
“Sorry, Doctor Drummond. Must be indisposed, or possibly out fetching the milk for elevenses. Can I help you?”
Dear Colleen. Sweet, sweet Pussy-Cat. Always ready to soothe and stroke the troubled brow.
“Ermph! Yes, I suppose you’ll do.” Doctor Drummond, second partner in the Health Centre practice, growled and grumbled through his list of requirements for the day.
By the time he had finished and moved off to his room, Sandra had broken out in a bit of a sweat, brought on as much by the realisation that her chances of getting out of her predicament undiscovered were diminishing with every passing second, as by the fact that her oxygen supply was also diminishing—with every passing second.
She could just see the merest slither of light under the tight-fitting door, none at all round the edges. She would have admired the excellence of the craftsmanship if she had thought of it, or of anything much at all. In fact she was beginning to feel decidedly sleepy…
Colleen was alerted to Sandra’s plight by the noise emanating from the cleaning cupboard. The noise of brooms and mops falling over, buckets being kicked, plastic bottles of cleaning products crashing against the closed door, a strange moaning as she approached to open it.
“What on earth are you doing in there?” she asked as Sandra tumbled out at her feet.
“Dying,” Sandra croaked.
“You can do that later.” Colleen looked around the, as yet, empty waiting room. “Quick! Get up before anyone sees you,” she said, helping her to do so while deftly closing the door on the devastation left in the cupboard. “Can you get to the loo?”
Sandra nodded. “Think so.”
“I’ll meet you there in a minute. Just as soon as Fiona gets in. Meantime, you get cleaned up a bit,” she indicted the baggy, old jogging bottoms and t-shirt Sandra wore for her cleaning jobs. “And see if you can do something with your hair!” This she added with a distasteful look at the strange muddy-brown, pony-tail arrangement atop her friend’s sweat-soaked head.
“They’re not dirty, actually,” Sandra said, in defence of her favourite trousers.
“Just go,” hissed the Pussy-Cat.
By the time Colleen sidled into the staff ladies’ room, Sandra had indeed ‘cleaned herself up’ and looked more like the neat, tidy receptionist expected by the doctors she worked for: brown hair brushed and styled to lie demurely on her shoulders, eye make-up applied discretely, crisp blouse and tailored skirt.
“That’s better!” Colleen purred. “More like yourself. Now, in three sentences, no big words, can you please explain what on earth you were doing in the cleaning cupboard dressed like a disreputable teenager on the run?”
“Three sentences? Right. One,” Sandra ticked it off on her finger. “I am, in fact, the phantom early-morning office cleaner. Two, I slept in this morning because I worked late last night cleaning another two offices. And three, The Penguin arrived before I had time to clear away and get changed. Oh! And he inadvertently locked me in the cupboard. But that’s four, so probably too much information?”
“What on earth are you doing all these jobs for?”
“Because I need it?”
“But all these jobs?”
“Just two, actually. Office cleaning and,” she looked at her watch, “the one I’m about to lose because I should’ve been at the desk forty-five minutes ago.”
“I covered for you. Told The Peng… Doctor Watson you were sick. They probably all think you’re pregnant.”
“Well, what did you want me to say? That I found you skulking in a cupboard dressed like a tramp on a bad day?”
“What is it you’ve got against my leggings?”
“Is that what they were? I thought they were Hugh’s pyjama trousers. The ones he threw out because they were too old and had lost their elastic.”
“Okay! So they’ve kneed a bit.”
“And really! Ninja Turtle t-shirts are so passé!”
“Okay, okay. So I don’t always look my best while I’m cleaning.”
“Which brings us back to the point,” Colleen remarked. “Why the extra jobs?”
“Oh, Hugh’s out of work again,” Sandra sat down on one of the toilet seats. “We’re absolutely desperate. We’d kind of run up a few debts, thinking he’d make great commission.”
“Spending money before it was earned?”
“Got a new flat, new furniture to go with the new image of the new job.”
“Only the new job fell through?”
“You get the picture.”
“So how many jobs is he doing now?”
“I told you, he lost his job.”
“And he’s out cleaning too?”
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
Colleen shook her head and fluffed up her tail. “Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. Equal opportunity and all that.”
“Try telling that to Hugh,” Sandra muttered, remembering the row they’d had when she’d suggested he joined her in office cleaning. Well, as close as you ever got to a row with Hugh.
‘CV. Not sure it would look good. Desperate, sort of,’ he winced.
‘But we are desperate!’ she’d said. But she knew what he meant. Office cleaning didn’t sound quite the next step on the ladder to success.
“Anyway, how long d’you think they allow for vomiting break?” she asked Colleen.
“Yeah, you’re right. We’d best be getting back to work. Conversation to be continued at coffee time.”
Sandra’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, heck! I forgot the milk! I was going to nip out for it after getting cleaned up.”
“Well, you’d best do it quickly now. If asked again, I’ll tell them you’ve nipped out for a pregnancy test!”
Well, I did the ‘Story a Day for a Week in May’ gig that I set out to do and found that I enjoyed it too much to stop right away. So, here’s a bonus short story. It’s another featuring the hapless Hugh who we met in stories 1 & 2, and I’m not even going to pretend it’s about buying a pint of milk!
The Thing Is…
“Excuse me, Sir. I’m afraid dogs are not allowed in the park without a lead.” Donald pointed to the sign.
“Ah, yes! I see that, but you see, the thing is…”
“The thing is, Sir, that your dog is fouling on my grass. There’s a penalty for that.” The Park Keeper pointed to the relevant notice. “Unless, of course, you use a pooper-scooper and dispose of the offending mess appropriately, Sir.”
“Ah, yes! I see that too, but you see, the thing is…”
Donald reached into the pouch he wore across his body. “The thing is, Sir, that I have some plastic bags here for just such an occasion.” And he handed one over.
“Ah, yes! I see. Plastic bag. Yes.” Hugh looked at the bag as though it was from outer space. “And what exactly…?” He made a vague waving gesture with it.
“Never done this before, have we, Sir.”
“No, actually. Haven’t needed to really.”
“Ah! New to this area, are we?”
Hugh nodded, looking at the dog as it crouched on the grass adding to its offence.
“Thought so! Standards, Sir. It’s all about standards, if you don’t mind my saying so, Sir, good, old-fashioned standards.” He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his spread feet.
“Absolutely, old man, old-fashioned. Bit like myself, wife tells me. Reckons live in wrong century, she does. Me, that is, not…”
“And we like to keep our park up to a very high standard,” Donald continued. “Litter, dogs’ mess, ball-games, these are the things that bring a park down, you know.”
“Quite, yes. I can imagine.” Hugh wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Thing is, don’t you know…” He still held the plastic bag at arm’s length. A look of puzzlement crossed his face when he looked at it.
“If I may, Sir?” Donald took the bag from his grasp and walked across the grass to the offending pile. “Allow me to demonstrate the use of the plastic bag as a pooper-scooper,” and this he ably did. “One places one’s hand inside the bag, thus,” he demonstrated, “pick up the poop, thus,” he did, “turn the bag inside out, thus,” again, accomplished expertly, “thereby containing the mess within the bag, to be disposed of in the receptacle provided.” He indicated the bin at the end of the path.
“I say, well done!” Hugh applauded.
“Thank you, Sir.” Donald beamed. Hugh showed no sign of relieving the Park Keeper of the plastic bag of warm pooh, so Donald walked across to the bin and demonstrated how it should be deposited. “Thus!”
Hugh nodded his understanding. “Yes. Yes. Quite. Now, the thing is, you see…”
“And now, Sir. May I suggest you collect your dog and put it on its leash before any further mishap occurs?”
“Good idea! Yes. The thing is though…” Hugh raised his hands, displaying the lack of a dog leash.
“Ah, I see your problem now,” the Park Keeper nodded. With a smug smile, he reached into his pouch once more. “Fortunately, I carry this length of rope for just such an occasion.” He handed it to Hugh.
“Rope, yes, and I imagine you….” He held the rope out and wiggled it about a bit as though putting it through the dog’s collar.
“Exactly, Sir. Now, if you’d care to call the dog?”
“Yes, yes. See what you mean. Call the dog. Rover, don’t you know. Always called my dogs Rover. Ever since I was a boy. Got a puppy for my birthday.” Hugh smiled at the memory of waking to the warm, wet nose snuffling round his face. He’d wanted a dog so much, hadn’t dared to hope his mother would let him have one of his very own. He’d called him Rover, unable to think of a more original name. Continued to call it Rover even after realising, or, rather, being told, he was a she. “Old-fashioned now, I suppose. The name, I mean. Rover. Still, Mumsie has kept up the tradition, don’t you know.”
“No matter. You see, the thing is…”
“If you’d care to call the dog, Sir?” Donald was getting edgy. This particular dog had been irritating him, on and off, for days now. Never on a leash, trotting about as if it owned the park, cocking its leg where it would, digging in the flower beds. Donald had chased it from his roses on several occasions, been tempted to raise his boot to it, but decided that was beneath his dignity. Besides, it would be typical if the owner chose that very moment to appear. He could do without the trouble that might cause.
But he had been watching out for the dog’s owner and was pleased to have the opportunity to make clear the park rules concerning animals. “If you wouldn’t mind, Sir?” The dog was perilously close to a beautiful display of azaleas. In fact he was beginning to dig around them.
Hugh looked doubtful, but reluctantly co-operated with the request. “Rover! Erm, Rover!” He called self-consciously and ineffectually.
The Park Keeper smiled and nodded his encouragement.
Hugh tried again. “I say Rover, old boy, do come over here!” He tapped the rope against his leg.
The dog, a large black Labrador, disdained to ‘come over ‘ anywhere, but began digging in earnest, putting the azaleas in serious jeopardy now.
Hugh pursed his lips and attempted to whistle, not something he was ever good at, but something he always believed he would someday be able to do. He felt it was a requirement of a dog owner and had sought to perfect the technique since being given the first puppy, also a black lab as it happened.
The sound that came from his lips was thin and frail and the dog could be excused for ignoring it.
Hugh called again. The dog dug on. The azaleas toppled in the dirt.
“Not well trained,” Donald remarked through gritted teeth, “If you don’t mind my saying so, Sir,” he said.
“No. No!” Hugh was eager to reassure the park keeper. “I don’t mind at all. Completely in agreement on that point. Has a will of his own, don’t you know.”
“Do you mind if I?” The Park Keeper indicated his willingness to help round up the dog.
“Not at all,” Hugh said earnestly. “Be my guest.” And he handed over the coiled rope.
“May I suggest, Sir, that you go round that way?” Donald indicted one side of the shrubbery. “While I advance from this direction. That way we can perhaps cut off his escape.”
“By all means,” Hugh acquiesced.
Labrador Retrievers are not, by nature, difficult dogs as a rule and Rover proved true to his breed, allowing himself to be rounded up and captured without much protest after a playful romp through the plants.
“Firmness, you see, Sir,” Donald said with due pride. “They respond to firmness. Firmness of voice. You have to let them know who’s in charge.” He pulled sharply on the rope, bringing the dog to ‘heel’.
“Yes, absolutely. Yes. I see that. Thank you. Well done. Most impressive.” Hugh knew it was true, and Mumsie had often tried to goad him into being his dog’s master rather than its playmate. The role had never suited him and none of the dogs he’d owned over the years had been fooled by any attempts on his part to play it.
The Park Keeper dusted down his much-prized uniform jacket and stood tall. “And now, Sir, if you’d be so good as to remove the animal from the vicinity.” He handed the rope to Hugh. “I’ll tidy up round the azaleas.”
“Yes. Yes. The thing is, you see…”
But the Park Keeper was no longer listening. As far as he was concerned, the matter was satisfactorily concluded. Just the garden to put in order with some urgency.
The park had won prizes for its gardens. Every season, Donald set out the appropriate plants, displaying them to perfection, creating a riot of colour in summer, a mellow glow in autumn. The freshness of spring was captured in his snowdrop glades and daffodil clusters. Even winter presented him with a challenge he met triumphantly, nurturing trees and shrubs that enjoyed the cooler days and kept some colour.
He set off to his hut to fetch his tools.
When he returned, he was surprised to find Hugh still there, sitting on a bench, the dog far off, digging again at the same spot, azaleas torn and scattered between its paws like discarded toys.
The Park Keeper took a deep breath and bore down on Hugh. This man was trying his patience almost as much as his dog had for days. Donald prided himself on his patience: patience and forbearance, these were the qualities he admired in a man of authority such as himself. Patience, forbearance and civility. He would not be provoked into any conduct contrary to his code.
“Ahem!” he coughed. “Excuse me again, Sir.”
“Oh, hello!” Hugh smiled. “Waiting,” he explained. “Waiting for my wife.” He looked at his watch. “Late!” He pulled a tolerant face.
“The dog, sir?”
“Yes, yes.” Hugh looked round, tutting at the havoc the dog was wreaking in the meticulously planted flower bed. “Bit of a rascal, isn’t he.”
“I did mention before, Sir, the necessity of a leash?”
“Absolutely!” Hugh raised his hand, still clutching the rope. “You see, the thing is… ”
The Park Keeper’s eyes followed the length of rope as it snaked across the grass all the way to the dog’s collar. “Ah, yes. I see. Not quite the spirit of the injunction, may I say, Sir?”
“Well, I must say,” Hugh said as he stood up. “It’s been very nice speaking with you, quite, you know, quite, well, quite educational, in fact.” He waved to Sandra, before turning back to Donald. “Bit of a lesson in dog-handling, don’t you know. But now, I see my wife coming. So, if you don’t mind.” He handed the rope to the Park Keeper. “You see, the thing is, at this point in time, I don’t actually have a dog!”
Couldn’t resist writing another hapless Hugh story!
Cooking a Capercaillie
This morning was the last straw, the ridiculous, humiliating last straw. Sandra’s feet beat out the rhythm of the words on the wet pavement as she stomped her way home. Locked in the broom cupboard! ‘This is not what I signed on for,’ she fumed.
By the time she turned into the communal stair of the flats, she had built up a fair head of steam in her boiler, fuelled by the indignity she suffered, the memory of Hugh lying warm and sleepy in their bed when she left him this morning and sitting with his feet on the coffee table all day watching day-time trash on the unlicensed box; as she imagined he had most of her long, torturous day. ‘Sauce for the goose!’ Colleen’s remark flared in her memory. ‘Equal opportunity!’ She was ready to blow.
A blanket of fresh, enticing, foodie smells doused her anger as she opened the door.
“Don’t, em, don’t come in the kitchen!” Hugh yelled. “Surprise. It’s, it’s a surprise!”
Sandra still had her key in the lock, the door still standing open, the sudden cooling of her anger leaving her frozen in disbelief. “You’re cooking!”
“Guessed it must be about my turn,” Hugh planted a kiss on her cheek as he busied past her with candles for the table.
“But you never cook. You hate cooking.”
“I didn’t say that, or, not exactly. It’s just that…” he ran his hands through his floppy hair, pushing his swimming goggles onto his forehead. “It’s just that you do it so much better. Onions,” he added in answer to her unspoken enquiry about the goggles.
“Yes, I see. But the candles, wine?” She closed the door.
“A sudden pang of conscience: you out there every day working for us; me in here watching tele.”
A weary snort of recognition escaped from Sandra.
“One of these interminable talk shows, ‘Is your man a loser?’. Suddenly saw that, yes, your man, me, was, am, a bit of a loser. Wouldn’t be watching that dreadful program otherwise. Decided to do something about it.”
“A job would be nice.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose that would be nice. The ideal really, I imagine.” Hugh stood with his hands on his hips, his hips girded with a tea towel, nodding his agreement.
“I did, I er, did go. To the job centre. Again.”
Sandra looked up expectantly.
Hugh spread his hands. “Nothing.”
“Suitable, I mean. Nothing suitable.”
“If it pays money, it’s suitable,” Sandra muttered.
“Mustn’t lose sight of the big picture, as it were. You know, the right job, best career move.”
Sandra sat down wearily. “Oh, Hugh. What are we going to do? I know you want a career, but, right now, it’s a job you need, just a job. One that pays money. One that pays off the overdraft.”
“Mmm, know what you mean.”
“Do you, Hugh? ‘Cos I wonder sometimes. You’ve had this great Public School Education. The Stiff Upper Lip, English Gentleman, Posh University kind of stuff, but, really, has it prepared you for living in the real world? Has it taught you how to put meat on the table? Has it dickie-bird!”
“Meat on the table, yes, see what you mean. Dickie-bird,yes, about that…” He sniffed the air, “Sorry, back in a mo. The meat. Need to do some stirring.” and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Smells nice.” She sat up, alarmed by sudden realisation. “How? Where did you get the money for meat? We can’t afford…”
“Sold the picture…” Hugh shouted.
Her eyes flew to the empty place on the wall.
“My grandmother’s painting! You sold my grandmother’s painting!” She was on her feet, her anger reignited.
“Don’t come in,” he yelled as she started to push open the kitchen door.
“You sold my grandmother’s painting!” She shouted, her forehead against the door, her fist banging it in frustration. “You had no right!”
“Hunger!” he shouted back. “Hunger gave me the right.”
“It was mine.”
“It was ugly,” he asserted as he squeezed through the door, barring her entry to the kitchen.
“It was mine.”
He looked helplessly at her. “We needed food.”
“I was bringing food.” She held up the carrier bag. “Bread, cheese, pasta.”
“Yes. Yes, I see. The thing is, actually, well, I’m, well, I’m sort of fed up with macaroni cheese, as it happens.”
Hugh took off the goggles and ran his fingers through his untidy hair again, reinforcing his air of perpetual bewilderment. “And I was, I was sort of, I was fed up with that hideous picture staring down at me all day.” He tossed a petulant glance in the direction of the offending, now absent, painting.
“It could only stare down at you all day, if you were here all day!”
“Yes. Of course. Yes. Well, it seemed the ideal solution: killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Instead of Capercaillie on the wall, we’ve er, we’ve sort of, sort of got chicken in the, in the, er, wok, so to speak…” his voice trailed off the way it often did, though he smiled shyly at his own wit. “You’ve got to admit it was a particularly ugly painting,” he added bravely.
“It was my painting.”
“Chicken and potato casserole with stir-fried vegetables? Lots of peppers and mushrooms? Garlic?” he cajoled, waving a hand in the general direction of the smell of cooking.
“Painted for me by my grandmother.”
“Spring onions. Ginger. Oh, hell! Something’s burning!” He dashed in to the kitchen again. “Don’t be cross about it, darling,” he called back through. “Think of it as, well, as sensible use of resources, so to speak.”
“Why couldn’t you have sensibly used some of your own resources? Oh good grief! What on earth is all this for?”
“I told you not to come through.”
“How many are you expecting for dinner?”
“Just, eh, just us.”
“But there’s so much! All these peppers!”
“I thought it seemed a lot,” he frowned. “But that’s what the recipe said,”
“Which recipe? Let me see.”
He lifted the book to show her.
“Feeds four,” she read out.
“Oops, indeed. But, even for four, it’s an awful lot.”
He took the recipe back and pointed to the ingredients list. “Look, four chicken breasts, fourteen ‘oz’ of potatoes. ‘Oz’, I knew that was ounces,” he informed her with some pride. “And I knew sixteen ounces equals one pound, so I weighed out nearly a pound, well, a bit over, actually. The thing is, potatoes are quite big and the last one put it over, but take it out and it was too much under.” He shrugged, his face screwed into a ‘what-else-could-I-do’ sort of expression. “Then a couple of peppers and onions, a bag of mushrooms, four ounces of…”
“But I don’t have ounces on my scales!”
“Yes, you do. ‘Course you do.” He drew them over. “See?”
“Grams and Kilos!” She showed him. “It measures in grams and kilos. You’ve cooked a kilo of potatoes, four chicken breasts and there are several kilos of vegetables chopped up here.” The sweep of her hand indicated the heaps of vegetables covering every available work surface in their little kitchen. “For two of us.”
He scratched his head. “I wondered how it was all going to fit in the wok.”
“Well, it’s not, is it?” she said, weariness giving an edge to her voice.
“No, I suppose it’s not. Sorry!” He shrugged his apology like a child caught in some minor misdemeanour. “What, er. What do you, er, should I?”
Sandra sighed. “Let me get my coat off.”
“Sorry,” he said again, his large brown eyes begging her forgiveness.
How could she be angry with this gentle, schoolboy of a man? “Oh Hugh,” she said, drawing him into her arms. “What are we going to do?”
“I thought, perhaps eating might be a good idea?”
And, in the end, the meal was delicious—that evening, the next evening and, in various forms, another three after that.