‘The Girl on The Till can’t Spell’ fiction by Sheila Kinsella

Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy.  Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.

Duncan sits on the bench and stares out to sea. The waves are big and white crested. 

The wind lifts a windsurfer high up out of the sea; dropping him just as suddenly to glide back into the waves like a knife cutting warm butter. In the distance, tiny white triangles flutter in formation across the water. Seagulls scatter like confetti across the blue sky, floating on thermals. Flat-bottomed Cumulus clouds with cauliflower tops stretch over the horizon; fair weather clouds.

Duncan leans with one hand on the arm of the bench and the other on his walking stick to rise from his seat. With the sea at his back, Duncan walks down Twiss road towards the canal. He pauses now and again, to rub his hip. He’s been on the waiting list for a hip replacement for six months now. The pavement is flat and even, with no unexpected holes to trip in. He passes the new development of expensive looking townhouses and apartments. Everyone wants to live near the sea these days, he thinks.

 Just before the bridge over the canal, the corpse of a gull lies still and rigid on the pavement in front of him. Tiny round black holes show where the pellets from an air gun punctured the bird’s body. Bloody kids with air guns, he thinks. Duncan admires the smooth plumage before gently pushing the body to the side with the rubber tip of his cane. 

In the supermarket, Duncan takes one of those high-level trolleys that he can lean on as he shops. He picks up his favourite newspaper from the rack, folds it and places it in the trolley. In the fruit and vegetable section, Duncan chooses a small bag of British carrots, two green bananas and one apple. 

The chill of the butchery cuts through to Duncan’s bones as he inspects the minced meat section. Hmmm… no British minced beef he thinks, before picking up a packet of British pork sausages.

The smell of freshly baked bread wafts towards him, tempting him to pick up a small whole wheat loaf and a jam doughnut in the bakery.

Into the trolley goes a pint of fresh half skimmed milk and six brown eggs. There. Done. 

All the shoppers swarm to the checkout tills at once. Duncan slumps over his trolley and waits. Don’t this lot have jobs to go to, he thinks. A checkout girl opens a new till and gestures to Duncan who snakes his way past a mother trying to control three kids, and a tattooed Asian man carrying two boxes of beer. The girl doesn’t move the ‘till closed’ sign until Duncan reaches her. At which point a massive performance of switching queues sets in motion; like a strip the willow barn dance where partners must move from one end of the line to the other.

‘Thank you dear,’ Duncan says.

The girl smiles, revealing whiter than white teeth like piano keys. ‘You’re welcome.’

He reads her name tag, ‘Zofia.’ Good manners, he thinks, pity she can’t spell; must be ‘Sofia.’ 

Zofia wipes down the conveyer belt with a damp cloth. Duncan loads his goods on the belt. When he turns to set the eggs down last, he realises that beer man is behind him and catches sight of his ‘Death’ tattoo imprinted on his right arm. He takes a sneaky glance at the other arm, ‘Mam,’ it reads, encircled by fern like trailing plants. Reassuring. Zofia shoves the checkout divider down the groove with a wonderful whooshing noise. 

‘Six pound thirty please,’ Zofia says.

‘Six pounds thirty?’ Duncan asks.

‘Yes, is what I say.’

Duncan reaches into the inside pocket of his blazer for his wallet, flicks it open and looks for his bank card. It’s not there. Very odd. Beer man shuffles his trainers. Duncan pats his pockets.

‘Is problem?’ Zofia asks.

‘Er, I seem to have forgotten my card at home,’ Duncan mutters.

Zofia drums her false nails on the metal counter.

‘Wait, no, here’s a fiver,’ he pulls a crumpled note out of his wallet and grins as he hands it to Zofia.

‘Is six pound thirty,’ Zofia says, unsmiling.

‘Oh. Yes.’ Duncan clutches the note and dithers. ‘Oh dear. Oh, dearie me.’

‘How ‘bout you leave jam doughnut and two bananas?’ Zofia puts the items aside. ‘That’s exactly one pound, thirty pence. Fiver is good.’

‘Erm…’ Duncan hears the tut tutting of beer man and other customers behind him. 

‘Or leave carrots, two bananas and apple?’ Zofia suggests. ‘You get three-pound, ninety-one change?’

‘Erm…yes,’ Duncan mumbles.

‘Which?’

Blimey, Zofia doesn’t give up, he thinks. ‘Jam doughnut and bananas,’ he replies.

Duncan feels beads of perspiration trickling down his face, like raindrops tracing a windowpane. He wipes his forehead with his cotton handkerchief; shoves his shopping inside a plastic bag and pushes his trolley to the side. The queue shuffles forward, he hears Zofia say, ‘Next please.’

Hmmm… what did I do with that bank card? Duncan thinks as he unhooks his walking stick from the trolley before returning it to its line of interlocked companions. 

‘Excuse me Sir!’ A young man in a high viz jacket is chicaning a long string of trolleys towards Duncan.

‘Oh dear,’ Duncan struggles to escape the monster approaching him and does so just in time.

‘Sorry Sir, they’ve got a life of their own this lot!’ The young man shouts after Duncan as he disappears around the corner to the side of the supermarket facing the Military Canal. Tall Horse Chestnut trees adorned with pink triangular shaped blossoms line the canal. Duncan deposits his bag on a tree stump and leans against the wall. What did I do with that bank card? He straightens his blazer, picks up the bag and heads towards the canal path. 

A swan glides down the muddy water, its fluffy grey goslings nestled amongst its wings. A moorhen clucks, its head cocking back and forth as it gathers twigs to complete its nest. Duncan leans on his walking and stick and smiles at these sights. The peaceful scene is interrupted by a brusque sliding of plastic boxes on the path, the birds startle and scuttle away.

‘Oye mate!’ 

Duncan recognises beer man and his tattoos. Well, I’m not his mate he thinks and turns away before feeling a hand grab his arm. 

‘Unhand me now!’ Duncan shouts, drops his shopping and tries to raise his stick. ‘Help! Help!’ He cries.

‘No,’ beer man says, ‘you don’t get it.’ Beer man raises his hands up, palms facing Duncan, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ He takes a few steps back.

Dog walkers pause in their tracks, their pooches straining on taut leashes. Shoppers chat to each other, ‘What’s going on ‘ere then?’

‘I’m ex-army, trained in one armed combat!’ Duncan shouts and notices the plastic bag hanging from beer man’s thumb.

‘Look,’ beer man takes a deep breath. ‘I just wanted to give you these,’ he offers the bag to Duncan. ‘I wouldn’t want you to go without.’ One headphone dangles over beer man’s chest. His pectoral muscles flex as he stretches his arm out.

Seldom in his life has Duncan been speechless, but now his jaw drops open and no words emerge.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you,’ beer man says, ‘take them.’

Through the transparent plastic, Duncan sees the arched shadow of the bananas. Inside the bag are two green bananas and a jam doughnut. 

‘Oh my,’ Duncan says, ‘I d-d-don’t know what to say.’ 

‘Thanks mate will do nicely,’ beer man smiles.

‘Er, yes, thank you,’ Duncan attempts to offer to shake hands, but with his walking stick in one hand and the shopping in the other, he’s uncertain how to proceed.

‘Thank you. Very kind of you, Mr er…’ Duncan says, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Bert,’ beer man slips a hand in his shorts’ pocket, pulls out a business card, shows it briefly to Duncan before popping it inside the plastic bag.

‘Bert Khan, House Clearances,’ the card says, with a telephone number on the bottom.

‘Well Bert, thank you again. The name’s Duncan Ward.’ 

‘No worries Dunc, take it easy now.’ Beer man waves goodbye, lifts both beer boxes from the ground in one swooping gesture and marches towards the car park.

Duncan stares after Bert’s disappearing form until it blurs with the hedgerows. Well I never. Well, well, well. 

Now, what did I do with that bankcard? Duncan sits on a bench overlooking the canal, sets his shopping and walking stick down and takes his wallet out. With both hands, he stretches the part of the wallet where he keeps his banknotes open wide, like it’s smiling back at him. Tucked down inside the dark depths, sits the bank card. 

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