(This was one of the two stories I submitted to the Morning Rain Publishing flash fiction contest. Together, they got me an honorary mention which I’m assuming wasn’t ironically meant. Once Bitten isn’t typical of my oevre but I was writing to quite a specific brief. and needed to find a place for certain words. I like to think of it as a Cestrian credit crunch parable; when I was composing it, I had the Sainsbury’s in Alderley Edge in mind.
Bonus points for spotting which schoolboy joke this was written in homage to. Enjoy…)
At a quarter to ten, it’s as quiet as a mausoleum outside the supermarket; the smell, presumably, is not dissimilar. A distasteful gaggle of cheapskates and tramps hovers in the half-light waiting to get in. I’m not with them, not really. For me, it’s not a regular haunt; I’m just passing through. I’ll be bringing my acquisitions back in an oversized Mulberry bag. Bayeswater, naturally. None of this chavvy Alexa nonsense for me.
“Getting tougher these days,” I hear one of the Hoi Polloi wheeze, “24 hour opening and that.”
It’s a tough life, I think, when the world owes you a living. I sometimes think we should bring back the workhouse, though that’s not a view I’d share with the book group
“And these…freegans,” mutters another, “Taking our stuff.”
I swear he’s looking at me as he says this. The cheek! I prefer to think of myself as an Extreme Diner.
You’ll have heard about the latest trend to have come from across the Atlantic, of course. The Observer magazine ran a feature on it in the spring and dear, unimaginative Tilly has gone for it in a big way. It’s like pilates and feng shui all over again, only with truffle oil. Each month comes with a ridiculous new culinary challenge. For October, we’re charged with delivering a three course meal without spending any money. So far, smug Agnes is winning with the platter she sourced from her organic allotment. Tilly’s rather sore about it, as expected, probably still smarting from discovering that using her husband’s gold card to pay for a caterer wouldn’t count. Giles, with his roadkill barbecue, has taken the wooden spoon already; I was picking badger fur from my teeth for days afterwards and my cosmetic dentist was appalled.
My strategy is more refined, even if I did have to read about it in-shudder-the Independent on Sunday. It was a tedious piece about the ‘scandal’ of supermarkets wasting perfectly good food by throwing it away when it nears its sell-by date. The usual liberal drivel, written no doubt by a journalist who’s never tried to make a coulis with week-old raspberries. Before my eyes glazed over completely, I saw a reference to freegans. University drop outs, presumably, imagining they’re sticking it to the system by rummaging around in bins for mangy tangerines. One woman was quoted saying she’d liberated herself a barely-expired chateaubriand. Murdo joked that she’d probably overcooked it and served it with a Shiraz but I knew I’d found my answer.
A side door opens. A procession of bored-looking workers take it in turns to shovel crates of food into the bins. A few moments later, the lights are off. I expect the riff-raff to immediately begin pitching themselves over the fence but they don’t. It takes a moment for me to realise why. A skinny security guard walks past in an unflattering uniform. One of the rabble coughs and the guard walks approaches. I’m wondering if the game’s up when he speaks.
“You got 10 minutes,” he says, in an ugly local accent, “Don’t make a mess.”
The great unwashed are scrambling over the fence before his cheap leather shoes have taken him round the corner. It’s an undignified sight, the homeless and the slovenly fighting it out over leftover food. I grab at a punnet of potato salad before a bearded junkie can get his scabby hands on it. He’s angry, but I doubt he’d have the wit to turn it into the ironic starter I have planned.
The main course is more of a challenge. I have to go toe to toe with a particularly unpleasant vagrant to get the ingredients for a rustic bouillabaisse. I hope the gang appreciate it though the amount Tilly’s drinking these days, I doubt she’ll even taste it. I only need dessert, now, and I can go. Predictably, the carbohydrate-craving untermenschen have beaten me to the sweet stuff. At first, it looks like I’ll have to make do with some stale madeleines from the bottom of the bin until I see what I need.
A box of papayas, product of Guatemala printed on the side. The basis for a splendid granite, my speciality until we had to let the maid go. I scuttle over, more elbows than necessary and lunge for the box. A hobo has beaten me to it.
“‘Smine,” he cackles.
“Nonsense,” I reply. “I saw it first.”
“You don’t even know what they are.”
“What is it then?”
“‘Sfruit, innit, Pippa?”
I sneer. “I told you before, it’s Phillippa and if you haven’t had the education to realise what they are, you’ve no business taking them.”
I swipe the box away. He won’t let steal my thunder. I won’t let him deny me my way back. Since the firm let Murdo go, Tilly and the gang haven’t been returning my calls. Not one of them offered to put us up when the bank took the house. Winning their challenge might be enough to ease me back into their fold. I’ll just have to convince Tilly to let me into her house. If I can shower at the hostel first, I might be in with a chance.
“Give it here,” he says, moving in. I can’t let him beat me.
I reach into the papayas, take one out. I stare at him defiantly, bite down into the flesh, swallow.
It’s meatier than I was expecting. The texture’s wrong, too. Something’s tickling my chin. Juice, I think at first, until my face explodes in pain. I bat at my mouth. Something lands on the floor. In the half-light, I can just about make out the legs of a decapitated tarantula, still moving. A stowaway this time, but another product of Guatemala nonetheless.
Opposite, the hobo looks on, disgusted. My throat is on fire. I retch but nothing comes out. I faint, and my last thought is that I should have stuck to shoplifting like Murdo said.
(Afterword: Dear pedants, I’m aware that there’s no need to use the definite article in referring to Hoi Polloi. I’m assuming Pippa wouldn’t have been aware.)