Lucy took pride in her work as a supermarket cashier at Tysons. Some of her friends scoffed at her lowly work status but she was fantastic with her customers. Whilst she was wary of the flirty lads, she listened to the lonely pensioners, had endless patience for customers who lacked basic social skills, cooed over babies and chatted with toddlers. She was also effortlessly discrete. If anyone bought something embarrassing such as condoms; pile cream, or even a Cliff Richard calendar, she would scan something bulky first and then shoot the offending item behind it, allowing the customer to pack it out of sight as quickly as possible.
Of course it was nearly always the women who had to buy embarrassing items. Some men bought condoms and it was not unusual for them to try to hold eye contact with her during the transaction. A creepy, silent invitation. Some of the more house-trained men would buy sanitary products for their wives, but she hated those who tried to flirt with her while she processed tampons, baby food and the multitude of other items that signified a married man with a young family.
Whilst men of all types were attracted to Lucy due to her classic 'girl-next-door' looks - her long blonde hair that clashed pleasantly with her big blue eyes, a dainty little nose that wrinkled when she laughed, and plump, kissable lips - their feelings were not reciprocated. The only flirting she reacted to at all was from the big lummox James. He was currently sticking his tongue out at the checkout supervisor who was foolishly trying to direct him to an empty nearby till with the aid of a large pointy, cardboard sign. It was an ill-fated attempt at customer control. James always came to Lucy's till no matter how long he had to wait. No amount of cajoling was going to sway him.
Lucy took a deep breath as she prepared herself for the James effect. He was already smiling at her as he moved forward. His round chubby cheeks made him look younger than his 24 years. However, his clothing and his round waistline made him look older. He was always immaculately presented in a crisply ironed thin sweater, smart trousers and shiny black shoes. Lucy knew that if she worked from home like he did she wouldn't be wearing anything that needed regular contact with an iron.
"So when exactly are you going to agree to marry me?" He demanded with a deadpan expression, getting straight to the point today.
Lucy kept her face expressionless as she whizzed a bumper pack of cheesy crisps over the till scanner.
"Is it because of the extra few pounds I'm carrying?" James continued. "That's going to be a thing of the past. Look!"
He passed her a discounted fitness DVD that featured a super-smiley celebrity wearing spray-on yoga pants. Lucy barely looked at it, she just scanned it.
"I'll be bikini beach ready by the end of the month!" He claimed. "Although that obviously puts me in much more danger of being kidnapped."
"What?" Lucy was tricked into responding to his chatter at last.
"Think about it. It's much harder to kidnap a fat person."
Lucy rolled her eyes but still displayed her cute smile. "You do realise you won't lose weight by eating crisps and gawping at babes in Lycra?"
"Ah come on!" James protested. "The rest of my shop is healthy. I just need a few treats to reward myself. Anyway, you didn't answer my question."
Lucy laughed. "My answer is no. Again. That will be £21.87 please."
James shook his head in theatrical disbelief as he paid. He looked up to see Horace standing beside the till. Lucy spotted him too.
"Break time at last!" She exhaled. "I'm dying for a ciggie."
"Pah!" James exclaimed. "If I was your boyfriend I wouldn't rest until I'd persuaded you to quit."
Lucy rolled her eyes at him. "You're health is more at risk than mine James and who would ask me to marry them every day if you weren't around?"
"He'd ask you in a heartbeat." James nodded in the direction of Horace who obviously heard the comment as his face turned scarlet.
James had a good point. If he was a chubby, over-exuberant puppy who would slather her face with kisses at the slightest provocation, Horace was the skinny lone wolf skulking at the periphery, waiting his chance to dash in and hump her from behind.
She said goodbye to James and led the way to the staffroom with Horace close behind her. He always waved her to walk in front, claiming he was being a gent. Lucy wasn't fooled, she knew he was checking out her arse in the black cargo trousers of her Tyson's uniform.
She slipped into the staff room, slumped on a grimy plastic chair and watched Horace make her a cup of tea, strong enough to stand the spoon up in it. Just how she liked it. She watched the way his tall, wiry body moved languidly when he was doing something he was sure of, rather than the twitchy energy he usually exuded.
It was time to have that awkward conversation.
He so wasn't her type, but then not many men were. He could be alright looking if he shaved off that awful wispy goatee beard. He was tall. That was a start. He had big, brown eyes and his short brown hair was always neat. Neat is good. But neat hair and nice eyes weren't nearly enough. Not when she could remember him as a kid at school. The skinny beanpole who used to letch at her from afar.
This memory only clicked in on his third day at Tysons when he joined them as Assistant Manager a few months ago. She had decided not to say anything. It got too late to mention it and the poor guy had grown up now. However, he obviously still had the hots for her and that was going to have to be cooled down. Pronto.
"Today is flying past," Horace declared. "Big Phil wants more sales reports by yesterday and Janice is off sick with a hangover again."
Lucy smiled and watched Horace intently as he took his coffee, grabbed his lunch box and sat opposite her. He noticed her attention.
"What?" He asked.
"We share breaks practically every time we are on the same shift," Lucy pointed out. "In fact we are always on the same shift. This shift, with the late lunch break. I can't remember the last time I wasn't working without you. You always make me tea. Most of the time I don't even acknowledge it. But there's no-one to see how well you treat me because there's never anyone else in the tea room. Funny that! Lots of people work here. This room used to be busy and lively."
"Erm, wha..." Horace mumbled.
"I think you need to find yourself a girlfriend Horace," Lucy said gently. "You're a nice guy but you're just not my type."
Horace blushed profusely and looked down at his steaming coffee mug.
"You will be someone else's type," Lucy continued, determined to produce the perfect 'It's not you, it's me' speech so he truly got the message. "You're clever and funny. You'll no doubt be store manager before you know it. If not here, than at another Tyson store. Hopefully in a more exciting town than this one."
"Well, that's hardly difficult," Horace grumbled.
"Exactly! So less of the glum face young man and tuck into your avocado and tuna sandwich, or whatever delight your mum has in store for you today. "
"Don't you young man me!" Horace retorted, rising to the bait. Lucy always delighted in pointing out that many of the older female customers had taken a shine to him. "Oh God!" he exclaimed as he peered into his sandwich. "Thank God you're not after a quickie today."
"It's hummus sandwiches again."
"Ewww!" Lucy exclaimed with a laugh.
"We'll be alright though if we both have some?" Horace handed her a soggy quarter of processed white bread packed with garlicky smelling goodness.
Lucy shot him an outraged look but she was delighted he was taking her rebuff so well. The sooner things returned to normal the better. Uneventful routines suited her just fine.
"I'll have your yoghurt if you don't want it," she assured him with mock nonchalance. She was starving. She had planned to survive until dinner on a packet of crisps and ciggies again, but Horace's mum always gave him such healthy yoghurts.
Horace scooted the Tyson own brand yoghurt across the table to her and followed it with a teaspoon.
"Thanks bud," she smiled and was soon wrestling with the yoghurt lid.
Horace stared at his sandwich and then sniffed it cautiously. "Sod this I'm going to grab a pasty". He announced, dumping the contents of his lunchbox in the bin and heading for the door. "Don't steal my spoon!" he warned Lucy as he left.
Lucy smiled as she clocked the extra bravado in his walk. The poor guy probably just wanted to escape from the room.
She had just started tucking into Horace's yoghurt when the staffroom door blew open and Violet burst in.
Violet had two speeds, greased lightning and sloth-like. The former was exclusively reserved for things she was interested in - mainly causing trouble and horse riding. She cut quite a dash in her jodhpurs. However, in her 'work slave' life she hid behind large, hipster glasses and a long fringe of wavy, black hair that fell over her face. It was her nose she was always trying to hide. It was both long and prominent and she hated it.
"Have you finally put the poor darling out of his misery?" She asked Lucy. "I just saw him walking past, bashing his forehead with his fist. I presume it's not because I still haven't finished stocking up the 'Free-from' section?" She grinned at the self-acknowledgement of her slow work rate, displaying crooked, white teeth.
Lucy groaned and covered her face with her hands. "Oh pants! He took it so well. I thought he was going to be cool about it."
"If he's cool about it then he'll be in denial," Violet laughed. "With boys like him you sometimes have to carve 'You're never getting it!' on his chest with a chainsaw before they truly understand. There's more trouble to come there. Don't for Christ's sake be nice to him!"
Lucy sighed. "It's Horace we're talking about. How can you not be nice to him?"
"Because he's a stuck up little shit who gets off on trying to control us just 'cos he's drunk cheap cider at university for three years."
"He's not that bad. He's just trying to act like a manager. Anyway, it's not as if you ever do any of the things he tells you to do."
"Not likely," Violet snorted. "Although I'd better escape toot suite. He'll wet his little pants with fury if he catches me in here now. Laters potaters!"
Violet disappeared as quickly as she had arrived leaving a whiff of intense floral perfume.
Horace reappeared twenty seconds later. He stopped and sniffed the air suspiciously before retaking his seat. Lucy smiled at just how close Violet was to getting caught. She looked up at Horace and was annoyed to see him looking at her boobs yet again. This time he was being even more blatant than usual.
"Horace!" She exclaimed.
"No!" Horace spluttered. "It's not that. It's... you've spilt yoghurt on your top."
Lucy looked down to see a blob of yellowish yoghurt loitering on her left breast. "Oh bonkers!" She exclaimed and got up to grab a tissue to clean it off. That just made the stain bigger. She huffed and went to the sink to dab it off with the minimum possible amount of water.
She turned round to check what Horace was up to and was amused to see him eating his pasty with his back to her, looking out of the window.
"You okay bud?" She asked quietly.
"I'll survive," he replied lightly.
"You can look round. You don't have to spend the rest of your break looking out of the window! I turned my back to you. I've finished now. It's not too obvious is it?"
Horace turned round to see Lucy looking straight at him.
"So now you're asking me to look at your tits? Make up your mind woman," he retorted while taking a swift glance at the offending area. "No, seriously. You'd hardly know it was there."
Lucy smiled at his contrived nonchalance that clashed with the scarlet colouring in his cheeks. She reached in her bag for her cigarettes but to her dismay found the packet was empty. She was sure she had one left.
"Oh man," she sighed. "Can I steal a ciggie Horace? I can't go back out there gasping for a fag."
"Don't be my boyfriend. Look at my tits. Give us a fag. You can be very confusing sometimes Lucy!" Horace quipped. He threw his empty pasty wrapper in the bin, flashed a packet of Silk Cut at her and strode out of the staff room with a smirk.
Lucy grabbed her bag and scuttled after him. "You can't have finished that pasty already! You'll get guts ache!"
Horace held the door to the outside smoking area open for her. "You're not my mum either," he pointed out sternly.
Lucy laughed as she selected one of the two remaining cigarettes from the packet he offered her and leaned in for him to light it. She breathed in her first lungful and waited for the nicotine hit. That instant calm to float through her and soothe those stresses away. Instead she felt searing pain in her chest, as if her lungs were on fire. She coughed, deep racking coughs that seemed to tear her in two and only acted to intensify the pain.
She dropped down to her knees, her stomach heaving. But how could she be sick if she couldn't breathe? She tried to expand her lungs but nothing happened. She panicked and tried desperately to drag some air in. Suddenly, her lungs filled with clear air and resumed their natural rhythm as if nothing had happened. She became acutely aware that she was kneeling on the floor in a pre-vomit position with Horace's hand laid gently on her shoulder.
She pushed herself back upright and looked at Horace through watery, unfocused eyes . "What the hell was in those cigarettes?"
Horace looked like he was going to lay an egg he was so flustered. "Nothing! I don't know!" He stammered. "They were fine before."
"You didn't find them down the back of the sofa or anything?" Lucy asked, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"No!" Horace exclaimed.
"When did you buy them?" Lucy demanded.
"I dunno. The other week?"
"No way!" Lucy exclaimed. She had a nasty thought. "You don't smoke just when you're around me do you?"
Horace winced and looked at his feet. He didn't seem to be enjoying his day so far.
"Oh my good God!" Lucy screwed up her face. "Horace. This stops now. You cannot take up smoking just to get extra time with me! I don't want to be your girlfriend and I really don't want your diseased lungs on my conscience."
She pushed past him.
"Where are you going?" Horace wailed after her.
"To buy my own fags and you're not having any!" Lucy called over her shoulder. She stomped through the shop ignoring the friendly smiles from the regular elderly shoppers. How had she let things get so out of hand with Horace? She would have to acknowledge that Violet was right after all. She was going to be unbearably smug.
Fortunately the cigarette till only had one customer, Old Tom the retired baker.
"Afternoon lassie," he said to her with a tip of his cap as he walked past with his cigarettes. He'd been smoking Camels for the last 30 years. He often told her it was too late for him to quit now.
Lucy ordered her cigarettes and just scowled when Pete behind the till looked at her breasts and told them they really should give up smoking. She grabbed her cigarettes and escaped outside, lighting one as quickly as she could, not bothering to walk away from the shop entrance. She needed an instant nicotine hit.
She took a deep drag and cried out as the burning sensation returned even stronger than before. It was spiked with a gut-wrenching wave of nausea. She fell hard onto her knees again, letting out a choking cough that was followed by an impressive stream of regurgitated tea and yoghurt that splashed onto the pavement.
She gasped, trying to breathe again but only managed another painful burst of vomiting. She wanted to lie down but the pavement was covered in her puke. She was dimly aware of people walking towards her. Thank God her hair was in plaits and held safely out of the way.
Then she suddenly felt normal again. Perfectly fine in fact. Apart from being out of breath. She raised her head. A woman she didn't recognise was talking to her, moving in her direction, asking if she was okay. She became aware of another commotion beside her. She could see Old Tom lying on the ground a few metres away from her. People were fussing over him. It looked as if he was still struggling to breathe.
She saw one of the shop's regulars leaving the shop. A brisk Indian lady who worked in the local travel agents. As usual she was immaculately dressed and in a hurry. She lit herself a cigarette and in seconds had laddered her tights as she too dropped to her knees on the pavement.
Life in Anker was never going to be the same again.