Feed Thy Enemy
They are in the garden when the phone rings, he, bent over a spade digging up potatoes, she, pulling out weeds with great gusto and throwing them onto the adjacent lawn. He watches her sprint across the grass and up the concrete path alongside his new wooden shed, her shapely sun-browned legs moving with the same power and grace she displays when swimming or cycling. Fifty-three last birthday, Ivy retains the trim figure Rob admired all those years ago in the goods office at the central railway station. A petite woman, she was and remains, a complete contrast to his first post-war girlfriend, the tall, voluptuous redhead seated at the adjoining desk, long pale fingers tipped with scarlet nails, striking typewriter keys as if her life depended on it. That relationship was over almost before it began, Edna’s avant-garde attire and flamboyant behaviour overwhelming a mild-mannered railway clerk, still recovering from four years of war service. Why had he asked her out in the first place? Almost thirty years on, he still doesn’t know the answer.
Leaning on the spade, Rob smiles as he remembers the day one of the older clerks took him aside following one of Edna’s more colourful tales related over lunch in the cramped staff room. ‘Robert, I think you should know that both girls caused great consternation in the office during the war whenever a troop-carrying train pulled in to the station,’ the fifty-something clerk confided in a low voice, colour dusting his pale cheeks as though the very mention of Edna and Ivy’s exploits made him somehow complicit.
Too late, Rob wanted to say, thinking of his evening date with Ivy, but being a relatively new employee, remained silent.
‘The moment boots were heard marching across the platform,’ the clerk continued, ‘the girls would rise from their desks, fling up the office windows and resting their breasts on the windowsill, wave and shout warm welcomes. Responses were always greeted with requests for billet addresses in exchange for promises of evening outings and a tantalising glimpse of cleavage.’ The clerk leant closer. ‘Summer troop arrivals were the worst, the girls attired in thin blouses or dresses with low necklines during warm weather.’
Rob found it difficult to maintain a serious expression, being fully aware that Ivy had dated men from Commonwealth countries and numerous Americans besides during the war. Prior to the clerk’s disclosure, they had been dating for weeks.
Still smiling at his wife’s wartime escapades, Rob picks up another potato and tosses it in the old enamel basin at his feet. His back is stiff from repeated bending, so he straightens up, wincing as he stretches arthritic fingers. Through the nearby bay window, he can see Ivy perching on the arm of an easy chair, holding the telephone handset to her ear. He’s wondering whether to go inside to make a pot of tea when a familiar gesture, fingers raking through her short curly hair, alerts him to sudden irritation. Displeased, he wants to wrench the handset from her fingers, berate the caller who has destroyed the tranquil ambiance of their shared spring afternoon.
When Ivy returns to the garden, Rob senses her altered disposition long before he notices pursed lips and the heightened colour dusting cheeks already tanned from spring sunshine. Disappointment hangs over her like storm clouds mustering in a summer sky.
‘Our cruise has been cancelled,’ she announces in a clipped voice.
‘Whatever for?’ he asks before she can enlighten him.
‘The shipping line’s gone bankrupt.’
Swearwords froth in his mouth, but before they can be expelled, neighbour Harold appears beside the garden shed that backs on to their shared fence. Harold Jenkins is the epitome of courtesy and never swears. Curses metamorphose into banknotes that hover above Rob’s head just out of reach. ‘Does that mean we’ve lost our money?’
Ivy shakes her head. ‘Only the small deposit. Our travel insurance will cover the rest.’
‘Thank God for that. So, what now, how can we organise another holiday in just a couple of weeks? I imagine the insurance money will take an age to come through.’
Ivy smiles. ‘Not a problem on both counts, love. We’ve been offered a two-week coach tour of Italy and the travel agent said her company is happy to cover the cost until our insurance pays up.’
‘I see.’ He tries to envisage well-ordered olive groves, unspoilt villages clustered on hillsides, ancient ruins shimmering in summer sunlight. He fails, scorched earth and smoking ruins making his eyes water.
‘She wants a definite answer today.’
Frowning, Rob thinks of the friends who suggested he and Ivy join them on the cruise. ‘We’d better phone Alf at once,’ he says, drawing a finger across his left cheek to wipe away moisture. ‘He and Dawn may not have been offered the coach tour and it wouldn’t seem right to go without them.’ Looking down, he studies the potato resting on damp soil at his feet.
‘Our travel agent and theirs have already liaised. Alf and Dawn are happy to take the coach tour.’
Lifting the spade, he slices the potato in half. ‘Decision made then.’
* * *
Seated either side of the dining table, a well-ironed cloth disguising its shabby surface, husband and wife concentrate on miniscule lamb chops served with generous portions of home-grown potatoes and broccoli. Silence suits them both, she, dreaming of ancient monuments, art galleries and cathedrals; he trying to blot out disturbing wartime memories.
‘Rome, Florence, Venice,’ Ivy exclaims suddenly, raising her eyes heavenward. ‘It’s going to be wonderful!’
Rob neatly arranges his knife and fork before lifting his head and looking across the table. ‘I’m not certain I want to go.’
Sea-green eyes flash fury. ‘You agreed this afternoon. It’s a bit late now to change your mind. The booking will have been made.’
‘But I wanted to cruise the Aegean, explore tiny islands, experience the wonders of antiquity.’ He sighs. ‘Sun, sea and glorious food.’
Ivy jabs a last potato with her fork. ‘There’ll be plenty of sun and glorious food in Italy, plus countless antiquities. And the travel agent said most of this tour follows the coast. Besides, we can’t let Alf and Dawn down.’
In no mood for argument, Rob picks up his knife and fork to continue eating, each mouthful chewed and swallowed without acknowledgment of taste. Unblinkingly, he endeavours to focus on gradually emerging white china as images of the Italian coastline move in slow procession through his mind. Messina, Salerno, Naples, Anzio – targets on maps for Allied eyes only.
* * *
Wartime maps and holiday destinations are far from Rob’s thoughts the following Monday, as he unlocks the small door at the rear of Harrison’s Supermarket and steps into a dark storeroom. After reaching for the light switch, he waits a moment for the fluorescent tube to connect, then lifts a grey dustcoat from a nearby hook, replacing it with his sports jacket. The dustcoat is faded from copious washing and fraying on the hemline but at least it protects the well-pressed navy-blue trousers, white shirt and tie he always wears for work. Unnecessary neatness for a storeman, he acknowledges, but essential for his self-esteem. Buttoned up, he skirts a pile of cardboard boxes to retrieve the hand trolley he had parked out of harm’s way the previous Friday, discovers to his annoyance that someone has shifted it. ‘Damn cleaner most likely,’ he mutters, moving to check the other passageways.
Abandoned in the centre aisle, the trolley lies on its side, waiting for an unsuspecting staff member to trip and skin a leg or ankle on its rough metal base plate. Resisting the urge to aim a kick at its balding tyres, Rob bends to right the beast, gasps as pain shoots through his lower back. Bend your knees and keep your back straight, he thinks, recalling his doctor’s advice. Heavy lifting, bending and stretching have taken their toll during his two years of employment at the supermarket. At the end of each working day, each muscle throbs and he longs to immerse his weary body in a warm bath, an unlikely proposition during summer months when the central heating that also heats water has been turned off and they have to use the immersion heater instead. Baths are a once a week affair in the Harper household, the cost of heating sufficient water daily, prohibitive.
Taking small careful steps, Rob pulls the trolley to the end of the passageway where tomatoes from the Channel Isles wait to be transferred to the vegetable section, then slowly lowers the base plate to the concrete floor. ‘Bend, lift, stack,’ he repeats throughout the wearisome task, the mantra taking his mind off aging muscles. Sounds of imminent opening time filter through the swing doors leading from storeroom to supermarket: high-pitched laughter from teenage cashiers whose mini-skirts leave nothing to the imagination; heavy footsteps in the meat section adjacent to the doors as Terry the butcher, red-faced and rotund, surveys and reorganises his domain.
Trolley piled high, Rob inches his way forward, his breath coming in short sharp bursts, as he navigates an adjoining passageway stacked to the ceiling with cardboard cartons. At the first turn, he cautiously sets the trolley upright to wipe already damp palms on his dustcoat prior to tackling the next aisle. Wooden crates containing trays of Jaffa oranges from Israel arrived late on Friday and are creating an extra hazard by protruding into the walkway. ‘Damn,’ he exclaims when a careless sideways shuffle results in contact with the crates’ rough edges. Pulling up his right trouser leg, he examines the skin above his sock, notes beads of blood decorating a two-inch scratch, an annoying injury only minutes into an eight-hour day.
As he inhales the fragrance of sun-kissed oranges, his gaze shifts to the purple cardboard trays visible through slatted timber. Manufactured with indentations to keep each orange separate from its neighbour, the trays prove useful for storing produce from his own tiny orchard – three apple trees, one plum, one peach, one pear. Mr Harrison has no objection to his taking home any number of trays as non-perishable rubbish is collected from supermarket bins on a weekly basis. Every autumn Rob uses newspaper to wrap apples and pears individually, ensuring his crop keeps for months stored beneath the household’s three beds. Peaches are eaten as they ripen, the old tree rarely producing a decent crop. Ivy bottles some of the Bramley cooking apples for pies, crumbles or sauce; others she leaves under the beds to be cooked at a future date. Baked apples, their cores removed and replaced with sultanas and brown sugar, are one of Rob’s favourite puddings. Licking his lips, he wonders what delight Ivy will serve this evening. His first question on returning home is always, ‘What’s for pudding, love,’ first course of little consequence to a man with a sweet tooth.
After checking that blood hasn’t trickled into his sock, Rob grips the cracked rubber handles and begins to manoeuvre the trolley into the slightly wider passage leading to double swing doors. A tricky right, the operation requires total concentration, so he slows to a crawl, and is almost home and dry when the trolley clips a pile of cartons containing tins of pineapple. They fall sideways in a perfect demolition, crushing several crates of oranges and sending Rob flying. Sacks of King Edward potatoes save him from serious injury, but he feels dazed and remains sprawled on lumpy hessian when the manager rushes in.
‘Not again!’ The man’s bulk towers over the mound of crushed crates and boxes. ‘How many times have I told you to be careful with that trolley?’
‘I’m so sorry Mr. Harrison.’ Rob struggles to his feet.
‘Sorry won’t replace damaged stock, Robert. I’ll see you in my office when you’ve cleaned up this mess.’ And kicking escaped tins aside, he strides towards the doors.
Defeated, Rob sinks to his knees and hangs his head.
* * *
Dinner is a subdued affair, Rob seeking the courage to confess he’s been sacked; Ivy distracted by a letter from their daughter, Sally, who lives in a small town fifty miles away. ‘A new sister on the orthopaedic ward is making life difficult for the younger nurses,’ Ivy remarks, looking across the table. ‘Sally says her constant criticism and impatience has led several student nurses to resign before their final exams. Such a waste of all that training.’ She sighs. ‘Poor Sally, if only I could just pop over and give her a hug,’
Rob raises his head, tempted to answer that hugs will be off the menu permanently soon, Sally having decided to join older sister Frances and her husband James in Australia. Reluctant to raise what remains a sensitive subject, she’ll be leaving the country within three months, he concentrates instead on spearing strips of cabbage with his fork.
‘I’d hoped she could get home soon,’ Ivy adds, ‘but she hasn’t a free weekend before we go on holiday.’
Cutlery slips from Rob’s fingers onto the plate, splattering the cream tablecloth with globules of gravy. ‘We can’t go on the tour now,’ he blurts out. ‘I’ve lost my job.’
Ivy flinches, then leans forward, green eyes demanding an explanation.
‘That damn trolley again.’
A long silence follows, Ivy’s mouth moving in slow motion as she digests bad news and a last forkful of cabbage.
‘You could still go,’ he says, relieved to have thought of a solution. ‘Alf and Dawn would keep you company.’
‘And leave you alone for fourteen nights.’
‘I could get some sleeping pills from Doctor Hughes.’
‘Sleeping pills aren’t the answer, Rob. A holiday would do you good.’
‘But I need to find another job.’
‘You need to get out of the house and I don’t mean into the garden or the shed.’
Rob pushes his plate into the centre of the table and gets to his feet. Two steps and he has turned on the television set tucked in a corner away from the fireplace; a further three and he’s seated in his favourite armchair, adjacent to the tiled hearth. The BBC news has already started; he stares at the familiar presenter, ignores the nearby clatter of plates and cutlery, the muttering about having to wash a tablecloth that was clean on this evening.