‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ said Lucas. ‘You think you’ve got problems? Not got your sandwich right, did she?’
The three other men in the staff break room turned to look at their usually inscrutable colleague. Lucas had worked here for over thirty years, longer than any of them, and he’d never shouted at them like that before. He ate, next to the drinks vending machine, in almost total silence, and he worked, checking the seals on honey jars, in complete silence.
‘My wife hasn’t made my sandwiches in over twenty years!’ said Lucas.
‘Yeah, well,’ said Boris, opening his sandwich and pulling out a wagon-wheel sized slice of tomato from his ham filling. ‘At least that means you get what you like.’
‘Huh,’ said Lucas. He waved his sandwich at Boris. ‘Crab paste, that’s what I’ve got. You think I like crab paste? Look at it, all grey and brown like something you’d scrape off your shoes. ‘Course I don’t like it, but we’ve always got to have the things she like, don’t we?’
Boris rolled his eyes into the back of his head. ‘Then why don’t you buy it yourself?’
‘Why don’t you make your own damn lunches?’ snapped Lucas.
Boris and his friends shook their heads and turned their backs on Lucas. The staffroom returned to normality; the hum of the vending machine punctuated by grunts of displeasure at yet another unwanted lunchtime snack. Boris piled the tomatoes next to Phil’s lettuce next to Gary’s cheese. In his corner of the room, Lucas pushed bite after bite of the crab paste down.
That afternoon the honey jars were clanking down the rails, all the heat formed plastic seals were unbroken. Lucas spun round every tenth jar, as he always had done for thirty years. They were all sealed. Phil came over from the office and told him that the boss was looking for him.
Lucas spun round the four hundredth jar that week. ‘Watch over them for me, will you?’ Lucas asked.
‘Sure,’ said Phil.
Lucas walked down the aisles between the large machinery. The boss’s office was a metal and frosted glass box at the top of an iron staircase. One of the windows was slid back so the boss could see down on to the factory floor. Lucas climbed the first step, wincing as little balls of fire popped in his left hip. He needed that replacement, but he couldn’t leave her at home alone. He climbed the other steps with his right leg, dragging the left up behind him.
‘Come in,’ said the boss. He pulled the window behind him closed and Lucas sat in the chair, his stiff hip twisting his face in pain. ‘How’s the honey down there?’
‘Lucas, there’s no easy way to say this,’ said the boss cutting Lucas off. ‘We are having to downsize the company. It’s the economy, downswing, credit crunch.’ The boss opened his filing cabinet and pulled out a sheaf of paper. He put the sheaf in front of Lucas. At the top of the page was, written in large block bold letters: ‘Redundancy’.
‘What’s this?’ said Lucas. ‘You’re firing me?’
The boss sighed. ‘It’s nothing personal, Lucas.’
‘I’ve been here for thirty years! Longer than you, and you’re getting rid of me?’ Lucas struggled up to his feet. He flicked aside the proffered pen.
‘Lucas,’ said the boss in the softly-softly voice used to get someone else to do something they don’t want to do. ‘This is going to get done. I’m sorry. Sign the form, take your settlement package. It’s not bad. You get eleven grand. That’s over eight months’ salary.’
‘What am I supposed to tell the wife?’ asked Lucas. He was spinning on his right leg. He rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m… only five years left till I retired.’
The boss offered the pen again. ‘Tell her you’ll get to spend more time with her. Sign the forms.’
She would be so upset with him. He couldn’t even call her before he signed. And even if he did, she wouldn’t pick up. Lucas’ hand shook as he scrawled his name above the lines on all the pages. He scribbled away the last thirty years, and the retirement package all those years brought.
‘You don’t need to work out the rest of your day,’ said the boss.
‘What about my jars?’ asked Lucas. He went to the widow and opened it. The clank and clatter of glass on metal erupted from below. ‘I can’t just leave them.’
The boss sighed. ‘We’ve had a laser system checking them for the past two months,’ he said. It was hard to tell a man his job was redundant. Harder still to tell him it was redundant for a while.
Harder still to hear it.
‘No,’ said Lucas. But then it made sense. ‘That’s why the engineers were in last month.’ He pursed his lips together and sucked them in. Anger and disappointment flowed up from his feet, filling his body like the “Clear & Squeezy” honey the company made in the summer. ‘But she said there was nothing to worry about…’
‘Who?’ asked the boss. But Lucas didn’t say anything. He walked out of the office and down the stairs, not noticing the needles of pain in his hip.
‘And now… what will we do?’ he muttered. The other men stared at him with sympathetic half-smiles. Lucas returned them with a nod. He got out of his white factory floor coat and put his blue jacket on. The wind outside whistled through his clothes, through his skin and into his joints. Even if he ran home she wouldn’t come and pick him up. Anyway, he didn’t want to talk to her yet.
The bus came ten minutes late. He flashed his bus pass and, using every rail on the bus, sat in the first available seat. She wouldn’t understand, Lucas thought. She convinced him they weren’t going to fire him.
Lucas pressed the bell when the shops were coming up and got off. He walked past the Co-Op, to the Sainsbury’s at the top of the hill. The Co-Op only had baskets and he needed a trolley to lean on.
It had been nearly twenty-five years since she’d done the shopping but he still bought the same things. Now they didn’t have any money, he had to buy only what they needed. Because he was the one that lost his job, he bought what she liked, try and soften the blow, butter her up.
He paid for his half-trolley, which became three bags. He lugged them back down the hill, his hip sending needles of pain into his bones. He’d bought her favourite dinner, crab meat, and her favourite desert, cheesecake. He never liked cheesecake. The slippery white stuff went through his teeth, like worms. He shivered, through and through with the biting wind. He smiled when he remembered how it was when he first got that job. When she’d pick him up from the factory gates and they laugh and talk on the way home. It hadn’t been like that in so long.
‘Hello,’ he said walking into their home. She didn’t answer. They didn’t talk anymore. He went in to the kitchen and emptied the bags, put on the kettle, and warmed up the oven. He made two cups of tea and brought one of them to her in the lounge. She sat waiting for him next to the fireplace. He looked into her eyes; she smiled at him, a wide and happy grin. He smiled back at her, managing a half smile, he hoped hid the pain. She didn’t thank him for the cuppa; he stopped expecting her to.
The crab meat filled the small kitchen with a fishy smell and he gagged. She stayed in the lounge as he cooked, not offering to help, even though he could barely reach the plates now with his hip. He got one of her best china down from the top cupboard. He wanted to move them down, so he could get them, but that’s where she wanted them.
He took the crab into her with a side of thin sliced chips and French beans and set it down next to her tea. It had been left to go cold. She was still smiling. He sat next to her. And picked her up. She was cold.
‘I got fired today,’ he said.
She looked at him. There she was, holding a crab sandwich at the pier. That was twenty-seven years ago. There were drawers of other photographs he could have chosen but this was a happy day: their thirtieth anniversary. Down on Broadstairs. Three weeks before the fatal stroke. The photograph’s golden frame was screwed to a fake marble box. He could never get used to the idea that she was inside that box. Having her in the photo was easier.
He ate the crab. It was better than the paste. Slightly.
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