Economic Hardship

Money is tight

What can You afford?

Short Stories by George Donald

Loose Change

Times had been very hard since Jimmy had lost his factory job. Twenty-six years of unswerving loyalty and good timekeeping hadn't counted for very much when it came to working out the redundancy package. The few thousand had paid off the mortgage on the mid-terraced former council house and left little for anything else. Now that he was almost sixty-three years of age, Maureen knew there was little hope of her husband finding another job. Not in the bleakness of these winter months when couples with young families were struggling to find any kind of work to earn enough to fill their kids stomachs, let alone their stockings.

She smiled tightly at the mum with the two wee ones standing in front of her in the slow-moving queue. Thank God, she thought. At least our's had the good sense to move away with their wives and children when the work at the steel mill dried up. Young Jimmy and Frank's frequent phone calls, grateful as she was to receive them, pestered the life out of her. She knew they were only being kind, worrying about their dad and her, how they were getting on and persistently asking if they needed money? Constantly she reassured them they were okay. They were fine husband's, father's and son's and she was proud of their thoughtfulness. Just like their dad, she sighed. It was only yesterday, she had glibly lied to Frank, that I bought your dad a half bottle. You know how he likes his wee whisky, sitting by the fire in the evening, she had joked. If only it were true, she sighed. She glanced down again at her purse, knowing to the penny just how much she could afford to spend on today's shopping. Jimmy's small works pension didn't stretch to a nightly dram and the state pension that might slightly ease their money worries was still a couple of years off.

Slowly, she shuffled forward in the queue, her wire basket bumping against her knees.Good man that he was, Jimmy wouldn't dream of asking her to spend anything on him that she wasn't prepared to spend upon herself.Their only luxury these days was the Friday night at the Miner's Welfare Club, sitting among friends who like them knew the value of each penny. She smiled to herself, recalling her husband's constant reminder that as long as they were healthy and had good friends, they were indeed a wealthy couple.The wee one sitting on the uncomfortable, hard plastic seat of the over laden trolley began to softly cry. Her mother, no more than thirty she guessed, ignored the child's whimpering. The younger woman, wearing what seemed to Maureen to be a new coat and with her hair recently permed, drummed her bejewelled and manicured fingers on the bar of the trolley. Finally, in exasperation she tore open a packet of crisps that she shoved at the toddler, impatiently snapping that the little girl was to be quiet and to stop making a noise. The child, her lip petulantly turned up, took the crisps and stared at Maureen with tearful eyes as she shovelled them into her mouth. That set off the small boy and he too demanded crisps. The young woman grabbed him by the lapel of his school blazer and shook him. Maureen hesitated, her maternal instinct urging her to intervene, to explain that the wee lad was simply bored. Again the queue crawled forward another few steps. The woman, her face heavily caked with make-up, turned to Maureen, her eyes blazing."If it's not one thing with these two, it's another," she complained.

Maureen smiled weakly and nodded her head in agreement. It didn't do to interfere with someone else's children these days she sighed, watching as the woman irritably pushed the trolley forward a few more feet.She looked down at her own wire basket containing the few cheap foods that she knew from lengthy experience would stretch to several meals. Yet her Jimmy never complained, always complimenting her on the meals she served him. Occasionally she might scrimp on some items and save a few pence, pennies that mounted up into pounds. Then she would delve into the money she had saved; splash out on a bit of steak, usually the cheaper meat that was sold off as it approached its sell-by date. On those occasions it heartened her to see his face, his unexpected delight that resulted from her thrift. She glanced sideways to see what was keeping the queue back. The checkout operator with the dyed blonde hair was on the cash till again. Maureen had been served by her several times before and thought her to be lazy and very rude. More than once she had to point out to the girl that several items she had marked through as full price were in fact on sale. On one humiliating occasion the young woman had shouted loudly across the store for the manager, asking him to confirm if the item Maureen had purchased was in fact on sale. Those standing behind her had heard every word. It had made her feel like a thief and her embarrassed blush had lasted all the way home. The queue shuffled forward and the toddler on the trolley seat began to cry again. Her irate mother was by now frustrated at the lengthy wait and slapped the girl's legs. Not too hard, Maureen could tell, but enough to send the child into a hysterical scream. She grew tense, her own nerves fraying at the child's anguished sobs and watched as the toddler began flaying her arms. At last the mother reached the cash till and hurriedly began to throw her shopping onto the moving conveyor belt, all the while threatening the child with a hard slap if she didn't calm down.

The operator scowled at the racket the wee girl was making and while the blonde woman had her back turned to her, she raised her eyebrows at her colleague, a young teenage girl standing idly nearby and they both made a face at the antics of the mother as she tried to control her child. Maureen watched as the woman tossed a credit card down onto the rubber mat, stuffing her shopping quickly into her plastic shopping bags. The indifferent teenager had rightly guessed she would be expected to help the customer pack her bags but without a backward glance, sauntered off.
"Next," called the sullen operator, scowling at Maureen.
She unpacked her few items and watched as the bored operator passed them by the bar code reader, listening as each item pinged on the machine and seeing the price appear in the small window, then re-packing the items in her worn canvas bag.
"Three pounds sixteen pence, please," said the operator, her attention taken by the mother who was now loudly warning her daughter to shut up. The small boy stared fearfully at his mother, his hands hanging by his side and knowing from recent experience that if he so much as said one word, he might also feel the back of her hand.
Maureen felt helpless, watching as the young blonde woman dragged her child from the seat and grimacing when she saw the little girls knees drag painfully against the unforgiving wire mesh of the trolley. She startled as the operator thrust the change into her outstretched hand.
"Next," she heard and was ushered forward by the man behind her.

The blonde woman had at last placed her bagged shopping into the trolley and was crouched down, fiercely whispering at her wide eyed daughter that she had better behave, all the while tugging at the child's jacket to reinforce her threat.
Maureen stumbled past them, the small boy's soulful eyes staring at her as if in a plea not to be left alone with his crazy mother. Outside the shop she stared down at her change and reached for her purse, but stopped, her eyes widening with surprise. "Something isn't right," she muttered to herself, realising almost at once she had not been given the correct change. Almost in panic, she rushed back into the store. The operator had just finished serving the man who had stood after her in the queue and was calling for the next customer, as Maureen approached from behind the girl.

"Excuse me," she said, swallowing hard, her voice almost a whisper and dreading the attention she attracted from the queue. "Excuse me, please," she said again, her nerves on edge.
The young woman turned an insolent face towards her. "For God's sake! What is it missus? Can't you see I'm pretty busy here?"
"I'm sorry," apologised Maureen, "but I've been given the wrong change."
The girl stared at her, her eyes narrowed and brow furrowed in recognition. She was the old bag that was always buying the bargains, the sale meat and things like that. Bloody old cheapskate. "Read the sign up there," she said and turned back to the customer.
Maureen glanced upwards to the hanging sign and her eyes narrowed as she tried to focus on the small printed words, 'Customers Must Check Their Change Before Leaving The Till - Thank You' it said. "But I'm trying to tell youÂ…..."
"Look," said the girl, turning angrily towards Maureen, her face flushed with anger, "it's not my fault if you can't bloody well read, all right?"
Maureen stepped back, her face pale with disbelief. The young man being served by the girl tittered and shook his head at the older woman's embarrassment.

The operator turned her back in dismissal of Maureen and began to drag the young man's shopping through the bar code machine. The queue remained silent. A few looked away in embarrassment, though some stared with sympathetic eyes while others glared impatiently, willing her to stop distracting the cheeky bugger at the till, so that they might be served that bit quicker.
She staggered out into the cold, her hands shaking slightly at the manner in which she had been treated, the rudeness of the operator taking her completely by surprise. If only the girl had listened. If only she had taken the few seconds for Maureen to explain. She had given the girl a five-pound note, but received change for a twenty-pound note.

She made her mind up, a firm resoluteness overcoming her natural integrity. The girl was right, she thought, but it's not just the customer who should check their change.Tonight, she inwardly smiled, my Jimmy will get his half bottle after all.