Ffrench was darting about inside the Bedford, tightening the belts. Then he stood back, counting the cages, tugging at his walrus moustache. We were getting off light for the pm. Right on cue, Tina emerged from the office prefab, hollered over. Ffrench stiffened, glaring – as if there was anything I could do about it. Next thing, she was rattling across the yard with an extra cage, not even a quarter full. I went to meet her halfway because I didn’t want her anywhere near Ffrench.
“New drop. Green Goddess.” Tina drew a sharply folded docket from her blazer; mostly empty space – a measly £66 odd. “Cash on delivery. Don’t hand over a thing until you’re paid.”
Tina stared at me. For a minute I was afraid she was on to Ffrench. Was she trying to see if I’d give him up? Or was I just as bad? Then I figured she was only carping at me over the Easter eggs. Almost a full year ago, now.
I’d noticed it first thing that morning. Ffrench loading a pallet – giant blue tubs of mayonnaise, industrial tins of beef stock, lobster bisque, stacked like paint – and the pallet truck veering off like a rudderless ship. But I only got the whack of drink once we were in the cab. I sat there, watching him fiddle with his keys. I was fond of Ffrench, but I was scared too. And angry with him. But what could I do? I knew that Henderson, the transport manager, old family friend, was in the prefab with Tina. It was he who’d got me the job at Foodway’s. But as far as I knew, Ffrench was just hungover, that was all. And what if Henderson turned a blind eye? It wasn’t like it had happened before. Ffrench could hardly have called in sick, not at that stage; but in the end, I just said it straight out.
“I can smell it off you.”
“Relax,” he said. “Be grand.”
The best I could do was pay attention to how Ffrench was handling the truck, how keenly he fixed his eyes on the road ahead.
By mid-morning I’d stopped worrying. I’d been pulling a full cage backwards when the front wheel hit a bockety floor tile at the North Star Hotel. The whole production nearly crashed on top of me. I could have stepped aside. Instead, instinctively, I’d pushed back like a weightlifter with a barbell. Ffrench thought I was mad: “Always look after your lumbar region!”
The only thing we lost was a jumbo jar of mint sauce. I caught my breath while Ffrench mopped up – picking out the broken glass around the label, thick like the ice you get defrosting a fridge.
The afternoon itinerary brought us across the Liffey. Our first stop, Green Goddess, was in Temple Bar. Old buildings, warehouses, flaking brickwork. Not much else on the street except the Scout Shop, which I knew well. I followed Ffrench down a creaking, narrow staircase. Buddhist vibe. Vegetarian. Tail-end of lunchtime, but the place was quiet. The chef wore an apron tied around his waist and a cheesecloth shirt with some kind of beaded necklace. We reminded him about the C.O.D. He checked the till. Then he checked his pockets. Then he spoke discreetly to a woman in the kitchen, fingers on her bare forearm. She looked foreign. Spanish maybe. The way his mouth was moving, it didn’t look like English. Finally, he came back. Asked if we might “possibly postpone”. Just until later in the day, he said. By which point they might have taken in enough to pay us – though they’d hardly be expecting a stampede. We felt so bad for him, and the place was so unusual, that we agreed. Ffrench was different to his usual, brash self. More reserved. Respectful. “That fellow is a gentleman.”
With each drop that afternoon I passed the cage for Green Goddess and I felt as if we were aviators, delivering medicines to some Himalayan outpost. Just a handful of items. Herbs and spices. A single vanilla pod in a jar, like the stamen of an orchid.
By mid-morning I’d stopped worrying. I’d been pulling a full cage backwards when the front wheel hit a bockety floor tile. The whole production nearly crashed on top of me
We finished the rest of the afternoon drops in record time. A quarter to four. But we wanted to leave it longer for our friend. Nor was there any advantage in hurrying back to Foodway’s – Tina would surely lump us with an extra load. Without warning, the lorry swung into a vacant area set back from the road. Ffrench got me to pass his ragged Daily Mirror from the dash. I thought: just sit here reading the bloody paper? But then he nodded to the public house a little way down. Dog rough. Say what you like about the northside, parts of the southside are absolutely alien to me. The place was practically empty. Ffrench slapped his paper on a low table. Fairyhouse was on. Zero interest in racing but I was grateful for distraction. Ffrench came back with pints, crisps. “What did you expect?” he said. “Tea and scones?”
I presumed we would sup slowly, eking it out. But Ffrench was in no mood for compromise. Alarming how soon he turned to see was I ready for another, swatting away my wallet with the back of his hand. He gestured to the barman, said he was nipping over to the bookies. When he’d gone, I picked up his paper, found the next race. Hieroglyphics. I’d occasionally placed bets and felt no surge of adrenaline. I regarded the wooden floor, sticky with rolling tobacco, the cracked mirrors on the lurid, mint-choc walls, the drip-tray where the malty overflow collected, a black and rubbery lattice like the floor mats in the lorry.
I thought about Tina, the Easter eggs. Henderson pointing them out – the layer of freebies on top, wrapped separate. I remember how light it felt pushing the pallet truck. You would not believe the value on a pallet of Easter eggs. Good Friday, very humid. Spilling rain. Dropped her on the quays then carried the boxes in past the customers. Bedlam. Sweating in a plastic poncho. Water trickling up the arms. Schoolboy discomfort. I remember handing the shopkeeper the clipboard. There was a look in her eye. Or was I imagining? No sooner had I deposited an armful on the floor by the magazines than the staff carted them off back. Impossible to keep track. The owner showed me the docket – everything was ticked. Except the line of Xs where the price for the Walnut Whips should be. But these were free, I thought – so that would make sense, wouldn’t it? I should have said something. Then, on the Tuesday following, the owner had phoned up. “Never got” the promotional stock. Lying through her teeth. Everybody knew it for a fact. Tina, Henderson. She’d obviously flogged the lot. But they gave her a full cash refund all the same – even though she hadn’t paid for the pox-ridden eggs in the first place.
“No point replacing them after Easter.” Pure profit. She’d even get the value of the tax. All my fault. I did feel bad about it. I was new, then. So I thought I’d show them I wasn’t afraid to take the initiative. I volunteered to visit the shopkeeper the following day, try and jog her memory. She brought me upstairs and sat behind a large, untidy desk and let me do the talking. Her weak, indulgent smile could not disguise a fundamental sourness. I was wasting her time. It was just to satisfy herself we hadn’t any evidence. And then I’d spotted the Walnut Whip. Like a desktop ornament beside the reading lamp. No sooner had she clocked my interest than she’d plucked it up and peeled and quickly eaten it.
And there was Tina, still needling me a full year on.
Ffrench was settling in beside me with another round. I noticed my back was easing up. Time passed. We watched the racing. The horse came in last. Ffrench laughed it off. When the third round came, Ffrench glanced at me.
“Don’t be worrying about Tina,” he said. “I’ll deliver your dockets, tell her you had to rush off.”
But I wasn’t worried about Tina. I couldn’t have been less anxious were I lounging on Waikiki Beach. Which was odd. I should normally be on my mettle in a place like this: alert to the dangers of trespass, inauthentic speech or gesture. But now, remarkably, I felt at home. Two solitary punters – one at the bar, one by the jacks. I thought, whatever had brought these men to this impasse was no more legitimate, no more pressing, than the exigencies that had brought me here with Ffrench.
“I’m fine to check in with Tina.”
He seemed unconvinced.
“Anyway,” he said, as if to himself; “she might have skedaddled by the time we’re back.”
Rush hour now. Traffic was cat. I didn’t care. I was enjoying the pantomime chaos of Dame Street. You get a different sense of the city from a truck. Couriers flitting about like swallows. Kids in their school uniforms; you’re thinking, what are you doing in town? Ffrench wanted the radio, which he never wanted. Misremembering the words at the top of his lungs. I told him about the first time Caroline had brought me across the river, striking out for Stephen’s Green to fish for pinkeens in the fountains. A yellow net at the end of a bamboo stick. The days you could still drive up Grafton Street. We passed the Scout Shop. Lanyards and woggles. I listed off my merit badges. Axemanship. Knotting. He nearly wet himself. Before we’d even killed the engine outside Green Goddess, our chef appeared on the footpath, brandishing his notes triumphantly. We burst into applause. Ffrench rolled up the back shutter and hopped in and wheeled the cage to the edge of the truck, then stood ready with the clipboard and docket. We didn’t bother with the tail-lift. One by one, as though presenting a prize, I passed each item to the chef who arranged his trophies on a ledge below the frosted window. Ffrench checked off with ostentatious irony; 13 items, present and correct.
Back in the yard the lights were on in the prefab, though it wasn’t yet dark. I popped the handle on the passenger side. “Stall the ball,” Ffrench said. Through the window, we could see Tina unhook a folder from the rack of printouts. She was dressed for home: overcoat and scarf, sports-bag at the ready on her desk. We’d forgotten she’d have to wait on account of the cash. Ffrench got me to open the glove box. Four packets of Polos. Wiring into them like guilty teenagers. Pretty soon I couldn’t feel my tongue.
Inside the prefab was a little corridor closed off from the office, the lino gritty from the wet boots of the drivers and helpers. You could see the admin staff had a kettle in there for tea and coffee. I pushed the clipboard through the hatch with the £66 odd. Exact change. If Tina was in a rush to get home she didn’t show it.
“What’s that smell?” she said, still glued to her printout.
“Mint sauce.” Ffrench nudged me aside, sniffing theatrically at something in his hand. It was a Return Slip – he must have filled it out in the pub – and with it, the vinegared label from our broken jar. ■