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The Price of Beans
by Mike Hickman



The hand reached deep into the darkness of the shelf for the most damaged of the cans.

“You see?” Maureen said. “Not a one of them reduced yet. Not one.” This was followed by a contemptuous sniff and a comment about the “bloody Rotisserie”, the stench from which had, in the past, kept her from the supermarket altogether, even with Maeve there for distraction. It was too reminiscent of dinners past, when perhaps – alright, Tom, yes – her cooking hadn’t been at its best.

Maeve put the basket down at her feet, only missing a fellow daylight-hours shopper-shuffler by milliseconds. Her apology was met with the tail end of an “eff off”. For Maeve, this was a better than usual outcome. She turned her attention back to Maureen, doing the hands on hips thing that the over-stretched, high-buttoned anorak didn’t quite let her pull off.

“Didn’t you say Tom was coming round at seven?” she asked, before stepping out of the way of a passing staff member who, it turned out, was less interested in his customers than he was in his phone. Maureen, too, checked him out, but he was too young and wasn’t on the look out for any of the usual suspects. Safe enough, then, she thought. “This morning, Maur,” Maeve added. “You did say that.”

Maeve’s softly spoken voice and Hampshire vowels mushed the words together to the point where Maureen couldn’t determine how much she might be trying her luck. Maureen pursed her lips, considering a pithy insult or few. But, annoyingly, the woman was also right. She had told Maeve that Tom would be coming round at seven tonight. She’d told the silly moo, waited for the response, not got one, and determined that the woman was once again either completely unaware of the implications or was back at her sly act, in which case something might need to be done before she got above herself. But not before the provisions were sourced. It was important that she had precisely the right can for her purpose and for what Tom would no doubt want to say to her, if he could but say it.

37p, Maureen thought. 37 frickin’ p. Everything that had happened for the sake of the price of beans.

“Maur?” Maeve prompted, dripping with her usual cloying concern.

The staff member bloke was still on his phone. Playing Candy Crush, Maureen reckoned. Would Tom be one of those “gamer” types, then?


“Yes, yes, yes, alright, alright, Maeve Moo. I don’t need chivvying, thank you very much. Got a mind of my own. Jeez.”

Maureen reached out again towards the cans, moving the front stack aside in order to feel further back into the depths for what she hoped might be back there. The dented, the damaged, the hypothetically if not actually reduced.

“I thought…” Maeve began, and Maureen clucked at the phrase, knowing that Maeve was fonder of saying it than demonstrating it. “You know, I thought, in fairness, if Tom is coming then you might get something a bit nice for him, like. Seeing as.”

“Seeing as?’” Maureen had withdrawn a particularly dented specimen from the back of the shelf. She examined it, end over end, right down to the small print on the label. Beans with sausages. Costco no longer seemed to sell the beans with mini beef burgers she had been looking for but this was some kind of decent substitute. She held the can out for Maeve to take, to transfer to the basket – after a brief misunderstanding about where precisely she was to carry it (daft moo) – and then to carry said basket for her without comment, as she would.

“Well, you know, seeing as it’s the first time he’s visited in…in a while, like. And, you know, you’ve got plenty of cans in at home. I mean, haven’t you?”

Maeve’s already bone white complexion coloured slightly, and she fidgeted with the top button of her anorak until Maureen pointedly moved her hand away and gave her The Look. “What, you think he deserves steak or something, do you?”

“Well, actually, didn’t you say he was a veget…”

“You think I ought to get out my finest for him, do you?”

“I was only suggesting…”

Maureen reached for another can of beans. Bog standard, this time. Still dented. Another thing Maeve was right about – bugger her – Tom wouldn’t go for the mini sausages any more. Not if he was on some kind of faddy anaemic vegetable-based bent like Maeve was saying. Like Maureen thought perhaps she might have told her once because why else would the woman who pretended to have no memory turn it right round and use it back on her? Sly. That was the word for it – the word for her. She acted like she didn’t hear anything Maureen said, and then, months later, out she’d come with the small print. And the contradictions. And she wondered why people found her so eminently maddening? She was lucky to have a friend at all, frankly, and where the hell she thought she was ever going to get another one was a question worth the thinking about. Another time. “Where are your suggestions going to get us, eh?” Maureen asked, not needing an answer.

“It might be worth getting some good stuff in, even if not for Tom,” Maeve attempted.

“Oh, right. For the thousands of guests I entertain of an evening. Right. I must remember that.” Maureen could also have given her the “what with, shirt buttons?” thing that had been used enough times on her in the past, but Maeve’s pallor had moved along a square in the paint chart – only the one, heading now to a very faint beige – and so she dropped it.

The “eff off” shopper-shuffler from before was heading back down the aisle towards them. Immediately dismissed by Maureen as of any interest after a quick look up and down, he’d loaded up his basket with cheap Napoleon brandy and lager, and yet seemed to have already partaken really quite liberally. Maeve dropped her eyes, not wanting to meet his, but there were no more “eff offs” for her. His next one was reserved for Maureen and the Look that he had felt linger. He leaned in, all beery breath and BO, and muttered something about “baggage” as he rooted about for his own beans. Maureen stood her ground, saying nothing at all, but pointedly not breathing in.

It could be worse, she thought. It was no more than she deserved, she thought. 37 frickin’ p, she thought.

“Scum,” Maureen said, when the pissed-up shuffler departed in the direction of the cheese. Cheese, by the smell of him, not being something she’d have thought he needed in greater abundance. His sweatshirt had quite obviously not been washed for weeks. If at all.



Maureen turned her disgusted look at Cheesy BO’s back into an equally pissy appraisal of her friend and neighbour. “You think Tom would even appreciate it, if I put myself out for him, do you? After all this time. Like nothing’s happened?”

“I’m not saying…”

“’cos he’s got another think coming, if he thinks that, let me tell you.”

Maeve nodded. She was used to being told, and she knew better than to comment.

Another member of staff  went by. A girl, this time, safe enough, barely out of her teens; all braces, purple hair and tattoos. Maureen gave her the eye, before looking for any sign of reduced labels or the intention to possibly go and fetch reduced labels, but – again – no such luck.

“Could do her job standing on my head,” she said.

“I’d like to see that.” Maeve’s attempted funny got exactly what it deserved.

“So, beans, then?”

Maureen determined that this wasn’t a question that required answering.

“Come on, Maur,” Maeve said. “In fairness. He’s coming home for the first time in yonks and you’re doing him beans?”

“Without sausages.”

“Without sausages.”

“He’ll have toast, too. He’ll like that. He will.”

“Maybe. Yes. Maybe he will.” Sweating a little, Maeve was back at the top button of her anorak.

Maureen heard it all too clearly in the wickerwork-brained woman’s voice. “It was 37p, Maeve. 37 frickin’ p.”

“I know, Maur, I know.”

“I didn’t threaten to belt him sideways into Christmas like his dad did. I didn’t doubt his parentage – that was his dad, too. To his face, that was. Most weekends when he’d been on the voddy. I just charged him 37 frickin’ p. For beans. That’s all.”

“Didn’t he say you wouldn’t give him the electricity, either?”

Maureen bit her lip, drawing blood. Proof right there that Maeve’s memory wasn’t as woolly as those scarves she knitted to enliven the many empty evenings she had left to her before death.

“I was on the social, Maeve. He was meant to have a job. You get to his age, you get a job. You don’t get all uppity ‘cos of a 37 frickin’ p can of beans and then swan off, do you? Jesus H. Corbett. He’d rather risk ruination than live with his mum.” There were perhaps a few more epithets scattered around the aisles and one or two of the more sober shoppers perhaps noticed. Maureen had to accept the mittened Maeve Moo hand on her shoulder. Had to quieten down just a tad. The idea really wasn’t to draw attention to themselves. Quite the opposite.

Still, Maeve’s fault. She could pay for it later.

“Let’s just get this done with, eh?” Maureen said. “Got to be ready for his Lord and Master when he visits, haven’t we?”

“Yeah,” Maeve dripped damply in return. “Of course you have.”

Steeping round a spillage of what she could only hope was tomato sauce that had gone entirely unnoticed by the slack store staff, Maureen pushed Maeve towards the end of the aisle and the checkout beyond. Typically, there was only one open, with a queue just long enough to hold her up from getting home, getting the plates laid, and rearranging the few family photographs to best effect before her son deigned to arrive.

Maureen snatched the Next Customer Toblerone from the side of the conveyor even before the old dear ahead of her had noticed she had competition.

Maeve adopted a hush, all the better to encourage eavesdroppers. Her collar was causing her quite the discomfort. “I was wondering, too, Maur, you know, about the travel thing. Now, I don’t know much about these things…”

Maureen put the first of the reduced meats onto the conveyor. “No, I’d say you don’t, Moo.”

“But isn’t it all a bit quick?”

The point – potentially a good one – was momentarily upset by Maeve putting her hand down on the conveyor. Maureen pushed her back up from the diagonal before she was too far gone towards the floor.

“A bit quick?”

“You know – Seattle to here. In an afternoon. Isn’t it? A bit…quick.”

Maureen looked at her through the thick specs that had been fashionable sometime in mid-1978. And never again. Maureen could still taste the blood on her lips. She’d have to do a repair job when she got home, at this rate.

“You need help with the packing?” asked the young man behind the acne behind the till.

Maureen was going to tell Maeve right out that she had rather more pressing things to worry about right now than bloody journey times between Seattle and whichever sodding airport it was Tom would fly into. She ought to be rather more concerned that she remained buttoned up. And not just that mouth of hers.

Maureen was very much going to tell Maeve that, until her attention was taken again by the young man. Behind the acne. Behind the till.

She looked at him. She wondered. He was the right age and, if you looked past the acne, in the way that she tried so hard to look past everyone in all the years since it happened…

“Got everything you needed today?” the young man asked.

“I… Yes. No…” Maureen’s hand fumbled with her purse. There was a spray of coupons cut from the local newspaper.

Maeve’s mittened hand came down on hers. Steadied her. The glasses hove into view. “Maur,” the silly old moo said, “it’s not… You know it can’t be.” There was a moment that looked very at ease with itself. In the way some daft old woman might be with her knitting and her wickerwork and her doilies.

“No,” Maureen said, and then she shook her head really very hard. “No, ‘course not.” And she flashed a smile at the assistant. “You’ll have to excuse me, my son’s coming over tonight from Seattle. I’m all in a tizzy.”

And she pushed Maureen through to the end of the conveyor and she paid for her few items with the few pound coins she could find in the bottom of her purse.

And then, when the pair of them were past the sliding doors out into the concrete misery of the town centre, Maureen told Maeve to keep her head down, keep her coat buttoned up, keep walking, whatever the hell she did.

Until, with all the loot stashed in the lining of Maeve’s coat, it was safe for them to run like bloody hell.



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