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Stripped Bare - A Pandemic Story

Mark Rutherford

“Sarge” Nobby Clark and his wife Beryl slowly made their way to the seating outside the supermarket. Beryl rolled slightly on her dicky knee and Nobby’s leathery face held a permanent half grimace of pain as he dragged their faded old shopping cart, with one crooked wheel, behind him. It had become their daily ritual to check out the shelves of the store for life’s essentials.

With various grunts and groans they eased themselves onto the bench seat bathed in sunshine. Before entering the supermarket they would catch their breath. They had no expectation of this visit being any more successful than the previous ten. They nodded at the familiar face of Charita Kumar, the supermarket cashier as she stepped out for a break. Charita inhaled a big breath which made her light brown skin tinge with colour, accentuating her beauty. She was richly clad in a gorgeous sari of bold colours and glistening threads. Her sandalled feet peeped out with brightly coloured nail polish and small gold rings adorning the toes.

“Hi Sarge, Beryl. Isn’t it a glorious day? It is bedlam in there. So good to get outside for a few minutes. Are you cold, Beryl?” she asked observing the soft white gloves Beryl was wearing that reached to her elbows.

“No love, just with this virus thing, I saw on the telly that they recommend wearing gloves. I haven’t worn gloves since Nobby was Grand Master and that was forty years ago! But I still had ‘em.”

Charita smiled. “They look beautiful but make sure you wash them every day.”

“O’ course love.” Beryl looked offended at the advice.

Nobby broke into the conversation. “Any point us going in, Char? We’re looking for the usual - toilet paper, wet wipes, bread. I’m OK, ex-army and all, wiping me bum on newspaper but Beryl draws the line.”

Charita looked sad. “I’m sorry Sarge, I think the shelves were stripped bare by 7.30. As soon as I finish my break I’ll go and check. Save you the effort.”

“Thanks love,” replied Sarge. “You know I was born in the Depression, a kid during World War II, fought in Korea, raised two sons and the girl, lost our youngest boy before his time,” he heaved a big sigh which caused his gut to rise and fall. “I have never seen anything like this. It makes me sick the selfishness of some people, never felt so bad. Never felt that I couldn’t look after Beryl. It is just so hopeless. Never known a worse time.”

Beryl reached across and placed her hand on the old man’s knee. “It’s alright, love, you’ll do me. If it has to be newspaper, so be it. I ain’t about to ditch you for a younger man over how I wipe me bum,” she cackled.

Charita rose and took her leave. Through the window the couple watched her go behind the counter, chatting to the other cashiers.

“Thought she was going to check the shelves for us,” grunted Beryl. Nobby just shook his head in resignation. Groaning, he rose slowly. “Come on love, let’s get this over with. I’ll buy the Tele on the way out if the shelves are bare.”

As they entered the store, making their slow progress through the throng of people, Charita beckoned them over. Nobby looked exasperated. He was going the other way, but he altered course towards the girl, with Beryl following dutifully.

“Mr and Mrs Clark, this is the store manager Mandeep Patel.”

“Pleased to meet ya,” responded Nobby stretching out his meaty hand. Mandeep smiled but did not take the offered hand. “Oh yeah, sorry. Forgot. Old habits, you know?” said Nobby withdrawing his hand and looking at it as if it had betrayed him.

Shoppers lining up with their near empty shopping trolleys watched impatiently as the store manager ushered the couple to the front of the checkout queue, Nobby struggling to get his old shopping cart to follow instructions.

“Mr and Mrs Clark, Charita has told me how hard you are finding it, at the moment, with the virus scare and lack of supplies. I’ve got a few things here for you to take with you,” said Mandeep. He reached under the counter and produced two large toilet rolls. The crowd of shoppers went quiet. Then he reached under again a finding a packet of wet wipes and a bottle of hand sanitiser. Heads began to peer over the counter to see what else was hidden in this magic cave. Finally, he reached in again and produced a box of disposable latex gloves. Packing all the items into a plastic bag he gave them to Charita who, lifting the vinyl top of the old shopping cart, dropped them in.

Nobby and Beryl watched in silence. Nobby’s eyes glistened and he cleared his throat loudly. Shoppers closest to him stepped back a pace. Nobby looked at the young manager. With a crack in his voice he said, “Ya didn’t have to do that, young fella. We’ll be alright. What about all these people?” he gestured with a sweep of his arm.

“It is my honour Mr Clark. At times like these we need to stick together, look after those who looked after us for so long. And besides, we couldn’t have Mrs Clark getting those beautiful gloves dirty, could we?” he smiled.

The store had been silent. One clap. Two more. Then the whole crowd started to applaud. Nobby and Beryl looked like they wanted to disappear but offered self-conscious smiles to everyone. A small boy, pushed forward by his Mum, carried a prized loaf of bread to Beryl and offered it to her. Beryl’s face dissolved. She so longed to hug the youngster.

Nobby and Beryl walked out of the store, shoulders back, lightness in their step, waving cheerily to Charita and Mandeep. The shopping cart now comfortably loaded wobbled happily behind them.

“What great times we live in, love!” said Nobby, taking Beryl’s hand.

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