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July 30, 2007

The Beets

beetroot.jpg OK, so it goes something like this — The father was not there. He was probably away on business somewhere. (Later, when the economy nose-dived, his partners forced him to sell his share in the firm for virtually nothing.) The four of them went into a little grocery shop: the harrassed mother, the elder son, aged about eight or nine, the daughter, and the younger son, who was still in a pram. It was late afternoon and chilly. The shop was one in a shabby little row of businesses near their home. There might also have been a newsagent's; a place selling sewing supplies; an off-license filled mainly with beer and cigarettes. Lights were beginning to glow in the dusk. The elder son recalls the row of shops, the pavement, a side-road running past the shops, a iron chain painted white and suspended from short concrete posts which separated the side-road from a strip of grass, then, beyond that, more pavement, and then the main road, heavy with rush-hour traffic.

The bell on the door of the grocery tinkled when they crowded in. They turned left, the mother up ahead manoeuvering the pram round shelf-corners and down the narrow aisles stacked high with bottles, boxes, bags, cans, tubes. The daughter stayed close to the mother. Bored, the elder son lagged behind, just as his own elder son does today. Somewhere several aisles away, the shopkeeper, unseen, gave a loud, self-conscious cough, and made noises with some cans he must have been stacking. There was apparently no-one else in the shop.

The elder son noticed a very large jar, full of sliced beetroot to his left. The vegetables were steeped in brine, which had, though long standing on the shelf, taken on the colour of the sliced beets. The jar looked huge, almost as tall as his brother. Perhaps it was a "family size", offering a distinct saving, pound for pound, over the contents of the normal sized jar. He hated the poisonously sweet taste of beetroot and the way it fell apart in your mouth, as if it were rotten. He still hates beetroot. Now more than ever, in fact.

Here is where it gets mysterious. The elder son remembers being about a step or two past that jar when the huge crash came. It was painfully loud and sudden; it seemed it was about to make his ears explode. He turned round, his mouth open and his eyes popping, and saw a ghastly mess slowly spreading across the linoleum floor. There was a pool of what looked like arterial blood slowly seeping outwards, and in it thousands of tiny shards of glass glinting like stars, many of them embedded in the carcases of the dark beets. Some of the beets had been thrown on top of one another, many others were scattered in a crescent as far as the foot of the shelves on the opposite side of the aisle. He was shocked. The sight was revolting and what he would now describe as sickeningly voluptuous. It looked as if, in the middle of a modest Croydon suburb, a person's body had been split wide open on a grocer's floor. Later, when he saw a picture of a soldier's corpse which had been blown apart in the Ardennes forest by a grenade, his first thought was: "The beets."

"What happened?" his mother asked, staring aghast, perhaps momentarily panicked, at the floor in front of them. "I don't know, Mum," he said. "It fell off. It wasn't me. It wasn't me." "Don't worry," she said, "let's just go home now." He nodded, eyes pointing down still. They walked as quickly as they could towards the till. He was blushing. He felt guilty but he was also certain he had not done anything. His heart was thumping against his ribs; he felt he was going to choke. He felt in danger.

The shopkeeper was behind the counter now, staring. "We want these," the mother said to him quietly and put a block of butter and a box of fishfingers on the counter. "And I'm afraid that a bottle of beetroot has fallen over down that aisle there. But we didn't do it. I'm sorry about that." The shopkeeper must have been about 60. He was thin. His greying hair was grown long down the right side and then, to cover his bald pate, swept up over the crown of his head and held in place there with some liberal applications of Brylcreem. He wore a brown tie under his long, white jacket. His shirt collar was too large for his neck, and his Adam's apple bobbed back and forth as he spluttered at them. He looked so bitter to the boy.

The shopkeeper moved round from behind the counter and spread himself in front of his shop-door. "You are not leaving here until you pay for the beetroot!" he shrieked. "You are not going! That will be seventy-three pence!" The elder son felt horror rippling through his body like waves of heat. The sister and the younger brother stared. A long silence. The mother's lips twitched and, without looking at the enraged man, she muttered "Oh, all right, then." She fumbled in her purse for the change. The greasy shopkeeper retreated back to his till and ching-ed open the cash drawer. It takes a hot pan a long time to cool down. Though the man in white was still incensed, he was trying to conceal his disequilibrium now, and he deposited the money there with a beaming, triumphant look on his face.

They left the butter and the fishfingers inside and, in a rush, the mother bundled the sister and the younger brother through the shop door and down the three brick steps leading to the pavement outside. The elder son went last, petrified that at any moment the shopkeeper was going to hook by the arm, drag him back inside and send him to prison. At last, they stood in a shocked group in the street. The mother was stuffing her purse back into her bag. The children looked at her for instruction, guidance. "Well," she said, "we won't go back to that shop again, will we?" "No, Mum." But the elder son knew that wasn't true. "Come on," the mother said. "Let's get back; it's getting cold." They walked along the pavement in single file, heads bowed, not talking. The elder son lagged behind. Already, he could feel tears of shame and disappointment running like drops from melting icicles down the insides of his cheeks.

In closing, I should mention that I do not believe that he has ever mentioned this trivial incident to more than one person, or at most two. Curiously, though, he insists now that it is something he has never got over.

Posted by njenkins at July 30, 2007 07:49 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins