The 25p Chicken
Molescroft, East Yorkshire, the present day
“I’m a plain speaking Yorkshireman,” boasted the founder of Budgetsavers, John Oxenholme, which was his way of telling the world that he was rude and opinionated and that they could boil their heads. “I believe in giving folk what they want and at prices they can afford.” He grinned smugly for the bored reporter of the local newspaper, before cutting the ribbon on the latest addition to the Budgetsavers empire. The new shop was located on the edge of the Molescroft estate in Beverley, and a small band of women in raincoats and plastic headscarves gathered in the drizzle, their faces as bitter as espressi ristretti, and their mouths puckered scornfully.
“Bloody get on with it,” hissed Maud Satchel. She was cold and borderline incontinent, and she needed a tin of baked beans.
“What a prat,” agreed Vanessa Archer, a sour miser from across the main road. She had brought her little tartan trolley and what was left of her pension in the hope of bargains.
“The folk of this town deserve a great new place to shop,” boomed John Oxenholme, his enormous stomach threatening to send his buttons flying off like shrapnel at any moment.
“You could feed cattle with what he eats,” said Mary Pindlewater, a recent widow and a woman generally accepted to be the most vituperative gossip in the East Riding. Maud Satchel eyed Mary Pindlewater menacingly lest the woman get ahead in the queue.
“So I now declare this branch open,” said the proud owner with a flourish.
“About bloody time,” hissed the three women at once. The line shuffled forward, as though the characters in Michael Jackson’s Thriller had donned charity shop clothes and acquired zip-up boots.
“It’s a bit tatty, isn’t it?” hissed Mary Pindlewater, her voice ricocheting off the shelves. John Oxenholme, who was passing by regally, stopped and cringed.
“Not as nice as that place near Walkergate,” pointed out Maud Satchel disapprovingly.
“Cheaper than Patel’s,” replied Vanessa Archer, who had never forgiven the owner of that establishment for putting up the price of a tin of spam by five pence on 1 January.
“It’s inflation,” the man had pointed out in his defence, clearly frightened and sweating with guilt.
“It’s bloody theft,” Vanessa Archer had retorted, her cheeks sucked in, as though a vigorous vacuum attachment had been introduced to another orifice.
Maud held a tin of peaches at arm’s length, assessing their weight and price. She tutted and returned them to the shelf. She was not going to throw away 50p of hard-earned money on a peach in syrup.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” bleated Brian Tenby, a rather simple and effeminate lad of twenty, who’d once been described as unemployable by his form teacher, “at aisle 6 we have a range of reduced to clear items.” He sneezed into the microphone and Maud Satchel’s bladder seeped a little in fright. She shifted uncomfortably. Immediately, the women pushed their trolleys in the direction of the cheap items, as though caravans in a gold rush.
“Ouch,” cried a young girl as Maud clipped her tiny ankle with the wheel of her trolley. The girl’s mother looked up crossly, earning her a look of contempt from Maud. Like dodgems rubbing bumpers, the trolleys collided and swerved until at last the Shangri-la of reduced products gleamed into vision.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” sighed Maud, who loved nothing more than foraging in piles of rotting cauliflowers.
“There is so much stuff,” gasped Vanessa, grabbing a sack of mould-covered satsumas from the hand of a child, and using her bony elbow to see off the rapscallion.
“And it’s all less than 25p,” chuckled Mary, excavating her way through sacks of moist, fermenting apples and piling them into her trolley, as though rescuing treasure from a burning house. “I’ll make a crumble out of that. Go lovely with a bit of cream it will.”
“Leave some for others, will you?” exclaimed a middle-aged man, who was struggling to get near the reduced items.
“Piss off,” snarled Maud, her face suffused with red mist, her fingers riffling through a stack of rock-hard melons.
“I say,” said the man, retreating. Like beasts of prey, the three women resumed their plundering, their faces brutish and feral.
“Potatoes,” gasped Maud, “I’ll make a nice shepherd’s pie out of them,” though a homemade batch of vodka would have been more appropriate, considering the advanced state of fermentation.
It was then that Mary Pindlewater cried out in triumphant ecstasy. She had found the bargain hunter’s Holy Grail, the perfect thrifty jackpot.
“It’s never!” cried Maud, eyes slit-like and consumed with envy.
“Where did you get that?” exclaimed Vanessa Archer, her cheeks flushed with annoyance.
Mary chuckled like a witch at a particularly lively coven. She’d found that most elusive of items, that rarest of treats. Mary had in her hand the 25p chicken. Skipping and dancing, she placed the item in her trolley, along with stacks of yellow-brown sprouts, a hunk of dusty army-surplus cheese, and a sherry trifle the size of a hatbox.
“That’s a bargain, isn’t it?” cooed Katy Parchment, a fifty-year old cashier and mother of seven. She was wearing the checked green and brown Budgetsaver uniform and a cardigan from the Cancer Research shop, upon which much of her breakfast now rested.
“I know,” beamed Mary, as proud as a marine receiving a medal. “Just 25p for a whole chicken. I’ll get at least four square meals out of that.”
“Good for you,” agreed Katy, placing the pallid carcass in a carrier bag.
Mary scuttled home and packed away her treasures. All that shopping for less than a fiver! That woman off the telly would be dead proud of her, she thought, the one with the tight coat and mannish hat who cycled everywhere, telling folk to save money. She might even write and tell her, thought Mary Pindlewater. Except that would be a waste of a stamp. She put on a pan of water and threw in the chicken, ignoring the smell of death that emerged from the bag, a smell familiar only to morticians, and those whose career path involved particularly nasty exhumations.
Soon the kitchen filled with steam and the less nauseating smells of sprouts and roasting potatoes. Mary poured out a good, strong cup of Yorkshire tea and dunked an own brand digestive in the brown, stewed liquid. She switched on the television and settled down to Emmerdale. Pretending to be appalled, she watched entranced as the latest young, male character marched topless across the screen, his tiny nipples surprisingly erect, and his muscles rippling. “Disgusting,” tutted Mary, her eyes out on stalks. In the interval, she nipped into the kitchen to plate up her meal of boiled chicken and roast potatoes.
“How long has she been dead, do you think?” asked the young police officer. A flashing blue light bounced off the walls of the 1960s bungalow, and a crowd of grinning children gathered in time to see Mary Pindlewater being wheeled out on a gurney, her face covered with a pink NHS blanket. Her legs stuck out awkwardly, topped with purple slippers.
“A good few days, I should think,” replied the paramedic. She had had the unpleasant task of prising the knife and fork from Mary Pindlewater’s hands. “It looks like a case of acute poisoning, but we still need to trace the source. It might be foul-play.”
“Really?” said the officer, licking her finger and turning a page in her notebook.
“Well, someone stands to inherit an awful lot,” said a second officer. He produced a bankbook that had been on top of the drinks cabinet. “So I imagine there is a motive.”
The first police officer looked at the typed balance. Her eyes swam in disbelief. Mary Pindlewater had been a millionaire, a millionaire felled by a 25p chicken.
(From Spicy Green Ginger Authorhouse, Andrew Reid Wildman, 2013)