Here's another post in my A Letter from a Merry Go Round series.
This post follows on from an earlier post in which I mention embarrassing incidents.
A Terrible Case of Pickles
At some point during my early attempts to join the ranks of the adults, I developed a taste for piccalilli. This substance, if you didn’t know already, is a mixture of pickled vegetables that is bright yellow in colour. Traditionally, this vibrant hue is due to the presence of spices, but the piccalilli in this story was made during the nineteen eighties, a time in which cattle were being fed on the diseased brains of their fellows, and food manufacturers were busy working out the most outlandish flavouring combinations that they could think of, each supposedly mouth-watering mixture the result of long hours in the chemists’ laboratory. I have no direct evidence of this, but I harbour a deep suspicion that the vibrant colour of the pickle was due in no small part to the addition of some kind of toxic dye, probably derived from radioactive industrial waste, or possibly manufactured by accident in a bid to create high-visibility paint for road markings. The taste was certainly harsh enough, and there was something in the mix that was strong enough to strip the enamel from your teeth. But I was poor the time, and I seized on anything that might conceivably liven up the sad little cheese sandwiches that made up my lunch almost every day, the thin layers of the cheapest Cheddar slapped between thick slices of whatever bread was on special offer that week.
Not only did the pickle provide a welcome variation on the menu, but, I told myself, I was also adding to the vegetable content of my diet. And that’s healthy, isn't it?
It would be too strong to describe my piccalilli habit as an addiction, but we’ll call it a strongly felt need, and once the habit had made itself at home, I soon realised that I could economise by buying it in very large jars. The local Safeway, a now-defunct supermarket chain, sold vast jars of piccalilli, at least compared to the usual sizes available in the UK store, though I’m led to believe that these would be as nothing to the huge vats of food routinely offered to my transatlantic friends. I think that Safeway was linked to the American store of the same name, because I remember that they were unusual among supermarkets in this country at the time, in that they offered American-style paper bags to carry your groceries home. Surely, at a time when we’re trying to stop wasting plastic, this should be brought back, but no one seems to offer these bags anymore. I digress.
Back on the day in question, the paper bag and the large jar proved an unfortunate combination, and having just paid for my groceries, the paper bag split, the large jar of piccalilli falling gracefully to the floor. Being full, the jar didn’t make as much noise as you might imagine; it simply split apart with a dull crack, releasing a puddle of piccalilli to ooze across the floor. My heart sank. I didn’t have much money, and I’d just watched a large part of my weekly food budget going to waste in front of my eyes.
I put my feelings aside and opened my mouth to tell the young lady on the till what had happened, because remarkably, she had noticed nothing. But at this point, the store’s assistant manager arrived on the scene. I knew his status by the large plastic lapel badge he was wearing, which also proclaimed that his name was Gavin. Gavin was not much older than me, but it was clear that unlike me, he was a man on the make. His trousers bore sharpest increases, his regulation black jacket was pristine, and his shoes, oh his shoes, were very, very shiny indeed.
I braced myself to apologise, but much to my surprise, it transpired that Gavin had neither seen nor heard the catastrophic eruption of piccalilli. He’d come over, it seemed, to assert his authority over the girl on the till, and ignoring me, he marched forward with his shoulders back, his eyes alight with the certain knowledge that he was the master of all he surveyed. Or at least, the assistant master if such a thing can be imagined. Before I could say anything, he marched briskly toward me and stepped squarely into the mass of bright yellow pickle, the viscous liquid quickly coating his polished Oxfords. Oblivious, he attracted the attention the young lady on the checkout, and delivered his pep talk, clearly enjoying himself. I wanted very badly to interrupt this young man, but I couldn’t even think how to begin. I could only stand and watch as Gavin shuffled his feet from side to side, his prize shoes becoming progressively besmirched.
I felt sure that any moment he would notice the damage, and then he would turn on me, and I’d be doomed by my own silence. Some survival instinct told me that there had been a moment at which I could’ve rescued the situation, but that the moment had now well and truly past. And so, mortified, I clutched the remainder of my meagre supply of groceries to my chest and walked swiftly away.
The event had one happy side effect in that it put me off piccalilli for life. But what became of Gavin? He must have discovered what had happened quite soon after I left. I suppose his shoes could have been cleaned easily enough, and no doubt he dispatched some underling to sweep up the mess from the floor. But I’ve often wondered whether there was longer-lasting damage to his pride. Did the rank and file employees at the supermarket share the tale of how their glorious leader had been brought low? Did they titter behind his back as he strode through the aisles, a tangy miasma of pickling vinegar forever following in his wake?
I shall never know, but I like to think that he quickly forgot the whole incident and put it behind him. I, on the other hand, can still see those shiny shoes as if it were yesterday, even though at least three decades have passed, and in my imagination, the puddle of piccalilli has assumed vast proportions. I wish I’d said something before the moment passed, but it was an accident, and I doubt whether Gavin would have taken much notice if I’d tried to waylay him. He saw only a scruffy young man in need of a shave and a haircut; a young man who had the audacity to clutter up his temple to the costermongers’ art with his lamentably small bag of groceries.
I must have replayed the incident many times in my mind over the years, and I certainly wish it could have played out differently. Partly for Gavin’s sake, partly for the poor devil who had to clean the floor, but most of all, because I really wish I hadn’t lost all that damned piccalilli.