Tuesday 7 August 2018

True Grit

by Judy Upton

chocolate milkshake 

“Good afternoon Mr Lowe. I’m the duty solicitor today. I should advise you that the charges against you are very serious and if you do have a personal legal representative, you should probably inform them.” The young woman in the sharp suit spoke in a brusque, impersonal manner, but after spending the night in a police cell, I was happy to see even a none-to-friendly face. I told her I didn’t have a lawyer I could call, as I’d never been in trouble with the police. “Well you certainly appear to be in trouble now, Mr Lowe” she scowled. Clearly trying to put her client at his ease wasn’t on her agenda. “Have you watched the news at all in last few hours?” she added. I looked at her in disbelief.

“Watched the news? Err hello - I’ve been in a police cell for the last nine hours.” 

“And they’ve not updated you on the latest developments?” she continued, ignoring the sarcasm in my tone. ‘Developments’ sounded ominous. I decided not to ask. “You do know it’s still snowing, Mr Lowe? Snowing heavily. It’s chaos all over the borough, complete chaos.” The knot in my stomach tightened. More snow. This was the worst news possible, if worse news was actually possible. Things had been looking pretty bleak at the point I was arrested, though as I should point out, none of it was my fault. Well not really. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all began yesterday. It was my first day in a new job. I’d been promoted to head of the Highways Department at the council. Finally, I had my well-deserved leadership position, with a whole department to run, my own office and best of all a salary of seventy five thousand pounds per anum. I’d worked incredibly hard for this promotion, really putting in the overtime. They’d interviewed loads of people for the role, but the thing that swung it for me, is that I’m really good at stretching budgets and cutting costs. That’s the most important thing these days isn’t it? 

So it was my first morning in the job and about an hour in, I received a call from a council in the north of Scotland. They’ve still got really icy weather up there this spring. Their problem was they were running short of grit for their roads. So in desperation they were ringing around councils in the south of England where the weather’s far milder, to see if anyone had got any left. Up to that point they’d had no luck, but I did a quick check on my screen and discovered we still had thirty-two tonnes of grit left. As it’s May now, we weren’t going to see any more ice and snow here until next winter, were we? 

The Scottish council said they were willing to pay twenty thousand for all our remaining grit. I told them I was sorry but I couldn’t let it go for less than thirty. What could they do? They’d already told me they’d tried everywhere else. We were their last resort. They agreed to cough up. So on my first day in the job, I’d already made the council thirty grand! 

I rang the wife to tell her the good news. We were on the verge of getting divorced before I got this promotion. We’d drifted apart, during the long hours I’d been putting in. Well, it was that, and her discovering a number of non work-related texts from Gemma in Environmental Health on my phone. Anyway I still imagined Anna would be pleased I was making such a success of my new role, but in truth she sounded a little worried.

“Have you seen the weather forecast, Jonas? A gale from the Atlantic is bringing severe icy conditions to the South East this evening.” This was not something I wanted to hear. My heart began to pound. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to sell our entire grit supply this morning. Anna’s gasp of horror at this news was all I needed to hear, to realise the scale of my error. Promising to call her back later, I ran downstairs to our depot to cancel the order. It was unfortunately too late. All the lorries had already left for Scotland. All our grit was gone, and the payment for it had gone through. I couldn’t call the lorries back. The goods were legally sold. That’s when I really started to panic.
I rang every council in the country, but wherever I tried, I received the same answer as Scottish council had, before I’d rashly sold them all our grit. Nobody had any grit to spare. It was an emergency, and there was only thing I do in emergencies. I rang my wife. For some reason though, she did not sound happy to hear from me. “You again. What now?” she snapped.

   “Darling… where can I get hold of a large amount of grit, privately?” I asked. Anna thought for a moment and then suggested I try all the local garden centres. If they were running short then pet shops might be able to put me in touch with their suppliers of budgie or chicken grit. Failing that, a council in an area with a beach might have some tiny shingle that could be shovelled from the seashore and sent my way. I told Anna that she was amazing and that I love her. I don’t know what I’d do without that woman sometimes.

Unfortunately it turned out that the garden centres had all sold out to private customers that morning, budgie grit comes in tiny packets, and there are bylaws preventing the removal of sand and shingle from beaches. I rang Anna back. When she answered she sounded rather annoyed, saying she was just going shopping. “Yes, but I’ve still got a bit of a problem, love. No joy getting any grit, and they’re saying a hard frost is expected by tonight’s rush hour and that means black ice.” I heard her sigh deeply. She suggested we meet in the supermarket in half an hour. She’d try to think of something. 

I met Anna in the first of the grocery aisles. She was looking about her and shushed me when I went to speak. She told me she was searching for products that were brown in colour and gritty in texture. I pointed out that just because a product resembled grit, it might not work like grit when applied to a road surface. Anna rolled her eyes in exasperation. 

“At this point, if it even looks like grit, it’s a start. Do you want to lose your job, Jonas? If not, you’re going have put something down on the roads. Something that looks like grit, even if it isn’t.” I was horrified. What was she thinking? I insisted that there was no way I was going to put anything that wasn’t actually grit down on our borough’s roads. “So what are you going to do, Jonas?” Anna sneered. “Re-invent the wheel so it doesn’t slip? That’s not possible, so the next best thing is this. Re-invent road grit. Use another product.” 

I had to admit she had a point. I looked at the row of jars on the shelf in front of me. Peanut butter! That was brown and lumpy. Anna groaned. “It’ll stick to the tyres, you idiot.” We walked on around the shop.

    “Rocky Road ice cream.” I suggested in the freezer aisle.

“Ice cream is the same as ice. You’d put ice on ice? Do try to focus, Jonas” my wife scolded. 

By now we had reached the section containing breakfast cereals, and that’s where Anna found the answer to my prayers. Chocolate cornflakes! It was so perfect I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it. Crushed under the wheels of vehicles they’d be gritty and stop them from skidding. The only problem was that we couldn’t just waltz up to the checkout with the entire stock. It would arouse suspicion. Anna however had the solution. I should return to my office and order the chocolate cornflakes direct from the factory, by the lorry-load, loose. This would ensure that onlookers seeing the trucks approaching the council depot would assume that they contained legitimate grit, and also, it should mean I could purchase the cornflakes at a wholesale rather than retail price.

“You’re a genius, Anna. What would I do without you?” My wife still looked less than charmed however, dismissing me curtly, saying she had other things to be getting on with.

Back in the office I got straight on to a breakfast cereal manufacturer. They turned out to be based less than fifty miles away and assured me that they could get the stuff into their lorries and straight out to us immediately for thirty grand. Bang went all the money I’d made a few hours previously from selling our grit. Easy come easy go, I suppose. As soon as the trucks containing the chocolate cornflakes arrived, I put on my hard hat and went down to the depot to supervise the filling of the gritters. It was freezing cold out there already. I told our gritting lorry drivers that this was a new, improved grit formula so it looked slightly different from the old stuff. They seemed content with this explanation. 

I stayed at the depot supervising the transfer of the cornflakes from supply trucks to gritting lorries all afternoon. It was starting to get icy as I drove home. The roads had fortunately been gritted, well ‘cornflaked’ by then however. The surface of the tarmac was crunchy, but not slippery. I detected a certain aura of smugness about Anna over dinner. Anna always saves the day and Anna is always right, but that is in part why I married her. As we cleared the plates away, my phone rang. It was Gemma from Environmental Health. Apparently they had a bit of a pigeon problem. Birds were flocking down onto roads and streets all over the borough. People were having to drive around them. I told her that the pigeons were just huddling together for warmth like penguins do because it was so cold. She seemed to buy it.

Anna frowned when she realised who it was on the phone. She gets very jealous, does Anna, well where Gemma is concerned anyway. At least it would be dark soon. The birds would go to roost and stop eating the chocolate cornflakes that were gritting the roads. Then I had a slightly worrying thought “Hey love, foxes don’t eat breakfast cereal do they?” Anna though was staring out of the window. 

    “Oh look it’s snowing now” she said, a strange, tight little smile on her face. 

It continued to snow heavily all evening. Soon it was ten centimetres deep. My phone rang again. It was the driver of one of the gritting lorries, reporting that cars were skidding off the road and into each other all over the borough. The grit seemed to somehow have gone soggy in the snow, he said, adding that in his opinion something was very wrong with it. Apparently the AA was now analysing samples of it. My mouth went dry. I looked at Anna. 

“Don’t look at me,” she said.

 “But what do I do?” 

“I don’t know. You can’t expect me to have all the answers. This is your mess, Jonas.”

It certainly was. A huge, great sticky, chocolately mess to be precise. What should I do? Should I confess? If I did, I’d be charged with fraud or criminal negligence. It could be even more serious if anyone was actually hurt, or killed. If I confess, I reasoned, I’ll probably go to prison. Perhaps instead I could pretend it was some kind of ordering error. I could say I ticked the wrong box and received cereal, not grit. As an excuse it was not the best, but it was better than nothing.        
I went back to the office, trudging through the snow rather than risking driving. On the way I saw cars stuck in hedges or just left abandoned in the snow. From the office I called the local radio and TV stations. I told them that because of extremely adverse weather conditions, the council was strongly advising everyone to leave their vehicles wherever they were and to seek shelter. “Do not drive under any circumstances.” That should do it, I hoped, firmly crossing my fingers. At least no calls had come in yet where someone mentioned that the road grit that had failed to stop their swerving car had smelt of chocolate. 

An hour later, still at the office, I switched on the TV to check they were broadcasting my warning. There on the local news, standing outside our house and talking to a reporter was my wife. She was standing with her hair freshly combed, wearing a smart skirt and sweater and her favourite red lipstick, as if she had been somehow expecting the TV crew’s arrival. “As a public-spirited individual I felt I simply must come forward to let the country know the terrible thing my soon-to-be-ex husband has done.” I dropped the remote and just gawped at the screen. “No more questions for now I’m afraid” Anna then purred, that smug look again on her face “as I’ve already sold the exclusive story to a national newspaper, of my life with the cereal fraudster.” 

I paused in my story to check that the solicitor was still listening to what I was telling her. She certainly appeared to be, and had even made a few scrawled notes, but there was still nothing remotely resembling understanding on her face. In fact her eyes appeared harder and angrier than when she had walked in. I took a deep breath.

“So you see the whole thing is actually my wife’s idea. She’s set me up by suggesting I have the roads of the borough gritted with chocolate cornflakes. Now she’ll get a divorce settlement and a big fat cheque from the newspaper. While me, Iend up in jail and sued by just about everyone.” 
The solicitor nodded curtly.

 “It certainly looks like that way, doesn’t it?” she agreed.

“As a solicitor shouldn’t you be just a little bit more sympathetic?” 

The solicitor glared at me. “My car’s a write off from skidding on ice on my way here, Mr Lowe.” Her voice was now icier than the weather. 

“But isn’t there something you can do?” I pleaded. 

“Well let me see,” she smiled, with malice rather than pity in her eyes “I could see if the custody sergeant will bring you a nice cup of tea. And how about some breakfast eh? A nice bowl of chocolate cornflakes perhaps?”

About the author

 Judy has won The George Devine Award for her stage play ASHES AND SAND and Verity Bargate Award for BRUISES. Plays include: ASHES AND SAND, Royal Court; BRUISES, Royal Court; SLIDING WITH SUZANNE, Royal Court; TEAM SPIRIT, National Theatre; THE GIRLZ, Orange Tree; NOCTROPIA, Hampstead Theatre. Her feature films are ASHES AND SAND and MY IMPRISONED HEART.
She has had 6 original dramas broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and one on BBC TV. She has had a number of short stories published and her first novel MAISIE AND MRS WEBSTER has just been published by Orion Books as part of Hometown Tales, South Coast. Her website is at www.judyupton.co.uk


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