Austerity Measures

Alex Reece Abbott

Towards the end of a long, cold winter, Kat was spinning out her coffee in the free warmth of the supermarket cafe.

She was recovering from another gruelling spat with her ex, who’d just been laid-off again. And, straight after that squabble, she’d had a grim twelve-month review with her latest adviser at the job-centre. Chanelle, a former nail technician turned job-coach who looked like she’d come straight from college, had instructed Kat to dumb down her CV. Apparently, she’d acquired too many skills during her twenty years in the world of work, and it was putting off the employers. 

Chanelle had lined up an interview with some debt brokers: a job chasing down other skint people with credit card arrears. Everyone has to start somewhere, she’d said, before segueing into her spiel about some new benefit sanctions policy. 

You’re a bloody clerk, not the United Nations, Kat had thought. 

Chanelle’s parting jab had been about accepting job offers, as if awkward Kat had been inundated. It was a numbers game, a matter of time, Chanelle loved to crow, like she was hosting an employment lottery. This is my life, Kat wanted to scream while tasering some sense into her.

Kat took another small sip of her flat white coffee. Bored with people-watching, she’d already trawled the aisles, looking at all the food that she couldn’t afford. 

Tired of the couples with too much happiness, money and spray-tan in the complimentary Okay magazine - that she’d never be caught dead buying - she glanced at the giant, wall-mounted widescreen, where the news channel blared. 

 

She was debating whether to spend her last loyalty card points on a slice of chocolate cake, when she saw the tall man with the Kirk Douglas chin again. 

She sighed to herself at the harsh truth. All the best ones were already taken, or flawed.

When he paused at her table, she saw he had a chunk of millionaire’s shortbread and a coffee – and thank God, a receipt. So, he was not entirely bad. She dared to think that her luck might be changing, until she looked around and saw that there were no free tables.

“Mind if I join you?” He smiled, flashing his white, even – very straight – teeth and pointed at an empty chair. 

With his kind blue eyes, and his smooth, lightly tanned skin, he could have strolled off the set of Downton Abbey. Upstairs, of course. 

“Help yourself.” She swept away the magazine, sucked in her stomach and sat a little straighter in her chair. 

He glanced at her empty cup, and placed his leather backpack carefully on the chair beside him. “Let me get you a coffee for intruding.” 

Before she could answer, he’d strolled off to the counter. His designer jeans fitted him perfectly. Everywhere.

He returned with a cappuccino, and slid a thick slice of millionaire’s shortbread towards her. “Hope you’re hungry - this looked too good to pass up.” He ran a hand through his glossy dark hair. His manicured fingers were long and tapered. No rings. 

“Thanks.” She eyed the shortbread. “You looked pretty busy when I saw you earlier.”

He glanced around the cafe. “Yes, I’ve had quite a lot to get done today.” 

“Hard day?”

“Not compared to some.” His voice was soothing, trained beyond any particular regional accent. 

She guessed he was about five years younger than her, although he had the manner of someone much older. “Big cheese fan, are you?”

He sat back in his chair and stared at her without blinking. 

“It’s alright.” She smiled. “I saw you earlier.”

“Saw me?” His frown accentuated the cleft in his chin.

“The digital economy. Five finger discount,” mouthed Kat.

He checked his chunky chronograph watch. “Sorry...I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ve got to get going.”

She surprised herself by reaching out and touching his arm. “I’m not going to do anything. It’s just that...well, I used to be in the business myself.”

He arched his perfect eyebrows.

She laughed. “God no, not on your side. I was a cop. Got laid off a couple of years ago with the cuts, did a spell of in-store security. Well, until there was no store to secure. But not here. And, now I’m unemployed, it’s no skin off my nose what you… Been doing it long?” 

She took a bite of the sweet shortbread. When she brushed the spray of crumbs spraying over her. She brushed them off, leaving a blood-spatter trail of melted chocolate down her front. 

He cradled his backpack. “About a year and a half.”

“Just cheese?”

He studied his coffee, weighing his words. “I specialise. Cheese is light, easy to conceal – plus, there’s an excellent risk-reward ratio. And, completely victimless, all covered by insurance.”

 

“Ah, the Robin Hood model.” She stabbed at the crumbs on her plate. 

“Well, you’re very good.”

He reddened. “Thanks.”

“So, what do you do for a crust...I mean, when you’re not busy being a tea-leaf?”

“It’s not theft - it’s dairy redistribution.” He wagged a finger at her. 

“I shop to order. I’m not some...”

She watched him scanning the room. “Cheese bandit?” 

He bit his lip. “It’s funding my PhD. I used to do some modelling, but the bottom’s fallen out of that now.”

“Boom, boom.” Kat wiped her hands and wished that she’d made time to do her nails. 

“Seriously, a good Emmental is like gold these days. A nice little piece of organic Roquefort...” He sucked his teeth. “Set you back twenty pounds, easy.”

She inhaled, and a piece of shortbread lodged in her throat. Twenty quid was more than a third of her weekly job seeker’s allowance.

He rubbed his hands together. “Cheese is the new chorizo. Vegan. Organic. Regional. Wholesale-retail. Cheeseboards to order. Cheese wedding cakes. I’ve built up a nice customer base, mostly word of mouth. A lot of repeat business. I can hardly keep up with the demand.” He frowned again. “None of the stuff is for me, though. That would be theft.”

She coughed and glanced away. Of course it would. They’d called it cognitive dissonance at Police College. All the buffering excuses and neat rationalisations that crooks devise, so they can live with themselves. 

Over his shoulder, she saw a grandmotherly cleaner brandishing her brush and pan. A young manager appeared, wearing her cheap nylon uniform with more ostentation than Kat ever recalled seeing on the force. After barking at the woman, the manager marched off to her office. The woman carried on, slowly clanking around the tables. Kat waited for her to pass, depressed by the idea that she was glimpsing her future: a never-ending series of boring, low-paid jobs, where she was treated like dirt.

He was sitting with his elegant hands palms down in front of him, very still, almost formal. “Everybody’s looking after themselves these days. Restaurants are struggling, cash-strapped people are forced to cut back. I offer them a cost effective alternative, so they can maintain a little piece of their lifestyle. Okay, I make a good profit, but I give a good deal too.” 

After he’d taken a mouthful of his coffee, he held up a hand. “Sorry, I never asked – do you like cheese?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know much about it, but yes. I mean I’m not a 

fanatic — ”

“ — Tyrophile,” he corrected.

“Really?” She pulled a face. “Okay, I’m not one of those.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not catching.” He broke his shortbread into four even pieces. “I should’ve said, if you ever need cheese, I’m your man.”

Kat toasted him with her coffee. “Thanks. Can’t say I’ve ever had a cheese-man before.” She rubbed her chin. “Still, I don’t think I’ll...”

He groaned. “Please, not all that conscience palaver. These chain stores deserve it – look how they’re gutting our town centres.”

 

“I get it - you’re an economic warrior, and your revolutionary tool is the world’s most shoplifted food,” said Kat, wondering when he’d volunteer his name.

“Entrepreneur,” he corrected. “You know, building the new economy.” 

“Tell me...” She tried to think of a delicate way to phrase her question.

“You want to know how I do it?” He gave her a broad grin.

“Indulge me. Let me guess, for old time’s sake,” said Kat. 

He chewed his bottom lip. “Okay...go for it.”

“That lovely leather backpack has a false bottom, in case you ever get caught?”

He nodded. “Each visit, I do several rounds, collecting in small batches. You don’t want a lot of bags, it looks too suspicious. At the end of each round, I decant in the gents, from the jacket to the backpack.”

“And, if you get searched?” said Kat.

“Very rare, but I keep a Milton Friedman textbook stashed above the false bottom. Capitalism and Freedom, that usually puts them right off. And, I always check out a couple of small, high value items...”

    “Ahhhhh mais oui, ze Trojan goose fat,” she said.

“Correct – which I’ll just re-sell.”

“I’m sure.”    She looked ruefully at her empty plate.            

The shiny politician on the widescreen was ending his news conference. 

“In these difficult times, we must all make tough decisions,” they mimicked, both giggling.

 

 

 

He folded his hands. “Of course, now they’ve gone with pre-cut here, 

I’ve got a much wider range to choose from,” he confided. “And my... associate...on the inside, he helps out with the bigger, high value items – cave-aged truckles of Cheddar, whole Stiltons, Dubbus, Gubbeen. Artisan cheeses.” 

He winked and lowered his voice. “You’d be surprised at the amount of stock on order that never arrives...deliveries can be very unreliable.” He nodded towards a thin, sour-faced young woman standing behind the deli counter. 

“And speaking of austerity measures, she’s a lazy backstabber. I do some of my best work when she’s on, just to mess with her waste targets.”

Kat laughed, and almost choked on her coffee. They chatted about nightmare employers that they’d known, although she didn’t like to dwell on how her career had turned out. Tough times, tougher decisions. He didn’t look much like an anti-capitalist. No scruffy coat, or utility pants with obvious storage pockets for him. He wore Harris tweed, green mix, the colour for camouflage and hunting.

He caught her admiring his beautifully tailored jacket. 

“Custom design?” she asked, sure that he still had plenty of poacher’s pockets.

“I prefer bespoke, and my tailor in Hong Kong asks no questions.” He patted his lapels. “He’s unrivalled when it comes to discreet storage.”

He put on a pair of tortoiseshell Prada glasses, then pulled an expensive-looking anorak over his jacket. A black beanie completed his new ensemble. He stood up and hooked his backpack over his shoulder. “Well, people to do, things to see. Same time next week?”

Yes, you want to keep me close, thought Kat, knowing she was more of a decoy than a date. She nodded. “Same time next week.”

She watched him thank the grandmother-cleaner when he returned his tray, then stride purposefully across the car-park.

Would eating his redistributed dairy produce really count as receiving stolen goods ...a nice ewe’s milk cheese, perhaps? That preoccupied her to the bottom of her watery cup. And, saved her from dwelling on her decision not to report him.

His crisp, forensically viable footprints were melting in the snow. 

At least, until the sun came out, she had some evidence that she hadn’t imagined him.

 

A few days later Kat was parking on an industrial estate way out past the ring road. She was stranded by a sea of office blocks that a toddler with Lego could have built.

True to her word, Chanelle had set up an interview at CreditShift. Someone had graffitied the company sign with a fat black pen, so it said CreditShaft. She sighed. Going through the motions had to be marginally better than getting sanctioned.

With a patronising smirk, the receptionist introduced her to Mark and Jonno, the directors. Squeezed beside each other behind an oversized boardroom table, they had one piece of a paper and single pen between them. And, a Blackberry each. 

The only decoration was a motivational poster, with a seagull urging her to soar to her goals. Appropriate, in light of their robbing ways and tendency to drop shite all over people, thought Kat.

 

 

Mark’s polo shirt had broad black horizontal stripes that accentuated the extra weight he was carrying. His fleshy chins seeded stubble, and his small eyes had the puffy sallow rings of a swarthy Beagle Boy. All he needed now was the numbered prison ID-tag. 

Sleek, sandy, Jonno, bared his pointy teeth. In his pink shirt and wide spotted tie, he had more than a hint of louche weasel about him. She doubted that they added up to fifty between them - in years, or IQ.

Jonno waved her to a seat, wedged against between the wall and the table. She thought she recognised him, but that was the problem with having been on the force: so many faces. Her friend down at the station could run a sneaky check on him. 

“Now then, Kate, Chantelle’s shown us your CV.” Jonno’s voice was deep and dripping with oil. He winked, or had grit in his contact lens. “Very impressive. Little bit of polish going on?” 

Mark guffawed. “No shame, Katy. Everybody does it. We have, haven’t we, Jonno?” He tapped the table with his thumb. “Three B’s – blag, brag and BS.” 

Jonno outlined The CreditShift Model and the new enforcer role. She didn’t try to swallow her yawn. Everyone knew how these robbing, parasitic gits operated. 

Mark knotted his thick fingers. “The main thing is, these people, they do need a firm — ”

“ — But, friendly.” Jonno grinned.

Mark nodded like the toy dog in a car rear window. “Totally. A firm – but, friendly – hand to help them break out of the debt cycle. That’s what we’re about.”

It didn’t seem to occur to them that as a first responder, she’d attended more than her share of “train incidents”, after companies like theirs had targeted people with their dodgy tactics, pressuring them until they turned into jumpers.

Jonno asked if she had any questions, and the silence opened into a chasm. Finally, she escaped.

She sat in her car for a moment, scrubbing her hands with a good with an antibacterial wipe from her glove-box. Then she drove off, still praying that her near monosyllabic answers and total apathy had put them off. 

They phoned her that afternoon. She was just what they were looking for. And Chanelle – probably on the take, thought Kat - had been right. They’d loved her dumbed down CV. They were even prepared to start her on ten pence above minimum wage, to reflect her experience. 

Her next caller was Chanelle, who just had to congratulate her. Of course, Kat would be taking the new job – and, CreditShift would become eligible for a training subsidy. Now, when could she pop in and sign off?

 

The next day, Kat found the cheese-man in the cooks’ ingredients section, studying packets of porcini. His earbuds dangled around his collar like abolo tie. 

The basket at his feet held a jar of luxury French goose fat. He smelt woody and sweet, like the outdoors.

“Coffee?” she called over her shoulder, as she wheeled her trolley past. “My shout.”

He grinned. “See you in the cafe.”

 

She gave him a nod, and made her way to the tower of own-brand baked beans and economy condoms: three for the price of two. She stocked up on beans.

In the cafe, she ordered a filter coffee, and an Americano with an oozing slab of millionaire’s shortbread for him. She collected her usual pot of hot water from the counter to eke out her coffee. 

All week, she’d been working out her next step. Too old for an apprenticeship, too young to retire. She could probably take in a couple of boarders to pay the mortgage. She shuddered, remembering some of the flats that she’d shared as a student. Definitely a worst case scenario.

Or, she could emigrate. That stuck in her craw too. If she was going to ship herself to the other side of the world at vast expense, it would be because she wanted to go – and, not because she was being forced out of her own country like an economic refugee. 

If she could take the conscientious objection option, then CreditShite was a definite no, but Chanelle barely had a pulse, let alone a conscience. Or, she could keep on applying for underpaid, menial jobs with the fifty-nine others that went for every piffling vacancy. 

Transferable skills. Another one of Chanelle’s favourite phrases. No sense wasting them. Kat had already decided: she wasn’t going to CreditShite or anywhere else. She’d been rehearsing her business proposition for the cheese-man.

Cover. She could help him to keep standards high as demand grew – and, it was sure to, the way the economy kept on tanking. Then, there was all her inside knowledge of policing and store security. That would be an asset too. 

Tough times, tougher decisions – they always said that two heads were better than one. That old cop inside her, the one who’d joined up, feeling so sure that she’d have a job for life, the one still occasionally walked the beat – she was well and truly taking early retirement.

She smiled, picturing Chanelle’s face when she explained that she couldn’t take up CreditShaft’s offer. Then she’d flash her updated CV: Tyrophile

That means cheese-lover, she’d explain, savouring the confusion on her tangerine face. Then, she’d add: I don’t think it’s on your computer’s drop-down list of career options. She’d pitch it as less of a dumbing down,  more a sideways move. 

That would shut her up.

Kat pushed away her cup of dregs, and waited for her cheese-man.