Open 2024 Stories - Kirsty Bates


Unexpected Item

By Kirsty Bates


Todd was halfway through his disciplinary meeting, barely listening to a word the pillowy HR assistant shipped down from Head Office had to say, his gaze fixed on a damp stain blotted across the ceiling tiles. He knew there was talk of transferring him to a neighbouring store, but that the ‘complaint’ would stay on his file indefinitely. Todd played the word over in his mind.


A complaint made him think of the cantankerous old women that would come to the store on pension day, complaining that the new self checkouts were ‘taking honest people’s jobs’. In a way they were right, Todd mused, as Jess’s job was to supervise the self checkouts, and she was the least honest person he knew.

He waited patiently for three months to speak to Jess properly. She tended to just work the weekends in between semesters at university. Inevitably, she’d be nursing a hangover and flicking her till keys absent-mindedly, her eyes rounded in the sultry shadow of residue mascara. She would only manage a polite hello as he smiled nervously, watching as she authorised his staff discount on his usual post-night-shift breakfast: two energy drinks and a bundle of reduced-to-clear pastries. He longed to stretch out their conversation, but he was all too aware that he had to compete for her attention against the queue of miserable businessmen, clutching at newspapers and pre-packaged sandwiches.


Todd swore they’d all perk-up eventually, once Jess sauntered over to attend to whatever unexpected items had turned up in their bagging areas. Todd’s opportunity finally came when Jess applied to work her first night shift, and inducting her would give him the chance to hold down some semblance of a conversation, even if it just meant pointing out where not to walk in the supermarket’s cavernous storeroom if you wanted to avoid being shat on by a pigeon.

Part of the appeal of working overnight was that you got paid an enhanced rate, and Jess needed the extra cash for her impending all-girls holiday to Ibiza, where a bottle of water alone could cost you ten Euros — or so he’d overheard her saying in the staffroom. The night shifts had a stillness to them that Todd preferred compared to the chaos of the day, where children would throw tantrums down the confectionary aisles over the two-tone chime of the tannoy.


On a typical shift, Todd would amble about the deserted car park in his too-big hi-vis jacket, fishing shopping trolleys out of shrubs like forgotten victims of a hit-and-run. On his break, which he’d take alone, he’d cruise his striped Peugeot through the nearby McDonald’s drive-thru, greeting the servers with a nod of solidarity as they stifled yawns down their headsets.

Jess, Todd observed, was just as laissez-faire on a night shift as she was during the day. She found the stock cages too hard to manoeuvre and moaned that tearing through shrink wrap risked breaking her acrylic nails. Instead, she busied herself lightly spritzing the checkouts with Dettol while Todd picked up her slack, hauling sacks of cat litter to the pet aisle and racking his brain for something interesting to ask her. Eventually, Todd settled on offering to take her to McDonald’s if he joined her on his break.

‘You’re paying again, right?’ Jess asked as they pulled up to the drive-thru speaker on their third consecutive night shift together, Todd’s souped-up engine emitting a low purr.

Todd let Jess lean across the driver’s seat to place her order, her blonde hair hanging low over his lap. He liked that he could smell her perfume, light and airy, like laundry left out in the sun. When they parked up to eat, he watched her — with a mixture of horror and arousal — as she plunged her fries into her strawberry milkshake and ate them one by one, stopping to lick pink foam from the corners of her mouth.

‘What do you think of this for Ibiza?’ she asked, turning her phone around to show him a photo of a woman modelling a simple white bikini.

‘Bit boring,’ he said, through a mouthful of burger patty.

‘No, it’s chic,’ she hissed. ‘I knew you’d be the wrong person to ask.’ A WhatsApp message swung down from the top of Jess’s phone. Todd recognised the sender’s name as one of the store’s duty managers.

‘What’s Darryl doing, messaging you at this time of night?’ Todd asked instinctively, his voice rising higher than intended. Jess hastily cleared the notification with a swipe of her pointed nail. She blushed, stuffing her phone into the pocket of her fleece.

‘No reason,’ she said, brushing the hair from her face and turning to stare out of Todd’s tinted window. ‘We’re just friends.’

‘You know he’s nearly twice your age, right? And married.’

‘Good job we’re just friends then,’ she snapped back. Todd flexed his knuckles around his steering wheel. Darryl, with his white BMW and too-tight polo shirt — the sleeves rolled up until they strained against his biceps — often peacocked around the checkouts, where he sent most of the hot girls to work because he thought it would drive sales, and more sales meant bigger bonuses. He was in his late thirties — ten years Todd’s senior — although Todd no longer had the hairline to prove it. In fact, it was Darryl who often liked to draw attention to the palm-sized bald patch creeping across Todd’s crown.

‘Just be careful,’ Todd finally replied. ‘I don’t trust him.’ Jess rolled her eyes and took a slurp of her milkshake.

Jess had plans with her friends the following week, so hadn’t applied for any more night shifts. In her absence, Todd resumed his usual break-time rituals, except he no longer propped his phone up against his dashboard to watch gameplay videos, instead swiped back and forth through Jess’s recent Instagram stories. He clicked impatiently through the basic ones — her hand clutching an iced coffee, walks with her mum’s crusty white dog — until he reached the ones posted after dark. His eyes hungered over blurry videos of her, stumbling from club to club, dressed in Daisy Dukes, her hair unruly.


He watched her wrap her glossy lips around shot glasses and gyrate against her friends, the dance floors slick with spilled booze. Seemingly, no moment went undocumented, lending Todd the fantasy that he was somehow there with her, his hand resting on the exposed skin above the waistline of her shorts, damp with sweat and shea butter, steering her into the back of an Uber set for his house. He typed: U look good in that outfit. It landed at the bottom of a pile of similar messages he’d sent in recent days, left to fester and rot unacknowledged.

The following night, Todd sat alone in his usual car parking space, the sky fading from purple to orange, like a bruise. His thumbs twitched as the cursor on his phone flashed at him expectantly. He was so preoccupied with what username to choose for his new Snapchat profile that he’d barely touched his McDonald’s, dark grease pooling on the paper bags on his passenger seat. He eventually settled on ‘DarrylBigD_86’, and set to work on creating a personal avatar to match: skin fade, blue eyes, and light stubble.

Todd stopped to take a sip of his Fanta and admire his work, a smirk itched at his lips as a miniature Darryl blinked stupidly back at him. He searched for Jess and added her as a friend, determined to prove to himself he was right: it was only the likes of Darryl that could elicit a response from a hot checkout girl, and where would that leave Todd, with his sparse beard and premature balding? Left to pick from the girls who were only good for facing up the freezers.

With a ping, Jess accepted his request, and messaged him a single question mark. Luckily Todd had already drafted his explanation halfway around the drive-thru. He claimed that his wife, or rather, Darryl’s wife, was growing suspicious, and so he’d abandoned WhatsApp in favour of Snapchat, the app’s disappearing message feature being the main draw.

'Awkward haha,' Jess replied.

Satisfied enough that she believed him, Todd found himself settling into the role of Darryl like slipping into a well-fitting jacket. His fingers danced freely across his keyboard, teasing her about how many men he expected would be lining up to buy her drinks in Amnesia, how many heads she’d turn gliding out of the sea in her two-piece, confident his behaviour would only ever be branded as ‘cheeky’, never ‘creepy’. ‘Creepy’ was a word solely reserved for Todd. He continued to pepper his messages with more compliments, emojis and kisses, in the hope it would keep her sweet and forthcoming. His break had already overran by the time he asked her to send a nude. The moving ellipsis that indicated she was typing started and stopped, like a faltering Mexican wave.

What do I get in exchange? She eventually wrote back. Todd could feel the sweat sticking to his palms. He could hardly offer to send a photo back, and stealing a shirtless screenshot from Darryl’s Instagram would look too obvious. His eyes combed the car park as he searched for some inspiration of what he could say that would be convincing enough. He clocked a litter bin he forgot to empty earlier.

I can pay u, he finally typed, through shallow breaths.

In the statement Jess supplied to HR ahead of Todd’s disciplinary, she omitted the part about the money. Presumably she didn’t want to risk anyone asking her to pay it back, given she’d already blown it on three designer bikinis and upgraded to priority boarding. At the time, Todd tried to take his mind off just how many additional shifts he’d have to pick up to make the money back, how he’d have to switch to bringing in packed lunches from home. Instead, he thought of how good she looked in her going-out clothes on Instagram, and how she might look without them, ankles crossed coyly, like how she stood at the checkouts.


He cautiously inputted the price she named into his PayPal app, the adrenaline that thumped through him threatening his thumbs to mistype even more zeros. He tapped the send button, the anticipation flooding hot blood to his crotch as he shifted in his seat. His phone chimed like a slamming cash register, cutting through the silence of the dawn. The transfer was complete, and with it, came another message from Jess.

'Todd what the fuck?!? Did you not think to change the name on your PayPal?'


Kirsty Bates is a writer and charity worker originally from Southampton, England. She gained a BA (Hons) English degree from the University of Chichester. She likes oversized jumpers and pickled onions, and lives in North London with her cat, Gomez.


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