Short Story — Short Changed by Gladys Hobson

Short Changed by Gladys Hobson

A little sweetness is the cause of many a problem

Roger Trumpington, six feet of hefty flesh dressed in corduroy trousers and tweed jacket aromatised with cigars, which might have been pleasant had it not been as stale as the whiskey pong that accompanied it, looked again at the till receipt and counted the change just handed to him. His face turned red with indignation.
“I’ve been short changed,” he said, his whole manner imperious as though talking to a lesser mortal. “I gave you a twenty pound note.”
“I don’t think so, sir,” the girl at the counter said in a trembling voice, in tune with her shaking hands playing a concerto on the counter.
“I should know what I handed over,” Roger stated, snatching out his wallet and searching the note pockets.
He splayed the wallet in front of the shrinking assistant, presently five feet tall but surely not for long. The pathetic creature— skinny limbs protruding from a cherry-red uniform— seemed to be disappearing behind the till, as though it acted as armour to ward off the verbal battering ram.
“Look here, woman —twenty-pound notes only. I had five, now I have four. That is all the money I have on me, plus the change you have just handed me.” A triumphant grunt accompanied the twitching of his shaggy moustache and a straightening of his shoulders. “Now, please hand over the tenner my change is lacking, and we’ll say no more about it.”
“But you only gave me ten pounds, sir.” Her worried face had turned the colour of her uniform hat — white with red blotches. “I put the note with the other tens.” She pressed a key on the till and it sprung open. “You see, there are no twenties with the tens.”
“Clearly you did nothing of the kind. My patience is wearing thin. Hand me the rest of my change at once.” He thumped the desk, causing the till drawer to tremble and rattle the coins.
A nattily dressed, overweight lady, sitting at a close-by table, took out a pen and small notebook from her handbag. Being a reporter on the Hepstone weekly newspaper, and recognising the bullying customer as a newsworthy person, she couldn’t believe her luck. She sipped at her tea and waited for a fracas to develop.
“Can I be of some assistance?” With all the customers’ eyes fixed on the drama taking place at the till counter, the café owner had materialised like a rose-scented genie out of a vodka bottle. She half-staggered to the till desk.
Trumpington visibly relaxed. “Ah, perhaps you will instruct this assistant to give me what is mine. I gave her a twenty pound note, she has given me change for a tenner.”
“But he only gave me ten pounds, Mrs Bradley. I put his note here with the tens. See, there are no twenties here.” The accused rubbed at the tears threatening to stream down her cheeks. “Look for yourself.”
“But are you sure you put the note with the tens, Ethel?”
“Of course. If it had been a twenty I would have put it with the twenties.”
Mrs Bradley smiled sweetly at Trumpington. “It seems there has been a mistake somewhere. It will sort itself out when I count the cash against the receipts this evening. Could I have your phone number please? I will let you know the result tomorrow morning.”
Trumpington’s moustache bristled as anger purpled his cheeks. “Are you doubting my honesty? Outrageous!” His overheated breath, oozing of garlic and Gorgonzola cheese, reached out to embrace all within reach. “Do you know who I am, madam? You happen to be speaking to Roger Trumpington, Lord of Little Kirkstone Manor, and Conservative candidate at the coming election.” Spit glistened on his hirsute upper lip, like beads of dew on a doormat.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir. No doubt a mistake has been made.” All of Mrs Bradley’s five feet and six inches of height, stood to attention, uncurling the wrinkles from her smoky-grey dress. But the furrows in her face sharpened with concern. She turned to the shrunken Ethel, now completely hidden from customer view.
“Return the twenty pounds to this customer immediately, Ethel. The meal is on the house.”
“But, Mrs Br—”
“At once. No argument. And please apologise.”
“I said, no. I am not the liar. He only gave me ten pounds.”
A cacophony of voices filled the air:
“Apologise…” Mrs Bradley kept repeating,
“No, never…”
“Monstrous, monstrous…” Trumpington fumed, thumping the desk.
“He’s lying, not me,” Ethel yelled. “He gave me a tenner. He’s lying I tell you.”
“What!” thundered Trumpington; body now shaking with fury, hands whirling, and spit decorating pastries on a nearby stand. “I have never been so insulted in my entire life.”
A waitress muttered, “It was a tenner, I saw it.”
Another waitress, hovering near the scene, obviously heard and yelled above the commotion, “Ethel is innocent. The union will support her.”
Cheering from the customers.
“Quite right,” said one of them, and the reporter secretly made a few more notes, under the cover of her left hand and a red teapot.
Before long the whole room was as noisy as opening time at a Selfridge’s sale.
Mrs Bradley snatched a twenty-pound note from the till and handed it to Trumpington, along with two vouchers for evening meals. “Please accept these, sir, and I’m really sorry for the inconvenience caused you.”
Roger Trumpington cleared his throat noisily. “I was considering taking legal action for slander. I have my good name to consider. However, I will consider this recompense as good as an apology.” He grasped the twenty pound note and vouchers, stuffed them in his jacket pocket and made his way out, to the accompaniment of a few boos from laughing customers.
The lady reporter gave herself a few seconds break to sip her tea. What a scoop!
A voice sounded above the chatter, “Staff, all out.”
Waitresses turned and began their way back to the kitchens.
“No,” shouted Mrs Bradley. “I will personally apologise.” She turned to Ethel. “I’m so sorry, my dear. Of course you are completely innocent of lying, but we cannot afford to upset valued customers.”
“Valued customer? He only had a cup of tea,” said Ethel. “I’ve been slighted. Now everyone will think I’m a liar.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“You gave that old geyser twenty quid, plus two free meals,” said the waitress’s union representative, with a menacing look at her employer, “You should do the same for the innocent party. At least fifty pounds is due.”
Mrs Bradley shifted uneasily, as though someone had put ants down her back. She thrust her hand inside the till and pulled out fifty pounds. “Take this, Ethel, and please accept my full apologies for the way you’ve been treated.” She slammed the till shut, her twisted smile doing its best to be pleasant even if the woman inside the dress was as mad as hell.
Ethel sniffed back a tear. “Thank you, Mrs Bradley. I don’t see why that awful man should get away with it, though. You’ve been too generous with him. An apology was all I wanted, but this will come in handy.”
The lady reporter wondered what Solomon would have done in a case like this. A hundred pounds down the drain for Mrs Bradley, and she suspected a few customers had left without paying while the fracas was going on.
“It’s only ten minutes before your shift ends, Ethel,” said Mrs Bradley wearily. “You can go now. I’ll take over the till.”
“Oh, that’s all right, Mrs Bradley. I don’t mind staying.”
“But I mind. Please go now, Ethel.” There was no doubting Mrs Bradley’s determination to exercise her managerial rights. She put her hand on Ethel’s shoulder and guided her towards the kitchen door, then quickly returned to the till in time for a customer about to leave.
“Table number?” she asked with a well-practised smile.
“Sixteen. Cornish tea for two.” The customer, still wearing a dob of cream on her chin, leaned forward. “I really admire the way you handled that business. Poor Ethel, will you give her this tip please?” She put a fiver next to the till. “That chap is a right nasty character, he won’t get my vote.”
“I’m sure he believed he was right. Mr Trumpington is a gentleman after all.”
As the customer left, Mrs Bradley slipped the £5 into the staff box by the till.
The reporter wondered how many more sympathy tips Ethel would receive. If she had given the wrong change to Trumpington she must be a damn good actress, but then she had seen just as good in court. Ethel could have pocketed the missing tenner from the till quite easily. Sham tears? Clearly, Mrs Bradley thought so, or why did she send her off duty? Not that that anyone’s opinion counted. Election time, and in that Labour constituency, the news hounds were after Trumpington’s blood. And she, Georgina Stoke, was no exception. First, finish her tea and then a phone call to Hepstone Manor.

“Is that you, Roger?” It was his wife calling from the kitchen, from which delicious aromas were drifting towards him. “Had a good day?”
Trumpington walked through the hall of his grand Victorian abode, intent on outpouring the humiliation he’d experienced at the café that afternoon. He ignored the pile of correspondence awaiting him on the hallstand.
“Got your letters? You seem to get more every day. Wonderful to be getting so much support. Isn’t it exciting?” Greta, his slim and elegant wife, looked radiant as usual, in spite of the plastic pinny. “Lots of messages on the answer-phone too. One caller wants to interview you about a debacle at some café or other. What on earth is the woman talking about?”
“A reporter? Hell. Surely the local papers haven’t got hold of it?”
“Hold of what?” She waved a large knife, and a salmon had its head chopped off.
“Oo, don’t do that! I think that’s what I’m in for. Do you know, Greta, a damn waitress practically accused me of trying to get money by false pretences.” He walked to the fridge and took out a bottle of white wine, then poured out a large measure into a crystal goblet. “It was most humiliating. The woman is either forgetful or a common thief.”
He sat at the kitchen table and took a large swig of the cooled liquid. The blue LED lights twinkled at him from the black quartz floor, while the white LED ceiling lights flashed lightning-bright sparkles through the goblet of wine. But he was in no mood to enjoy his wife’s delightful renovated kitchen design, even if the oak and granite fittings had cost him a small fortune — hopefully to be recouped once he was in Parliament.
“How do you mean?” Greta asked, before sipping wine from Roger’s glass. “Do you want broccoli or asparagus with the salmon?”
“Never mind vegetables, this is serious.” He waved a hand across his forehead. “I couldn’t let her get away with it. Too much of that sort of thing goes on these days. I gave her a twenty-pound note for a pot of tea. She gave me change for a tenner. I wonder how much the woman makes in a week diddling the customers?”
“A twenty-pound note for a cup of tea?”
“I put all my change in a collection box outside the Town Hall. I have to do what I can for my image. I had a hundred in twenties from the cash machine this morning and I was at the meeting until mid afternoon.”
“How much do you have now? And by the way, didn’t you get that box of chocolates for Mother? It’s her birthday and she’s coming tonight for dinner. Oh, Roger, you promised me you’d get it.”
“Chocolates? Oh yes, I forgot all about the chocolates. Not surprising with the day I’ve had. I must have left them on the back seat of the car.”
“You did get Thorntons, her favourites?”
“Yes, of course, we mustn’t disappoint the old buzzard. It was a £10 box, ready wrapped. I’ll go get it when I’ve finished this.”
“Oh my goodness. Roger, do you realise what you’re saying? You must have had four twenties and a ten when you went in the café. Quickly, have another look.”
First, Roger dabbed at the wine he’d involuntarily slurped over his corduroy trousers. “Damn, they’re ruined… I could swear on the Bible that I gave that woman a twenty.” He pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket.
His wife snatched it off him and counted the notes. “Four, there’s four, Roger.” She hurriedly searched his pockets. “You have another one here, plus a large amount of change. Nearly ten pounds I think.”
“That’s the change for the tea, plus a twenty recompense. Those vouchers were given to me as well.” He put his head in his hands. “Damn… damn… damn.”
“So you must have used the £10 change from the chocolates to pay for your tea, otherwise you would only have three twenties in your wallet… oh, Roger.”
“Oh hell. What should I do, Greta? The till receipts will show they were right. That bloody reporter who rang will make mincemeat of me.”
“Leave it to me. I’ll write a note to the café explaining that you’ve been under a lot of strain lately, and although you had good reason to believe you had proffered a twenty-pound note to pay the bill, on reflection, you may have been mistaken. I’ll put the vouchers and the money in the envelope too, plus an extra twenty for the waitress. I’ll call it a tip. After all you usually do leave a tip when dining out.”
Roger released a heavy pent-up groan and mumbled, “Bloody expensive pot of tea. Go ahead, the sooner the better.”

The next morning, Roger decided to get another box of chocolates, this time for his wife — bless her. Dear Greta had called back the person who’d asked Roger for an interview, telling her the matter had been sorted out, but promising the bloodhound bitch an exclusive videoed dialogue if Roger won the election.
The assistant in the Thorntons shop, a cheerful redhead in a coffee and chocolate uniform, instantly recognised him.
“You came in yesterday: Roger Trumpington, isn’t it?”
“Correct.” His breakfast threatened to join the chocolates on the counter. “I expect you have seen my face on the election posters.”
“Yes, that’s right… and in the papers.”
Roger inwardly groaned.
She gave him a pleasant smile. “Have you called in for the change you left behind yesterday? Here it is. I kept it by the till — a ten-pound note. I thought you might come back for it.”

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