A Non-Zero Chance of Pickles By Zoë Wells

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Gerald O’Flynn Connoway was not a very complicated man, and certainly not one capable of killing someone. He worked a small job with a small desk at a large insurance company, calculating the likelihood that someone just like him might one day lose a leg in a horrific water-skiing accident off the coast of Bali. This wasn’t an impossible scenario, but negligible in the light of more likely accidents: cars hitting men who had stepped out of the house to buy a pack of fags and a bottle of milk from their local newsagents; champagne corks flying into unsuspecting eyeballs; toddlers chewing through electrical cords; elderly women contracting lung cancer, throat cancer, mouth cancer despite not smoking, not once, not since that terrible accident with Mark just outside Tescos Express.

Gerald’s own life was entirely predictable, an aspect he had decided he must enjoy as it meant that if anybody ever felt the need to question him – if anything unpredictable and out of the ordinary happened – he would be able to tell them precisely where he had been and what he had been doing. Most days, he woke up at 7:15, had his first cup of coffee at 7:30 with his eggs (scrambled, rubbery) on toast (burnt, because Jeanette, his wife, insisted on setting the toaster to ideal bagel toasting time). He’d get in the car by 8:00 to get to the office by 8:45, in time for his second cup of coffee. Lunch was a sandwich: ham, tuna, or occasionally egg watercress. Work ended at 5, back home, dinner, telly, sleep, repeat. This was his constant weekday and his occasional weekend; it was a low metronome that comforted him in the day but kept him awake in the middle of the night, alongside doubts of his worth, fear of the inevitable heat death of the universe, and Jeanette’s chainsaw snoring.

But this particular Thursday had been a strange one already. They had been out of eggs in the morning, so he’d had plain toast. The traffic had been less, so he’d arrived 15 minutes earlier and had decided to compensate by taking an extra 15 minute for lunch. Only when he peeled back the thick skin of cellophane on his third tuna sandwich of the week, he was met with a sight of abject horror: no gherkins. But there were those extra 15 minutes, so today Gerald O’Flynn Connoway plodded over to the newsagents across the street to pick up a jar.

His eyes scanned the shelves, past ketchup, mayonnaise, cat food, cat treats, cat litter – he wondered whether cat people were really so forgetful that they only ever shopped at newsagents – salt, pickled onions, dill pickles, pickled peppers, pickled most vegetables, but not a gherkin in sight. He picked up the jar of dill pickles and moved them out of the way in case somehow the gherkins were hiding back there. Checked the shelf above, below. Fuck. Maybe under the litter bag? Surely not. No. He put the litter bag down again. It tumbled forward, the weight and grains spreading out and pulling the pack off the shelf each time he replaced it, like some kind of cursed, nihilistic beanbag, propelling itself into the void after the depressing realisation that it was doomed to be shat on by mankind’s second-best friend.

Fuck’s sake. Gerald contemplated the jar of dill pickles instead. God, dill pickles really were the worst kind of condiment. They promised so much: on first look, they may as well just be larger gherkins, and larger versions of great things were one of Gerald’s favourite things in life, though Jeanette had taken offense when he mentioned this to her on their twentieth anniversary. Dill pickles were foreign, but American foreign, as opposed to German foreign, or French foreign, so at least these pickles spoke the same language as him. But it was all corn starch, so to speak: the flavour of a single gherkin spread out across a whole pickle, such that the end result is a long, watery disappointment with none of the crunch that made gherkins such an integral part of the tuna sandwich to begin with.

Still. They would be better than nothing, surely? Gerald imagined buying the dill pickles and returning to his desk, carefully cutting a single pickle – for a single one would be more than enough – into neat, exact pieces, lifting the now soggy corners of his sandwiches and placing them equidistant, before taking that all important first bite. He’d spit that out into the paper bin by his desk, reopen the sandwiches, remove the pickles, and they’d rejoin their comrade in the bin. At the end of the day, he’d bring the jar of pickles back home – he couldn’t exactly keep them at the office now, could he – and he’d walk through the door and put them on the kitchen counter, forgetting to transfer them inconspicuously to the fridge before collapsing on the sofa.

Jeanette would return twenty minutes later and would find them.

“Were you planning on doing anything with these dill pickles?” she’d ask.

He’d keep his eyes glued to channel four. “I was meaning to put them away in a moment.”

“Of course you were,” she’d mumble, but he’d hear, because she’d mumble it at that precise volume, the one where you were meant to hear it but know that to respond would be a declaration of war. “No worries, I’ll do it,” she’d say. “I don’t understand why you’ve gone and done this though. We already have gherkins.”

“Those aren’t gherkins. Those are pickles.”

“Oh. Okay.” She’d put the kettle on.

“Pickles are worse than gherkins. Horrible things.” He’d adjust his feet on the coffee table, knocking a magazine off the end.

“Why would you buy them if you don’t like them then?”

“They didn’t have any others.”

“But why did you buy them?”

“I needed some gherkins.”

“But you don’t like gherkins.”

“No, I don’t like pickles.”

“So why did you buy pickles?”

Gerald would sigh. Jeanette was an olive woman, through and through. She loved the things, over time beginning to fashion herself after them, rounding out, with a constant glisten on her brow from the copious anti-aging creams she used. He’d think to mention that, in light of the three open jars of olives in the fridge, it really wasn’t so bad to have a jar of pickles in there too. But no. Gerald would decide not to push the point further.

Jeanette, on the other hand, would. “I just don’t understand why you’d choose to buy something that you don’t actually like, is all,” she’d continue, turning to him halfway through Eastenders. This would be done with the intention of him giving her his undivided attention, comforting her that he heard what she was saying and would try to do better. Gerald would eat another crisp.

“They didn’t have any gherkins. I like gherkins. A tuna sandwich has got to have gherkins,” he’d respond, spluttering crumbs of potato over his white work shirt. He’d wipe them off with his spare hand, then move down and wipe the salt remnants from his fingers on his trousers. Jeanette would still be watching him, so he’d continue. “Pickles are just a bit shit, aren’t they? All promise and no substance. Fat and dull.”

“Reminds me of someone.” And Jeanette would go to bed.

Gerald would finish the episode, and would have to catch her up on it at some later date. The next day she would leave before him. She’d come home later than usual, and head to bed early, repeat, for at least three days. She had certain habits when she was annoyed. All this over a dill pickle – but no, it wouldn’t be the dill pickle. Gerald knew that. It was something more insidious. One time, just over a year earlier, Jeanette had woken Gerald in the middle of the night to ask him if it was all a mistake. He’d looked at her, confused, and she’d eventually lain back down, without waiting for an answer. When he’d asked her about it the next day, she’d claimed – feigned, he believed – ignorance. Oh, it must’ve been sleeptalking. Must’ve been nonsense. Sorry about that. Ignore it. And he had. For a bit. Then he’d started mulling it over. The probabilities. What if it all was a mistake. Him. Them. Everything.

After the pickle incident he’d do the same: ignore it, at least for a while. Then one day he’d be home alone, before Jeanette got home – or no, maybe it would happen in the middle of the night, after waking in a cold sweat – it didn’t matter, he’d head to the kitchen and open the fridge, in need of sodium. In need of a gherkin. So he’d push past the three, maybe four open jars of olives, the sundried tomatoes and the French mustard and he’d find a singular gherkin lingering at the base of the jar. No other jars in the house, and a singular gherkin would not do. Reluctantly his hand would fall on the dill pickle jar, the green label sneering at him, at his weakness, and he’d open it, aware that all that lay ahead was disappointment. He’d unscrew the lid, set it down on the countertop, and look down at the near empty jar in confusion. Where were they? A few remained, but the jar had certainly held more, far more, when he’d bought it.

He’d return the jar to the fridge, having eaten nothing, and go to bed, or back to the sofa. The next time he’d see Jeanette he’d size her up fresh. Could she have eaten them? She hated gherkins. It stood to reason she’d hate pickles. They weren’t her thing – it was one of the reasons they had got along so well. Back in their wild student days, they’d bonded over Jeanette picking olives off of Gerald’s pizzas and Gerald picking gherkins out of Jeanette’s meal deal sandwiches. So the next morning, Gerald would prepare their sandwiches for the day. He’d slice up a pickle for hers, a gherkin for his, and be on his merry way.

“I think you gave me your sandwiches today,” she’d say, when she returned, heading upstairs.

“These things happen,” he’d reply.

And so it was, or would be, rather. He’d buy a fresh jar, put it in the fridge. Maybe he’d try to come home earlier one day. Maybe he’d watch her car leave, make sure it turned the right direction to go to the call centre she worked at. He couldn’t be sure how he’d act if this came to be. Gerald had thought before that, if things got really bad, there were a handful of spotty teenagers who loitered near the end of the road in their fake leather jackets and torn up jeans. They looked the sort that would do anything for a tenner, so long as the tenner was offered in the form of a bottle of Smirnoff, or even own brand vodka, they wouldn’t be picky. So maybe he’d ask them, and they’d keep an eye on it, on the house – on Jeanette, he supposed, but that made him feel nauseous, the idea of someone watching her – and there was a non-zero chance that they’d report back to him that yes, he was right, yes, she was cheating on him; and he’d have to react, wouldn’t he now, but Gerald O’Flynn Connoway was not a fighter, was not good at confrontation. Gerald wanted to believe he’d confront this man, this pickle man, the slimy fuck, and he’d sock him square in the jaw, or he’d glass him, or smash his head against the ground until the bastard gave in, gave up, or until Gerald went too far, but Gerald was not a murderer. There was a zero chance of that.

So he’d have to let it go, and he’d try to patch things up with Jeanette, but it wouldn’t be the same, and he’d know that the bastard would still be there. Every moment he’d be away from her he’d think of her, but not in the way new lovers do, but in a constant, predictable anger. And who knew how long it would keep up, if he didn’t have a way of stopping it? Maybe a year, two years, maybe then Jeanette would put him first, but what if she didn’t? They’d always vaguely wanted a family – some babies to drown out the white noise of the telly – but had never quite managed, as is bound to happen sometimes with these things. But if she kept down this path of brine and deceit, Gerald could see himself coming home one day, and she’d be sat on the sofa with a cup of tea nestling on an overgrown belly, and he’d head to the kitchen and she’d start screaming “Gerald, Christ, Gerald I think the baby’s coming” and he’d call an ambulance, sit with her in the hospital, hold her hand as she pushed and pushed. The doctors would wrap up the baby, wipe away the blood and snot, whatever babies come ready coated in, and they’d ask him if he wanted to bathe it. He’d rest it in the sink, pull back the layers of cloth like bits of cellophane, and as the blood washed away he’d see that where the skin should be baby smooth it’d be green, knobbled, wrinkled, slimy, that this baby was not his, that this baby was no baby but some half human, half pickle abomination, and the doctor would be laughing at him, Jeanette would be laughing, the fucking baby, fucking pickle would be laughing at this sad little man with his sad little pickle.

A bell rang as the door to the newsagents swung open. Gerald looked down and realised he’d sweat through his shirt. The woman at the till was looking at him. He must look like a madman. He ran a hand through his hair to straighten it out and looked once more at the dill pickles on the shelf. Reluctantly, he picked them up and walked over to the counter.

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Zoë Wells 

Zoë Wells is a writer, poet, and recent graduate from the University of Warwick’s BA in English Literature and Creative Writing program. She grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and is currently based in Leamington Spa. Her recent work can be found on www.zwells.com.

Twitter: @zwells_writes

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

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