HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.

Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…

Half a Cake

Mark Reece

Joe had worked long hours in the weeks before he went to the café, and had reached such a level of exhaustion that he looked forward to any small pleasure. When he arranged to meet his friend Bob one Friday lunchtime, taking a break for the first time in as long as he could remember, he could not sit still with the excitement. His expectation was heightened still further by the fact that a pamphlet advertising the café had been pushed through his letterbox the previous week and contained a coupon for a free half a cake.
         When the fabled time finally arrived, it met his expectations. They spoke of many things: their wives, the weather, and the new photocopiers that had been installed in the office. In fact, they were so immersed in conversation that Joe almost forgot about the coupon, until suddenly, reminded perhaps by the whiff of patisserie, the smell strengthened by being carried on a cool wisp of air conditioning, it came to him in revelation. He took the coupon from his wallet and showed it to Bob with the pride as if it had been a picture of a beloved daughter. Bob could hardly restrain himself:
         “That’s good, that is.”
Joe made his way to the counter with a slight swagger, where a shop assistant met him with a smile, there having been no other customers for a few minutes.
         “Hello, can I use this please?”
         Joe smiled effusively as he handed over the coupon. However, after reading the instructions on the back, the shop assistant opened his mouth, hesitated, and looked behind him, before turning back to Joe and saying:
         “I’m sorry, I can’t accept this. There’s been a few of these going round lately, but they weren’t issued by the shop. We don’t know where they’ve come from. Sorry.”
         The news was beyond Joe’s comprehension, and it was all he could do to keep his face level. Was he the victim of a crime? Fraud? In this small city? The thought was incredible, and he was about to return to his seat when he decided on a more plausible explanation.
“I think you’ve made a mistake, it says it can’t be used in conjunction with another offer, that’s all.”
Out of politeness, the shop assistant checked the back of the coupon again before saying:
         “I’m sorry, it’s not valid here.”
He held the coupon out to Joe, who paused before thinking of another line of argument:
         “No, that’s definitely what it says. Is your manager here?”
His words trailed off, as he was not used to confrontation, having left shouting at people to his mother or his wife during all the occasions of his life when it had been required. In the café, he adopted their tone without their confidence. The shop assistant looked around perfunctorily, knowing that there was no manager there, that he was, in effect, the acting manager, that there was no one to help him.
         “Sorry, it’s just me at the moment.”
         “Well, me and my friend have to go in a minute, so…”
Joe tried not to blink. In the sight of that intransigence, the shop assistant’s resolve to repeat the same line no matter what crumbled, and after looking around again, he said:
         “Right…which one do you want then?”
         Joe pointed to a cake somewhat shamefacedly, although there was no backing out now. The café did not sell cakes in halves, meaning that the shop assistant had to cut one specially. The piece he gave to Joe was slightly smaller than half, but Joe did not challenge that point, only muttering “Thanks” before returning to his seat. The confrontation cast a shadow over the rest of the lunch break, with the result that his conversation with Bob finished inconclusively with a vague agreement to meet again soon.
Meanwhile, the shop assistant was confronted by a series of problems, the most pressing of which was how to put the transaction into the till, as the stock was checked regularly, the manager having repeatedly reminded the staff that with overheads being what they were, a single cake could be the difference between entrepreneurial triumph and destitution. There was no option for coupons, his explanation to the customer having been correct, so, with a heavy heart, he entered the transaction as ‘other’. The problem of the remaining half a cake was resolved more concretely. Being unable to sell it and not bold enough to eat it, he wrapped it in a napkin and threw it away.
The shop assistant worried incessantly about the cake and dreaded coming into work the following morning, as he expected to be confronted with accusations, evidence, and who knows what else. But nothing happened, and the incident slipped from his mind in the busy world of high street commerce.
However, when a message went around the staff that the manager wanted to speak to everyone at the end of the month, the shop assistant remembered the half a cake with a quickening of his heart. There had not been a general meeting since the infamous theft-of-coffee incident.
When the day came, the shop assistant dragged himself to work as if his shoes were filled with thorns.
The staff sat in the back room of the café, presenting a standardised image of well-brushed hair and shiny shoes. The manager swept in, looked at each of them, then said:
         “By now, you’ll know what this meeting is about and should have had time to think about what’s been happening. I’ve printed off all the times on your shifts when payments have been made with the ‘other’ key and I’ll leave it on the side in case anyone needs a copy. I’m going to call you in turn to my office, and I want each of you to give me as much information as you can about all the times when it’s happened.”
What he referred to as his office was in fact a cupboard that had been emptied of cleaning products. When he left the room, the shop assistant whispered to the person sat next to him:
         “When did they say about this?”
         “On the notice board.”
         He immediately fell into despair, as he never looked at the notice board, always preferring to spend his idle minutes staring into the street or watching the customers so as to have anecdotes to tell his girlfriend.
The shop assistant’s surname was later in the alphabet than most of the others, meaning that he had to wait a long time. In addition to the half a cake incident, the date and time of which was scored into his memory, there were numerous other occasions on the print-off that meant nothing to him. The paper had a series of holes in its side, which he constantly threaded his fingers through.
The interview went far worse than he could have imagined. He thought it best to admit to the incident, but realised his mistake when he was still being questioned about it half an hour later. His account was interrogated at every turn, then inferences were drawn about his other uses of the ‘other’ button and the fact that the percentage of sales designated as ‘other’ rose by two percent when he was working, whereas total sales fell by three percent. He was exhausted by the time it was over. The interviews that followed his took much less time.
He received his letter three days later. The word ‘theft’ or its synonyms were never used, nor would a legal analysis conclude that the term could be deduced. However, what was clear was that his employment had been ‘terminated’.
         The former shop assistant did not tell his girlfriend about the situation until a week later, and tried to give her a half-truth that avoided the pertinent facts. She asked him for more details then told him to ‘forget about it’ before he could reply, the phrase laden with irony, as it was clear that she had not.
The lack of a reference, together with the high level of unemployment in the area (a factor that cannot be officially recognised as an impediment to getting a job), meant he was still unemployed six months later. It is impossible to know the extent to which that caused his relationship to break down. When his former girlfriend told him to move out, the former shop assistant searched desperately for a new place to live, without success. None of his friends were in a position to help him, and a strange sense of pride prevented him from asking his parents. It’ll only be for a few days, he thought.
It was when he was sleeping on a bench one night that he was murdered, a minor argument escalating into an incident where a drunken passer-by kicked him harder than he intended, causing the head injury that killed him.
The news was shocking enough to make headlines in local newspapers. Joe glanced at one before turning the page, never having been interested in crime stories, with their obsessions over bloody murder weapons. However, just before the letters page was a coupon for a free cup of tea from a local restaurant. He stood to get a pair of scissors.

MARK REECE has had stories published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including HCE magazine, Orbis and Structo.