There was definitely a snail in the orange juice.
Back in the early 1990s, I shared a house with four other twenty-somethings in Edgbaston in Birmingham. Not a student house, I hasten to add: Simon, my live-in landlord, had just graduated and – thanks to a very generous inheritance from a recently deceased relative – had bought a five bedroomed detached house on a respectable road. (Edward Road, notorious at the time for drug dealing and prostitution, was only a few minutes’ walk away, but we pretended not to know that.)
Anyway, there were five of us altogether: Simon; a guy called Mark, who was doing Psychology at Aston; Sue, who eventually became Simon’s girlfriend and, later still, married him; Kerry, a second year Medic; and me. It was all very civilised, with a rota for the housework and cooking, and house ‘film nights’ in front of the TV where we’d indulge in a ‘chocolate frenzy’ aka a huge, communal bowl of Maltesers, M&Ms, chocolate buttons and anything else that was bite-sized. Simon had a dining room, and we’d gather in there for our evening and weekend meals, and actually sit down to breakfast instead of eating it ‘on the hoof’.
I was in the kitchen one Friday morning, just the other side of the dining room, when I heard the shrieks and rushed in to investigate. There, in Sue’s glass of orange juice, was a snail – bobbing up and down and looking most uncomfortable.
“Eurgh!” I exclaimed without thinking. “Where did that come from?”
Sue rolled her eyes at me. “The orange juice! There was a snail in the bottle of orange juice!” (We normally bought cartons of Tesco’s value brand juice; but, last Saturday, someone had thought we deserved to try the good stuff and so we’d bought a bottle of ‘freshly squeezed’ juice which had cost an arm and a leg.)
“Are you sure?” I asked doubtfully. (It was expensive juice, after all.)
Sue looked aggrieved. “Well, where else could it have come from?” she demanded. “I’m going to ring Tesco now and complain.”
She grabbed the half-empty bottle off juice and stalked off. I gazed at the glass she’d left behind, wondering how on earth a large supermarket chain had allowed something like this to happen, then turned and went back into the kitchen to finish putting my own breakfast together. I’d been looking forward to sampling the posh orange juice before this happened, but now I decided I’d stick with coffee instead.
I was in a rush that morning – I had a nine o’clock English lecture; Anglo-Saxon actually – so I didn’t stop to wash up my own breakfast things, the way we normally did. Mark was just entering the kitchen as I left: he never started until eleven on Fridays. “Help me out and wash up my breakfast things?” I pleaded, not wanting to miss my bus. He nodded, knowing I’d return the favour another day.
By the time I got back from campus that afternoon (I’d finished at 3pm), the house was in uproar. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Mark washed up the glass with the snail in it!” Sue told me. She sounded as if she couldn’t believe that anyone would do such a stupid thing. “It was when I was ringing Tesco – he didn’t know about the snail and he just tipped the contents of the glass down the sink.”
“Oh no!” I was suitably interested to express concern. “Does it really matter, though?” I asked next.
“It does when you’ve told Tesco you’ll take the snail in to show them!” was her grim reply. “I’ve been out into the garden to try to find a replacement, but so far, no luck.”
“So are you not going to bother then?” I wanted to know. If you asked me, it seemed that hunting snails in the garden was taking things too far.
Sue snorted. “What, and miss getting some sort of compensation? Have you any idea how traumatic it was to find a snail in my juice? It’s a good job I spotted it before I drank any!”
She was still muttering an hour and a half later, when Simon came home, but by the time we’d all eaten and watched a film together, she seemed to be calming down.
Saturday. None of us had to get up early and we all made the most of the opportunity for a lie-in. I didn’t surface until half nine; and, when I did, I discovered there was no milk in the fridge.
“Has no one bothered to bring it in yet?” Kerry remarked in surprise. Back then, more people used milkmen than they did today: you only really bought cartons of milk in an emergency.
I was desperate for a cup of tea by this stage, so I padded to the front door in my nightshirt, thinking I could carry at least two. Grabbing a couple of the bottles that sat waiting patiently by the doorstep, I made my way back into the kitchen.
“Bring a bottle of milk in here,” someone called. “It’s just run out in the jug and I need to put more on my cornflakes.”
I rescued the stewed teabag from my mug, added milk, then carried the bottle through to the dining room. Mark and Kerry were seated at the table, a bowl of cornflakes in front of Kerry and a plate of toast beside Mark. As I handed over the milk, something detached itself from the bottom of the bottle and fell plop! into Kerry’s bowl.
“What the …” she began, looking startled.
The three of us stared at the snail, which was enjoying an unexpected bath.
That’s when I realised what must have happened the previous day: the snail in Sue’s juice must have hitched a lift on the milk bottle and detached itself as the milk was passed down the table. And she’d spent hours convinced that it was all Tesco’s fault.
“Sue …” Kerry said sweetly as our housemate entered the dining room, “look what I’ve just found.”
“My snail!” Sue looked totally mystified.
“No,” Mark corrected her, “Kerry’s snail. It’s in her cornflakes.”
“That’s even more compensation!” Sue breathed, pound signs all but flashing in her eyes.
“I don’t think so.” We gently told her about the milk bottles and how it looked as if Tesco was innocent after all, but she wasn’t listening.
“Give me your bowl, Kerry!” Sue ordered, her voice steely with determination. “I’m going to wash the milk and cornflakes off that snail and then we’re going to Tesco!”