Short Fiction

Jen at the Butter Barn

A short story about self-esteem, sugar paper and buying butter online.

My boss, Frank, sent me on a motivational, self-respect course because I kept telling customers not to use our website. 

‘I think your company is bogus and you’re just cowboys trying to make a quick buck,’ said the woman on the other end of the phone. ‘I’m unsubscribing.’ 

 ‘I think that’s a sound judgement call,’ I said. 

‘Jen,’ moaned Frank. There was a clatter as his headset hit the keyboard next to me. Frank was listening in to my calls because the other members of the customer service team kept ratting me out. But he wasn’t listening any more. The headset was off and he was pressing his palms into his eye sockets. 

 ‘I mean, that would be a real shame,’ I said, holding the Britney mic closer to my mouth so that I would sound louder and therefore truer. ‘I think you really ought to think about that because… oh, she’s gone.’ 

Next to me, Frank had his head in his hands. 

‘She’s gone,’ I said. 

The company was a butter-buffer. Basically, if you wanted to buy little packets of butter for your café or small sandwich business, or just for recreational purposes (whatever, I don’t care), the company would take care of all that. They had people at dairies that gave packets to van-drivers. Those van-drivers then delivered the packets to you at peak freshness any day of the week. The company said it was better for you if you bought your butter through them. It wasn’t. 

Anyway, Frank was sick of me telling people this, so he booked me on a course about getting your shit together. It was called ‘The Power of Positive’ and it was held in a small community centre on the other side of town. It was supposed to run for a week. Every day, we had to turn up and sit in a semi-circle on squeaky chairs around a guy called Gavin, who supposedly had it all sorted out. 

Gavin didn’t look as though he had it all sorted out. His shirt was un-ironed and he was always massaging his beard, as though the skin beneath was very itchy. 

‘It’s part of my control system,’ Gavin said, when I asked about the shirt. ‘You can only care about a set number of things in your life. If I care about this thing, I don’t have the energy to care about that.’ 

Gavin held his hands out flat in front of him, as if he was holding two weighty objects. ‘Decide which one you want.’ He made a big show of comparing the two invisible objects in his hands. ‘Then chuck one.’ He threw one item over his shoulder. The other item must have disintegrated or something because he used both hands to gesture to his shirt and didn’t bother miming dropping anything.

‘Every day I decide not to care about ironing my shirt. It frees up my mind to think about other things. I deliberately leave it un-ironed as a gesture to myself. It’s a reminder that I am one man, I can only do so much. But thanks so much for asking – it’s great to see you’re engaged.’ He clapped his hands together, smiled, looked ready to move on. But my hand was in the air again.  

 ‘And why are you always itching your face?’ I asked. 

Gavin looked at me. ‘That’s just dry skin,’ he said. 

‘Do you care about that?’ I asked. 

‘I think it’s time we got things going,’ Gavin said. 

Getting things going meant splitting the group into two teams of four and handing each team a huge piece of sugar paper. 

‘To work out what we care about, we have to centralise what we are,’ Gavin said, allocating a marker pen to one person in each group. He went to hand me one, then gave it to the guy next to me. ‘I want you all to think of one thing you like about yourself, some quality that you think defines you, and write it on the paper.’ 

The guy with the pen popped the cap off. ‘Well I’m great in bed,’ he said. 

The woman next to me tutted, crossed her legs and rolled her eyes. ‘I have high standards,’ the woman said. She was small and compact – her feet were tiny. 

‘I have very low standards,’ said the other guy in our group. ‘I’ll do pretty much anything for anyone.’ 

‘And you think that’s a good thing?’ asked the woman with the small feet. 

The last guy shrugged. ‘I get to meet a lot of people.’ 

‘What about you?’ The guy with the pen asked me. 

‘Oh I’m not here to participate,’ I said. ‘My self-esteem is just fine. My boss sent me on this course because the company we work for is ripping people off and I tell everyone.’ 

‘So you’re not going to write a quality?’ asked the woman. 


‘You have to write a quality,’ she said. 

Then it was time for us all to feed back to the group and pool our ideas. 

‘She won’t write a quality.’ The woman with the small feet pointed at me. ‘She says she’s here under duress and she won’t participate.’ 

Gavin folded his arms. ‘Who’s putting you under duress?’ 

‘My boss,’ I said.

‘Well he must see something in you,’ said Gavin. ‘He must care about you a lot if he wants to invest in you.’ 

‘He’s going out with my mum,’ I explained. 

‘Is your mum hot?’ asked the guy with the pen.

‘Erm,’ said Gavin. ‘I don’t know if that’s appropri-’

‘Because if she’s hot you might have her hot genes,’ the guy with the pen went on. ‘That’s a quality you could write down.’

‘Do I look like I have her hot genes?’ I asked.

The guy with the pen appraised me. Then he shrugged: ‘Maybe like one?’ 

‘Ok!’ Gavin clapped his hands together. ‘Let’s bring it back to the centre.’ 

The rest of the day continued in much the same way. There were more group activities where we split up so we could argue privately, then we opened it up to the floor so we could do it in front of everyone. By half-five, the only thing I’d really learned was that the guy with the pen was called Jason, the lady with the small feel was Diane, the pushover was Mike and I never really wanted to see any of them ever again. 

When I got home, my mum and Frank were eating dinner in the kitchen. 

‘Hey, how did it go?’ asked Frank. 

‘Great,’ I said. ‘I’m feeling much more positive. In fact, I don’t think I need to go back tomorrow.’ 

‘No, you have to go back,’ said Frank, looping spaghetti onto his fork. ‘They give you a certificate at the end and, until you have it, I’m not letting you back.’ He shoved the pasta into his face, slurped up the loose strands. 

I looked at my mother. ‘Frank’s under a lot of strain right now,’ she said, patting his knee under the table. ‘Arthur’s coming in for a few days this week and he has to make sure everything’s tip-top.’ 

Arthur owned the butter-buffer business. He drove a Lotus but wore big, ugly white trainers to show he was one of us. 

‘Just enjoy the rest of the course,’ said Frank with his mouth full. ‘See it as a chance to work on yourself.’ 

I missed day two and it was actually not my fault. Normally, I got a ride to work with Frank but the community centre was on the other side of town so I had to get the bus. I was waiting and waiting but it was an hour late. Then, when it finally pulled up, the driver got off. 

‘Where the hell are you going?’ I asked him. 

‘End of my shift,’ said the driver, lighting up a cigarette.

There were a few faces at the windows so I got on. The bus was all powered down and dark so it was like being in the stomach of a dead whale. No one spoke and we sat there for over an hour. To cut a long story short, by the time the new driver rocked up, I was an hour late for the course so thought I might as well go and see a movie. It was all about self-care after all and I like going to see movies. When Frank asked at dinner that night how the day went, I told him it was great. It wasn’t a lie. 

On the third day, the bus came on time. Jason, Diane and Mike were already inside the hall when I arrived and they were sitting alert in their chairs, backs straight. 

‘Where were you yesterday?’ Mike asked. 

‘I had travel issues,’ I said. ‘I couldn’t get in.’ 

‘That’s no excuse,’ said Mike. ‘You really ought to hold yourself accountable.’ 

‘Mike!’ said Diane. ‘Give the girl a break. It sounds like she had a really tough day.’ 

I looked from one to the other. ‘Is this a kind of skit?’ I said. ‘Is it opposite day?’ 

‘What? No!’ Diana threw her head back and laughed. ‘Yesterday was just really amazing. I think we all had a breakthrough. I’m learning to allow others, and therefore myself, to fail. It’s the only way we learn.’ 

‘And I’m learning to prioritise my own happiness,’ said Mike. ‘You don’t like me? Take a running jump, fuckface.’ 

I turned to Jason. ‘What about you?’ 

‘Oh, I’m respecting women,’ he said. ‘Not as sexual objects but as people.’ He leaned forward, stared into my eyes. ‘Tell me your hopes and dreams,’ he said. ‘What’s the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen?’ 

That was when Gavin walked in, saw me, clapped his hands. Mike, Diane and Jason sat even straighter. The people in the other group sat up straighter too. 

‘Jen!’ said Gavin. ‘Great to see you again! You might have noticed some changes around here.’   

‘Yeah no shit,’ I said.

‘I’m super-impressed with the way people have embraced this course,’ Gavin said. ‘The transformation has been exceptional.’ 

‘You’ve turned them into zombies,’ I said, then jumped as Diane let out another startling laugh and touched my arm. 

‘She’s just so quirky,’ she said. ‘Some people might see it as irritating but I see it as just part of the great Jen package.’ 

‘Well I think someone should teach her some manners,’ said Mike. 

‘I think she has a beautiful soul,’ said Jason. 

I stood up, my chair scraping back. ‘What have you done to them?’ 

‘Absolutely nothing,’ said Gavin. ‘I just showed them the door. They walked through it themselves. They’re centralised.’ 

I started to head for the exit. 

‘Come back, Jen!’ Diane called. ‘Don’t turn your back on the light.’ 

‘We’re interested in your thoughts and opinions,’ said Jason. 

‘Fuck you!’ yelled Mike. 

But the parting I remember most vividly was Gavin’s. He stood, unmoving, in the centre of the room. He smiled, tipped an imaginary hat. 

The library was on the way to the office so I nipped in there to make and print out a pass certificate. I made up a signature for Gavin, folded it up and caught the bus back across town to work. 

Frank was in his office. He jumped when I knocked on the glass door. 

‘What are you doing?’ he asked, opening it. 

‘Smashed it, mate,’ I said, holding out the folded certificate. ‘Aced it. They said I could go early.’ 

Frank took the certificate, unfolded it. After a second, he handed it back. ‘That’s great,’ he said, on an exhale. 

‘Really?’ I said. 

‘Yeah, sure,’ he said. ‘I’m in meetings all day with Arthur, so I’m going to need you to crack on, keep your head down.’ Frank eyeballed me seriously. ‘Can you do that for me?’ 

I did just that. I sat down in my old desk, no fuss, feeling pretty positive about not being a zombie. But, no sooner had I logged on, then Stacey across the aisle turned around in her swivel chair and said one of her callers was asking for me. 

‘Send them through,’ I said. I waited for the beeps. ‘Hi there, you’ve reached Jen at the Butter Barn. How can I help?’ 

‘Hi Jen, it’s Jason from the Power of Positive course.’ 

I thought I might puke. ‘Hi Jason,’ I said. ‘What can I do for you?’ 

‘It’s not a question of what you can do for me, Jen,’ said Jason. ‘It’s what I can do for you.’ 

It was an exercise on the course, apparently. To confront the doubters in your life and tell them where to get off. Gavin had nominated me as a potential doubter and now I was being told. 

‘I can’t allow you to hold me back, Jen,’ Jason said. ‘I’ve made a lot of progress and it’s people like you that cause backsliding. If you can see how well I’m doing, you might seek help yourself.’

‘I can see that, Jason,’ I said. ‘But can I ask you if you feel like this call has been satisfying?’ 

 ‘Absolutely,’ said Jason. ‘I feel on top of the world.’ 

‘That’s great, Jason.’  

‘I’m never normally one for seeking conflict but I’ve just told you right where to go.’ 

‘You most certainly did. I’m going to go ahead and file this call as solved – that ok with you?’ 


So that meant I had a successful call booked on the database already and I’d only been online for two minutes. 

‘Jen!’ This was Bradley, two seats down, pulling his mic away from his face. ‘Someone’s asking for you.’

‘Send them through!’ I said. 

It was Diane, telling me I had to step into the light. 

‘Do you feel like this call has been satisfying, Diane?’ 

‘I really do,’ she said. ‘It’s amazing the pleasure you get from helping someone else.’ 

Within the next hour, I received calls from every single member of the course cohort – even people from the other group. I heard you need help. We never spoke but I sensed trouble within you. It was all fine, as long as they left the call satisfied. 

At midday, Frank called an impromptu meeting. 

‘Arthur wants a quick word with you all,’ he said. ‘Just to go over some pointers.’ 

We all followed Frank into the meeting room and sat down. Arthur was at the head of the table, sitting in front of a laptop. ‘Hey guys,’ he said. ‘I wanted to check in with you before the winter season.’ 

They had this ongoing theory that people ate more butter in the winter months and we had to re-evaluate our systems in case we were overwhelmed with demand. We never were. 

Arthur talked us through a PowerPoint about talking to people on the phone. The last slide was emblazoned with the word ‘Example.’ 

‘This is the part everyone dreads,’ Arthur said. ‘I’m going to bring up a successful call from the database and replay it, so everyone can hear how it’s done.’ 

The room went silent. We heard Arthur double-click on his Mac. Then: 

‘Hi there, you’ve reached Jen at the Butter Barn. How can I help?’ 

Everyone turned to me. Frank stiffened. 

‘Hi Jen, it’s Mike. From the course.’ 

‘Oh, hi Mike. What can I do for you?’ 

‘I’m actually calling to help you, Jen.’ 

‘You are?’ 

‘Yes. I learned a lot in day two. You have to stand up for yourself. You said your boss was only keeping you on because he’s dating your mum.’ 

Near the door, Frank whimpered. 

‘You said the company you work for is corrupt and run by cowboys.’

‘I did.’ 

‘Well maybe it’s time that changed.’ 

Arthur didn’t play the call long enough for us to get to the bit where Mike said he was satisfied with the call. He said that was irrelevant. What was relevant was that Frank’s sexual relationship was jeopardising the company because he felt obliged to keep on an employee that went around telling everyone the business was corrupt. Arthur had no such obligation. He sacked me and Frank and Frank drove us home. 

Frank didn’t take it too well. After a week, he was still lying on the sofa in his pyjamas, turning his head to one side, tearing up, breathing ‘why?’ He really could not see the positives. So I booked him on the course. 

‘On day two I want you to call me,’ I said. ‘I want you to leave your phone in your pocket so I can hear what’s happening.’ 

I was blacklisted now. Doubters weren’t allowed to re-take the course because they corrupted the space. Frank was my one chance to find out what happened on day two. 

On the second day of Frank’s course, I waited, accepted the call when it came. The line was muffled through the denim of Frank’s jean pocket but I could still hear everything going on. I heard Gavin thank the group for their honesty the previous day when they’d shared their qualities and ask for a further extension of their trust. 

‘I’m going to have to ask you to put your phones in this box,’ Gavin said. ‘You’ll get them back at the end but I don’t want any text alerts or WhatsApp messages interrupting the session.’

I listened, heart hammering, as phones clattered into the box. Don’t do it, Frank. Lie. 


‘Oh, sorry, yeah.’ 

Scrabbling, then a deafening clatter. I yanked the receiver away from my ear. Then, seeing the call was still connected, brought it back. 

‘Did you know your phone was calling someone, Frank?’ 

‘What? No! I erm… I must have bum-dialled someone.’ 

‘You bum-dialled Jen.’ 

‘I did? Gosh! How erm…’

A few seconds of silence. Then: a cold, calm voice: ‘Hope you found the call satisfying, Jen.’ 

The line went dead.

About the Author

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She works as a digital copywriter and is writing a novel. You can find her interviews with authors on her blog and follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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