Checkout – a short story

image Perhaps it is true, daydreaming makes me untrustworthy. Passing sixty, more of the road lies behind than in front and looking over the shoulder is a natural reaction. However, my wife regards this disposition of mine as the onset of senility. She sees it as some form of embarrassing weakness. Keep to the shopping list she said and make sure you pack neatly. Does she not remember there was a time when I commanded a staff of a hundred and a budget of a million? She was proud of me then, although in truth we had little time together. My mind was always filled with business plans for the next five years. Kids came and went. Life roared past like the scenery from the window of a high speed train. Unseen, retirement stalked in the shadows of the carriage, then reared up in front of us exposing the fragility of our forty years together. It was like a switch turning on reality. My work, which seemed to keep us apart, was actually keeping us together.

Today I am reduced to the challenge of a shopping list, in her words to get me from under her feet. She has given strict instructions on how long I am to take. I guess it is her attempt to force me to stay focussed. I pick up a tin of curried baked beans. I’ve always wanted to try them. I put them in the trolley and enjoy a momentary feeling of rebellion, before second thoughts force me to return the tin to the shelf and take the ones on the list. I pass the freezers where a young couple are looking at pizzas. He squeezes her waist then pinches her bottom. She gives him a sidelong glance which says ‘behave’ and ‘wait till later’ at the same time. I smile. I may need a list to go shopping with these days, but I can still remember what that used to feel like. I pause looking through the magazines and DVDs then browse the news headlines at the newspaper stand, with a slight feeling of guilt for not buying the paper. I check my watch. Time is running out. A flush of panic pushes me to an urgent, mechanical sweep of the aisles until at last I am finished.

There are queues at all the tills, so I pick the one nearest which in all probability will turn out to be the slowest. I check my watch again. There are four people in the queue before me. The woman with her back to me has dog hairs on her dark coloured coat, leaving me thinking the dog, the coat and the woman’s unkempt hair could do with a damn good brushing. It must be a large animal judging from the number of tins of dog food in her trolley. Probably an Irish wolfhound. I glance at the other tills. They seem just as packed as this one, except customers are moving through more quickly. I look down my queue to determine the problem. Some old dear is handing in a pile of saver vouchers. She pays with cash, prising the final small coins from her purse, counting them onto the belt. The lady with the Irish wolfhound smiles at me and rolls her eyes to the ceiling. I smile back and nod in agreement. I glance at the checkout lady, as she struggles to pick coins off the rubber belt, and it causes a hot flush to redden my cheeks. Continuing to watch, taking care not to catch her eye, I think I know who she may be. I am not completely sure because it was forty years ago. I look for clues as she serves. She gives that delicate but wry smile at customer’s comments; shakes her hair back as she starts to serve. I begin to confirm the shape of her face, her deep brown eyes, which turn from cold to warm in an instant. I try to read her name tag but the distance is too great, yet I believe it may be her.

An excitement is building in me; the same feeling I had as a sixth former when we took the same bus. Each day, we sat in the same places. She chose one just behind the driver and I sat myself on the opposite side, one row back. I thought she would not see me amongst the rabble of navy blue blazers and light grey trousers, leaving me free to admire her. She appeared aloof and unobtainable, shaking back her long auburn locks of hair, defying all the world to be jealous of her inaccessible beauty. She made my heart race then as it is beginning to now. The queue is moving. There are two customers in front of me. She is serving a young man. Her smile seems to broaden as she says something flirtatious. She touches his arm and laughs. That look, those actions, were once reserved for me. I wish he would mind his own business and get on with the packing. I glare at the back of his head willing him to drop a bottle of wine or for his card to be rejected, anything to shatter his arrogant image. Eventually he goes, not before time.

I continue to watch her, remembering the day passion compelled me to abandon the journey to school. Heart overruled mind, made me get off at her stop. Following her across the cobbles of the market square, ignoring the probability of detention, sensing eyes watching in curiosity from the departing bus. Pace of my heart and feet quickened as I followed her until courage welled inside me. I called for her to wait. She stopped and turned. With panic strangling my senses, my words stumbled out as I asked her outright for a date. At first she laughed and shook back her hair, an act I assumed to be contempt at my audacity for daring to ask such an unthinkable thing. For several seconds I floated in her vacuum, waiting for the inevitable rejection. She looked me up and down before staring straight into my eyes. Her face warmed with a smile. She said she wondered when I was ever going to get around to it. I’d been window shopping for far too long. Of course, she would love to meet me for a date. In a whirl of excitement, the sun and sky became so bright they blinded me. I wanted to kiss her there and then.

Now she may be in front of me once more. Her hair shows signs of turning grey. Her face bears the changes that a lifetime of ups and downs has carved. I have changed too. The courage and bravado of youth have long deserted me. Should I stay to face her or pretend to have forgotten something, then queue at another checkout? I cannot make up my mind. With just one customer between us, I fear the passage of time has made us strangers. Maybe we were already strangers the moment we parted. We had taken shelter from a storm in a harbour front bar, only to find another but different storm inside. It was a trivial argument, prompted by an inadvertent glance and smile at a good looking stranger. I may have been jealous. No, I was jealous. let things run in some perverse game of brinkmanship. Perhaps it was to test the strength of her love. It seemed safe enough. After all, I’d done the same thing several times before and enjoyed the joyous reconciliation that followed. Her lips were always so much warmer when she had been crying and the salt of her tears was exquisite. Rain was driving in from the sea and splattering the window panes behind us. Hungry seagulls were wheeling and screeching on the raw, salt wind outside. We finished our drinks. She took off her engagement ring and placed it on the table, said goodbye and walked out of my life. I was stunned for a moment. Then trembling, I fumbled to pick up the ring. I ran down streets looking for her without avail. She skilfully disappeared from my life, from her home, from the town, as if she had planned it all beforehand.

What can I say to her after that? Sorry? How have you been? I have missed you?

I am at the belt, loading on my shopping. Her name tag confirms she is Avril, the girl I loved. She is serving me, not looking at my face but concentrating on the goods, scanning them through. I notice her perfume. It is Tweed. She still uses it after all these years. The smell of it remained on the shoulders of my jackets where she had rested her head, for months after she left me. Every time I opened my wardrobe she was in there reminding me.

I fluster and fumble, unable to open the plastic carriers. The shopping is piling up. I bundle everything together into bags. My face burns. My heart thumps so hard I am sure she can hear it. I cannot say anything. It’s not that I am bothered about making a fool of myself. For Christ’s sake, I have done that often enough. I was the fool who let her slip through my fingers in the first place. The truth is I am afraid of knowing what she thinks. She may despise me for what happened, or not even remember me. How can I handle that when barely a day has gone by without her being somewhere in my thoughts? I panic to get away, bundling the bags into the trolley. I notice she is wearing a wedding ring. It was bound to happen of course. It does not stop the pain stabbing at my heart. In my mind she’s the same young girl I want to believe once loved me.

“Sixty five pounds ninety, thank you sir. Put your card in please.”

Her voice is a little deeper than I remember and slightly ragged around the edges. It would be so easy to say her name and see her reaction. I cannot, because I do not want to shatter the belief she still holds in her heart some special place for us.

“Enter your PIN please, sir.”

I try to prod the correct digits with a shaking hand, then wait for what seems an eternity for the screen to say please remove your card.

“Take your card now, sir,”

The screen has changed yet I did not see it. I pick up my card. We look each other in the eye as I take the receipt from her. She smiles. She is about to say something. I quickly thank her and turn away. I push the trolley as hard as I can towards the exit, overtaking other shoppers in my haste. Once outside, running, I take a short cut across the car park cobbles. I fight with the trolley as it rattles over the bumps. War breaks out in the trolley. The bags jiggle and spill. Just as I think I have escaped, her voice calls out behind me.

“Paddy! Stop. Please wait! Paddy, let’s talk. Come back here!”

I stop and smile. She is the only one who ever called me that. Suddenly there’s stillness and silence. I feel the unevenness of the cobbles beneath my feet. I am in the same whirl of our first meeting. The sun almost blinds me as I become a teenager again. I turn to face her. She’s not there. Like a fool, standing alone in the middle of a supermarket car park, I realise it was the memory chasing me. I breathe deeply, looking around to see who may have witnessed my shoplifter’s exit. Age catches me up. If only I had shown a little more maturity back then we may have stuck. Or had I experienced those same feelings later in my life with another woman, she may have faded into a comfortable history. They say real love happens just once in a lifetime; twice, if you are really lucky. I met the next girl on the rebound and we were married within three months. It is wrong to say I have never loved my wife, but the fire and intensity of that first romance have not graced us. A deep shade remains from its passing.

I walk towards my car, unlock and open the boot. I sort out the carnage in the trolley, separating things, repacking as instructed. I try to squeeze the dents out of cartons and stem the leak of detergent. Nothing can be done with the dented cans or the cracked eggs. I shudder to think of the shattering and crumbling inside the biscuit packs. Two tomatoes are bleeding pips and the apples will have to be eaten quickly. I neatly pack one carrier bag with soaps, groceries into a second and a third with perishables. I load them into the boot, wondering if it really was her or a cruel trick of my mind. Should I have been brave enough to find out? Perhaps my wife is correct in her assumption that I am going senile and cannot be trusted. I tried to reassure her saying, “What can possibly go wrong in a supermarket?” Now some regrettable story will need to be concocted and remembered as explanation for the damaged goods. I have never wanted to hurt her, so for forty years my true feelings have remained hidden. Perhaps she hides hers too, who knows? With certainty, it will never be possible to make a revelation of that magnitude.

I try to remember how she was when we first met, but it eludes me. Did I ever love her, I am asking? I cannot answer, so we soldier on, the three of us.

For Avril Anne Foster who graced my life in the 1960s. We were both in our teens and although I haven’t seen her since 1977 she is still has a  place in my heart. Tweed is one of the oldest English perfumes around. It is inexpensive and has survived the test of time. My long suffering wife who has slightly more expensive taste (Coco Chanel) deserves it as she has put up with me thus far for forty four years, also surviving the test of time.

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