Who knew it could take so long to choose a loaf of bread. She has no clue which one to select. After all the bread is not even for her, it is her good deed but at this moment it feels like a heavy task. She stands looking at the rows and rows of bread before her.
“Why didn’t I just walk on the other side of the road?” Mae questions herself.
It is a cold day, the first week of November. Not autumn but also not yet in the depths of winter. It is the sort of day that warrants a hat, scarf and gloves along with the warmest coat in reach on the hallway coat stand. She is just on the way to the post office, a quick trip and then right back home. But then she thinks it makes sense to stop off at the doctor’s to drop in the repeat prescription form that needs refilling. Over the previous two weeks Mae has recognised that she is beginning to tire earlier and earlier each evening without any corresponding increase in activity during the day. However, it was only two days previously that she remember that she hadn’t been taking her iron and vitamin tablets like she is supposed to.
“That could be why I’m so tired.” She says aloud to herself.
There was no-one at home to remind her or to discuss the situation with, not even a disinterested cat.
At the post office Mae greets Angela with more joviality than she is feeling. Their salutations don’t feel real to either of them. Angela smiles a practiced business greeting back at Mae. They mention the weather while weighing the packages. The woman behind the counter is as slender as she could be without people mentioning that she looks unwell. Angela is printed on her name tag.
Mae stands on the public side of the counter and observes Angela who is focused on her work with the three packages. Her thick auburn hair is always immaculate and her clothes would not look out of place in any of the Michelin starred restaurants in the city centre, but she never goes to any of them. The post office and the shop business, her husband – who may have been acquainted with kindness in his younger days, and their now adult twin children, are the only things that gain her attention, apart from her house and garden. She thinks of the house as just hers because she is the only one to call that place home. It is her area of safety. When she is there, away from the people in and out of the post office all day, she knows she isn’t watched anymore and can take off her carefully coiffured wig and relax to unending reality television in her jogging bottoms, accompanied only by a glass or two of Bombay Sapphire gin on the coffee table. She never jogs anywhere. Chris, her husband, is not in the shop section of the post office today. He is an infrequent visitor, and today he is away on business again, so Angela says. Angela has encouraged him to attend business meetings and conferences all over the country, and to go on regular golfing holidays. It suits them both. They had married before they had the chance to get to really know each other or themselves. They later found out that they had significant differences which did nothing to reignite the attraction to each other after twenty years of marriage. So they slipped into a silent agreement to grow up separately but be together in the same house for some of the time as they got older.
Outside the winter sun and blue skies are co-conspirators in an elaborate lie today. The fresh cold air burns into Mae’s exposed cheeks as soon as she leaves the house. When she turns to lock the front door she almost goes back into the house, it is only the letters in her hand that force her to walk down her short path to the street and keep going towards the shops.
Mae walks rapidly down to the end of her street, then turns right. This is her daily exercise time; an afternoon walk to the shops and back to her desk. The post office is not even a mile away so she doesn’t want to drive today. It seems like such a waste of petrol to start the car up to travel a distance that is only a brisk five minutes walk away. As she turns into the adjacent street she again muses that the area has the feel of a village, but it is still only three miles from the city centre and yet has a totally different vibe. It is so quiet, both inside the small retail unit and on the bright streets; the day feels like a television weather warning has been issued stating that the cold atmosphere will pervade all areas and therefore people and animals are encouraged to stay inside buildings unless the journey is absolutely necessary.
The months of November through to the middle of February have the tendency to make Mae wish that she once again had the anonymity of a stranger in her recently adopted city. For the first three of the five years she has been here she made it her business to avoid the connectivity of being known as it made her vulnerable to look for and expect kindness. That’s what she had left behind.
Although she has not yet attended any street barbecues or accepted the numerous invitations to birthday drinks from her friendly neighbours, she does now know the names of a few people in the houses linked to hers, and the names of the people in the post office as well since typed letters and packages are now her preferred forms of communication. However it sometimes makes life awkward when she is not in the mood to have her privacy violated because someone knows her name.
Leaving the post office her mind is crowded with regrets. It is a convenient location for both her business of writing greeting cards and the private post that she has to send. Now she fears she has become too familiar and caused friction. She asked where one of the clerks was that afternoon and had tried to make a joke about man flu but the person in question was Angela’s adult son Jason. Mae did not know they were related when she first encountered Jason a few weeks earlier. He bears no resemblance to his mother that she could see. He has the physique of an international rugby player who has retired early because of injury. He recently returned to the city without his wife and would occasionally work with his mother behind the post office counter. He coughed continually when Mae was in the post office the previous Tuesday, and he had remained huddled in his coat and scarf as if he was about to leave, although at the time he said, “I’ve just got here, but I’m not feeling well.” Any hope that he had had the Monday before that it was a 24 hour bug had been replaced by the firm resignation that he would have the cold for the rest of the week at least. His rugged face had started to show signs of calm since he settled into his own flat, but all sickness has a way of reminding people of their mortality and isolation when health matters occur. In a hurry to get away Mae proffered the usual sympathies and platitudes then left the post office without the new book of stamps that she needed. Today she chastens herself for forgetting that no matter what age someone’s offspring is she should always remember not to make any jokes about them to their parents. Now she will have to use the other post office for a while while they both forget her faux pas. The distance of the nearest alternative means that she will have to drive there regardless of what the weather is.
It is this error that causes her to be forgetful and leads to her standing in the shop looking at white bread. Wanting to rebalance her day and remove the guilt and negativity that was suffocating her brain Mae reduced her pace and spoke to the man sat on the wall. He always smiled at her. Ever since the first day when she had seen him standing in the supermarket car park by the trolley bay they had connected in the way that strangers sometimes do – usually across the road or as she rushed by on her way somewhere else, like the doctor’s surgery. This time, distracted from the negative post office interaction, she is walking more slowly than usual. He catches her eye and arranges his face in a big smile.
The wall around him shows that he is sat on several layers of free supermarket magazines. They are his buffer from the cold she supposes. Guilt surfaces again and she tightens her grip on her coat. He isn’t even wearing a hat, but he does have a warm coat on she thinks as she assesses him from head to foot. He looks better than he looked the last time she saw him.
When she is parallel to him she stops.
“Hello Joseph,” she says. He had told her that was his name about six months ago. He never looked like a Joseph to her, he said he was from Romania and staying with a friend a few streets away, but he is not allowed to stay in the house in the day, so he stays outside the local supermarkets smiling at people with hope.
“Any change?” Had been his first words to her at the trolley bay the year before.
“No, sorry. It’s a token.” She gesticulated to the slot near the handle of the trolley. “I haven’t got any cash, sorry.” It was an easy lie. Her wallet was bulging with money. It was the act of a coward, an act of self-defence because she didn’t want to explain herself to a strange man or open her wallet. She lowered her head and struggled as she pushed her trolley back into the row of returned trollies. Then she pocketed the token before leaving him standing there as if they had not just spoken to each other, and walked away to her car. After that encounter she avoided eye contact with him around the local supermarkets for months and judged him from afar.
Today he looks up at her, the smile had not moved.
“How are you?”
“O.K. O.K.” He says slowly, he shakes his head from side to side while talking. His actions confuse her. Was he O.K. or not?
“You must be cold out here …”
Feeling stupid at stating the obvious she looks at her feet. Her boots are warm, but then so are his. At least they appear to be. He has on a nice pair of yellow and black new trainers, they don’t really go with his brown puffa jacket. They look at each other in silence. They are both thinking.
Mae’s thoughts are all questions. What is he doing out here in this weather? What should she do? How is she supposed to walk away now?
“I wish I could help you, but I don’t have any change on me. See, I’ve just used my card for these few things from the chemist.”
“O.K.” Joseph responded. The smile is now reducing to a thin line on his face, but his eyes still shine – they are somehow reflecting the cold sun in the sky. He has a half empty cup of tea or coffee in one hand and the other is hugging his waist in what appears like a desperate attempt to give himself some warmth and comfort. Mae thinks, “I wonder when he was last hugged or touched by another person?”
He looks isolated the way a statue is on a busy street. People see him and walk pass him as if his humanity doesn’t exist.
“Why did I have to stop?” Mae questions herself again.
Hesitantly she speaks to him again, this is the only way she can feel less awkward about standing there and she cannot bring herself to walk away just yet, “I’m going into that shop, can I get you something? I’ve only got my card with me so I can’t give you any money.”
“Please. Yes. Thank you.”
“What would you like? What can I get you?”
“Anything good. Thank you.” Joseph is shaking his head again, his curly black hair has a tousled look to it. It appears clean but uncombed, it is not the sort of hair that you would regularly comb really, unless you use your fingers. It falls loosely to just below his ears. He looks about the age her son could be now if she had had children when she had the opportunity. He has a light scattering of facial hair that is trying to form a moustache and sideburns, however it was obvious that he will not be successful in growing enough hair on his face to style into even the smallest goatee – his face will not be blessed with anything can be used for a temporary disguise or even warmth on a cold day.
“Tea? Bread? Milk?”
“Bread. Please.” More head shaking accompanies his sparse words.
“What type of bread do you like?” Suddenly Mae recognises that she is talking quickly and is probably not making herself clear to Joseph whose mother tongue is evidently not English.
“White, brown? What bread?” She asks again.
“White? Please. Thank you.” Joseph’s smile has now completely gone after the flurry of words directed at him and he looks concerned. Mae is worried that she has offended him by her offer of food. She feels hot, despite the cold. Maybe he was cold. He must be cold she thought.
“O.K. White. O.K. I’ll be right back.” Mae nervously still speaks rapidly.
It has been years since she has picked up a loaf of white bread. She wants to get a loaf of multigrain brown bread for him because that is what she always buys for herself, but she had asked him what he wanted and he said white. There are so many white loaves on the shelf. Thick cut, thin cut, half loaves, full loaves, medium slice, toastie, old English, so many different brands and choices. Mae just wants to go straight home and get on with her work and not think about white bread or man flu, but she knows Joseph will be out there on the cold wall expecting her to come back. Or maybe he won’t. She remembers the last time she bought something for someone she’d talked to outside of a shop, and when she had paid for it and come out the woman had gone, and Mae had been left with a pack of energy drinks and some donuts that she would never drink or eat or have a chance to offer to anyone – especially as at that time she hadn’t had a visitor to her home for two years.
At the till she unloads the contents of her basket onto the conveyor belt. There is broccoli, carrots, brown basmati and wild rice, onions, garlic, red peppers, tofu, blueberries, bananas, oats
and a loaf of thick cut white bread in a bright orange and white packet. Just looking at it makes her feel bad because she knows she is being judgemental again.
She puts the bread into her bag last of all because it is coming out as soon as she exits the shop, but she doesn’t feel good about it. Even when she hands the loaf to Joseph she feels unsettled.
“Here you go, “ she says triumphantly, “one loaf of white bread. I hope you enjoy it.”
He takes it, shakes his head in the confusing way that means neither yes or no to Mae, smiles a small smile that does not reach his eyes, and says a muted, “Thank you.”
Neither of them look happy.
Before Mae turns to head back to her warm centrally-heated house she sees Joseph put the loaf of bread onto one of the opened magazines on the wall to his right. Then he looks straight ahead of him like the statue that he has become, with the now empty polystyrene cup held out in front of him.
Mae turns away from him, quickly dodges past a group of school children who are looking at her and Joseph curiously and proceeds to hurry home with her bag of righteous shopping and a heavy guilty judgemental conscience.
As she closes the door behind her she drops the shopping bag by the hall radiator and leaning her back against the warmth rising from the panels she silently wishes she never wrote those letters or went out.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2017