Bread

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

Advertisements

September

“Can’t you manage a single act of kindness towards him?”

“Why should I?”

“Because he’s your father. He’s your blood.”

“That doesn’t mean anything to me. Not after what he did to mum … and me.” I sat still with my head bowed down to my chest. I hated September, especially this day. Every year I dreaded it and trying to forget it meant I thought about it more than ever.

“Harrison Stern! Please stop it. It’s time you grew up and faced the fact that you are his only living relative and he’s not getting any better. Trust me, you’ll regret it if you don’t give him a chance.” Chloe’s voice softened as she finished talking and sat beside me on the sofa tenderly holding my hand.

When we walk into his room in the hospice I’m startled at how old he looks. The illness has added at least twenty years to his real age of sixty-five.

I stand back while Chloe talks to him. I’m looking out of the window as my heart is rapidly palpitating.

“Sit here,” Chloe says as she gets up from the chair and moves it closer to the side of the bed.

He looks at me and knows it’s me.

“Harry.” He exhales with relief.

Then he starts talking, and keeps talking. It’s as if he has words stuck inside him that need to be released.

I listen silently. I still hate him.

Then he says,  “I remember that one time when we built the kite. Do you remember that, Harry?” Words were not available to me. My throat is able to manage a hard swallow but nothing else. I feel afraid that if I speak I will splutter or choke on my own saliva.

John, my dad, continues, “It was your seventh birthday I think. No, your eighth. That’s right. It was supposed to be your seventh, but … well, something happened the year before. I can’t quite remember what that was.”

I remembered. He was with her. Not my mum, the other woman. That was when I started hating him, although I didn’t know about her until Mum died 10 years ago. All I knew was he broke his promise to me and never said why. I’d boasted to all my friends about the kite that we were going to make, so when my birthday came and went without it, I was called a liar. He totally destroyed my trust on my birthday –  it’s the same month as his birthday: aka sad September.

“I’m sorry, Harry. I’m so sorry, my boy.”

Finally.

“It’s OK, Dad,” I sob and lay my head on the side of his bed. He places his shaking hand on my head and continues to talk.

I hear Chloe quietly leaving the room and know I love her even more than when we married 12 years ago.

She was right, she’s always right.

Dad and I are finally free to love each other, even at this desperately late stage.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Football

Football

football

Lewis is my best friend in the world. Lewis is my longest friend in the world.

We have been friends for five months. He is a boy, like me, he goes to St. Luke’s School, like me. He likes football, like me.

We are different in some ways, but I like to think of the ways we are the same.

I don’t like playing some of the games on his playstation because they make me sad, but I can’t tell Lewis why I am sad, so I pretend not to like the games. I say they are rubbish.

I have other friends now but for a time I didn’t have anybody. No friends, no body. No mother, no body, not even my annoying little sister was there, and I miss her when I can remember her.

I tried to forget everything that happened before. Not before when Mummy and Daddy, and Tania and me were all together, but before I was here with Lewis as my best friend. The in between before time. This time is after my family stopped being.

When I was home I used to make believe that I was a soldier and was fighting great action battles and I became a hero and Mummy and Daddy, especially Daddy, was proud of me. But I don’t play those games anymore.  Mummy would call me from the garden and say, “Anton, come in for dinner now.” I just carried on playing until she came and grabbed me and forced me to wash the camouflage dirt off so that we could sit down and eat together.

I’m not supposed to cry, because boys don’t cry, but I do almost every night because I’m forgetting what Mummy looked like and what she sounded like when she kissed me on the top of my head and told me to go to sleep or I wouldn’t grow. I don’t tell anybody that I cry because I do it quietly when I’m in my new bed.

My new bed is part of my new life, so is Lewis, my new best friend.

At first I didn’t speak. I didn’t speak for a long time. I don’t know how long the time was that I didn’t speak but I was trying to make it old again so I didn’t speak anything new that I’d have to lose. I was good at watching when I was silent. I learned all the new people’s routines even though I pretended that I didn’t notice anything.

On the third day here I saw a boy playing with a football, he never smiled but kicked the ball against the wall over and over. I think he was trying to break the football but he just got tired and sat on the floor holding the ball between his legs while he cried.

I was still looking for my family so I didn’t have time to play football or cry because I had to keep watch. And I couldn’t talk to any strangers because they stopped me from looking, so I stayed near the door and waited. Lots of people came but they weren’t my family.

The waiting was not like the waiting that I had to do in my old bedroom when I was being punished for playing out for too long, I knew that waiting, I knew it would end. This waiting was cold and lonely. I didn’t like it, I wanted it to stop.

It did. But not how I wanted it to. That’s why I started playing football.

I was my old self again and I remembered Daddy kicking the ball to me and Tania trying to get in the way. I pushed her over once – I wasn’t sorry then, but I am now. I just wanted to play a proper game with Daddy.

Lewis plays football with me. It’s good, but it’s not the same. But I am trying not to remember why I try to forget because when I remember I cry or just get so sad that I can’t talk to any one for a long time. In those times I feel like I’m shaking and it’s so cold again, and the soldiers are there with their guns, tanks and loud voices. It is very bright as if someone put all the lights in the world on and made them shine just on my house. Then everything is loud and I cover my ears. The next thing I know is that it’s very dark and I can hear the engines getting quieter as they drive into the distance over the rough roads.

I remember hearing some men laugh, but it was not a laugh that I recognised. I did try to make the laugh sound like the laugh of my cousin Stanimir, or my uncle Franjo. I tried to make the sound into something I had heard when it was the time before the bright light and the darkness – somehow it never works, not even when I dream it.

So, I play football with Lewis, and Ryan his brother, and I am OK for a slice of time.

It’s great to have a best friend. Lewis gave me a pencil on my first day at school, but I didn’t take it because I didn’t trust him, he was a stranger. A boy, just like me, yet I was afraid. Now he’s my best  ever friend and we share everything, except his silly games on his playstation.

The only thing I don’t like in my new house are the combat pyjamas – they’re not funny. I screamed when I saw them on my new bed.

When I was in Serbia my birthday was exciting. I got lots of presents and felt special all day long. I was nice to my sister on that day as well because no bad words were said on birthdays in our house. Mummy always made a cake and Daddy organised the games for me and all my friends to play. It was always a long day full of fun. I loved my birthdays and I thought that they all would be the same for ever: me, Mummy, Daddy, Tania and my friends.

My birthday last week was different – it was nice but empty without my old family, my real family.

My new family, who I call Auntie and Uncle, they bought me lots of gifts, more than I’d ever had before, and they were kind to me all day. Lewis and his brother bought me a mini football – I like that. Stefan, my previous best friend, who lived next door to me and was in the same class as me at our old school, he never bought me a football but we shared each other’s games since we were born. I’d known Stefan for ever. I’d known him almost as long as I knew my mum and dad and even longer than I’d known my sister, Tania. Stefan didn’t make it to the old town hall where I ran to a few days after the soldiers had been. Nobody else from my neighbourhood made it there either.

I’d always been the fastest runner in our class, so I ran and hid until the loud noises went away. Mummy told me to run, she was crying when she called out to me, “Run, Anton, run!” I’d been playing in the shed, and was still hiding there when they  came. The soldiers had grabbed her and Daddy had finished fighting and was lying on the ground.

I couldn’t move at first but her voice begged me to go, and when she screamed I went to help her, but she shouted at me in her angry voice mixed with her sad voice, “Do what I tell you, run Anton!” So I ran away and left the soldiers hurting Mummy. And I stayed hidden in the woods for days and it was scary when it was dark. I was always cold and hungry. I don’t like the dark, it frightens me. Tania doesn’t like the dark either. We always have a light on outside the bedroom at night so the shadows don’t come in.

I still have the light on.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2007

(1,370 words)