I wrote this story in November 2019, while spending some time alone in Cornwall. I intended it to be read as set in the near(ish) future – perhaps a decade or so down the line. But I had no idea then, of course, that life would change so hard and fast for all of us and it spooked me, slightly, when I re-read this recently and found so many aspects that touch on our new, Covid world.
I hope you enjoy it.
She has a fire going in the back room of the shop in the winter. She must light it early because, by the time we’re queueing outside, there’s condensation running down the windows. So, you can’t see much of what she might have to offer and, to be honest, I like that. I like the liquid colour on the glass and the moments of hope.
These mild, wet winters make for a lot of muck on the streets – old leaves and whatever the hell else ends up there. You have to watch your step. I saw a dead pug dog the other day, blown up like a hairy balloon. There was a scattering of rats as I passed by. The rats are doing really very well.
She has no rats around the shop, though. She keeps everything swept and clear. She offers us produce, vegetables and fruit, in the same way her father did, stacked in ever-more meagre towers, but stacked just the same. And she gives the banter as she opens the door to us.
“Fresh, crisp carrots for you today, ladies!”
I like it, even the ‘ladies’, even though it’s ridiculous – dated fifty years ago. But it’s real old costermonger stuff. And the other words too, when she can – lovely cauli, a pound of mush. People don’t get a pound of mush. People don’t get stuff weighed out though the scales are there, gleaming gold in the corner. As often as not, it is one per person. One carrot. One carrot can make your day.
There was a time, a few years even, when it was all going to be ok because we could grow our own. It was going to be a dig for victory scenario – everyone’s garden, the parks, the golf courses. But fate had other plans. The wreckage of the biggest coastal storms, the swift, swift failure of so much of what we called normal life, and then the fear of being outside for long. It was never going to work.
I know Mike thinks I’m a fool, standing in that queue, ready with my precious token, when I could go to the depot. At the depot you queue for a bowl of something hot. It comes in great, silver vats on a van from the centre. Likely as not, the van will be the only vehicle onto the estate most days. But it does still come. And Mike says we should eat what’s on offer. But I would rather queue at her shop, the last shop, and then take my chances with barter if needs be.
This morning she seems a little deflated. When she opens the door, she coughs and it takes a moment before the veg is announced,
“Lovely leeks this morning!”
They aren’t lovely, they’re scraggy, yellowing and papery around the tops. God knows where they’re from but they’ve taken a long time on their journey. Still I want to appreciate what there is.
“Now, I do like a leek, Claire!”
She smiles but she looks tired.
“So do I, Viv! Here you go!”
What did Mike say she was? The other day, he said she was ‘relentlessly cheerful.’ Well, you know, I think she might be on her way to relenting. That will please him, I think, so I’m not going to tell him. I’m not going to let on that Claire the greengrocer is on the skids.
It’s finally frosty. This morning, for the first time this winter, the tarmac is glistening. I have to tread carefully but, Jesus, it’s beautiful. And welcome. The sky is that light blue, painfully bright, and my breath is making clouds. Proper winter. Proper winter weather. And maybe it’ll kill off some of the rats.
Down in the valley, the river is sparkling. They’ve given it the road now. What used to be the A23 is now the Wellesbourne, flowing down to the sea. It was always there, apparently, underground. Like the rats it was confined to the sewers, I suppose. And, like the rats, it seems to be enjoying its liberation.
I’m very early, first in the queue, and I’m startled when Claire appears behind the streaming glass and pops the lock open.
“Come in, Viv!”
She closes the door behind me. There’s broccoli, a pitiful quantity, and half a dozen palid onions. I can smell the sweetness of rot.
The back room has a fire in the grate and a ticking clock. If I blink hard, I think I’d find old Mr Trickett at the table and Claire as a kid. It feels so safe, safer than any memory of my own.
“Sit down a minute, I…”
I’m startled by her sudden sob. Her face is in her hands.
Sometimes I remember what it was like when it was some unique, personal pain that broke people’s reserve. I remember sitting with friends as they confessed infidelity, poured out tales of financial woe or worries over children not working hard for exams – all that other life stuff. They’d have a weep and we’d make more coffee and even if it was real grief we were dealing with, I’d step outside and walk home and there would be so much life around me.
I’m not being facile. It was a world blessed with double-decker buses and little kids on scooters. It was wild with promise, you know? Every day was wild with the promise of more life.
“I’m sorry, Viv.”
Well, that never changes, the British apology for tears. And, I suppose, it still is unique pain. Pain always is.
“It’s ok. Don’t worry about it. Is it…?”
She’s blowing her nose on a huge, white handkerchief. She must boil them over the fire, it’s spotless.
Her voice is quiet and tight.
“It’s time to let it go. I’m going to have to stop.”
I feel pressure to say something quickly, to say anything that will take us past this moment.
“I know. I understand. It’s ok, Claire.”
And then there’s just the ticking of the clock for long moments. It’s a proper, wind-up thing that tells her when we are. They’re valuable these days, clocks that don’t want power. When she speaks again, I’m not ready for it.
“But when will I see you?”
And I look at her, astonished. In these days it’s quite something to still be able to able to astonish a person, so I tell her.
“Blimey, Claire, you’ve astonished me.”
He’s upstairs again, fiddling with the toilet cistern. I’ve said to him that we need to go to the group that meets at the depot and shares skills and tools. But he won’t. He’s strangely awkward about it, like people will know we shit if we own up to this problem. I assume that most people are still using their toilets for shit.
We use one bucket a day into the cistern and flush once. It means sacrificing part of our daily stand-pipe allocation but it seems the safest course of action to dispose of it into the sewers still. I don’t know, though. Maybe we’re just making a great pile of poo down there; maybe they don’t do whatever they need to to maintain the system. We’ll find out eventually, I suppose.
“Mike! Did you get the pass for Tuesday?”
I crane my neck and shout up the stairs. He’s muttering and clanking tools against porcelain. He doesn’t reply.
“Be careful you don’t crack it, for Christ’s sake!”
“I’m not going to fucking crack it, Viv… And no, I didn’t. I’ll get it tomorrow.”
“Well don’t leave it any later than that, will you? You know he won’t cope for another week.”
He doesn’t reply. There’s a louder clank and I go back into the kitchen. If he breaks that bloody cistern then that’s it. And I don’t want to be crouching over a hole under the apple tree in this weather.
I got out my sliver of best soap. I don’t remember quite what the scent is meant to be, just that there is one still so it must have been pricey. It’s citrus of some sort. Bergamot, maybe? And I stripped everything off and washed from my ears downward, with the best cloth I have left. I was a bit ashamed of the feet, filthy round the heels and between the toes but, you know, I tend to concentrate on the bits that truly stink, and my feet never have. Not like Mike’s. Not that he can help that, of course. We just are the animals we are.
All the way there I try to keep my mind blank, listen to my breath, watch for people, like we do these days. There’s one woman in the church doorway. She’s bleeding from somewhere so I look away. When was it that we started looking away? Maybe we always did. I can’t remember.
Claire hasn’t opened for three days and I think everyone’s seen the sign by now.
TRICKETT’S THE GREENGROCER HAS CEASED TRADING. MANY THANKS FOR YOUR CUSTOM OVER THE YEARS.
I walk down the side alley and find she’s unlocked the back gate for me. She’s standing at the kitchen sink, looking out into the garden. She jumps when she sees me and I give a little wave, a foolish little wave.
She opens the backdoor and I step inside. She’s cleaned with something that smells warm. Beeswax, maybe? The golden, golden stuff of bees, when it was all humming, when it all worked.
“He’s gone then?”
“Yes, until tomorrow.”
“Where is his dad?”
“Brian? In a camp in Crawley. He had a bungalow in Shoreham Beach.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well… He’s pretty rough, heart trouble, not really controlled any more, so…”
I tail off, watching as she posts something into the fire: a strip of thin wood.
“Excuse the smoke. It might be a bit pungent. It’s the paint. But too good to waste.”
I realise it’s familiar somehow, a particular dark green: the edging of the shop display. Painted wood. It must date right back to her father’s time, I imagine.
It is pungent. It’s too much, so we step out into the garden for a minute to escape it. Even Claire’s garden is just a tangle of luxuriant bindweed. I don’t know why I’d imagined she would grow things. I suppose I hoped.
She wafts the backdoor like a fan, trying to clear the smoke from inside.
“Sorry. That was a mistake. And you smelling so sweet too.”
She catches my eye. I can feel heat in my face, some combination of excitement and shame. What do I usually smell like?
“Well, thank you for noticing.”
“I always notice things about you, Viv.”
It feels like a line from back then. I suppose it is a line from back then. Is she a Lothario, Claire the greengrocer? I don’t think I’m going to play the ingenue for her. I want to keep this real.
“This might sound a bit silly, Claire, but I do actually like you.”
Her laughter is explosive, goes on too long, tips very close to hysteria. I chuckle too but it’s disconcerting. Eventually, she stops.
“What did that mean, then? I do like you but don’t bullshit me? I do like you, you sad old lesbian? I do like you so let’s just get to bed?”
I like her even more.
“The last one, I think.”
She takes my hand and we go inside.
I’ve never been a crier. Not in bed, anyway. She gets me one of her snowy handkerchiefs and I suddenly determine never to ask her how they’re so clean. Perhaps they’re magic: a magician’s handkerchiefs.
Then she scoops me into her arms again, my head on her chest. Her skin is so impossibly soft. Is that what women always feel like? Is that what it would feel like to be with me? I kiss her breast, softly, but like a thank you, not a further invitation. Her fingers are stroking my spine.
“I’ve got a bit of a surprise for you.”
“Well, that was a bit of a surprise, to be honest.”
“Yes, but there’s more.”
She crosses the room, naked and unselfconscious, like an angel strolling about on a cloud top. She opens a drawer and calls over her shoulder,
“Shut your eyes.”
I do. I feel her climb back into the bed. Her skin is chill from just a few seconds in the unheated room.
“Hold out your hand.”
Something spherical fills my palm. Before I can even process the sensation, Claire bursts with excitement.
“Look! Open your eyes! Look!”
And it’s an orange. It’s a perfect, firm, shining orange.
“Oh my god.”
I say it in the even, unironic way that might mean anything and, these days, means everything.
I place it reverently on Claire’s pillow. We gaze like it is the head of the Christ child – a given miracle. Then Claire pares away the skin with the sharp, thin blade of her pocket knife. I watch her hands. Her fingers are long, strong, steady, becoming oily with zest as she works.
“Will you come again, Viv?”
I don’t make promises any more. Who does? She must know that. But I think this is ceremony; this is ritual.
She slips the first sweet segment into my mouth.