This short story was first published in Verbal magazine in 2008
Henry thought the shopper, the middle-aged woman at the dairy section seemed unsure of where things were stocked and was a stranger to the store, though she looked vaguely familiar. He watched her scrutinise the small print of a packet of cheese. She turned around for a second as if looking for help but Henry quickly
picked at random a tub of cherry yoghurt and placed it in his basket. Her lower lip seemed to be in a permanent pout suggesting permanent indecisiveness. He studied her features for a clue to her identity and then the penny dropped and he realised who she was and tried to work out how long it had been since he had last seen her.
The Thursday dances in Clondara Hall. Maureen… Hayes! That’s it! I must have gone out with her for two or three months, he thought. My God, thirty five years ago. Maybe even thirty six. Should he say hello?
I don’t believe it! Maureen! Maureen Hayes. It is Maureen? You probably don’t remember me. We used to go out together but then we sort of drifted.
But what if this upset her?
What if her husband – for she was wearing a wedding ring – had died many years previously leaving her childless? Or left her burdened with half a dozen children who were all now up and living abroad for whom she had worked herself to the bone? What if she was now extremely lonely and ripe for the rekindling of some old flame and that they got together only for Henry to feel ensnared after a bit, with her driving him out of his wits? But he was way too far ahead of himself.
Her hair was slightly grey at the temples but brown overall, probably dyed. And she wore glasses, which she never had before. She was not unlike the spinster in that James Stewart film, It’s A Wonderful Life, who never married because her husband wished he hadn’t been born and was granted his wish. Although it all turned out happy ever after in the end when he wished he were alive again.
The things we wish!
He wondered what things Maureen had wished for, what had been granted, or had the disappointments outnumbered the expectations. He knew that people of your own age whom you see everyday don’t seem to be as old as do strangers of the same age but poor Maureen could have been an old grandmother, squinting at the block of cheese either concerned at its price or her cholesterol level or those e-number things.
Why had they argued? Had it all been misunderstandings? When they fell out, as they did a few times, they were the subject of each of their set of friends’ conspiring to get them back together, so that the eight or ten of them, sharing two tables in the tearoom of the dance hall, could once again relax and ridicule the robots making fools of themselves on the floor or those who were dressed like orphans. Into her basket Maureen put just a small carton of milk and this too suggested widowhood or living alone. Perhaps her husband had left her for a younger model. But then why keep the ring? He overtook her and stopped. If she wanted bacon she would have to say excuse me and perhaps at that point she would recognise him, or he could declare: I don’t believe it! Maureen! Maureen Hayes. You haven’t changed a bit.
But she went around him, with her head down, like someone vanquished by the blows of fate, and he felt sorry for her and wanted to embrace her, put his arms around her and place her head against his chest so that she could have a good cry and he would say, There, there. Everything’s going to be fine from now on.
Again he noticed her lower lip, falling away from her mouth as if she had suffered a partial stroke.
He had originally been planning to ask her friend on a date but she missed the dance so he had turned his attention to Maureen. What had attracted him to her were her large brown, almost calf-like eyes, and her sensuous lips. He hated thin lips. She had a lovely smile and perfect teeth. But she declined to dance with him and he mistook her shyness for coquettishness and this only whetted his appetite. That first night he had left her home she allowed him the briefest of kisses. She told him that her father was a seaman. The next week she admitted that her father had got the boat to England and never returned, leaving her mother angry and bitter. If her mother knew she was with a boy at the gate she wouldn’t be allowed over the door for a month. He laughed at the thought of her mother being so strict in this day and age. After all, it was 1971 not 1871. Her mother thought she was over at a friends’, studying.
Perhaps that explained her insecurity. He certainly knew a challenge when he saw one and he planned to conquer and certainly went on to conquer her. Later, she could so easily annoy him by asking him when they were out the name of some girl he had spoken to or joked with. Now that he thought about it, he probably was flirting and keeping his options open. He had been young, athletic, full of life, attractive, appreciated good clothes and was the best conversationalist of his group. It vaguely occurred to him, now in 2008, that something he had done or said had got back to her.
She was at the tea and coffee. He wondered which variety she would pick. He himself was a tea man. Coffee tasted like muck, fouled your tongue and left your throat feeling like it had been invaded by a swarm of bacteria. She stretched to reach up for decaffeinated coffee. Henry had the opportunity to intervene but he lost his nerve. I’m a bit rusty with the ladies, he thought, but he was still cheered by the little buzz of nostalgia he experienced in her wake.
Maureen’s hands were tanned, her fingers elegant. She’s looked after her nails. Her ring wasn’t scratched or the gold dulled. She must take it off when she does the dishes, the way my mother used to do. Her glasses were halfway down her nose. Were she my wife, he thought, I would point out how ridiculous and eccentric looking this made her. As he followed her around Henry put things he didn’t really need into his basket.
At the checkouts Maureen went into the lane he preferred when he came out to the shops after the racing was over. He always cracked jokes with the pretty girl in the blue overall at that particular till, but today he went into a parallel lane in case there was banter which Maureen misconstrued. She fumbled for money and he wondered had she enough and if he should offer to help out. He was now surprised to see how little she had changed. She unearthed some coins from the bottom of her purse and along with a note paid the exact amount.
They walked out, side-by-side. She’s so blind that she doesn’t even notice me, never mind recognise me. If she was married to me I’d get her to change optician’s, he said to himself. Coming up was the mall café with lots of free tables and chairs where he thought they might have sat and chatted and relaxed and talked about the good old days. He could have kicked himself. He was in the old denims he wore about the house and a zip-up jerkin he wore to go to the bookies or the store. He also had a bit of stubble on his face because he only shaved every other day unless he had a funeral to attend.
He now realised he hadn’t the nerve to manufacture a pretext to introduce himself so he fell back a bit to look at her from behind. He was surprised to see that her figure from the back was indistinguishable from a woman half her age and that she had good legs.
Then he remembered why they had broken up. He had boasted to his companions about the detail of their intimacy, described a birth mark she had. He couldn’t understand why she had taken it so badly. After all, he had said it when he was drunk, not deliberately. She didn’t come out of the house for weeks and when she eventually saw him she burst into tears and ran in the opposite direction.
The sun was streaming through the hall and Maureen quickened her pace, her agility surprising him, whereas he was at a disadvantage because he was still recovering from his hip replacement. She removed her glasses and put them in a small case in a practised way. She flicked her hair and suddenly it looked as if it had just been expensively styled. He followed her outside. A man approached her, all smiles.
Must be her son, thought Henry.
The man kissed her on the cheek and whatever he said must have been very funny because she laughed youthfully the way a child would radiate his or her joy to all about. The man took Maureen’s bag of shopping.
What Henry found extremely hurtful was that this stranger took her hand as they walked across the car park – they way he used to! – both of them animated as if they were just about to head off to a country cottage for an intimate weekend.
Henry knew very little about cars. He failed his driving test twice, gave up and had made do with public transport and used to walk quite a bit until his arthritis had set in. But he recognised a top of the range model when he saw one and it was the door of one of those vehicles which the stranger now held open for Maureen. On second thoughts, thought Henry, realising that he had been thrown off by the casual shirt and trousers, the man wasn’t young enough to be her son.
The car pulled out just as Henry was reaching the crossing and it slowed to a halt. Maureen’s window was down, music was playing and she was doing up her eyes. Henry was only a few feet away and he had to admit that she looked great. Out of some impulse he raised his hand in a wave, like you would your lover when she appears in the distance. His eyes sparkled and he especially put on his big winning smile of which he was proud. But she must have thought he was merely acknowledging the driver’s manners for she smiled back, a generous enough smile, before turning away, without any hint of recognition, and Henry’s fingers shrivelled.
Henry reddened to the sparse roots of his bald head.
He walked slowly back to his one bedroom flat and mechanically began unpacking his groceries. He saw he had bought butter and sugar that he didn’t need and a tin of cat food. He binned the tub of cherry yoghurt immediately. He had forgotten to get fish which meant he was without dinner. He lowered himself slowly into his friend the armchair as if his bones were brittle. He was in no mood to watch Countdown on television and he still missed Richard Whiteley, its genial presenter, even though he was dead a few years, and hadn’t been that much older than Henry.
He couldn’t get Maureen out of his head, how well she looked, her poise and what she would bring to the conjugal life, for she looked full of vitality as she was leaving the store. Yip, she hadn’t changed a bit. He looked at the photo of himself on the mantelpiece. A handsome young man with a head of hair, the world his oyster.
He looked at the tin on the kitchen counter and decided that it was too late today but that the first thing he was going to do tomorrow was get the bus into town, go to the pet shop and buy himself a cat.