Weekend Fiction by Graham Kirby: The Woman in the Shop
There was a shop which I used to go to in what is now one of the run-down, fashionable parts of East London. It was nothing special. It was just a newsagents and food store. Its windows blocked with posters and advertisements, a few fruits and vegetables, and a rack of papers outside, aisles lined with tinned and packaged produce inside, there are a thousand similar shops. I used to keep odd hours and, as the false flicker of the bulbs shone out against dawn’s uncertain hue, I would go there to buy a packet of cigarettes, maybe some bacon for breakfast or milk for tea. I would surf the narrow gangways indecisively picking up items, then putting them down again before finally deciding what it was I really wanted.
The owner, ever present, had reached that age where there is only one face; she was a small and frail woman with a peroxide mass of blonde hair. Each morning she cranked open the metal guard out front, carried huge trays of vegetables across the shop, and brought in the piles of newspapers the delivery men had thrown carelessly outside the entrance as she opened for the day’s trade. She never seemed to have, or need, any assistance but sat alone behind the counter from dawn until evening, only getting up from time to time to move around the shop and return goods to their proper place or to sweep the floor with an improbably wide broom.
Usually, at that time of day, the shop was my kingdom and sometimes, as I wandered that strange world, we would exchange a few words. But every morning she had another ritual. After she opened up the shop she transformed herself. Sitting on her chair beside the cash register with a pile of make-up, which she produced from a small cloth bag with wooden handles on the table, before her more respectable clients emerged she made herself respectable. First she smeared some foundation thickly to cover her wrinkled skin, drawing thick lines down her sunken cheekbones before rubbing it into her face; next she daubed a slight fleck of concealer to hide a small, dark mole below her left eye; she then took from the bag a great big brush, dabbed it in a box of bright red powder and swept it across her cheeks. Eye-liner, bases and shadows in outrageous colours were applied as she looked at herself in a small, circular mirror on the table.
It was a transformation, but also a contrivance.
* * *
Two friends meet in a park nearby. They greet each other as friends do, though one does not notice the edge of apprehension in the other. They make an unexpected pair. The first is older, maybe by seven or eight years; he was once probably not unattractive but they were the kind of looks which do not last. Tall, he leans in with a slight stoop which gives the impression of an age greater than he actually has, he wears a crumpled pink shirt beneath a grey v-neck sweater and grubby jeans that fit uneasily around his waste. The younger has inelegant features and a haphazard streak of blonde running through his greased hair, his clothes are consciously more ostentatious and fashionable, his wrists are covered with bands and bracelets but it is his eyes which stand out: they are a vivid, almost shocking, brown and beautiful.
As they walk the younger one talks in an animated and direct fashion. Interestingly, as he speaks, he does not look at the other. Eventually they find a wooden bench just tucked back off the pathway.
“I have something to say,” the other eventually says as they sit down. There is a pause as his friend looks at him but does not speak. Even then he does not pick up on the ambiguity. There is a brief hiatus between the stare and the moment the elder speaks again as he takes a silent breath: “This isn’t working out. Sorry. I think we are deluding ourselves that we are actually friends. Or at least I am deluding myself. I don’t want to go into it, I don’t think it will do any good, but I think this should be the last time we see each other.”
Aware of the strangeness of the situation, he had rehearsed the lines in his head over the past few days; he had spoken them without voice until he had convinced himself but as he said them out loud them and heard them he hated them. He wished he had said something else or said nothing at all. Over the years the metaphorical Christmas card list had been culled many times. It was always done in the passive tense. Generally it had been a case of letting something drift until it no longer existed. Text messages and phone calls were unanswered, emails put to one side, meetings cancelled. He thought that the message was received quite easily and usually with indifference. It was in no way brutal and yet the lack of clarity nagged at his conscience. There was not that possibility here: signals had been missed and he had been forced to bracktrack into friendship again.
The person beside him said nothing for some time. He turned his head just slightly and shifted his eyes to look at the other, at first expecting the glimmer of a joker’s smile, then hoping. Nothing came. He turned his head back. Too much had been said. Eventually - though it was no more than a few seconds - once more quickly looking at his friend, he replied, “Seriously?”
“And you don’t want to talk about it? Seriously? You think that’s fair?” His words took an incredulous tone. Astounded. His voice almost squeaked with pressure.
“I don’t know. No. I guess it’s not about fair.”
“Well, put it this way, do you really think I am going to give up on our friendship like that?”
“It’s not about giving up. It just isn’t working.”
“Why isn’t it working?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Of course. Tell me.”
Reluctantly he spoke.
“I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you. I don’t think I like you.”
He instantly regretted his response. He had not thought that the conversation would go this far. Like many, he was a curious mix, of no discernible consistency: he prepared thoroughly but only so far. And in this case, he had not wanted to conceive that the conversation would go beyond what he had prepared so he did not allow himself to think that it would. He loathed confrontation but soon their voices were raised at each other so much that people could hear them at the other end of the square. With almost blinkered rationalism he had wanted all this to be civilised but instead it had descended into acrimony. The younger meanwhile had been received a full-frontal attack from territory he had considered safe; his mind was reeling in confusion. The seemingly unprovoked assault made him angry, though he did not realise it. He spat back accusations of his own, things which had festered unseen and cruel, unpleasant thoughts he did not even realise he held.
“Fuck you. Why did you decide to get up today and have a go at me? What do you want me to do? Prove myself?”
It was not actually a question. The hurt and lack of understanding was palpable. It was one thing to try to end the friendship but then to do it in this way was inexplicable. He looked at the other and for the first time he looked at a stranger. Yet the thing was, if he could have proved himself, he would have done.
“The point,” he replied, “My point is not that you have lied to me but that you spend the whole time - I don’t know - boasting that I just no longer believe a lot of what you say.”
“But I was always like this! I used to brag when I was younger. You never said anything then.”
“You were younger then. So was I.”
“Don’t you see? I talk about these things because I’m proud of what I’m doing. For the first time ever.”
“All it has done is make me doubt what you tell me. Do you remember a few months ago you asked if I thought you had changed - “
“Look, if you want to give me some parting wisdom, forget it. I’ve had enough,”
He became exasperated. He was trapped.
“You can’t have it both ways! I did not want to have this discussion you did.” He paused for a moment but there was no response. “I had to lie to you not to be rude.”
“Well, I am not begging for your friendship.”
“I haven’t asked you to. I am trying to explain. You wanted this.”
“What’s the point? You have made yourself clear. I am a liar. I can’t be trusted. I am just the same as I always was. Thanks. What you probably haven’t thought is that you are not exactly the best of friends either.”
“Yes. I have thought that. Of little else.”
“Good. I’m glad.” There was an edge to the words.
“And I would happily apologise to you for my failings as a friend. I do without reservation apologise that, as a friend, I have let you down.”
There had been a wall between them behind which neither could really see the other. It did not vanish but the words provided a crack from which they could hear each other.
“And I am sorry as well.”
For a moment neither said anything. Two apologies. Eventually one of them spoke.
“But the fact that you have brought all this up proves that we were fooling ourselves.”
“I was fine until you said what said.”
“I don’t think you were.”
“You can be so cold sometimes. It is like I don’t know you when you are one of my best friends.”
“I have to be. I am.”
“I never tried to change you. It is you who cannot accept me.”
“I cannot pretend to admire what I do not. Sorry.”
“Why do you need to admire me? Who am I?”
“Isn’t that what friendship is about? Respect?”
“It is about spending time with someone. Enjoying yourself.”
“But I can pass the time alone.”
“Then you want too much.”
“Maybe I do. But this attitude you have of, I don’t know, constantly putting yourself at the centre. It is not the real you. I think that’s the real lie.”
“No. It is not. But it is who I need to be right now.”
“Then all I am seeing is a façade.”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that this is who I need to be right now? For me.”
“Of course it has! But it is not what I need.”
They relapsed into silence as a jogger with bright hair and dark lycra approached. At first, their eyes in synchronicity looked up and down her body then followed her as she ran past, each smiling politely as she in turn acknowledged them before running off. When she had gone, darting deftly out of the rusty green gate, neither of them spoke. At one point he thought that this was it as he watched the person next to him play unconsciously with the bands on his wrist, that he should get up and leave until the silence was broken.
“You couldn’t leave it be, could you?”
“You had to pick.” He became angry again.
“Yes.” He paused for a moment. “Its not real otherwise. Sorry.”
“But I hate the real me.”
“But I don’t. I wouldn’t.”
“I don’t exist for you.”
“I have bills to pay. I have a life. A job. I can’t be a freak show just to keep you happy.”
“I am truly sorry. I am just - it just doesn’t work.”
“Great. Then all you want is to deny me the defences which I have spent my life building.”
“I don’t want to take anything from you but I cannot cope with only seeing this shell, the image which you want to allow the world to see. It's false, and I know it's false. I can’t love something which I know is false.”
His coldness had gone and his eyes moistened with tears which he rubbed away. His friend, if he were still that, looked at him without sympathy.
“You chose this. Not me.”
“We have both made choices.”
He had been unaware that as they had spoken the dynamic had changed and that he was perhaps implicitly offering, or coming dangerously close to offering, friendship in return for honesty.
The other had changed. This was no longer about him. It was about the stranger next to him. He had once with a kind of curious hero worship almost loved him, this man into whose life he had forced himself, but who he never saw accepted this devotion almost casually. Now he thought he hated him. He did not speak for a few moments before he pulled himself up dramatically.
“I refuse to bend to your will.”
It came from nowhere. Of all the things which had been said in that conversation, this was perhaps the most startling, the inference that in fact their friendship was a gladiatorial dual or contest from which one would remain victorious and the other lessened. In truth, the older man had no will. He was broken.
“People are not there to be changed,” he continued. “We are not chess pieces to be picked up and moved around the board for your amusement. Accept us for who we are.”
He thought about replying. He thought about saying, “And there is a lesson there for you as well. Maybe people are not interested in the front you put on. Maybe they’d prefer the real you.” But he left it there. Clocks could stop for an eternity and there would still not be time enough for everything that needed to be said. For a few seconds they looked into each other’s eyes: one’s blazed with defiance, while the other’s revealed only sadness.
As he looked he said nothing before the person beside him turned away. He just thought. He did not, when he considered it, understand what people really meant by acceptance. He did not think himself interested in changing anyone. Yet change was inevitable - the only evidence of life - but he just did not see any of this in those terms. He just craved reality in an unreal world. He could offer that surely? Truth was, after all, only a different shade of lie.
The other did not look at him any more but stared out into the near distance. His beautiful eyes recorded his injury and resentment, yet he was no longer upset. He was rejected but he had stood his ground. He had not allowed himself to be cowed. That was something which he could take from this unreasonable wreckage, that the pain he bore could have been greater.
The tiny crack their apologies had created had not been wide enough for them to see each other. Silence at last covered it up.
“Good bye. I’m sorry.”
He stood as he said the words, and for a brief moment he thought about putting his hand on his former friend’s shoulder, but quickly dismissed the idea and instead left him to himself or at least with whom he wanted to be for the moment. Once he had turned to walk away he did not look back; the conversation did not leave him but his mind did move on to new things. A chance meeting ten years ago. Then this. It was history.
* * *
I dragged my feet down the street and turned the corner. For the first time in weeks I craved nicotine. I cut in between the parked cars, jumped onto the pavement and then I saw it: my shop.
It had been maybe two years or so since I had been there but it had not changed. The white plaster on the side walls was still cracked to reveal the dull red bricks below; the newspapers and fruit still languished outside on wooden boxes under a green awning; the windows were still covered to hide the inside from the world beyond. But when I looked around at its surroundings, so much had changed. There were better cars parked along the pavements; houses which had been neglected were smarter. The sun, which in the morning had threatened absence, had returned from behind the clouds.
I walked up the rough wooden ramp and through the open door. She was there, as she always had been, sat behind the counter on her chair. Except where there had been bleached strands were wisps of fine grey curls. The loud make-up was no more, the eyes no longer covered in green shadows, the lips not smothered in crimson. Her weary features looked almost defiantly at the world. As I walked in I flashed a smile at her, and for a few seconds her eyes registered nothing as they followed me. Then their tone suddenly changed, she tilted her head slightly and, acknowledging the surprise, she spoke:
“Been long time.”
“I moved I’m afraid. I got a job. Other side of London.” It was, for some reason, by way of an apology.
“I am surprised you remember me.”
“Course I do.”
“How’ve you been anyway?”
“Been keeping well, you know, love.”
I almost continued but stopped myself. It was rude. I half-smiled, that sort of awkward grin you give when you do not know what, if anything, to say. She returned the smile, a wide beautiful smile which revealed her yellowed, decayed teeth.
“Twenty Marlboro Reds, please.”
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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