I saw her in the confectionery aisle, the one between Dried Goods to the left and Hot Beverages to the right. She had long brown hair and a short red jacket and knelt on one knee, peering at white chocolate mice and thin strawberry laces. The place heaved, and I felt myself moved on by agitated metal in headphones, grannies with baskets and impatient feet, ending up between Household and Spirits, hoping she didn’t grab a Sherbet Dip and vanish into the dusty lines of bleeping tills.
My watch said 3.32 pm, and I kept looking at its cracked exterior. I expected the two tiny black hands to stop, in that clock-stopping sort of way you read about in stories. Most of my life had felt more like that Auden poem, but maybe now passing hands could register something more, maybe I could have a few dreamy minutes rather than a chance encounter whipped away in the tick of a second.
I’d shut the sweet shop early today, the one handed down to me by my father, Thompson, just over two years ago. Raised on a diet of shiny glass jars, a quarter of acid drops or a 100g of Pontefract cakes. My father stocked all the old-back-in-the-day sweets, dolling out the retro experiences between a modern sandwich bar to the left and a busy Burger King to the right.
The chance to sneak another peek came by chance. I thought she had gone, but as I rushed out of the squeaky doors, I saw her, bright red jacket acting a like a beacon in the distance. She reminded me of Red Riding Hood. I skirted over, nearly falling over my own sensible laced-up shoes and came right up behind her. I could smell orange and cinnamon, and apple shampoo, which reminded me of Christmas, and I imagined her as a smooth tall candle that I was going to melt.
‘Yes?’ I didn’t expect her to speak. A soft voice, but with a slight pitch of constrained hysteria. I tried to think of something amusing to say, draw up an appropriate response but all I could do was stare wide eyed with my own bright red face as she devoured a packet of Fruit Burst one after another. Instant gratification had nothing on this kid.
Eventually, after some deep breaths, I stammered ‘Sorry, I thought I saw you drop something,’ and the girl looked at me quizzically, from underneath thick dark lashes and I thought my time was up and the clocks would stop but then she smiled and said ‘My names Jenny.’
Jenny, I kept repeating it in my head, as we walked, side by side. There had been a Jenny at school with mousy brown hair and a blue pinafore. One at work too, straight after school when I did construction, (I got the sack), a secretary with a thick fringe and a granddad shirt, which could be sexy I suppose, but I had been personally unmoved. This Jenny though, this one is different. This Jenny’s name feels like Turkish Delight, powdery, rich and sweet and this is before I’ve removed the soft white folds of tissue paper.
My names James I began to say, once her name stopped going round on a loop in my head but she stopped me with a pointy polished finger and said ‘I know who you are.’ I stared at her, my mouth in a perfect ‘o’ and wondered how, but then I just smiled because it’s a compliment and it’s rude not to accept one mother tells me.
‘So this is you?’ Jenny nods, shyly and treads lightly from one foot to the other. Her front door is green and chipped. My own house is two streets away, the family home, three bedrooms and a smashed top window. Mother always home, the constant curtain twitching waiting like Mrs Havisham for father’s return.
‘It’s been nice talking to you.’ It’s a nice thing to say, it feels affectionate. Maybe we can be friends. Isn’t it always best to be pals first, before love makes that all important entrance.
‘Thanks,’ I say and give her my best smile, the one that looks genuine because my eyes crinkle. It’s used sparingly.
‘Maybe I’ll see you again.’ Jenny is toying with me. I feel like a cat chasing a mouse and I am going to kill the mouse. I have thoughts, those thoughts, but I push them down, swallow them like rising bile.
That night, I couldn’t settle. I made black coffee and listened to rubbish on Capital Radio. I stuck an old Jason Stratham film in the player and once again wished I had his luck with those fair maidens carrying an extra chromosome. It’s almost like they are born sporting kisses, like a tattoo blasted on their souls, but us blokes have to spend our sad little lives puckering up to princesses who look at us with contempt. I listened to a Bruce Springsteen ‘Dancing in The Dark’ and stuffed several packets of cheesy puffs down my throat. Eventually, bored and restless, having paced enough, I pulled my coat on and left the flat.
Her flat stood in darkness, which seemed strange; I mean where could she be if not at home. She didn’t seem the sort to mix, hadn’t popped to a local wine bar with non-friends for a Margarita or a Cosmopolitan or gone round to a friends flat to watch a chic-flick and stuff her pretty little face with a bar of fruit and nut. No, she must be in, on her bed, in fleecy pyjamas watching an old black and white film, something like Gone With The Wind whilst she sips a warm hot chocolate through pursed lips and imagines me gone inside her.
Today may have been the first time they had spoke, but it wasn’t the first time he had seen her. His romance with Jenny had been going on for months and even now, as he stood in the alley opposite the Victorian house that she called home, or at least part of it, he knew she couldn’t see him, he used the perfect dark spot, no street lamps or light giving away his loitering presence.
Love stood for longevity; it’s what he understood now after leafing through books about dating and how to find a girl. It was an action, a dedication, a better choice, every day. Often he rushed back before work, just to try and watch her leave for work herself, always curious as to what she would wear, how she would wear her long velvety hair. It was disappointing that he mostly missed her, but he had followed her half way to work once and tried to catch her as she left in the evening and he always saw her in the supermarket, looking at confectionery on one knee.
When I lie in bed, I think of her, as my hand heads south, the same place I want to go with her, entwined souls fucking the compass point of time. She would be a hard one to convince, at first, quiet shy Jenny with her chocolate mice, but eventually, with love and kisses and co-joined strawberry laces I would win her over.
Seven months of thwarted stops and starts, then it’s May, the sun is shining and Jenny is stood outside my door. Some mix up with the post, again, because she has been here before, five times to be exact.
‘Hi,’ I say and take the brown envelope from her. She looks at me. I seem to transfix her. My nerdy head and body blows her mind. I’m going to get a proper girl. A date. A girl I can take to the cinema, or out for dinner or maybe to a play in the centre of town and then she will come home with me, afterward, in a taxi where we will be cuddled into each others heat and when we get home, she will let me kiss her and tuck her hair behind her ear.
‘I know who you are.’ She stands there on my doorstep in her red coat with a look of faint disapproval.
‘I just..I..’ I can’t say it, spill the contents of my heart to a girl who might, with relish, dice my heart strings on this warm spring day. ‘You’re just lovely,’ I say, and Jenny blushes and for a second she is thinking that perhaps I am not that mad, that perhaps she’s overreacting to the natural exuberance of an impassioned suitor.
‘You really…’ I know what’s coming, so I ask her to come in. To my surprise, her face sort of slackens as if fear and disapproval are heavy weights to carry around and she sits down on my sofa.
‘Look, let’s have some tea,’ I offer and she accepts. Mother is out, so I make some in the tiny kitchen with my mother’s best china. Should have bought something to put in the tea I think, but poisoning is for girls and even though I am often called one, it doesn’t mean I am going to turn to the delights of arsenic and tender tea leaves. It hurts that she threatened me. It hurts even more that she doesn’t think I am her type. Arrogance wasn’t a trait I saw in sugar-coated Jenny, and it stings that she could be so conceited, with a dismissive gesture batting me away like a fly on honey. This isn’t a sweet shop Jenny I feel like saying, there is not endless jars of choice, but I don’t, I just put everything on the tray and wander back into the room.
Jenny is gone, up the bare staircase, no doubt in my room now, rifling through my privacy. Jenny has found my corner I realise as I tip toe through the door with my tea-laden tray. A corner of my tiny rectangle is a shrine to the sweetie girl. My declaration like dozens of Love Hearts scattered across the drab grey wall like stars, walls full of pictures and cards, and the best bit, a silver frame with a picture of her and then myself superimposed over the face of one of her friends.
‘This isn’t normal,’ she says and I laugh somewhat nervously and try to move her away but she won’t budge, she’s a hard as an aniseed ball.
‘It’s just some pictures,’ I moan, which it is and I watch her flick through things with pink polished nails and her face turns as white as milk bottles. ‘Have some tea?’ I suggest. Jenny doesn’t like my suggestion, pushes me away, then swings her arm, watches as the tea things ricochet across the room. I look at the mess, but focus on Jenny instead. Step towards her with open arms and upturned hands. She swings round and comes towards me, her face a crude contortion of what it used to be. I am sure we are about to kiss. I am going to taste her sugar-laden lips, taste the sweetness of love.
The sound, when it comes, surprised him. A sense of pressure upon his chest, and a warm, watery sensation as time stopped and ol’ hands stopped a turnin.’ Above him, Jenny’s image floated in and out of his vision and in the darkness that often replaced her, he saw glimpses of supermarkets and sweets and lonely boys with earnest faces and smooth chins looking to catch a friend between Dried Goods to the left and Hot Beverages to the right. He obviously had more than he bargained for as the knife came again and the girls red coat no longer the only red beacon and he smiled, enjoying their symbiotic relationship, their combined folie a deux, thankful his clock was about to stop.
© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.
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