“Sir? Excuse me. Sir?”
I blinked back the tears that were beginning to prick my eyes, causing the broccolis and carrots to judder and blur before me into a psychedelic haze. When I could trust my features not to betray my emotions to my interlocutor, I began to shuffle round. I was expecting someone of my height or taller, as was more often the case these days, due to my danged stoop. I only saw a row of cauliflower where a head ought to have been before I dropped my gaze to see concerned grey eyes peering up at me.
“Y-yes?” I asked the lady. I put her to be about ten years younger than me, going by the plastic indigo clogs peeping out from beige slacks, the veins and wrinkles of the hand on her basket, the puckered mouth. Her snow white hair was swept into a girlish ponytail. I couldn’t tell whether her pencilled brows were raised in alarm at me or because of the hairstyle.
“I couldn’t help noticing…you’ve been staring at that empty crate for a while…”
“Ah. Yes.” I rubbed the back of my neck like I always do when I’m caught out.
She continued, “I thought perhaps I could help you find what you’re looking for. I don’t work here, but I sure am in here enough!” She laughed, causing her laugh lines to deepen and me to wonder when a woman last had cause to laugh in my company. Since Arabella passed away, it had mostly been just the women on the TV or radio making that sound.
“So what was it?”
“Ah, yes, well, that would be the radishes…” I looked down at my list, which my hand, unbeknownst to me, had crumpled into a tight little ball. “Radishes and rocket. That’s what she liked in a side salad, and I get here, only there are no radishes, and…” I stepped out of myself for a second and saw how much of a babbling moron I looked. Luckily, Grey Eyes took the reins.
“Well, you’re in the right place. That’s where they’d be.” Her voice softened a touch. “Looks like you’re out of luck this time.”
“Guess so,” I agreed. I’d been out of luck since a heart attack stole Arabella from my life four years ago.
“How about a substitute? What about a turnip? Or a carrot, plenty of those right there. Or perhaps beetroot, or…”
She trailed off. Musta spotted my face crumpling up like that bit of paper.
I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. I know I must seem ridiculous. It’s just, it’s my wife and mine’s anniversary today and I like to fix her favourite thing for dinner. It’s just my little way of remembering her. And now there aren’t any radishes…” I pointed an accusing trembling finger at the uncaring green emptiness. “It just feels like I’m letting her down. Disappointing her. Again.”
“Oh, honey.” She patted my sleeve. I focussed on her lovely pearlescent nails, dazzling under the awful strip lighting they put in these places. Then I examined a scuff mark on one of her shoes until I was ready to look up again.
“You don’t need this shit anyway,” she swung her basket around, condemning row upon row of veg like a malevolent judge. A nearby mother of two who was weighing up an avocado frowned at us.
“Wh-what do you mean?” I asked.
“This stuff and nonsense, all treated with chemicals, wrapped in plastic…listen, I’ve got an allotment. You come and taste some of my radishes, see if ya go back to this processed garbage.”
A strange woman inviting me to sample her produce. This was indeed an auspicious meeting.
“Hah!” she cried. “Got you smiling there, didn’t I?”
“Heh, yup. But how comes you’re in here then if homegrown’s so good?”
She lowered her voice conspiratorially, or what she considered low anyway. Although her eyes still twinkled and her hair shone, it seemed her ears had been the first to give up.
“My nephew Stu works here. I get a good family discount on my favourite amaretto. I haven’t been able to perfect the ingredients for that in the allotment, although not for lack of trying, lemme tell you.”
We both chuckled at that. Felt weird to have transitioned from ‘old guy crying over radishes’ to ‘schoolboy giggling over drinks’ so rapidly.
Next thing I knew was that Grey Eyes was taking me by the arm to go find the nephew (she gave him a scolding about not keeping the root vegetables well-stocked, waving away his protests that it wasn’t his fault and probably something to do with Brexit) and I was getting into my car with a new number in my phone. Marion. I blinked dumbly at the name for about a minute before tucking the phone with its precious new cargo safely in the glovebox. I set off for home with a lighter heart than the one I took out with me.
When I got my house keys out ten minutes later though, that lightness had ebbed away, being replaced with a flood of guilt, annoyance, fear and impatience. As I fumbled with the lock I wondered how I would face her tonight. I was peeved the extended waltz around the supermarket had made me miss the beginning of my show. I was scared to feel things I thought had died with Arabella that day.
“Bloody lock!” Cursing at it seemed to be the open sesame.
I heard voices coming from inside. Voices I didn’t recognise.
Because I’d left the TV on (Arabella drilled that into me, scares away potential intruders, she claimed) and I’d missed my show.
I stared at the unfamiliar characters on the screen. A mother telling her daughter that perhaps it was time to move on. That prompted me to find the clicker and turn the damn thing off.
In silence I put the shopping away, pausing on a bottle of hot sauce Grey Eyes – no, wait; Marion had enthused about before throwing into my basket. It went to the back of a cupboard, to stand meekly behind a bottle of sunflower oil and a jar of basil.
I could feel her watching me.
I washed up a few bits from lunch and got the oven warming up. I poured myself a glass of water into a glass that was too small. I transferred the water into a bigger glass and topped it up with more.
I could faff no longer. It was time to face her.
But first I had to pour this stupid water into a plant and fix myself a whiskey instead.
I carried the tumbler over to the dining table, where she waited. She seemed to understand about the alcohol, waiting patiently while I lowered myself onto the chair with a groan. Can’t seem to stand up or sit down these days without adding vocals to the percussion of cracks and pops my old bones made.
I sipped my drink and savoured her beauty awhile. My shining bride, head tilted to look up at mine, me grinning like a goon who’s holding a winning lottery ticket.
Yet she was priceless.
I told her about my day, how I’d frozen in the fruit and veg aisle, how a kind passing stranger had kicked me to get me going again. She didn’t say anything, but when you’ve been together as long as us the right kind of silence says a whole lot more than the wrong types of words.
I picked her up and carried her back from her place at the table where we’d shared so many meals, talked and laughed about the trivialities of our days, worked out problems when one of the children had gotten into a jam with another pupil, where we’d celebrated dozens of birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries. You never know when it’ll be the last one.
I put the framed wedding photo back on the dresser, touched two fingers to my lips, then to her smiling mouth. Arabella’s yearly voyage to the dining room was done.
When I could bring myself to look away, I looked over the paintings on the wall, the faded curtains and tattered cushions, not with the affection that comes with familiarity but with a fresh critical outlook. I got my pad and started making another list, a list of what had to go and what had to be cleaned. I had a new friend coming round next week, and she’s bringing radishes.