“So, ladies and gentlemen,” says the Bright Young Thing from the training department, flashing a smile that does great credit to her orthodontist, “I hope you’ve enjoyed this morning’s seminar. See you all back here at two o’clock prompt.”
While his colleagues close their ring binders and scrape back their chairs, Nigel Carmichael takes the opportunity to refill his fountain pen from a bottle of Quink.
Gary Bostock approaches Fred Pilkington at the desk to Nigel’s left. “Coming to the pub?”
“Sure. The afternoon will be a lot more bearable with a couple of pints of Pedigree inside us.” Fred jumps up and, as he tries to squeeze past Nigel, he knocks into him and a few drops of blue ink spill onto the morning’s lecture notes.
“Bother!” says Nigel.
“Sorry, mate!” says Fred, glancing back at Gary, his eyebrows arching like the tops of question marks. Gary shrugs.
“Want to join us?” Fred asks.
Nigel pushes his jam-jar bottom glasses back up his nose. “No thanks, got to pick up a couple of things from the shops.”
“Suit yourself,” says Gary.
“Haven’t you got a wife to do that kind of thing?” says Fred, but he and Gary are out of the room before Nigel can reply. Not that any answer would satisfy a couple of yobs like Fred and Gary, men who seem to think that it’s Nigel’s fault he’s never married, never had children. Men who carry on as if it’s a joke that, at fifty-nine, Nigel still lives with his mother, now so old and frail that not only does he have to do his own shopping and cooking and ironing, but hers as well. But none of that need concern Nigel now as he picks up his gaberdine mac from the hooks alongside the door, and follows his colleagues out of the classroom for his lunch break.
The front door of the building marks the boundary, like a customs post separating the world of work from Nigel’s other life. He steps out into the street with the excitement of a child entering a theme park. Why waste a precious hour cooped up within the four walls of the pub when he could be slap bang in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the town centre? Why should he grumble that the company has sent them to brush up on the finer points of telecommunication skills when it means getting away from the barren landscape of the industrial estate for a whole day? What does he care what Fred and Gary think of him; Nigel can go places way beyond the frontiers of their imaginations.
Nigel hardly dares blink for fear of losing a single moment of the experience: the multicoloured facades of the shops with the goods jostling for attention in the windows; the church spire trying to pierce a hole in the sky; and the people -- especially the people -- in every conceivable shape and size. And not just the sights, but treats for his other senses, too: the hum of the traffic; the whiff of fat and vinegar from the fish and chip shop; the breeze caressing his cheek. So what about taste? One should never neglect taste. Nigel can detect a faint metallic flavour in his mouth, from the car exhausts, or is that just his imagination determined to conjure up the full set? So much to take in, it leaves him somewhat nauseous, as if he has indulged himself too much at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“Excuse me, please,” snaps a young mother pushing a sturdy three-wheeler buggy. Nigel steps to the side to give her room to pass by on the pavement, trying not to stare too obviously at her dyed-pink hair and nose ring. Excuse me, please, he repeats in his head, striving to recapture the exact timbre of opprobrium and pleading, as she totters past on unsuitable heels. An older woman in a knitted hat like a tea-cosy scowls at him. Nigel blushes. Sometimes he just doesn’t quite manage to keep his fascination with other people’s utterances to himself.
With only an hour, Nigel needs to prioritise, but now he’s here, it’s hard to remember exactly what he came for. So foolish of him not to have made a list. It would be a terrible waste if he were to spend all the time window shopping and have to go back to the seminar empty-handed. And there are some things he definitely needs for this evening.
Nigel scans the shopfronts. A pyramid of three-for-the-price-of-two traffic-light coloured bottles of bubble bath seems to call out to him. He steps forward with determination, almost colliding with a man in a pinstripe suit, smelling of sweat and seaweed. “Whoa, watch where you’re going,” snarls the man. Whoa, watch where you’re going, the words echo in Nigel’s head, the pitch rising and descending like a surfer’s wave.
Once in the shop, he heads straight for the cosmetics counter. As expected, the selection of lipstick is extensive, ranging from the palest cream sorbet to a tenebrous plumberry, with every possible shade of pink and purple in between, each one dressed up in a fancy name, like a racehorse. Choices, choices! What he needs is something cheerful but not too showy, something to accentuate the lips without being sluttish. Nigel hesitates between rambling rose and peach swirl. Maybe he should just toss a coin for it. And then he spots it -- watermelon pout -- and he licks his lips with satisfaction. Perfect!
With renewed confidence, Nigel crosses the road to Baby Boutique and makes his way past the romper suits and frilly dresses, the bottle sterilising systems and the baby monitors, to the display of the bulkier equipment at the back of the shop. He turns reluctantly from the beautiful blonde-wood cots with matching chests of drawers to the prams and pushchairs, in neat rows like cars in the factory car-park. At the front, in the equivalent of the space reserved for the chief executive, is a three-wheeler just like the one the woman with the nose ring was pushing. Nigel steps forward to inspect it. There seem to be more gadgets on this baby carrier than on his valiant old Fiesta. No wonder the label refers to it as a Travel System, rather than a plain old buggy. Nigel is impressed.
“Need any help, or are you just looking?” says a young woman wearing a red polo shirt with Baby Boutique embroidered above the left breast.
Nigel looks up. For a moment, he sees himself reflected in the shop assistant’s eyes: an interloper by dint of both age and gender. Is she going to ask him to leave? He clears his throat. “So much choice!”
“What exactly were you wanting?”
“Something that will suit a newborn,” says Nigel, then adds, for extra clarity, “but he’ll grow up.”
The young woman laughs, nervously. “I should jolly well hope so.”
Nigel takes a deep breath. “So, would something like this do for a newborn?”
“Sure, why not?” says the assistant. She leans over the contraption and extracts a neat little car-seat from the chassis. “Look, up to six months they have to go in this carrier. Then, when they’re big enough, they can just sit in the pushchair part. And there’s this bag here for all the changing stuff. It’s our most comprehensive model.”
“That’s great,” says Nigel, smiling broadly. “Thank you very much, miss.”
Looking relieved, the woman edges away towards a heavily pregnant woman loitering between a robust wooden swinging crib and a woven moses basket with a frilly pelmet. Nigel lingers over the detail of the Arctic Sports Three-Wheeler Travel System. He was right to come in to check up.
His mother had insisted that newborns need to be put in a pram. ‘They can’t sit up themselves,’ she explained, ‘and those flimsy buggies don’t give enough support.’ But the problem was that there was no room in the hallway for a pram. Nigel had known that there must have been some developments in infant transportation in the nigh on sixty years since she was pushing babies about. His original plan had been to put the baby in one of those kangaroo-pouch sling things. But that might be tiring for a long journey and he didn’t want to go making things any more difficult for Louisa than they were already. So this Travel System is ideal. He feels so pleased with his shopping trip that he has the temerity to take his notebook out of his pocket and jot down some of the key points before leaving the shop.
Gary and Fred are the last to return to the classroom for the afternoon seminar. As they shuffle along the row to their desks, Nigel is poring over a half-dozen pages of double-spaced typescript, while wolfing down a home-made sandwich.
“Swot!” Gary hisses, as he pushes past.
Fred lets out a beery burp as he takes his seat beside Nigel. “Is that one of your stories, mate?”
Nigel doesn’t answer immediately. He continues running his index finger down page five of his manuscript until he finds the word ‘sling’. He crosses it out with his fountain pen and writes ‘travel system’ in the space above it. Then he looks up at his colleague. “Yes, it’s my turn to read my work to the group tonight.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please?” announces the trainer with the toothpaste smile. “I hope you all enjoyed your lunch break.”
There is a murmur of assent throughout the room. Nigel gathers up the pages of Louisa Confronts the Baby Blues and secures them in his briefcase. He’s looking forward to his presentation to the Writer’s Club this evening. It’s helpful to get some feedback on his writing. But they can be a pedantic lot, especially the women. Always insisting on every little detail being right.
Anne Goodwin's short fiction has been published online and in print and can be accessed through her writing website at http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/ along with author interviews and a writing blog.
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