He hadn’t intended to go into the grocers. The hanging carrots, bunched together like fat, dirty fingers appealed to him in only the most abstract way. The sort of thing he might buy if he was closer to the person he pretended to be. The person who planned healthy meals in advance and bought fresh, organic ingredients. The person who always had a lemon in his kitchen. Not the person who was constantly trying to catch up with order by buying ready-meals from the 24 hour garage.
It was the fuel on the footpath out the front which made him hesitate. The bags of coal, logs and sticks. The peat. He loved the way that peat smelt on his fingers, how it brought back memories of being on the moss as a child. The funny shaped spade and the piles of freshly-cut earth drying in the sun.
It had been a cold start to the year. Mornings when the frost layered the ground like a ubiquitous spider’s web. Perhaps it was caused by some latent ancestral memory but now he only ever felt the house was properly warm when he lit the fire. The radiator was fine to hold the chill back but it didn’t have the raw, urgent energy and power of the rising flames in the grate.
He didn’t even mind the work that went with it. The scraping and brushing, removing the ashes and leaving them beside the back door in the little tin bucket until they were cool enough for the plastic bin. The art of building the fire, layering the sticks with air between them so they could breathe. Do it properly and there’s no need for firelighters or newspaper. Brushing the dark, silky soot out of the chimney. The black grit which stayed under his nails even after he’d washed his hands.
He ran his hand over the surface of a bag of logs as if he was examining a prize cow. He liked the rough, uneven feel of the bark under his hand. He thought about a story he had heard recently on the news, something he half remembered about how damaging it was to the environment to burn wood. There was a statistic he was trying to locate, like searching for keys in a deep pocket. Was it that timber is made up of seventy percent water? Or was he mixing that up with the fact that seventy percent of the planet is covered by water? It troubled him that he could not bring order to his mind.
Then he entered the shop. It was darker than he expected and the piles of produce in trays at every wall made the space seem small, as if the walls were closing in. There were no other customers. The counter was in the centre of the shop and behind it a grey-haired woman was writing something on a notepad. He approached the counter but she didn’t raise her gaze, keeping her concentration on the words and digits she was scribbling.
He stood there awkwardly, wondering for a moment if she had failed to notice him and if he should make a throaty noise to announce his presence. Then she looked up. No words, just the slightest rise in her eyebrows. He felt she was not pleased to see him. Like an intruder.
He knew exactly what he was going to say but stumbled over the first few words under the intensity of her glare.
‘Um, well, uh, could I have a bag of your logs please?’
She studied him with barely concealed frustration. He had the familiar feeling of being in the wrong place, as if he was interrupting something more pressing with his presence. He could feel his cheeks and neck redden and hated that he was impotent to control this external display of shame.
Then, eventually, she spoke.
‘We don’t have any logs at the minute.’ And then a second later. ‘We’re waiting on the man coming with more.’
She lowered her gaze once more.
He nodded along, dreading any adversarial situation. He knew from experience that little misunderstandings or disagreements tended to incubate and swell into something much greater and darker in the oven of his mind.
He tried to laugh, to bring some levity. Then he looked out the window as if to escape from a situation that was threatening to suffocate him.
‘Well,’ he tittered idiotically, ‘I think there might be a couple of bags left out there.’ Then, almost as an apology, ‘I’ll just take the one if that’s ok.’
She considered him again. Then she shook her head sadly and exhaled a deep sigh which spoke of much more than the availability of a bag of timber. She walked silently past him and out of the shop. Every twitch of muscle in her body seemed like an unbearable effort.
He watched her through the front window of the shop. She bent a little and moved to where the fuel was piled until he could see her no longer. Standing alone in the shop he became aware of his own body, how useless his arms seemed hanging by his side. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, where to put them. He felt, perhaps, that he should run away.
Then the woman returned. He tried a desperate smile but she would not meet his gaze. She resumed her position behind the counter and thumped some buttons on an ancient cash register harder than was necessary.
She still did not look at him as she spoke.
‘That’s three pounds fifty.’