LIVING WITH SECOND BEST

I wrote ‘Living with Second Best’ a few years ago. Last year it was short listed for the Autumn 2011 Brighton Community of Writers (COW) Award (UK)

I’m on my own in the shop today.  It’s quite a responsibility, we have break-ins sometimes.  Chancers trying to get their hands in the till, a few boxes of fags, booze.  Not exactly the big league but scary when they happen, they sometimes carry knives.  Some people are so desperate.  It’s a shabby little store really, two narrow aisles.  The counter faces the door and I can see through the glass pane in the door.  Here’s comes Mr Benson & Hedges, not his real name of course, that’s just what he buys.  Sometimes he’ll buy a bottle of red to go with it.  Hope he doesn’t mention Rob.

     “Hello, Annie.  How are you?”

     “Fine thanks, Mr Bamford.”

     “Not joining our Donna at uni this year?”  I catch a trace of smugness in his smile.

     “No, Mr Bamford.  Not my thing really.”

     “Quite.  Donna’s reading politics.  That means…”

     “I know what it means, Mr Bamford.  “Seventy five pence change.”

     That’s the trouble with this country.  Because I work in a corner shop they think I’m thick.  They look down on me.  I would be going to uni if things were different, if we had the money.  I might have worked part-time and saved up or gone to night school.  But mum needs me now Rob’s gone and her life has shut down on her.

     I pop out the back to put the kettle on.  There’s a bell over the door that rings every time someone comes in.  Otherwise I would have to have eyes in the back of my head.  It’s mad who will steal stuff, not only small boys.  Well dressed women and young men popping in for condoms.  Opportunists.  We haven’t got CVTV.  One of those old fashioned convex mirrors is hung at both ends of each aisle.

     I sip my coffee and watch the rain bounce off the pavement.  Grey paving stones, grey sky and grey rain.  Makes me glad I’m in here with my hands clasped around my coffee mug.  There are worse places to be.  It’s not so bad here.  The blue and white checked polyester overall I have to wear makes me sweat.  It doesn’t breathe and it crackles.  I reckon if I ran up the street in it, it would burst into flames. 

     I grab a chocolate bar from the shelf near the till.  I keep looking at their coloured wrappers and give in to the 10 seconds of sugar oblivion.  It keeps the tears away.

     I don’t intend to spend my whole life here, working away for Mr Bishop.  Cleaning down shelves and dusting the products that don’t have a fast turnover.  Tins of prunes, bottles of Irn-Bru.  One day things will work out and I will venture out into the world.  Learn a language, drive to the continent, get a flash job in the city working in marketing.  Somewhere away from cheap overalls and discount pet food.  I keep sight of my dream like a lighthouse at night, intermittently flashing hope and darkness.  I like the darkness, no one can see me there.  I answer to no one.  Except for Mr Bishop.

     There she is, one of the smart women with everything, including an urgency to acquire more.  Mr Bishop told me to watch out for this one, she has expensive taste.  Caviar, smoked salmon and foreign cheeses.  Doesn’t like to pay for it mind. 

     I catch a glimpse of her, Mrs Palmer her name is, over by the fridge loaded with deli items.  I see her hands clasping a large chunk of Roquefort in the mirror, one I’d unpacked this morning.

     “Let me know if I can help you!”  I shout out brightly.  Greedy Mrs Palmer jumps in shock and drops the French cheese.

     “Is that all you need today?”

     Mrs Palmer puts down a bottle of spring water and a packet of tooth picks on the counter.  She does all her shopping in town, only comes here for a cheap thrill.  She shifts from one foot to the other.  Russell & Bromley shoes I bet.

     “Yes, that’s all.  Don’t need much today.  I like to browse though.”

     I bet you do, Mrs P.  I have her down as an executive’s wife.  House decorated in white carpets and dusty violet soft furnishings.  She has silver tongs for the sugar cubes and bores her husband senseless.

     “Don’t forget your change.”

     She turns, takes the money giving me a genuine smile.  You can’t tell with people.

     An hour later I’m pulling the roller blind down over the door when there’s a knocking on the glass.  It makes me nervous as I can’t see who wants to come in.  Might be a thief, as if I would know what a thief would look like.  Stripey jumper, wearing a mask?

     “Let us in, Luv.  I’m out of ciggies.”

     The voice of a young man desperate for his fix of nicotine.

     “Okay.  Keep your hair on.”

     Up goes the roller blind revealing a young bloke with dark curly hair.  I open the door.

     “What brand?”

     “Sorry?”

     “What brand of cigarettes do you smoke?”

     “Embassy, thanks.”

    He is staring at me and I think I recognise his face.  I feel a sharp pain in my chest, like an incision.  A metal skewer is piecing my lungs, I can’t breathe.  

     “Aren’t you, Annie?  Rob’s sister?”

     I nod and turn towards the rack of cigarettes behind the counter, hiding my grief.

     “Full strength or light?”

     “Light.  Thought I’d kill myself slowly.”

     Did he mean that?  I watch his face register his words, a slow creeping horror crawls up from his mouth to his hairline.

     “Oh, God.  Sorry.  So sad to hear about what happened to Rob.  How’s your mum?”

     “How do you think?”

     “Goodbye then.”

     “By the way, both strengths will kill you.  Lighter fags don’t mean you’ll get a better kind of cancer.” I follow him, Jason I think his name is.  Before I close the door I yell at the shape of him retreating.  “Tosser!”  Fighting talk but I have tears burning the backs of my eyes.

     I lock up and pull down the roller door again, grab a frozen pie from the freezer before making my way out the back.  My hands shake as I unlock the car.  The light is starting to fade as I drive from the car park and head for home. 

     How did you go yesterday, Annie?”  Mr Bishop looks relaxed after his day off.  The collar of his overall is sticking up at the back and his smile is easy.

     “Fine thanks, Mr Bishop.”

     “Any difficult customers?”  He loves the difficult ones, they make better stories.

     “That Mrs Palmer came in.  I caught her with one of those deli cheeses.”

     “Did you confront her?”

     “No.  I shouted out, asking if she needed any help and she dropped it.”

    Mr Bishop chuckled.  “What would I do without you, Annie?  How’s your mum?”

     “Much the same.  Last night I found her in the same chair I’d left her in that morning, cigarette still in her hand, the line of ash intact.”

     Mr Bishop pats me on the back.  “It takes time, love.  It’s not right what she’s been through.  Bad enough for you, but a mother…”

     Mr and Mrs Bishop couldn’t have kids, he told me they’d tried for years.  Trying meant having sex but people don’t say that.  ‘We’ve been having sex for years and nothing has happened.’  Some people seem to not want to talk about sex at all.  I remember bursting in from school and seeing mum having coffee with a few of her friends.  Sitting round the old formica table, all four of them smoking.  Mrs Wagstaffe wearing her pinny, she washed her doorstep everyday.  Its funny this preoccupation the working class has with cleanliness, as if they can clean away the stain of their birthright.  Mrs Evans who wasn’t even a Mrs.  She had several children to a motley crew of uncles.  And Mrs Bennett of course.  Mrs Bennett used to mouth sexual words she didn’t want us to hear.  Rob and I used to curl up in silent laughter, trying not to be sprung. 

     I didn’t want to see Rob in his coffin.  He was my bright star.  I was happy that he had been the favourite.  He was everyone’s favourite.  Now it’s just me and mum, living with second best.

     I remember clearly Rob starting school while I had to stay home with mum.  We picked him up at the gates, he held both our hands as we walked home and he told us every moment of his day.  A box of colourful crayons, drawing stickmen, reciting the alphabet as his teacher, Mrs Marsh, pointed a cane at the alphabet poster on the wall.  Rob’s favourite letter was N for nurse.  He said it made him feel safe, looked after.  Funny that.  The last face Rob saw before he died was the face of a nurse.  A nurse who held his hand as he was wheeled into theatre, a bag of broken bones after the accident.  Rob would have felt safe as he slipped away.     

     “Fancy a coffee, Annie?”

     “Yes, Mr Bishop.  I’ll do it.”

     “You’re alright, I’ll get it.  Have a flick through one of the magazines while we’re quiet.”

     I prefer to stare out at the narrow piece of world I can see from the counter, through the glass door.  The rain has stopped and I can see sunlight reflected in the puddles.

     Mum hasn’t left the house since Rob died.  She’s barely said a word either.  Her job at the bakery is being held open but I can’t see her going back.  All the colour has leaked out of her.  I try to keep her clean but its hard work coaxing 10 stone of uncooperative flesh into the bath.  She’s eating a bit more but she’s no longer the cuddly mum she when I was small.  I’m not the greatest cook but I do my best, tempting mum with spag bol and shepards pie.  She lost her favourite but so did I.  I’m too young for these responsibilities.  I should be out stomping in those puddles, not thinking with the head of a 40 year old, about the dirty washing they create.

     Mum’s eyes are dead.  The shine burnt off.  But one day her eyes will flicker, choose life.  I can imagine her getting up, walking towards our little kitchen and putting the kettle on.

     “Fancy a cuppa, Annie?” She’ll say.  “Looks like you could do with a biscuit or two.  You’ll waste away, my girl.”  Hands on her hips, giving me a disapproving stare.  She doesn’t like skinny, my mum.  How is she going to feel when she looks down at her own body.  Drowning in lengths of cheap fabric, bones I’ve never seen before, searching for hands swamped in sleeves that once were too tight, too short. 

     “You alright, Annie?”  Mr Bishop is back with coffees.

     “Yeah, fine.”

    “I love having you here, but I hope you’ll take flight one day.  Get out in the world, a bright young girl like you.”

     I shrug, we both know for now that isn’t possible.  I couldn’t leave her, there’s no one else but me.

     A young mother struggles with the door, her face frowning.  A kiddie in the push chair and another one at her heels.  Mr Bishop holds open the door smiling, she barely acknowledges him.  He winks at me.

     The girl moves clumsily round the narrow aisles with her second-hand pushchair.  The boy, sees something he wants, marshmallows, reaches out .

     “No, Alfie.  I don’t have the money.”  Alfie sits on the floor crying.  The girl’s shoulders sag and she looks around, slips the packet into her raincoat pocket.  I decide I will put the money in the till for the sweets. 

     As she unloads her groceries on the counter I recognise her.  Cheryl Baker, a couple of years ahead of me at school but she looks a decade older.  Her hair is limp, her clothes made for someone else. Two snotty-nosed kids.  She avoids eye contact, maybe she remembers me or its guilt for the packet which must burn in her pocket.  I remember a girl with wavy hair, short skirt, glowing with any number of possible futures.  Now her view stops a long way short of the horizon. 

     “Why don’t you go home early, Annie?  It’s quiet here.”

     I don’t want to go.  The only time I feel I’m still living is when I’m here in the shop but I’m tired so I nod and hang up my uniform out the back.

     When I get home mum has her face in her hands and for the briefest moment I think she is laughing.  But she’s crying, at last. 

     “Mum, it’s alright.  I’m here.  We’ll be fine, you’ll see.”  And for the first time I think we might be.

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