The Shopper (Part 1) New edit
The woman had travelled further than she usually would. She was heading for the main town on the river, where shopping was better. She barely remembered the first part of the journey, tight-chested in the car next to her husband. At the station, she'd taken deep, calming breaths, only feeling better once alone on the train, as it started it's slow pull away.
Now, far too late to turn back, she shuffled along with the rest of the ragbag queue onto the bus. It was fuggy, stuffed with too many breathing things, the windows a wet fog that sealed everyone inside. Outside, the sun skulked, adding an extra ferocity to the already heated space. The woman was glad this last part of the journey was short. She felt her scarf prickling at her neck and the weight of her bag tugging at the crooks in her fingers. She squinted against the glare, struggling to see a spare seat. She felt she was staring into a soup of faces, from which the twinned movements of eyes stared through her, rolling over her. Were they judging her? She faltered.
Then with relief, a free seat, right in front of her, there all along, although, she accidentally nudged her bag against another passenger as she sat. She hastily proffered a smile and mouthed sorry at the stranger, a woman dressed in shades of red, who waved off the bump with a friendly flicker of her fingers.
A little later, when she thought back on this meeting, she tried to remember if the other woman had a hat on or not. She couldn't recall seeing the woman's face exactly, which made her think the hat must have been there. It was definitely there later anyway. She remembered a smile, but could picture nothing else of the face. She couldn't even have told you if the stranger had nice teeth or not, and she noticed teeth. But relieved she hadn't offended anyone, the woman sat still and rather blankly, holding her handbag carefully on her lap.
'You look like a woman ready to shop til you drop' The stranger opened.
This tickled the woman and she laughed.
'Yes, yes I am.'
Shifting slightly in her seat. 'No. Just for me. I'm being selfish. I'm treating myself today.'
It was a relief to talk to someone. Hearing her intentions spoken out loud made her feel better about this extravagant trip, so far from home.
'Good for you. Everyone deserves a treat, don't they.'
'I hope so!'
'So, anything in particular. What are you looking for?'
'Well..' She slowed, thinking how much information she should bother the stranger with.
'Just some new things. Things I wouldn't be able to find in my local shops back home. And also, my handbag's getting so old. I keep losing things in the lining and look how shabby the leather is.' and she lifted her hands away from her bag. The stranger's hands were moving too, reaching out to rub a finger across the cracked skin of the handbag, ever so softly, like a doctor, checking for signs of life.
'There's some wonderful places for handbags in town,' the stranger said. 'Do you know the streets down by the river? You could get something unique down there.'
The woman wasn't sure. She pictured the main street, the big glossy department store at one end and the covered mall at the other. She tried to remember some of the narrower side streets. The ones where she'd imagined drifting in and out of quiet bookshops and reading the clever cards in the gift shops. Did some of those streets lead down to the river? She supposed they must lead somewhere.
The stranger leant forward. 'You don't know where I mean do you? You could wander around for years and never find them. I've lived here a long time. I could show you.'
'Oh no thank you, don't worry.' The woman didn't want to burden the stranger. Besides, she knew where the main shopping area was and wasn't that all she really needed?
She said, 'I wouldn't want to hold you up. You must have plenty of Christmas shopping to do?'
'Oh it's no problem. I don't want to go Christmas shopping.' And the stranger dismissed Christmas with little snorting laugh. 'Think about it. There's going to be hordes of people in town. A guide would make it much easier. Anyway, you don't have to make your mind up now. Wait till we get there.'
The woman on the shopping trip nodded politely. She sat, suddenly self conscious of the silence between her and the stranger. Everywhere else was filled with noise. Every tone between shrill teen shriek and the low drone of grumbled conversations. Each sound continually trampling over the other, and just behind her ear, the incessant jangle of leaked pop music too. The base growl of the engine, rumbled up through her shoes, shaking her seat and she felt a little nauseous. She looked straight ahead through the smeared windscreen wiper arcs and tried to steady herself by conjuring up the treasures on the high street. She tried to place where it was from the bus station. She found she wasn't sure how to link the two together. She'd forgotten which way she should walk. She could see the different shopfronts on the high street, all the usuals, clear as day, and there was the black-fronted pub she was sure was on a corner you had to pass, but she couldn't assemble them in an order. Whenever she attempted to string them together, the flow shifted.
At last the bus station. The sunlight vanishing as the tall sides of buildings enveloped the bus, leaving the woman's eyes struggling to adjust. A shudder and the doors broke open. Holding back to avoid the crush, the two passengers climbed off together. The stranger must have been younger than the woman, because she moved quickly off the bus, jumping down quite nimbly and holding a hand back out for the woman. Grateful for the support, the woman noted the strangers strong hand, strangely masculine but soft on her palm. Yes, now she remembered, the stranger was wearing a hat at this point, dark red with a floppy brim and also smart flat shoes, practical for shopping.
The day seemed duller in town, clouded over. People had become grey shapes, shrouded by hoods and buried deep inside their winter coats, shifting this way and that in the drizzle. It was easy to lose someone. It seemed the woman didn't have to make a choice, she was already moving with the stranger. The stranger walked quickly and the woman struggled to keep up, fearful of losing the shape of that hat ahead. The stranger turned to smile encouragingly, and for a moment, the woman wondered if the stranger wasn't actually a woman but an effeminate man. The hat and the functional shoes could be worn by a man or a woman. She replayed the voice. 'I could show you'. It had been deep, but quiet, too quiet to really tell. Sometimes in a noisy place, a whisper can be more effective than trying to raise your voice. Perhaps the words had been mouthed and her mind had just heard a voice in her head. The brain doing that thing were it fills in the blanks. This made the woman smile to herself, at the thought that her mind was working without her.
The woman heard the rushing of water before she saw it. She felt herself funnelled down the street until she emerged breathless at the wide open river, only a low wall separating her from the roaring water. The stranger was already turning, 'This way' ushering her along the gulley that served as a footpath, with a sweep of her, or his coat.
One side of the path had stalls laid out with knickknacks. Hippy stuff she thought, all beads and incense; little pots decorated with mythical creatures, draped scarves with tassels and sequins. Nothing the woman was interested in, and she kicked herself for following this stranger. She was after much more upmarket things than on these stalls. She wanted something fashionable, maybe a dress for parties. A new handbag was essential though. She really couldn't go on with this one. She tried to heft it sideways so it didn't knock over anything on the stalls. The rough edges of the tables grazed against her coat, creating barely visible tufted tracks in the fabric, like tiny claw marks. And the shiny objects kept pulling her eyes down, even though she wasn't interested, like she'd turned into a Magpie or is it a Jay? What she really wanted to focus on was the stranger. She wanted to catch a glimpse of their face, but every time she thought they were looking at her, the brim of the hat shaded too much or a shaft of sunlight caught her eyes.
The stranger spoke sometimes, turning and pointing at a glinting curio with those quick hands. The woman felt foolish. She nodded dumbly. She didn't know this person. She didn't even know if it was a man or a woman. And she was blindly following, not even somewhere she wanted to go. Why on earth had she got off the bus with them? A flutter of anxiety. There were other shoppers close behind the woman but they had no interest in her. They were rude and pushy. She couldn't even push back through them the way she had come, it was too narrow. She had to go on. When this lane of stalls ends, she thought, I'll politely explain I was looking for the bigger shops. I wanted to go to the department stores with big windows and beautiful displays. I'll tell the stranger I was treating myself you see. I don't often buy something new, just for myself. The stranger had to understand that. And the stranger had to be a woman. That had been her first instinct and first instincts are usually right. And she had been kind, a normal person, just like herself. That's what the woman had thought when she met her, up close in that bus.
A turn in the path. Rather than the market coming to any sort of end, it bent away from the river and went undercover. It was now more of an arcade. It seemed to be getting dark outside. How could it be evening already, even allowing for the short December days? The stranger seemed to be hurrying through this bit. She wanted to arrive somewhere now. The woman was thinking, Ah! I bet the stranger has her own shop. Perhaps she hoped I would feel obliged to buy something from her, after all this 'help'. It's a long way from the main part of town, so the stranger probably doesn't get too much passing trade. It had been a sly trick, but now the woman thought she understood.
The stranger showed the woman a small door at the back of the arcade. So this was her shop. It was gloomy inside and the woman wasn't sure how it was lit. If there were windows, they were behind drapes that let nothing in. There was a table at the end and the woman stood behind it, presenting her wares. Yes, the woman had guessed right. The sloping ceiling directed her gaze. It was more of the same. Clichéd objects spread out on a black velvet tablecloth. Ugly skull shaped candles. A myriad of tacky ceramics with more crudely drawn skull motifs next to what looked like plastic crystals. Hung on the wall were shapeless bags of various sizes made out of black and red velvet, embroidered with silvery snakes and daggers. All a bit gothic and silly. She wasn't sure where to look. How long could she pretend to examine these disgusting things?
Looking around the dim space for ideas, she became aware of two other people in the room. A lumpen man and a child, again, was it a girl or a boy: it's hard to tell sometimes with young children, especially the way hairstyles have changed. They stood behind the woman. She felt their eagerness to see what she would choose. The man was introduced 'My son' and the child 'My grandchild'. The woman in desperation, for something to admire, tried to show interest in the child.
'Hello dear, are you helping in the shop today?'
The child nodded. At least the child's face was clear, lit wide and pale, like a pool under the moon.
'What's your name?'
And the child's face dissolved into giggles. Features suddenly creasing and blurring. The woman tried to focus, cursing her eyesight. What was going on? The son leaned towards the child, and in one gentle movement, curved his huge hand under the child's chin, disappearing the whole face as he drew the child close to his body.
The stranger close by, 'Don't mind them, They're just shy'.
The woman turned away, tired. Her legs felt they had walked an enormous distance, her shoulder ached from carrying her bag. Honestly, she felt like she'd come out with a pile of rocks in there. A little hysterically, she thought, it was like she'd left the house with some subconscious plan to drown herself.
'Sit here, I have something more to show you.' the stranger said.
The woman sank down onto a low sofa, so low it was almost on the ground. She wondered if she would ever be able to get up again. She set her bag down by her feet. How much longer before she could get away? She was conscious of time ticking on. The buses ran quite late but it was a long journey home. The stranger was putting an old fashioned video into a player, a screen flickering to life on the opposite wall. The child came and sat close to the woman, eyes shining, excited, the woman thought.
'I should have bought popcorn' the woman said feebly.
The child clutched small white hands together and thrust them between thin knees, as if trying to pin them there. The child smiled sideways and the woman was pleased to see that the child's face stayed as it was this time. She looked toward the screen, 'So then, what am I meant to be watching?'
The child whispered 'You know.'
'What. What do you mean?'
No one answered. The others in the room were still now. The child's gaze was transfixed forward. The son stood back, like a monumental stone in the shadows. The strange woman, as the woman had come to think of her as a woman, was close to the screen, the brim of her hat raised up, intent. It must have been important what they were about to show her. The woman sat and watched.
The story continues in part 2...