I’m still rubbing sanitiser on my hands when he catches me from behind. Deep bass notes, arcing vowels, unhurried syllables. He could narrate a mindfulness app with that voice, like a Brummie David Attenborough – though less of a relic. I’ve debated telling him this but decided against. Probably not the best thing to tell the store detective – he might take me for a stalker.
– Back again?
– Can’t keep away.
I flash a magician’s assistant smile and roly-poly my hands as I turn to face him, smoothing in the last traces of gel. Then I hold them up.
He raises an eyebrow and I attach a polka dot face mask, knowing it will stick to my lipstick. It will probably smear it too. And sabotage my speech. Maybe muffled voices will become the new husky?
– Rushed off your feet again?
– Alright Miss Sarcasm, you only come in when it’s quiet. See what it’s like when school kicks out. Trying to steal toffee crisps up their sleeves. Gotta be on my guard then.
– You should be more trusting of teenagers. People always think the worst. I feel sorry for them, I do.
It’s me you need to watch.
He leans one arm against the florid magazine wall, shoulder height with The People’s Friend. I picture him pecking his biceps like they’re suckling infants. I picture him ripping my mask off and kissing my smudged lips. He wears a visor; I edit out the logistics of this.
– Wanna take a look?
– Show me what you got.
He thrusts his hand into his back pocket.
– It’s 4 down I’m stuck on.
– Go on.
– Blot one’s _______ , harm one’s reputation, 8 letters.
– Say it again.
– Blot one’s _______ , harm one’s reputation, 8 letters.
– Hmm, say it one more time.
– Bloody hell, what’s wrong with your ears?
– I said what’s wrong with… Oi you, joker.
I’m giggling. He twizzles his biro, throws it up and catches it like a crooner with a microphone.
– That supposed to impress me?
– You gotta admit I’ve got some skill there.
I roll my eyes – the only thing left unhidden on my face to communicate those little extras.
– Oi, what’s that eye roll supposed to mean? I got talents, I got talents with crosswords.
– You’d be lost without me.
– I’d be alright. I’d buy one of those crossword gadget thingies.
– Seiko Oxford Crossword Solver? I’ve seen them. They’re one of the few things in here that’s security tagged. Come on, 9 across, I can see it’s blank. I’ve got nothing for 4 down yet.
– British birds of the blue or great variety.
Phillipa on the till peers over the Scratch cards at me like I’ve just asked to see hers. He corpses, closes the pocket Puzzler and stuffs it back in his trousers.
– What you in for anyway?
– Jiffy bags. The layout changed again?! You’ll have to be my guide, Sven. Ooh that rhymes!
– Bloody poet now is it? I knew you were wasted as an estate agent!
– How’d you end up with a name like Sven? Is your Mum Swedish?
– No, she just really liked Sven Goran Eriksson.
– Sven Goran Eriksson? Isn’t he …?
– The ex-England football manager? Yeah. My little brother’s named after Fabio Capello.
– Oh, right.
He looks down, laughs.
– You wind-up merchant!
– I was about ten years old when Sven Goran Eriksson was coaching England, you doughnut. My mum’s Norwegian. Come on then, Se-ren. That rhymes too. Let me guess, it’s a Welsh name?
– Means star.
He looks embarrassed for a moment.
– Makes sense.
I follow him now, past the Other Occasion cards – New Home, Just Married, New Baby, Good Luck, Thank You, Get Well Soon, Sympathy. He pauses by the party invitation packets to let a stooped old lady go by – her body’s almost at a right angle, like a tipped teapot, portions of life dripping out at each little step. We stand close – definitely closer than the recommended metre. If we were any closer, I’d be able to inspect his pores. I can already see the crisscross of his facial hair and I imagine it feels like the wiry coat of a charismatic dog. His shirt collar forms starchy peaks winding in and out of his sweatshirt’s neckline. I resist the urge to place my cheek against his chest and straighten him out. His hand now moves up to scratch his shoulder and, seeing the old lady’s past, he carries on.
A pink invite with a princess printed in its corner catches my eye.
Invite me to dinner Sven. Invite me to that little Italian place on the High Street that always looks half dead. Invite me for a 3-for-2 meal deal at Boots.
Sven looks back at me like he’s considering which option. It feels like I’ve got a bee buzzing around my insides.
Invite me to go look at flowers in the park, tell me your favourite one, I’ll tell you mine – a peony. A what? I’ll show you a picture on my phone. You’ll say, just looks like a pretty cabbage to me. I’ll say yes, exactly. It’ll start to rain. I’ll say, the flowers will be happy. You’ll say, you make me happy, you’re my flower, you look beautiful in the rain and you’ll kiss me, your slippery, warm face will kiss me.
– Oh, these are the Filofax dividers here. I’ve led you up the wrong aisle. Let’s turn back.
– Leading me on a wild goose chase Sven!
Do chase me Sven. Take me to The Pig and Whistle. Let’s get pissed together. Let’s go wandering after last orders with the streetlamps as our spotlights. Put your coat around me like an old-fashioned movie star.
– Foldaway shopping bags.
Eco-friendly. We could take that avocado one to Asda. Stand hand in hand, a paper doll silhouette. Let’s pause at a wall of toothpaste, seven-foot-high, and let the dental hygiene choices overwhelm us.
– There’re the diaries. Getting closer.
Just take me on a date god damn it.
Snatch that PaperMate Inkjoy and sign your name across my heart.
I stop in front of the Basildon Bond watermarked paper. There are whole writing sets. There’re packs of notelets too and I pick one up. It has a striking photo of a Red Admiral printed on the front.
– Love is like a butterfly.
He sings the fly of butterfly with two vowel sounds.
– Who sang that?
– Dolly Parton.
– Fount of knowledge you.
– I will always love notelets, Sven.
I replace the pack and sidestep towards the pukka pads, popper wallets and memo block refills. I hover here for a moment, strumming at my handbag while Sven carries on.
– Just a jiffy! Here we are.
– Nice pun, Sven
– What’s that? Nice bum, Sven?
– Oi, cheeky!
As I reach for a Jiffy AirKraft Mailer, a man approaches Sven and talks in hushed tones. They look at me. Sven looks like he’s just detected a fish scale in his mouth. He steps towards me then signals for the man to leave us.
His hand moves as if to hold my shoulder, hesitates. I look down at it, willing it to move up and cradle my face.
– Yes, Sven?
– Could you step this way please?
I’ll step any way you want Sven if only you’ll hold me. Frame me. Waltz with me?
– Seren, that man saw you. In fact, I’ve seen you… before.
And I saw you and I knew the first time. I knew you were the one.
– It’s not the first time is it?
I wish it were my first time, with you.
– I’ve turned a blind eye.
I wish you were blinded by me.
– Seren, I could lose my job. I need you to show me the inside of your bag.
But look at the inside of me.
I let the bag fall, slide down my side, to rest at my feet. He takes it gently and pulls out the three rolls of Scotch tape.
Fix me Sven. Stick me back together. Each aching piece of me.
Sven looks torn. Does he look torn?
– Copybook – the answer to 4 down. It’s just come to me. ‘Blot one’s copybook, harm one’s reputation.’
– Back again, Seren?
– Can’t keep away.
PC Singh smiles at me sadly. The plastic chair I’m sitting on is solid against my back like a school bully leaning into me. The walls here are blank and bleak, crying out for some light oak-effect picture frames or a contemporary, art-themed calendar at the very least.
– It’s been hours. How long can they keep me here?
– They’ll be questioning you soon. This has just been left at the Help Desk for you. I said I’d hand it over.
It’s a small envelope, my name handwritten across the front in a careful hand – by a Stabilo fineliner it looks like. I bring my feet up onto my chair and perch my chin on my knees as I rip it open. It’s a Red Admiral butterfly notelet.
I read it. And then, I read it again. I make it flap and soar with its card wings, either side of the fold. It flutters up, up, up, and I picture it lifting the stationery I most desire. It brings Helix soft grip scissors to cut away my pockets and a brush pot of glue to hold my fractured heart. It brings highlighters to illuminate the best of me and erasers to rub away the rest. It brings the gloss of an aspirational lifestyle magazine and the promise of a blockbuster book. It brings shatterproof rulers, heavy duty staplers, technical compasses and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree angle measure. It brings me endless tools to administrate the future of my life.
I stand up slowly, like a till receipt printing, and I sing – Dolly Parton: Everything’s Beautiful (In Its Own Way). And I wait for what could be my last police caution.
Liz Churchill lives in Birmingham, UK, but is originally from Cardiff. She has also lived in London, India and Bromsgrove. She used to be a teacher but is now a parent carer. Her writing has appeared in Janus Literary and ‘Unmute’ – a Comma Press Ebook anthology. She’s been longlisted several times in the Retreat West micro fiction competition and reached the final 50 for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize 2020. She really loves yoga, hip-hop and curry, and her partner and children – who all have two-syllable names too.
Links to Previous Publications:
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.