Lights skipped off the kitchen appliances while outside rumbled incendiary grey like only mid-summer can. He checked the oven clock to see if he was late and also to see if time still existed after last night. Hovis crumbs carpeted the worktop. Pasta shells littered the outskirts of the hob. A single Bran Flake lay neatly on a white grubby tile just beneath the sink. And a quietness only possible 160 days into the year with damp, warm air not willing to shift, to give in. The rotund kettle’s prosthetic blue light died out as the water came to the boil. He anxiously poured onto a cup-housed English breakfast teabag. Scorching steam rose from the mighty mug. One sip at a time. Get the full glory of the flavour. Make it last. The magnesium-bright rectangle of his laptop sat upright, laughing off the gloom. Emails pinged through at an astonishing rate; a constant stream of electronic spam without the strangely ironic nice aftertaste of its namesake food. ‘A New Message is Waiting for You from Melissa,’ the latest note promised. He knew it was time to go out.
Another tinny, lazy day. Elderly puddles hugging the kerb. Rusty wheelie bins dotted around the neat semi-detached fortresses. Fully clothed trees masking deep erosion everywhere - hyper-toxic waste. Further along into the abyss a fogblast of syrupy ringtones spewed disgustingly firm through the precincts. Caustic reggae roaring. Ghastly plasma screens running unrelenting vain ‘n’ glorious cosmetic pop jams endlessly into the night. The aggression in people’s eyes was astonishing. Pristine determination impossible to relinquish. Whole seas, rivers of bodies, following the invisible line to the Palace of Primark. A woman with a pram suddenly darted in front of him. This made him comically nervous. The growing hubbub of people made him nervous, all darting and shouting and detaching themselves from the mass. A sudden rush of people, of strangers across the paved-over roads. Would he have to speak? What if someone needed help with a really heavy bag or a shopping trolley? What if it was a girl? Would this look pervy? Would he look like a pervert?
Oppressive Nimbus mocked the pedestrians while the deep reds of traffic lights gained strength in the dim. A few blobs of murky water spat onto his shoes then swiftly dribbled off. Somewhere within the scrum a figure he should have recognised ghosted on by. Quickly evaporated straight back into the murk, almost not, but just too late. Designed so he would think it was a dream, so he would think it was déjà vu. After a brief tangle with a few rodents (human) outside of TK Maxx, he turned inside the backlanes on the trajectory of the ubermarket. More chances for unwanted uneasiness via passers-by. This kind of distorted version of reality, of humanity. Down he went then, in front of the estates, gigantic blocks dug into the ground to house thousands. Tiny apartments grafted out so the millions live in relative happiness. Labyrinths. Stairwells rising up to the sky but stopping short before anyone actually reaches God.
Fading across Marigold Estate, he looked at the identikit sign plaqued to all of these hyper-urban outposts. FLATS 1-27 (ODD), an arrow to turn left. FLATS 2-28 (EVEN), an arrow to turn right. Wind-erased silvery writing on the maroon livery. Shaving foam bottles stood emphatically on window sills through net curtains. An assortment of youths and dogs sprinkled unceremoniously on lawns here and there. Waiting for an opportunity. Further beyond these over-populated sweat cities were the turrets of this district’s high-rise, produce-heavy overweight corner shop. Its sarcastic-neon fascia beamed like an inverse chapel for a radius totalling around 600 miles, with all commuters nearby enthralled by its magnetic stature.
The recycling banks threatened to spill out onto the attitude-ridden roadside. One for paper, card and plastic. One for rags. One for shoes. Items strewn unforgivingly on the concrete. Polystyrene splashed outrageously over tampons and rain-fucked versions of the Daily Star. This suburb’s true reality. The place stank. As he was digesting the eco-atrocity in front of his sunburnt eyes, a glorious food waft shrieked his nostrils. Cold, friendly air churned out from the supermarket’s breast. The security guard (stout, distrusting) eyed him up for obvious signs of criminal undertones that may have burped free. A cheeky grin quenched the guard’s interest.
Inside: past the vegetables, past the tomatoes and the cheap Baileys and the magazines. Through towards a whole stacked arrangement of soup, seemingly ending close to where the clouds begin. Next, the phenomenal aroma from newly yeasted bread, seeping directly into the taste-box. But the serious business needed attention. He zoned in on the tea aisle. A heavenly aisle. Usually exactly at the mid-section: rammed between frozen cod and the non-bio detergent. He loved collecting tea. Traditional, English breakfast, peppermint, green, lemon, Darjeeling, chai, Lapsang souchong, raspberry, ginger, camomile, Arabic, Ceylon... he was a tea-collecting beast. Twinings. PG Tips. Yorkshire. Tetley. Lipton. Supermarket own-brand. De-caff. Half-caff. Mad-cap. Nothing was better than tea.
Bright, dismal light smiled down on the cardboard boxes. Marking the colour prints with a kind of wooden glamorousness. As he was scratching an own-label 50 teabags pack of Darjeeling (lovely pictures of trees), she floated again. Circled with a hidden inquisitiveness. Bob of brown. That spectre of familiar strangeness, never grasped. Glanced before, baked in crowds, the apparition in the distance. Here she was. All unusual handsomeness. A hint of recognition. “Mint?,” she questioned. Startled, he gave a terrible little smile in return. “You like tea,” came next, which was a moment-slowing statement. “A bit,” he grumbled. Without even meaning to, he focused in on the cynical packages. Started fidgeting and looking down at the off-brown cubes that made up the laminated floor. The intensity of the minutes made him fragile. 100 Twinings Everyday for £1.97, he saw. “You’re from the Herbert Estate,” she soothed. He nodded. “See you then.”
“Yeah,” he said.
© Copyright 2016 John Maher