Why no Tiger Rolls?
Short story: 1148 words
The supermarket was low and long, an overblown ranch. In Mexico a hacienda, perhaps, home to a Hollywood stereotype, pudgy, bald but with pendulous sideburns, clad in an embroidered satin waistcoat, nicknamed El Gordo, given to pointless murder and, when finally gunned down, dying with a lurid passage from the Mass on his lips.
If you want stereotypes they’re on sale here, he thought: the chops juicy, the spinach fresh, the wine supple and the customers variegated. I am an old man of course and may eventually fall down dead on this worn linoleum. But nobody should expect
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam
since God’s glory is not to be found in Dairy Products or Wine and Spirits. Glory is manifest in an ability to buy all we need in one self-shriving act and then, absolved, return home and re-commit the same sin of running out of supplies. Here we are forgiven, supplicants at the Church of Supply And Demand.
His wife, presently having her perm re-permed, had written out a shopping list, items gathered into groups which would track his geographical progress from Newspapers/Magazines to impulse Tic-Tac at the check-out. Easy-peasy when it came to fruit and vegetables set out in the grubby area immediately ahead, or his lunchtime pain au raisin on healthful wooden shelves just beyond. But even she, his wife, mistress of all recondite skills in retailing, could not say with certainty where crushed chili paste might be found or whether table napkins were cloistered with paper towels or somewhere else completely unexpected. But then she had no need; she would ask an employee. He, a man, believed asking for advice showed lack of moral fibre and was prepared to waste angry minutes shuffling down aisles.
Due to inexplicable marketing ebb and flow, there were no satsumas and he had to make do with unspecific Easy Peelers, citrus yes, but members of what genre? More particularly: with or without pips? Once he had sighed noisily at this and a shelf-stacker wearing a green fleece labelled Fruit & Veg had turned to him
“Looking for sats?” F&V asked.
“Why do they just disappear?”
“Never understood that myself. I like ‘em best.” Then, as if it explained everything, added, “They always have ‘em for Christmas.”
To occupy the toe of the Christmas stocking, he supposed. F&V had been much younger and he had enjoyed this brief moment of male communion.
The Tiger Rolls slot on the wooden shelving was empty. He’d only discovered Tiger Rolls a month or two ago; liked their cheesy flavour and their chewiness which didn’t, however, threaten his loosely mounted canines. Behind the shelving men moved back and forward in the bakery with detached professionalism. All wore white trilbies, adding to their formality. There was no way he would interrupt their liturgical procedures.
Glancing again at his list he was irritated to find he’d jumped the sequence, should have started in the pharmacy. He paused before a sort of horizontal library of toothpaste cartons, trying to control a sudden outburst of horror. He’d often sworn to himself he wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t compare present-day prices with those of his youth, it was a sign of feeble old age. All the same, a fiver for toothpaste...! He’d worked for four years before his pay packet topped that. His grandfather, who’d relished such comparisons, had said toothpaste was a luxury; soot did the job. He shuddered at the memory.
He passed by Meat, careful not to notice even more extreme prices. They needed a small joint for the weekend but this fell outside his remit. His wife trusted him only so far; certainly not enough to allow him free rein for this most specialised form of purchasing. She would pop in, direct from the salon.
Tinned, processed marrowfat peas weren’t anywhere close to the shelves of baked beans – a long shot he’d guessed at, based on similarities of shape. And being tinned. Hurrying round the aisle end he bumped (gently) into Vera whom he had not noticed and would, desperately, have tried to avoid. Vera was said to be of great age (though probably no older than him), willowy, with hair so brilliantly white it looked artificial. Nothing wrong with Vera who was demonstrably pretty and talked pleasantly. The trouble was she had also started to talk vaguely and he, superstitiously, now looked on Alzheimers as infectious.
It took her over an hour to do her shopping, she said; she regularly forgot which aisles she’d visited. “So I put another packet of Rich Teas into my trolley and find there’s one already nestling. I feel such a fool.”
Just the sort of information he didn’t need; behaviour that carried proof of mental decay.
“Rich Teas? Do they still sell them?” he asked, and that was another vow he’d broken; assuming things he’d eaten as a child would no longer be available. That they’d be too old-fashioned.
Vera smiled flirtatiously. “Of course they sell them. What else would old biddies like me nibble with their morning cuppa?”
It was remarkable that pretty Vera still had confidence enough to refer to herself as an old biddy. He stared at her slender aristocratic nose and felt tiny stirrings. Officially he pretended to be “past all that” but secretly he was glad it could still happen. Here too, in the most discouraging of environments, young people pushing past, older, fatter people supporting themselves with their trolleys.
It seemed pretty Vera wasn’t vague about everything. “Don’t you ever have a bickie with your tea?” Her voice carried a hint of longing; her husband had died horribly of bowel cancer a decade ago.
“I’m a coffee man,” he said and immediately regretted his bluntness.
“Ah,” she said with commendable grace. “Too expensive for me.”
Feeling crass, even ugly, he wanted to amend what he’d said. To say she looked well perhaps even pretty. But he lacked the vocabulary and the necessary phrases, especially the lightness of tone. His goodbye was clumsy and fell away into silence.
At the check-out he inserted his credit-card upside down into the slot, a frequent blunder. The youth operating the till opened his mouth to tell him, then, instead, reached across, took out the card, and re-inserted it. At that moment he felt just as lonely as pretty Vera.
Outside, at the far end of the car park, he turned to look back at the supermarket. Much too large for a hacienda. But then these days, El Gordo whose peons had no doubt made him rich by rustling horses would no longer be Mexican, would live in an armed fortress in the jungles of Colombia and would carry a Glock rather than a Colt 45. Horses would have been a logistical challenge, drugs were mere industry.
Aging, ancient. Changing but only retrogressively. A host of disinclinations. His arm ached at a carrier bag heavier than he would have liked. His soul ached with embarrassment and futility at his inability to be nicer to Vera.