Strawberry laces

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I noticed her in the confectionery aisle, the one between Dried Goods to the left and Hot Beverages to the right. She had long brown hair and a short red jacket and knelt on one knee, peering at white chocolate mice and thin strawberry laces. The place heaved, and I felt myself moved on by metal in headphones, grannies with baskets and impatient feet, ending up between Household and Spirits, hoping she didn’t grab a Sherbet Dip and vanish into the dusty lines of bleeping tills.

My watch said 3.32 pm. I looked at its cracked exterior. I expected the two tiny black hands to stop, in that clock-stopping sort of way you read about in poems. I’d shut the sweet shop early, the one handed down to me by my father, Thompson, just over two years ago, before he died. Raised on a diet of shiny glass jars: a quarter of acid drops or a 100g of Pontefract cakes. My father stocked all the old sweets, dolling out the retro experiences between a modern sandwich bar to the left and a busy Burger King to the right.

The chance to sneak another peek came by chance. I thought she had gone, but as I rushed out of the squeaky doors, I saw her, the bright red jacket acting like a beacon in the distance. She reminded me of Red Riding Hood. I skirted over and came up behind her. I could smell orange and cinnamon, and apple shampoo, which reminded me of Christmas, and I imagined her as a smooth tall candle that I was going to melt.

‘Yes?’ I didn’t expect her to speak. A soft voice, but with a slight pitch of constrained hysteria. I tried to think of something amusing to say, draw up an appropriate response but all I could do was stare wide-eyed with my own bright pink face as she devoured a packet of Fruit Burst one after another. Instant gratification had nothing on this kid.

Eventually, after some deep breaths, I stammered ‘Sorry, I thought I saw you drop something,’ and the girl looked at me quizzically, from beneath thick spidery lashes and I thought my time was up and the clocks would stop again but then she smiled and said, ‘My names Jenny.’

Jenny, I kept repeating it in my head, as we walked along, side by side. There had been a Jenny at school with mousy brown hair and a blue pinafore. One at work too, straight after school when I did construction, (I got the sack). A secretary with a thick fringe and a granddad shirt, which could be sexy I suppose, but I had been personally unmoved. This Jenny though, this one was different. This Jenny’s name felt like Turkish Delight, powdery, rich and sweet and this is before I’d removed the soft white folds of tissue paper.

My names James I began to say, once her name stopped going around on a loop in my head, but she stopped me with a pointy polished finger and said, ‘I know who you are.’ I stared at her, my mouth in a perfect ‘o’ and wondered how, and why and whether she liked me, too but then I just smiled because it’s a compliment and it’s rude not to accept one graciously mother tells me.

‘So, this is you?’ Jenny nodded, shyly and trod lightly from one foot to the other. Her front door is green and chipped. My own house is two streets away, the family home, three bedrooms and a smashed top window. Mother is always home, constantly twitching the curtain in her bedroom, waiting like Mrs Havisham for father to return.

‘It’s been nice talking to you,’ Jenny said. It was a nice thing to say, felt affectionate. Maybe we could be friends. Isn’t it always best to be pals first, before love makes that all important entrance.

‘Thanks.’ I gave her my best smile, the one that looked genuine because my eyes crinkled. It’s used sparingly.

‘Maybe I’ll see you again.’ I smirked. I felt like a cat chasing a mouse and I am going to kill the mouse. I had thoughts, bad thoughts, but I pushed them down, swallowed them like rising bile.

 

That night, I couldn’t settle. I made black coffee and listened to rubbish on Capital Radio. I stuck an old Jason Stratham film in the player and once again wished I had his luck with those fair maidens carrying an extra chromosome. It’s almost like they are born sporting kisses, a tattoo blasted on their souls, but us blokes must spend our sad little lives puckering up to princesses who look at us with contempt. I listened to a Bruce Springsteen ‘Dancing in The Dark’ and stuffed several packets of cheesy puffs down my throat. Eventually, bored and restless, having paced enough, I pulled my coat on and left the flat.

Her flat stood in darkness, which seemed strange; I mean where could she be if not at home. She didn’t seem the sort to mix, hadn’t popped to a local wine bar for a Margarita or a Cosmopolitan or gone to a friend’s flat to watch a chic-flick and stuff her pretty little face with a bar of fruit and nut. No, she must be in, on her bed, in fleecy pyjamas, watching an old black and white film, something like Gone with The Wind whilst she sipped a warm hot chocolate through pursed lips and imagined me gone inside her.

My romance with Jenny had been going on for months. I’d been reading dating books, articles online, joined a few groups on social media, even had a reading by a tarot reader. Love stood for intention; it’s what I understood now. An action, a dedication, a better choice, every single day for the one you love. I’d stuck around, she should be grateful, watched her from the alleyway opposite her house, kept her safe, especially when that rangy twat Greg started hanging around.

I’d lie in bed thinking of jenny, hands heading south, the same place I wanted to go with her, entwined souls fucking the compass point of time. She’d be a hard one to convince, at first, quiet shy Jenny with her chocolate mice, but eventually, with love and kisses and co-joined strawberry laces I would win her over.

Seven months of thwarted stops and starts we’d had, then it’s May, the sun is shining, and Jenny is stood outside my door. Some mix up with the post, again, because she has been here before, five times to be exact.

‘Hi,’ I say and take the brown envelope from her. She looked at me. I seem to transfix her. My nerdy head and body blow her mind. I’m going to get a proper girl. A girl I can take to the cinema, or out for dinner or maybe to a play in the centre of town and then she will come home with me, afterward, in a taxi where we will be cuddled into each other’s heat and when we get home, she will let me kiss her and tuck her hair behind her ear.

‘I know who you are.’ She stands there on my doorstep in her red coat with a look of faint disapproval.

‘I just..I..’ I can’t say it, spill the contents of my heart on the doorstep. ‘You’re just lovely,’ I replied, and Jenny looked at me with her straight-laced face.

‘You really need to…’ I know what’s coming, so I ask her to come in. To my surprise, she walked in and sat down.

‘Look, let’s have some tea.’ Mother is out, so I make some in the tiny kitchen with my mother’s best china. Should have bought something to put in the tea I think, but poisoning is for girls and even though I am often called one, it doesn’t mean I am going to turn to the delights of arsenic and tender tea leaves. It hurts that she was about to tell me to leave her alone. It hurts even more that she doesn’t think I am her type. Arrogance wasn’t a trait I saw in sugar-coated Jenny, and it stings that she could be so conceited, with a dismissive gesture batting me away like a fly on honey. This isn’t a sweet shop Jenny I feel like saying, there is not endless jars of choice, but I don’t. I just put everything on the tray and wander back into the room.

Jenny is gone, up the bare staircase, no doubt in my room. I tip toed through the door with my tea-laden tray. A corner of my tiny rectangle is a shrine to the sweetie girl. My declaration like dozens of Love Hearts scattered across the drab grey wall like stars, walls full of pictures and cards, and the best bit, a silver frame with a picture of her and then myself superimposed over the face of one of her friends.

‘This isn’t normal,’ she snapped, and I laughed somewhat nervously and tried to move her away, but she wouldn’t budge. She’s a hard as an aniseed ball.

‘It’s just some pictures,’ I moaned. I watched her flick through things with her pink polished nails and her face turned as white as chocolate mice. ‘Have some tea?’ I suggested.

Jenny didn’t appreciate my suggestion. She swung her arm and I watched the tea things ricochet across the room. I looked at the mess, but stepped towards her, opened my arms. I could forgive her for everything. Even destroying mother’s best china.

She came towards me, her face a crude contortion of what it used to be. Even so, I am sure we are about to kiss. Some people pull odd faces when they’re aroused.

Pressure. I had a feeling of pressure in my chest. I’m fell to my knees.  My watch will stop now I thought. This will be my last memory. Jenny’s image floated in and out of my vision and in the darkness, that often replaced her, I saw glimpses of supermarkets and sweet aisles and lonely boys trying to catch a friend between Dried Goods to the left and Hot Beverages to the right. And strawberry laces.

© Copyright Henrietta M Ross.

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