25 June 2010
I need a drink. Whisky. That's what people drink. Do we have whisky? Where would we keep whisky?
Why do I say we?
It was in the lower kitchen cupboard, behind a faulty salad spinner and a macramé plant-hanger my Auntie Betty had given Malcolm when he was on parole. We called it his Better Homes and Gardens period. He was improving everything, not just his relationship with roulette. All the spider plants died, nicely suspended, in our kitchen window.
Funnily enough, it’s because of Malcolm I need the drink. I am writing while holding the glass in my other hand. Like Hemingway. I assume.
I was driving home from the gym in Cricklewood – now that I’m working I can afford yoga again, thank god – and stopped on a side-street to get a paper from a news agent. I haven’t been in before but I’ve always clocked the shop and thought ‘Ah, if I remember I can park on that street, jump out and get the paper’ and felt it was testimony to my new-found clarity, the self-reliant and organised life that doesn’t depend on agents or managers to buy things like papers and – food.
I found a space just outside the shop. I leapt out, feeling more like Mallory Queen, Girl P.I. than I had in twenty years. I liked the sound my boots made as I strode across the pavement. A woman in control.
I picked up the weekend Guardian from the display just inside the door and peered about, recklessly, to see if there was anything else that caught my eye. Now that I’m working again, I impulse shop. Which usually means an extra packet of biscuits to go with my pint of milk.
There were fig bars on sale, two for one, and I grabbed them both, anticipating the pleasure of the Weekend Magazine with my tea, made my confident way to the counter and looked into my bag for change as I heard a familiar voice say
I looked up. It was Malcolm. I recognised him immediately. And why wouldn’t I? We were married for over twenty years, companions, lovers, friends. I’d seen him only seven weeks ago, there had been no drastic change in his appearance since then.
This did not keep me from staring at him as though he were an envoy from another planet with purple skin and a round, hairless head.
He was in the shop. Obviously. As I was in the shop. But with one significant difference.
He was working. In the shop.
It was no mistake. He wore a name tag and a green polo shirt like the pale-faced, black-haired girl behind him pricing stock. She didn’t ask him to return to the other side of the counter and stand in the queue with the other customers – well, customer, I was it - as she would undoubtedly have done if he wasn’t an employee.
Our eyes locked. I lost the power of speech. He seemed to colour slightly but recovered, grabbed my fig bars and lit them up with the sensor. Then the Guardian. Then the milk. The total flashed up on the cash register. He put everything into a bag and I handed him a five pound note.
‘Hello, Malcolm’ I gargled, eventually.
‘Here’s your change,’ he said smiling. Rather unpleasantly.
‘What – what are you doing?’ I said.
He put his hands square in front of him on the counter. He looked like a cowboy ordering a double bourbon in a dodgy saloon.
He said it in two syllables. As to a child. And I reacted like a child. I think I batted my eyes.
‘Why do most people work, Constance? Bit of dosh, kids need food.’
He was speaking through gritted teeth. His colleague glanced up at what felt like a sudden scrum of customers behind me. I kept my eyes glued to Malcolm. In case he vanished.
‘But – but you work at the bank.’
‘No. I did work at a bank. Then I embezzled funds, remember?’
The crowd behind us became quiet.
‘For the gambling. You remember. The gambling.’
‘Malcolm, don’t – I’m sorry – let’s – ‘
But he was warming to the topic. It was as though he’d prepared the speech and had been waiting for his audience, who turned out to be me, an elderly couple with a bag of white bread, a young man in shorts clutching a bottle of Lucozade and a Jack Russell at the back of the shop that had wandered in off the street.
Malcolm’s voice was clear. He was projecting to the dog.
‘Someone caught embezzling funds is never able to work in the financial industry again.’
He reached for the couple’s loaf of bread.
‘Having a criminal record bars you from any position of responsibility or role that requires regulatory sanction.’
The woman hung onto her Kingsmill. Malcolm waited, leaning one elbow on the counter.
‘In addition, regulators have a high standard of permissible conduct that extends far beyond being found guilty of such charges. They perform background checks and investigate people very conscientiously.’
He extended his hand to the couple again and it was obvious she didn’t want to release even the food she hadn’t bought to someone confessing a criminal past.
‘Luckily, they are not so discriminating at You Go Mart.’ He wrestled the bread from the woman, beamed its price into the cash register and finished his oration with ‘That’s £1.25’, holding out his hand for the change.
‘For a bloody loaf of bread,’ her husband muttered. ‘Talk about embezzling, we’re being embezzled.’
Malcolm took the money and handed the bread to the couple who seemed rooted to the spot, watching him as though he were a good episode of reality television. He asked ‘Is there anything else you want to know?’
There were a thousand things I wanted to know. How long had he been doing this? Had he never gone to the bank when I had thought he was leaving every morning to go to the bank for the past two years? Was this enough to support him in his new way of life? Had he started gambling again?
Instead I said ‘Do you have the Radio Times?’ he said ‘No’ and I left the shop.