‘It’s my fault.’
‘There were two of us.’
‘Still it was me who…’ he seemed squeamish on this point, ‘you know…’
‘Look it doesn’t matter now.’
She didn’t want to discuss details on the street, for fear the infection of rumour (already palpable the night before) would turn into an outbreak, spreading among their friends like a red rash over vulnerable skin. The whispers were probably starting already, slipping frantically from mouth to ear, fingertips to phone screens. Whistling manically from person to person like the song of some demented bird.
‘So will I go in or…?’
‘No, you can’t.’
‘Are you sure? I don’t mind. I won’t find it embarrassing or anything like that.’
‘It’s not that – men can’t buy it.’
This seemed strange to him for a moment, then he thought about it and it made sense. Still, it was invasive, all this. He wondered if anybody nearby knew what was happening, if it was at all obvious to other people. This same conversation must happen almost everyday here. Surely someone noticed, observed. That’s three today, said the waitress in the coffee shop across the road or the migrant worker living in the dingy flat upstairs or the taxi driver parked beside them reading the Sun. He didn’t like it, this unnerving feeling of being watched.
‘They have to ask me questions,’ she explained, ‘Stuff like that.’
‘Yeah, that makes sense I suppose,’ he said, ‘How much is it?’
‘Twenty-five. I feel bad asking.’
He had stopped by a cash machine on the way over. The shiny plastic sheets felt more anonymous, safer than a card transaction or the formalities of a money transfer. The old comforts of a simpler time, when thorny problems like this never arose. He knew that was nonsense but sometimes sentimentalism made him feel a bit better, gave him a smidgen of hope for a likewise simpler future. More often it made him feel worse about himself and the way he lived now. He counted out three £10 notes and gave them to her.
‘I don’t have any fivers.’
‘It’s okay, I’ll give you back the change.’
She went in through the sliding doors and left him standing there on the footpath alone. He lit a cigarette and began to google facts on his phone, weighing up the probabilities. He didn’t usually think of himself as an anxious person, but the looming possibility of sudden responsibility being thrust upon him made him squirm. He hoped the figures and explanations he found would put his mind at ease, but instead they made it even clearer that sometimes BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Although perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing. People never say that later on. Unless they’re drunk or angry or depressed or one of those other innumerable times when we let all the little worms crawling down beneath the flesh emerge, exposing to the world the rotting carcass of the soul within.
He stubbed out his smoke and considered lighting another, but he could see she was coming out now, clutching a tightly wrapped white paper bag printed with a light green cross. It could have been a prescription for skin cream or painkillers.
‘Did you get it okay?’
‘I did yeah,’ she handed him a fiver in change.
‘Do you want anything in the shop? We might as well use up this cash.’
‘Sure, why not?’
They went into the shop together and bought a can of coke and an ice cream each. He got a large flake and sprinkles and raspberry sauce, but she kept hers plain. The five pounds hadn’t covered it but they managed to pool enough loose change together between them to pay the rest. She was reminded of going to the dentist when she was young and getting a McDonald’s or some other treat afterwards as compensation for the necessary pain she had endured. It added to the humiliation of it all, this self-infantilization, compounding the embarrassment of the interrogation she had endured in the chemists. She knew she would likely spend the day lying in bed feeling violently sick and wishing that she could somehow die and come back to life when it would all be easier and everything would be clear to her.
About the Author
Anthony Bradley is a third year undergraduate student of English Literature and Modern Irish at Trinity College, Dublin. He is originally from Omagh, Co. Tyrone.