Katie stood in the supermarket queue wondering if the time had expired on her parking ticket. She’d left it in the car. She had no idea what time she’d arrived at the shopping centre. She’d left her phone at home. She hadn’t left her husband but it’s what she wanted to do.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a gravely voice in her ear.
“May as well line up here. As good as any other.”
She turned around to find an old man standing very close behind her. Noticing that he held a single item in his left hand, and a walking stick in the other, she asked him if he wanted to jump ahead of her in the queue. His face creased into a watery smile. He reminded her of a little boy, who might have been offered an ice cream and was trying not to accept too eagerly. As he shuffled ahead of her he congratulated her for doing her good deed for the day.
“If this was it, then it was very easy,” she laughed.
“I’ve just come down to get a bit of fruitcake for afternoon tea,” he continued. “I like to have it with a bit of jam. But I like the dark cake, more moisture in it than the light one.”
Katie wasn’t sure if he was still talking to her or just to himself now, but she responded anyway.
“I bought the light one the other day. I was wondering what the difference was.”
“Yes, the dark one is much nicer.” He replied. And again the watery smile made him seem delighted by the success of this foray into conversation with a stranger.
“I have it with custard.” She added.
“I’d like a bit of custard but I don’t know how to make it.”
She laughed again. “Neither do I, I get it from the fridge over there.”
She pointed to the other end of the supermarket, then pulled the small carton of ‘lite’ custard out of her trolley and showed it to him. A moment of disbelief, or was it sadness, crossed his face.
“I didn’t know you could buy custard already made.” And then, “I don’t cook much you know. My wife did the cooking. She always made her own custard. I live alone now. She went into a nursing home six months ago. I used to visit her there. It’s funny you know, people dropped off when she went into the nursing home. They didn’t like to visit.”
Katie nodded, and he continued.
“They don’t know what to say. They’ve got their own worries you know. You can’t blame them really. They haven’t got time often have they?”
She nodded again as they shuffled forward in the queue.
“A lot of people came to the funeral though.” He paused and looked off into the distance. “She died at six o’clock in the evening. I was with her all day. When I came out from the hospital it was dusk and the Currawongs where calling out to each other, as if nothing unusual had happened. It’s been four weeks and I still stand outside and listen to them every evening. I haven’t seen many people since the funeral. I’ll have to get out and see people soon. They’ve all got their own troubles. They can’t go looking after you as well.”
There was another pause. The queue had moved so that there was only one other person before them now.
“You know, I might get myself some of that custard that you mentioned. Thank you young lady, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.”
And with that he shuffled out of the line, using his walking stick to take the weight off an arthritic knee, as he made his way to the fridges at the other end of the store. She was about to call out that she could get the custard for him, but suddenly she was next at the check out, and the woman was looking at her impatiently across the empty conveyer. She began to pull items from her trolley and place them for the woman to scan. By the time she finished, and turned again to look after the old man, he had disappeared.
This story was published in Positive Words Magazine in July 2014.