Do you ever sit in your car at traffic lights and look across at the person in the car next to you and wonder, what sort of life do they have? Or walk past someone in the street and catch their gaze for a second and have that same feeling, who are you?
Sarah had that feeling often as she sat at her checkout desk in the town centre supermarket. Each weekday between 8 and 4 she would chat to a steady stream of shoppers at her till about everything and nothing. People she knew and strangers alike would small talk their way through their grocery packing. Special offers, what’s for dinner, trouble parking, plastic bags and of course the weather were hot topics during Sarah’s working day.
None of the above lingered for long in Sarah’s mind, the talk came and went just as the conveyor belt rolled endlessly around. There would however be the occasional customer that would ignite Sarah’s curiosity to the point where she woud become distracted. In the same way you forget the lyrics to a song or the name of an old neighbour, some people would niggle at Sarah’s subconcious like stories without an ending.
For some people the supermarket checkout was the start of their day, hurrying to grab their morning paper and milk before work. A lot of shoppers went in and out almost blindly, picking up their regular items, following a mental list as part of their routine lives. Quite a few were just lonely, the brief few minutes spent passing the time of day with Sarah may be the only words they’d speak for hours. The lunchtime rush included local school kids harrassing the browsers just out for their fresh loaf and whatever took their fancy for tea. Later on the school run Moms with one eye on the smart phone, the other on the terrible two trying to escape the trolley seat.
The final hour of Sarah’s shift was often where her curiosity would run wild. Boredom having firmly set in after a day full of trivial talk and white noise. It was also the part of the day that brought out the half hearted shoppers, those that knew they needed something but didn’t quite know what. Maybe they’d finished work and couldn’t decide between a takeaway or a ready meal. Others may have been out shopping earlier and forgotten something or changed their minds. It was a consumer twighlight time, too late for dinner, too early for the evening big shop.
The woman struggling to unload her basket this afternoon looked to be in her mid 40s. Casually dressed she could’ve been younger but her hands gave away a few more years. There were wedding and engagement rings on her left hand and clipped onto her shouder bag a keyring holiding photos of a small girl and boy. Had she smiled Sarah could see she would be extremely attractive but the pained expression on her face almost distorted her features.
As the bottles and jars rolled down the slope of the till the woman struggled to catch them and stand them inside her bag for life. The fruit and veg were getting a battering as she tossed them haphazard into the carriers and her bread would never regain it’s loaf shape after being squashed under the frozen veg. Sarah had offered help with packing, that over used yet compulsary line that cashiers the country wide must mutter in their sleep. The lady nearly bit her head off and yet still complained. ‘You’re going too bloody fast’ as Sarah swiped cartons and packets through the scanner.
Opening her purse to pay, the contents spilled out accross the floor and as Sarah knelt to help recover loose change the woman snapped again, ‘Just leave it will you, stick it in a charity box or something’.
Sarah held her breath when at the third attempt the shopper finally entered the correct pin number for her debit card but said nothing as the woman glowered at her almost daring her to react. Throwing the bulging shopping bags into her trolley she spun it around quickly and marched away just as Sarah noticed, ‘Your card, excuse me, hey….’
What the hell is wrong with her, she must’ve heard. Jumping up Sarah grabbed the Till Closed bar and apologising to the couple who’d started to load their shopping, took the debit card and headed for the exit.
It didn’t take long to find the mystery shopper as she was now cursing the coin slot in her trolley which was refusing to give back her pound coin. Sarah approached cautiously, “Excuse me you’ve..”
“Why me, why now?” Tears began rolling down the woman’s face as she leaned forward over the trolley.
Gently, Sarah took her by the arm and lifting the bags asked, “Where’s your car?”
Sobbing now the woman lead the way to a small hatchback and opening the drivers door slumped inside, her expression blank, the tears still falling.
Lifting the boot Sarah placed the shopping inside, rearranging it as best she could. This story couldn’t be left untold, a combination of curiosity and concern led Sarah to climb into the passenger seat where she waited as the woman composed herself.
Turning to look at Sarah now she spoke, “I thought I could do it, I needed shopping, it all seemed so normal but no one knows, they can’t see my pain.” She took a deep breath.
“My husband died last week but life goes on, the kids need feeding, bills paying, dogs walking and yet nothing will ever be the same. There’s no till for beareaved shoppers or those suffering illness, you don’t have a queue for having a bad day, lost your patience or losing your mind. We all stand in line and make the same noises, move in the same direction but some of us just want to shout, ‘Help!’
Walking back into the supermarket Sarah paused to watch the queues building as the evening rush began thinking about what the young widow had said.
Maybe I should speak to management she wondered, is it about time we had a slow lane because you never know what baggage the person next in line is carrying.
The Little Match Girl 2016
Snow hadn’t fallen at all over Christmas but today, the last day of 2016 it fell heavily. When Jade had left the flat that morning the paths had been clean and the sky clear but as evening drew in so did the snow.
Inappropriately dressed in pyjama bottoms and a sports hoody two sizes too big, she had no coat to protect her from the driving snow. On her feet her Mom’s slipper boots which slopped up and down, her tiny feet lost inside. As the snow fell heavier it soaked her oversized footwear until, as she lifted her feet they would come straight out, her toes raw from the biting cold.
Jade couldn’t go home. Her Mother had been looking to score that morning, her heroin addiction came second to nothing or nobody. At only nine years of age, Jade had become her Mother’s carer and often as today that included fetching her drugs. Sending the tiny waif out without food or warm clothing she’d tasked her with selling a phone, stolen the night before and the only source of income able to secure the drugs she depended on.
The little girl was familiar with this routine and knew exactly where to go and who to see but today she had no luck. The small cash converter shop was closed, she’d tried the pub on the corner and the playground behind the shops but the fixer was nowhere to be found. Returning home without the heroin would be worse than wandering the streets. By now her Mothers latest boyfriend would be there and she already wore the bruises he’d inflicted when she’d not done as she was told. There was no one to turn to and nowhere to go since the death of her Grandmother last year whose home had been a sanctuary when times were bad. So here she was, alone and bitterly cold.
Jade wandered aimlessly through the snow, past neon lit shop fronts, their shutters pulled down, and their customers long gone home to prepare for the evening’s festivities. She walked on down residential streets, houses still aglow with Christmas decorations, the upstairs lights on while the inhabitants got ready for family parties and nights on the town. Jade lingered a while, the sights and sounds of suburbia held her trance like as she trudged through settling snow, falling so fast now her footsteps left no trace.
As the landscape broadened she came to a small bridge over a canal, Jade stumbled down the slope leading to the towpath, losing her boots which were now frozen and afforded no protection from the elements anyway. Reaching the path she crept underneath the bridge and slid down the wall hugging her knees, one hand still clutching the phone. She pushed the power button on and the phone lit up, illuminating a small box beside her, an empty cigarette packet with a few matches inside.
The phone bleeped and a picture appeared, a young girl not much older than Jade, smiling, a big fur hood surrounded her pretty face and either side of her what were probably her parents, arms around their daughter, beautiful family portrait. Jade propped the phone on her lap and turned to strike a match on the wall behind her, quickly cupping her small hands to get all the warmth it could afford her. As the match fizzled out she turned once more to the phone, it was unlocked and so she was able to navigate straight to the photos and there she was again, the smiling child. This time seated at a large dinner table spread with a Christmas meal the likes of which Jade could only dream of, she gazed at this scene and struck another match. All this managed to do was highlight the dark, dank surroundings in which she huddled, no warmth came from the pitiful flame before it died out. By now, Jade ached from the cold, the icy chill reached deep into her bones like the fingers of Jack Frost gripping her very soul.
The phone bleeped again, low battery. Jade scrolled past numerous posed images of the stranger whose life she now longed for, stopping at a photo of a large Christmas tree beneath which presents of all shapes and sizes were laid, exquisitely wrapped and glowing in the light of an inviting coal fire. Tears rolled down her pale cheeks as she gazed longingly at the scene held in her ice cold hands, it was as though she were looking right into the lives of this perfect family, this beautiful home. ‘If only that were me, my family, my home’, she thought flicking through photo’s frantically now, holidays, pets, school friends, her imagination conjuring up a vicarious life through an iphone. Then the pictures faded as the battery drained and the phone died along with Jades hopes and dreams.
Turning again to the matches she began striking them, one by one. Her eyes searched the darkness but could not invoke images the like of which she’d just gazed upon. One more match. Drawing it across the bricks of the old bridge it burst into flame brighter and warmer than all the others and there before her stood her grandmother, arms held out she beckoned to Jade, “Come with me child”. More radiant than when Jade had seen her last, her Grandmother reached out and scooped the tiny frame of her only Grandchild and as the flame went out, they were gone.
The next morning a young couple out walking their dog discovered a sorrowful scene, a small child curled up against the wall of the canal bridge. Frozen to death on the last day of the old year, around her lay burnt out matches, “She’d tried to warm herself poor little mite, and yet…she’s smiling”. Little did they know the wondrous vision she’d seen in the light of a match and the beautiful way that she’d left the old year and her life behind.