Snow had been cleared from the footpath and the street and formed into a knee-high mountain range in the gutter. It was dirty and embedded with scraps of litter. I walked alongside the peaks and valleys, my backpack heavy with cans of beer, and I thought about what you’d said. You had spoken the same words to thousands of customers, I’m sure, and each of those customers had given the same answers. That’s how the ritual works. But they didn’t hear your true message. That revelation was mine alone.
I returned the next night, hoping to speak with you again. I filled my basket with cheap beer and placed it before you. You asked me if I wanted to pay by cash or by card. I was transfixed. Beneath the surface of your words, there was a depth of meaning that was unmistakable. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the cyclops watching with its diode-blinking eye. Eavesdropper, thief-stopper. Did I say that out loud? A flush rose in my cheeks. I paid with fistfuls of coins, my hands trembling, and I left the shop.
I hunched in the shadows of a doorway and thought about your magnificent voice and my muttered responses. You must think me an idiot. How many customers do you speak to each day? Hundreds? What could you see in me? I’m not special. You were just relieving your boredom. Like a fool, I had gone to you two nights in a row thinking that I was chosen by you, that only I could understand you. My eyes watered as headlights from the passing traffic washed over me and dazzled my vision. The swishing of tyres in the slush and the rise and fall of the engines was a tuneless primal music. I groped in my backpack for a can of beer and cracked it open, hoping that the booze and the light and the noise would obliterate you.
I told Dignam about you. He was sceptical about the hidden messages in your words and I struggled to explain it to him. It’s like those 3D magic-eye pictures, I said, when the secret picture reveals itself, only it’s much more than that. It’s an epiphany. He nodded sympathetically, but he said I was imagining things that weren’t there. Slipping back into old habits. It’s the time of year, he said, and the darkness. It plays tricks on the mind. He upped the dosage of my meds and advised me to switch to a different supermarket.
I needed to forget you, so I took Dignam’s pills and I took his advice. I started using one of the German outlets for all of my shopping. I thought about you less and less. Each evening was a little brighter than the one before. The clocks went forward. Summer arrived, with blue days and golden evenings and purple nights. An autumn of greens and red-golden browns.
Then, a change. The trees were skeletal, their leaves dead and useless on the cracked dirty concrete and piled in drifts against the chain-link fences. Darkness was a slow-rolling shutter, inching downwards each day, as the window of light grew smaller. Winter was waiting, and so were you. I walked past the entrance of a supermarket one night and the automatic doors whisked open, startling me. A warm blast of air broke over me like a sea wave and brought your voice to my ears.
Thirst gripped me but I turned away from you. I walked to another supermarket on another street and tried to remember the mindfulness stuff that Dignam had talked about. I couldn’t. In the booze aisle, I filled my basket mindlessly. I joined the line of supplicants at the front and we shuffled in lockstep, unwise men bearing gifts.
You were there too, silent and patient. It’s hopeless, I thought. You’re everywhere now. Omnipresent. I lifted the bottles from my basket and placed them before you one at a time. You spoke, loudly enough that an old woman in the queue turned her head. I heard your voice then as it had always been, cold and distant and omniscient as the dark vaulted heavens.
“Unidentified item in the bagging area.”
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