He browses the aisle with a finger and frowns at the rows of tins. He has already seen her but he’s not going to admit it. He lightly drums his fingers along his leg and focuses on keeping the pat of each fingertip in time with his heartbeat. He looks up for a second and shudders. The strip lights make this place seem grim. It’s too bright after coming in from the dark outside.
He’s in the furthest away place you can get from her but this is still only about two metres away in the petrol station.
God she's got fat. There’s a slight bulge of a belly under her tight, printed dress. She has her hands clamped down on her hips and gazes at the milk cartons through tortoiseshell spectacles. It pisses him off. What the fuck is there to moon about in the dairy section?
He tries to focus on the packaging of a leak and potato soup tin. He’s been told once that all soup contains celery. He starts checking the ingredients then stops. He needs to get out before she sees him. He breathes deeply.
Outside he takes quick steps to his car, gripping a bottle of white wine by the neck. He hears breathing behind him but doesn’t turn around
He slows a little.
He knows he has to stop. He moves his jaw around in several rapid movements then shrugs his shoulders and spins around to face her. There is now a smile on his face.
June’s standing in the middle of two white lines marking a car spot. The neon lights reflect off her glasses so he can’t see her eyes. It’s unnerving. “I can’t believe it’s you. It’s been years!” She beams up at him “Are you doing anything tonight?”
They’re sitting on his sofa with a large space between them. June looks Mark up and down. He’s changed. It might just be his smarter clothes but there’s something else, something refined about the way he drapes one arm over his armrest, his feet planted firmly on the ground. A section of his long hair is tucked neatly behind his ear and he covers his coughs with his hand. She starts to feel bad. She’s imposing, isn’t she? That would just be so much like me wouldn’t it, she says to herself.
She starts apologising to him until he stops her.
“No, it’s nice, we never said goodbye properly at the end of St Martins.”
She’s relieved. Of course he understands.
They start talking about the days they spent together; the dusty studios with their huge windows which you could imagine tapping and the glass shattering. Mark unclenches his hand and gives her a lazy smile. She’s just chubby really. It’s like her cheeks have been injected with something. They’re bright pink because she has still got her scarf and the central heating is on. Always impracticable. He wonders if she’s still writing her poetry.
Inevitably they start talking about Alice.
“Remember when we died her hair with henna?”
They had heard Alice’s yelp through the bathroom door as she looked at her carrot hair for the first time. Outside they looked at the ground and pinched their sides. They couldn’t look at each other or they’d laugh. Alice burst through the door weeping. She had her hands gripped on the top of her head and her mouth was a comical, upside down moon.
“How could you do this to me?” She wailed.
It had made them wonder; what had she expected? Alice slid down the wall and then sat there sobbing. Her arms were wrapped around her bony knees with her head rested on top of them like it was too heavy for her to hold up. They both sat down and put a stiff arm around her. June kissed her forehead.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing did we? Rubbing all that stuff all over her head and getting red all over our hands and everywhere” June says laughing and then falls silent.
Mark gets up and moves to the kitchen counter. They look at each other over it. He takes two tall glasses from the cupboard, clasping them both in one hand with a chink.
For some reason Alice never dyed her hair back blonde. Mark is convinced it was because she was a fatalist.
He remembers now the orange cloud peeping out from under her duvet the bad morning, months after the henna incident, when they had tried to wake her. When they had kissed her white cheeks and brushed a thumb over her eyelids, all a while whispering to her. As their panic grew they began to shake her, her limbs flopping about. She was dressed in just a t shirt that rode right up her legs. It had made Mark embarrassed; that mousey brown triangle so different from the hair on her head.
“It wasn’t my fault” he says suddenly.
June frowns and doesn’t reply. He notices her plastic bag next to the sofa, one side tipping over to reveal tiny cartons of yoghurt. She’s like a baby, he thinks. I don’t need her forgiveness.
June doesn’t speak a word of reassurance but finishes her drink and gives him a quick hug.
Hearing the door quietly shut, Mark sinks down into his sofa, the wine bottle is still in his hand.