by Aimee Wilkinson
They were in that glorious ‘other time’. The subjunctive where it could happen, would happen but had not happened yet. For now Jess was innocent, simply on a day trip with a work colleague, nothing more. For now she could flirt, flitter between the French market stalls and laugh at his jokes without fear of guilt or judgement. She pushed her guilt to the back of her mind and let her laughter bubble around her, enjoying the gift of the present.
Sam bought her an ice cream and wrapped his arm around her waist. They strolled through the market and she listened to him recount his recent American Football match. Again she asked him to explain the game to her and again she did not understand, but it didn’t matter. Sport had lifted his usual taciturn nature, and she just liked to hear him talk.
Jess thought about her husband lying on the sofa playing video games when she’d left. What had once been her sanctuary of calm with coordinated scatter cushions had now transformed into a shrine of his unemployment, with discarded ready meal cartons and cold cups of tea. What was worse were the words that were left unsaid; that clouded the air between them like the smoke from fireworks that had blazed brightly for a moment and then were gone, leaving her wondering whether they were ever there at all.
They chatted about work, about their favourite films and bands they’d like to see. She finished her ice cream and threw the wafer cone in a bin, her eyes attracted to an elderly woman with a sequined shawl draped round her shoulders. As Jess watched, the woman hobbled past a grocer stall, helped herself to a large orange and walked away without paying. Jess nudged Sam to bring him in on the joke. He took her hand and they weaved in and out of the shoppers following the woman. Giggling at their shared secret they watched her drop chunk after chunk of peel on the floor like a trail in an old children’s fairy tale.
The woman rushed on ahead, and they would catch glimpses of her olive green coat through the crowd as they struggled to keep up with her. Tiring of their antics, Sam pulled to an abrupt stop outside an antique stall and dropped Jess’s hand. He picked up a gold butterfly brooch and bartered with the store tender. The sequined shawl flashed in the sunlight like a beacon and Jess watched the woman eat a segment of the orange and drop the rest on the floor, now disinterested in the fruit. The orange rolled down the street, its flesh gathering dirt before it was kicked and trodden on by other shoppers.
Satisfied with the price, Sam took out his wallet and extracted a few notes. For one fleeting moment Jess thought he was buying it for her, and was surprised to feel a surge of relief as he placed the wrapped brooch in his pocket and avoided her eye. By way of explanation he muttered about it being someone’s birthday soon and she nodded. She knew Sam had a girlfriend, a mousy young thing that had stuck to his side like a Siamese twin at the work Christmas meal; yet she never came up in their conversations. She wasn’t even sure of her name.
They walked to the end of the market and made their way back to his car. Suddenly Jess felt exhausted; having to coax conversation from Sam was often like drawing water from a dry well and she didn’t want to ask him about sport anymore. Earlier there had been the hint of a hotel in Matlock, but now all she wanted was sleep. To bury her head under the covers and forget about the day. They got in the car and he asked her where she’d like to go. It was a day designed to cheer her up, after all. Jess buckled up her seatbelt and turned away. She thought about empty ready meal cartons, cold cups of tea, and how something could be so easily plucked, tasted and then thrown away like unwanted fruit.
Aimee Wilkinson works in literature development and is a great advocator of all things creative.