Bag for life
My mate Mike sent me a text back in May which simply said “Short story title idea: “Bag For Life.” This is the result. Thanks Mike….
Her staccato steps stuttered as she beetled along. The rhythm was so uneven that anyone listening to the tottering tattoo would have thought she was going to fall at any moment, but she was simply avoiding the cracks, dancing a little pavement polka to thwart the junctions that conspire to trip up little old ladies. She was tiny, prematurely stooped and clutching the handle of a supermarket trolley that she propelled at astonishing speed. It wasn’t one of the family ones that scared her with their cavernous interior, still less the child friendly one with the plastic contraption that turned into a seat. No, she preferred the streamlined single person special, the Ferrari of the shopping conveyance world.
In spite of her stoop, she kept a sharp eye on the path ahead, wary of other people, rubbish bins, push-chairs, lamp-posts and parked cars. Who had decided that the pavement was a suitable place to park a car? She hated it when she was forced out into the road to joust with passing traffic, taking her life into her hands, always underestimating the speed of cars that would honk and swerve. The drivers would gesture and curse in a way that shocked her. Manners were a thing of the past.
As she wound her way through the obstacle course, she noticed that the moon was looking strange tonight. Bloated and orange, it seemed to bounce up and down on the roof of the houses on the opposite side of the road. Preoccupied with this strange apparition, she was surprised to find that she’d already reached the underpass that led to her estate. She slowed, warily assessing the risk. Who was there tonight? Was it just the young kids with their scooters and skate-boards? They usually ignored her, content to continue impressing each other, chattering and swearing. Or was it the older kids, sullenly smoking or showing off to slack-jawed girls but never averse to a bit of old lady baiting?
She shuffled into the tunnel’s maw like a sacrificial maiden approaching a slumbering dragon, but it was clear except for a lone skateboarder, a girl. Steeling herself and fully aware that the youngsters gender was no guarantee of solidarity, she moved on, head down, striving for invisibility. The kid was probably twelve and, spotting the old lady’s approach pushed off gently on her board and immediately began to spin and twirl like an ice skater. She passed Doris, for that was her name, and then appeared on her other side, feet a blur as she made the little board dance and clatter. Doris was entranced, it was as if the show was all for her, a skate-board ballet, fluid and fanciful, like Ginger Rogers on wheels. As suddenly as she’d started the girl stopped, kicked the board up into her hand and resumed leaning against the wall. Doris exited the underpass uplifted.
Ahead was the ugly angularity of her low rise. She steeled herself for the next challenge. Would the lift be working? Her flat was on the first floor and she had, on occasion, dragged her trolley up the two flights of stairs, too scared to leave it at the foot knowing by morning it would have found its way into the local canal. She entered the stinking lift with trepidation, pressed the button and closed her eyes in silent prayer. As the door closed with an asthmatic wheeze, she let out a sigh of relief. Now all that stood between her and sanctuary was the step into her flat. Having opened the door, she manoeuvred herself to the front of the trolley and heaved the wheels over the step. Squeezing round to the rear, she completed the process, closed the door, heaved another sigh of relief and leaned briefly against the wall to get her breath.
The trolley was full of bags. Doris counted them and rearranged them slightly, pulling the Sainsbury’s bag full of paper cups a little more upright, shifting the Tesco bag full of silver foil towards the rear. An Aldi bag contained one or two items of shopping that she retrieved and placed in the kitchen. Returning to the trolley, she counted the bags again, making sure not to touch the Next bag. She’d never been in Next and couldn’t remember where she’d come by such a bag and, for some reason, it intimidated her. The word Next had a question mark after it that only Doris could see, it was portentous, challenging. She made sure the other bags weren’t touching it, crowding them to the back of the trolley, leaving the Next? bag alone at the front where it sat malevolent and accusing.
Her tea was a simple affair, a cheap piece of chicken, some frozen peas and boiled potato. Having cleared the table, washed up and made herself a cup of tea, she settled down on her battered sofa, the brief ceremonies of a lonely evening complete. Outside, the estate was coming to life, the sound of smashing glass, shrill laughter and revving engines mixing into a doleful symphony. She felt preoccupied though, unsettled for some reason by her recent encounter with the Next? bag. It’s hold over her was strong tonight and she fought the impulse to fetch it from the trolley. There were things in the Next? bag that she found it difficult to face, painful things, personal things, things she wanted to forget. But something had happened to her tonight, something that made it impossible to resist the pull of the bag. The girl in the underpass, the girl on the twirling skateboard had smiled at her.
Doris stood over the trolley, steeling herself. Gingerly, she lifted out the Next? bag and carried it to the settee. In for a penny, in for a pound she thought. First out of the bag was a mildewed photo. In the foreground was a handsome man dressed only in swimming trunks. He looked as though he’d been caught unawares by the photographer, his face a mixture of surprise and amusement. Maybe late thirties, early forties, he was balding but fit looking, bronzed and holding a tiny seaside bucket. Doris wondered if the bucket was full of water because he held it as though he was going to empty it over the other person in the picture. She was a curly-headed girl clad in a slightly baggy bathing costume. It looked like a hand-me-down, well loved yet serviceable. The little girl also had a mix of emotions on her face, part delight, part anticipation. The bucket was definitely full of water. Next out of the bag was a tiny dress. Doris held it up to the light. It was blue with a floral motif, still in good condition with tiny tab sewn into the neck. It said Nathalie. Doris noticed that her hand shook almost uncontrollably as she held the little dress, an unbidden yet not unwelcome emotion filling her chest. Putting her hand back into the bag, Doris pulled out a silvery whistle attached to a wide red ribbon. Twirling it on the end of the ribbon, she wondered why she was overcome by a strong feeling of familiarity. She lined up the other items that came out of the bag. An ornate watch, a comb, a stone with the word Margate printed on it, a letter and an address book. The last two brought her up short. She was frightened most by the letter. It was a malevolent presence, a memory too dangerous to exhume, full of harsh words and spite. The envelope was addressed and had a stamp, but no postmark. It had never been sent. It felt like she’d discovered an unexploded bomb. The address book simply sat there. It didn’t accuse as the letter did, it merely was. She picked it up and thumbed through. Some of the addresses looked familiar but one in particular leapt out at her, the name above it too. She hurriedly closed the book, intent on putting it back in the bag, but the question mark stood in her way. Next? She looked at the bag, she looked at the book and she looked at the ancient phone on the table in front of her. Nodding, she once again opened the book to the page she’s just found and reached for the phone.