Terms and Conditions Apply by Fritha Waters

Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

Next on the list was cornflakes. There was something deeply unsexy about eating cereal – he heaped spoon, the gaping mouth with milk dribbling down the chin, coupled with the dead-eyed, early-morning look; he’d walked away from her this morning feeling utterly turned off. Maybe it was the spoon aspect – but then he was sure that there’d been moments when he’d gone weak at the knees at the sight of her licking a spoon. Not that he’d gone weak at the knees recently and the thought of her shovelling in cereal made him think he wouldn’t for a good while longer.

He trundled down the aisle to the eggs. It had been eggs they’d eaten for breakfasts in the beginning. Buttery and scrambled on thick slices of sourdough. The sun beaming in through the window and lighting up the flowers he’d given her the night before. The scents of the previous evening’s candles and wine still hover. Whatever the weather, she would fling open the window to air out the living room where they spent most of their time – the tiny round dining table squashed into the corner behind the sofa, the place crammed with books and ornaments. The flat which had seemed intimate before, was now a shoe box and its lid lowered a little every time he entered. Sighing, he lifted a half-dozen box of eggs off the shelf and reviewed the list.

Bread. He heaved an even deeper sigh and reached for a wholemeal sliced flannel. He didn’t like this type but knew it was what she made her work sandwiches with and, as she’d once explained, it was exactly the right size for her lunch box. At the time he’d found this charming, and cherished this fact, another little coloured detail which he could paint into her portrait. He’d gladly sought out Hovis Wholemeal each time he noticed only a few slices left in the bread bin.

But now he wondered, weighing the collapsible loaf in his hand, what had happened to the sourdough? What happened to the stretched out sunlit mornings, the Billie Holiday playing in the background? He couldn’t remember the last time they’d enjoyed a late breakfast together, even on the weekend. It was her tendency to get up earlier than him, snap on her neon gear and go for a run. She would have already had her bloody cornflakes with a slice of Hovis Wholemeal a good hour or two before he woke up. He missed waking up together on a Sunday, the sheer luxury of not having to set an alarm, he would reach across and find her warm and soft on the other side of the bed…

On impulse he picked up a packet of pain au chocolat and tossed them on top of the rising pile in the trolley. When had he ever needed a trolley– A trolley, for the two of them? A weight balled inside his chest and in his mind’s eye, the circle was now complete.

He was pushing a trolley around a supermarket, doing the Big Shop. And what’s more, he wasn’t doing it for his wife and children, as he’d been doing five years ago, but for his girlfriend, the woman he’d left his family for. He’d gone to hell and back simply to end up in the same fucking position. He looked down at Anna’s list which he held clamped between his hand and the trolley handle. The items were different – brown rice, peanut butter, sesame oil- and her scrawled writing less comprehensible than his ex-wife’s neater hand, which had asked for chicken breast, baked beans and white rolls – but it still came down to him wheeling a wonky-wheeled trolley around Tesco on a Saturday morning. The weight leaned heavily on his lungs.

It was this same supermarket he used to dash into on a summer’s night on his way to see Anna, and he’d pick up a basket not a trolley. He’d just need one or two things like a specific ingredient she’d forgotten to buy, and could he pick it up on the way over? Something sexy like fresh basil which would emanate throughout the car all the way to her flat – his heart racing, blood pumping and skin alight.

He couldn’t get round the aisles quick enough on those evenings, a bottle of wine, a tasteful bunch of flowers.  If he had time he would stop off at the deli round the corner, they sold the dark chocolate with sour cherries, her favourite. He could picture her childish grin when she saw it, he’d kiss her cheek where it creased at the side of her mouth. He’d buy cheeses they both liked, a good strong cheddar or a creamy piquant dolcelatte. Smooth fleshy olives in oil with garlic. Pink salami and chorizo so thinly sliced you could see the light through them, ready to be plucked out of the packet, rolled between fore-finger and thumb and popped into each other’s laughing mouths. There were also the foods he’d introduced her to; braised artichokes like burnt flower buds and quivering membrillo from Spain. She would sit, chin cupped in hand, transfixed to his tales of travelling and he’d promise to take her to those places where they’d eat all these foods. He thought of her childlike expression – her blue eyes never leaving his face, hanging on his every word. Those same eyes now glazed over whenever he brought up travelling.

In those days he didn’t even care if he ran into someone he knew, by that time the word was out and everyone had made their judgments, chosen their sides. And there weren’t many men his age who could buy titbits on a Friday evening to share with their much younger girlfriend. He’d felt brave then, confident. They’d weathered the storm, the family home imploding from the inside, his crippling guilt, Catherine’s weeping through the night and then brutal anger by day. He and Anna had come out the other side. They’d done it, they’d won each other. No one could then say it was simply a fling, that it was all about sex, they’d- he’d proved his worth. But now, five years on a small voice creeping up from the back of his head asks Was it worth it?

For a long time when he still lived with Catherine and the children and everyone was violently miserable, he’d dreamt of the day when he and Anna could live as a couple, and they could just get on with being together. At times it had seemed unattainable, but in the last few months of him extricating himself from Catherine, it was all he held onto.

He’d often pictured Anna sitting at a fireside whilst he read her humorous passages from the newspaper. Cooking together in a spacious kitchen, drinking wine and sitting down to a candlelit table. Out walking together on a crisp frosty morning and then cosying up on the sofa to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets. All of which they’d done, but it was never quite how he’d pictured it, and nowadays Anna was always busy with work, or he’d have his weekend with the children and the sun-kissed moments of normality together were becoming fewer, greyer, duller, something he’d never thought possible with her.

She ignored him when he came into a room now. He’d tried to prove this point recently and came into the room wearing one of her tops; a tight red one. Finally, she caught on and did him the courtesy of a smile before complaining the elastic would stretch. She was also slovenly, something Catherine had warned him of ‘She’d better be tidy. No one else will put up with your fastidious cleaning.’At the time he thought he wouldn’t care that Anna left hair in the plughole, the toothpaste cap off and never wiped surfaces -it just would not matter, he loved her and that was that.

But now it made his heart sink when he came “home”, back to the tiny cramped flat, and there was washing strung up on the radiators, cup rings on the coffee table and slices of bread spilling out of their bag onto the worksurface.

He imagined getting home, struggling with the shopping, stumbling over kicked-off shoes in the hall. She’d be in the living room, eyes glued to the laptop, not at the door to help him or even say hello. He thought back to the days when they would greet each other with extravagant, exuberant kisses, the door still open, his coat half off and even a time when Anna didn’t have anything on at all.

He was still standing in the bread aisle, the loaf of Hovis in his hand. He looked at the list for the items he’d yet to buy, tinned tomatoes, noodles, crème fraiche– he’d already been in the dairy aisle for God’s sake. Without thinking, he crumpled the list into a ball and threw it over his shoulder at the same time ramming the Hovis back into its spot on the shelf.

‘Are you going to pick that up?’

He turned and found himself drawn to an expanse of smooth skin below the woman’s neck, the shade of windswept sand dune, contrasting the collar of her white linen shirt. The colours spoke of magazine holiday pictures, the sun flaring on a lens. Meeting her eyes – jade stones washed over by the sea – and he wondered if he’d seen her years before, maybe on a beach in Thailand? Yes, that could be it.

‘I–’ he stuttered, shame-faced, thrown by her gaze and the mass of butterscotch coloured hair flowing as a sauce down her shoulders and back.

The woman smiled as she swung lazily past him, hips swaying as if being filmed. She moved without a ripple or jolt. ‘You really shouldn’t drop litter.’

Her wink was so quick he couldn’t be sure it had happened, and she drifted away. She was holding a basket in which he could only see a bottle of wine and a couple of oranges. He paused, basking in the halo of her image, as if the sun had come out and was shining a beam only on him. He sighed and looked down at the trolley, the contents of which now seemed to be mocking him. He curled his lip in retaliation. That’s it.

He works quickly, backwards up the shopping list. Retracing his steps, he replaces all items on their shelves: the sesame oil slotted back on the row of bottles, the cornflakes shoved back into the wall of cereal. The peanut butter, eggs, milk, salad, cucumber, peppers and beansprouts will all have to be bought by someone else today because he is done. He reaches the entrance and with one last shove he pushes the now-empty trolley off and away, its wonky wheel sending it on a chaotic collision course with the display of Valentine’s cards and flowers. He snatches up a bouquet of roses and baby’s breath. The green-eyed woman is on her way to the exit, her single bag of shopping in hand, and he follows her, certain that this is meant to be.

About The Author

Fritha Waters lives and writes in Norfolk. She’s always written but decided to properly pull her finger out during lockdown and it’s now a bit of a habit. In real life she’s a gardener and is working on a curious hybrid of the two professions, a collection of short stories inspired by plants.

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