The television was on but there was nobody in the room. Miles must have run out again. A purple dinosaur waggled across the screen, stopped and addressed the empty carpet with exaggerated friendliness. Steve picked up the remotes and switched it all off. Putting them back where they should be, he caught sight of Miles horizontal on the other sofa, his arm around the neck of his new soft toy, his face soft and pink with sleep. Steve walked through to the other room and found Jake still playing his video game. He was lying on his back, his feet in the air, jabbing at the console, while on the screen, amid a terrifying din of war machines and automatic weapons fire, square-jawed men shot flashes of scarlet blood out of each other and fell stiffly to the ground.
“Do you have to do that while your grandparents are here?”
Jake didn’t hear him. Steve tapped the top of Jake’s head with two hard fingers.
“Your grandparents are here.”
“I know but they’re not in here though.”
“Five more minutes. Don’t . . . oh, come on.” Jake was talking to the game, his fingers frantic at the buttons.
Steve sighed angrily and stood a moment with his hands on his hips. He tutted and walked out. He didn’t have the energy for the fight that would ultimately detach Jake from his game, only to deliver him into the company of his grandparents where he would sit and scowl. In the kitchen, Tess and his in-laws were reading the newspapers. Steve didn’t particularly want to join them. He’d read as much as he could take of the Sunday papers before they’d arrived. Also, they had that look. The family resemblance of Tess and her parents was strongest when they sat together in silence. They breathed in unison. There was an unspoken, animal solidarity about them that was gently repelling. Not that Steve had anything to say, particularly. He certainly didn’t want to start Frank off again about the difficulties of selling his car.
Steve opened the fridge and appeared to examine the contents. He said, “I’m just going out to get some milk.”
Tess looked up vaguely from her supplement. He could see her expression focusing, the thoughts occurring to her. He answered her question before she had asked it.
“Miles is crashed out on the sofa with his giraffe and Jake is busy killing everything.”
“I won’t be long,” he added.
“All right. Put a scarf on,” she said. “And don’t be long.”
“I just said I won’t be long.”
It was a relief to get outside into the early dark, the cleansing shock of the icy air. What remained of Tuesday’s snow had formed smooth, hard webs of ice across the pavement. Steve trod his weight down carefully over them, walking up the street on stiff, pincering legs. As he passed neighbours’ houses, their security lights clicked on, mindlessly noticing him. They illuminated little empty stage sets of front doors, driveways, rows of bins. Frosted cars crouched along the kerb. Down here no cars passed.
Up on the main road, a few cars, widely spaced, flashed by. Steve saw that the council’s Christmas lights had gone up. Coloured stars with arching tails were tethered to the lamp posts. Christmas, that whole thing to do again.
Across the road, only the corner shop was lit up. It was generically a corner shop. Actually it stood in the middle of the parade, glaringly open, between an estate agent and a shuttered tanning studio.
Steve jogged across the wet road and walked in. He nodded to the Indian lady behind the till. From her nose flared a piece of gold jewellery that seemed out of keeping with her air of fatigue. Her collarbone was noticeable: dark, triangular hollows between the swaths of coloured cloth she wore. Her eyes were dark and heavy.
Steve let his gaze run over the unsold newspapers, mostly tabloids showing the same photograph of a girl in an orange dress emerging from a nightclub. She was very pretty. Apparently she’d had sex with several footballers. The banner across the top of the last remaining quality title, a sizeable wedge of printed matter, offered a free DVD and a winter recipe book.
Steve walked on to the chiller cabinet filled with soft drinks, cheap strong beers and ciders, bottles of white wine, milk, yoghurts, snacks in pots and mineral water. He picked up a large plastic bottle of semi-skimmed milk. He walked further into the shop to browse. He was in no hurry. This was an outing. He was on his own.
He stopped by the breads and looked at the different kinds, white and brown, pitta breads, serious-looking Polish breads, bags of cheap yellow croissants. He heard a voice, not the owner’s. There was someone else in the shop. A woman was asking the price of some cheese. Something strident about the voice, abrupt, maybe the London accent.
The shopkeeper answered and the other voice said, “OK, that then. Come on. You know me. You do know me.”
Steve looked across the top of the shelf and saw a blonde ponytail hanging over the back of a leather jacket.
“Just that cheese. Come on.”
The woman was pleading, aggressively begging. As she spoke, she hung her head on one side. She gestured with a loose arm. Steve blushed with a panic of embarrassment.
The owner shook her head. “If you don’t have money . . .”
“Just the Cheddar. The big one. You know I’ll pay you back. I’ll have the money at the end of the week.”
The milk was starting to hurt Steve’s finger, the cold loop of plastic chilling through to the bone. Silently, he moved the bottle from one hand to the other.
The Indian lady was not persuaded. “Each week put some money for food.”
“I do. It’s just . . .”
She shook her head. “Life is from food. Life is not from drink.”
The owner looked at Steve who, engrossed in their argument, had forgotten his own presence. Her glance woke him. The other woman noticed and turned. Steve hesitated for a fraction of a second almost as though he might crouch down behind the shelf and hide. Instead, he got hold of himself, stood up straighter and nodded at the other woman. She was young, late twenties, early thirties, and she looked fine. In fact, she was pretty: a neat girlish face with the kind of snub nose Steve thought of as particularly working class. She didn’t look derelict. She gave off no smell. You wouldn’t know but for the sloppiness of her movements and the carelessness of her rapidly changing facial expressions. Her face had the unselfconscious tiredness of drink. She was a sad sight.
She was still looking at him. Steve blinked. He turned and moved as if with purpose towards a shelf of canned goods, blue tins with inset pictures of steaming orange beans or spaghetti. Steve picked one up and held it as though reading but with all of his attention in his peripheral vision.
The woman turned, sort of swerved around, back to the shopkeeper.
“You think I’m like that, don’t you? I’m not lying to you. I wouldn’t. I’m not a liar.”
“Put some money for food,” the owner repeated.
“You don’t know. You don’t know what happens in a person’s life.”
Steve tried to imagine what that might be. In his mind’s eye he glimpsed a bleak flat, a stupid and violent man.
“Look, I cannot begin with this for you.”
“You know me. The end of the week. One week. Just that cheese. That’ll do me.”
This was horrible. It was what Steve’s mother would have called “a scene”. There was a scene going on. It burned like a fire in the room and made Steve sweat with embarrassment and pity. And that cheese she kept asking for – Steve couldn’t help picturing it: solid and miserable, a pathetic block of inexpensive cheese in a corner-shop fridge that somehow she would eat for a week. Steve wanted to get out.
He walked to the till, catching the owner’s eye. He looked as sober and serious as he could, trying to empty his expression of any reference to the situation. As he did so, the young woman slouched heavily in her helplessness and almost fell on to him. Steve stepped back. “Sorry,” he said, as though he were responsible. He set the milk and whatever tin he was holding on the desk above the racks of sweets. He turned and looked at the pretty young woman with her tired face and fidgeting, childish hands. As he did so, a car went by outside. The sound of it on the wet road made Steve feel the night outside the shop, how large and dark it was.
The owner rang up the items. She said in a quiet voice that it would be one pound forty-seven.
“Oh. OK. Sure.” Steve took out his wallet. As he unzipped the small compartment for coins, he saw the upper edge of a £5 note. “Right,” he said, taking it out and handing it to the woman, “why don’t you just have this?”
“What?” she asked. Steve was immediately impatient for her to understand and take it and end this exchange. She did. She saw him holding out the money and realised. “Oh God,” she said, taking the note from him. “Thank you.”
“No worries,” Steve said. Her eyes were wide, blue and grateful. He put his hand on her arm. He allowed himself that. He’d purchased it. She smiled up at him, holding the note by its edges.
“That’s one pound forty-seven,” the owner repeated. He fished out and handed over a couple of pound coins. He was given his change, his purchases in a blue plastic bag.
“That’s so kind of you,” the young woman was saying. Now she put her hand on his arm. “I really appreciate it. I really do.”
“No worries,” Steve said again. “You can get that cheese now.”
“Yeah.” The woman stood there, apparently contemplating the intricate picture on the note. “You’re a kind man.” She didn’t move.
Behind her, Steve noticed the chiller cabinet, again all the cheap beers and ciders, the wine. “Oh,” he said out loud. Maybe he’d been an idiot. Maybe she was now just waiting for him to leave. He looked round at the owner who looked back at him with hard, dark eyes. Her look said that whatever the young woman decided to buy, she would have to sell to her.
“Like the lady said, life is from food,” Steve said.
“That’s right,” the woman said. “I just need some food.” She looked up at him so sincerely, her expression so calm and relieved, that Steve was persuaded, at least enough to be able to leave the shop.
“All right,” he said. “I better get back home.”
“You take care now, darling. You’re very kind.”
“OK then.” Steve nodded encouragingly and walked out.
He jogged again across the wide main road then slowed on the pavement ice, walking carefully home, the carrier bag swinging from his hand. Something had gone wrong. He felt that more and more clearly. It wasn’t that the young woman was probably right at this moment buying more alcohol with his donation. It was something else. Now that the scene in the shop was over, he felt shut out again, rejected. At home, he put the unnecessary tin of beans in a cupboard and the milk in the fridge. He sat down with his wife and in-laws and picked up the motoring supplement as though to read. Looking at Tess, he decided he wouldn’t tell her what had happened. The thought pleased him. He would never tell her. He would keep it to himself. The secrecy was a sort of consolation. Only he would ever know about it, like an adultery.