Tristan Loper CC
The Beautiful Couple
‘Any spare change?’ The same three words the guy sitting by the stack of supermarket baskets asks of everyone.
His question was directed at the beautiful couple I’d seen in my rear-view mirror as I pulled into the supermarket car-park. I’d glimpsed them alighting from a sleek BMW. Him from behind the wheel, her from the passenger side. They looked too young to be in such an expensive, ‘executive’ model. I thought they were brother and sister who’d borrowed their parents’ car for a shopping trip.
Both were extraordinarily tall. He was a head over six foot and she only slightly less. Both had the same lustrous, dark brown hair – almost black. His, cut smartly onto the top of his ears and collar, hers cascading onto her flawless bare shoulders. Their similar shaped, perfectly proportioned faces were tanned, as though recently returned from a foreign holiday. They exuded the lithe grace of a pair of leopards, fluid and languorous in the way they moved. Adjusting my preconceptions of siblings, I trailed them as they kissed and walked hand-in-hand towards the sliding doors,
‘Oh, aren’t you gorgeous?’ The girl stopped and crouched down to stroke the down-and-out’s dog. ‘What’s his name?’ Her other hand, still holding onto her boyfriend’s, was now above her head, not letting him go. She was wearing a short, floaty summer dress with shoulder straps, a soft red with clusters of small yellow flowers. The late April weather had been unseasonably cold but, although she appeared under-dressed, she seemed impervious to the chill wind. Her athletic, long brown legs attracted their own climate. The air surrounding the couple felt warmer and sunlit.
The seated beggar, swaddled in his filthy overcoat and unravelling balaclava, didn’t answer her. His eyes never wavered from the middle distance – his gaze fixated on the dour war memorial in the railed enclosure over the busy road, as though he was listening to the mildewed stone eulogise the dead.
‘Any spare change?’ He held out his hand to me.
I’d driven to the supermarket to buy a bottle of whiskey, although I usually disguised my early evening shopping trips as the pressing need of something wholesome - milk or bread or a tin of soup. The cold and wet Sunday had drooped across my face, and my wife’s, like a mild stroke. Alcohol was my fellow passenger over the tedious hours before bed.
‘The dog’s name is Jelly,’ I said to the girl, as I yanked a plastic basket from the stack. ‘This is where he spends most of his sad life.’
The beautiful young man handed Jelly’s owner a two-pound coin. His long, elegant fingers were of a different species to the nicotine and ash-coloured claws of the seated man.
‘Hello, divine little Jelly,’ the girl said, ruffling the impassive animal’s ears. ‘My name’s M…..’ She looked through the face-hole in the man’s balaclava as she said her name, expecting a response. Nothing came.
I ignored the beggar’s requests for change. I once joked with the defeated voice that he needed to invest in a contactless credit card reader.
‘No-one carries “spare change” nowadays,’ I’d said. ‘Even your line of work has to modernise.’
Inside the supermarket, I dawdled by the fresh fruit and vegetables to watch the beautiful couple make their entry. I could see them through the glass sliding doors, still close to the man and his dog, the girl still squatting, her golden knees inches from the haggard face. I picked up some half-priced, wrinkled mushrooms to eat later, on a slice of toast. I pretended to look up and down the free-standing display of discounted wines and hovered a hand over some short-dated ham.
When the couple entered through the sliding doors, they were wearing matching face-masks. I was sure, underneath the masks, their teeth would shine as white as their eyes and their lips ready for the next sweet taste of each other. She began picking items off the shelves and from the chillers. Her boyfriend held their basket with one hand and held her free hand with his other. I’d never experienced the mechanics of shopping while holding hands. They communicated preferences through little squeezes and tugs. I tried to deduce what they would cook and imagined the décor or their kitchen. I pictured them preparing the ingredients together, listening to music they both loved. He would chop the fresh parsley and open the wine while she grilled the fish and set two places. They might break off from cooking to slow-dance around the island unit. They’d have urgent sex wherever the need arose.
I followed my angel fish as they swam through the aisles, the drabber fish parting in respectful shoals. They bought fresh pasta and extra virgin olive oil, organic coffee beans and new season’s asparagus. By the time they reached the checkout, I’d replaced my wrinkled mushrooms and short-dated ham with some fresh sardines and soda bread for my evening slice of toast. I spent more than I normally would on a bottle of wine.
I stood behind them as their purchases were scanned through. The young man said something through his facemask to the grey-haired woman on the till and she blushed and giggled. The girl turned to me and spoke.
‘Isn’t Jelly just adorable?’ she said.
‘Cruelty, keeping a dog in those conditions,’ I said. She turned away from me and put her hand on her boyfriend’s waist.
The couple stopped again by the beggar and unpacked a bag of shopping. Sandwiches, chocolate, and a pint of milk for the man. A packet of dog biscuits for the animal.
‘A little something for you, Carl, and some treats for Jelly,’ the girl said. ‘Take care, both of you,’ and she kissed the dog on the top of its head. I’d never before heard anyone know, or use, the beggar’s name.
‘Bless you.’ I’d never before heard the man say anything other than “any spare change?”
I kept some coins in my car for whenever I needed to feed a parking meter. I collected them up and returned to Carl and Jelly.
‘There you go, Carl,’ I said and tipped the coins into the tin at his feet and rubbed Jelly’s ears.
He didn’t reply, his gaze was fixated on the couple’s car as it wended its way from the car-park. The beautiful girl waved at him. I waved back a proxy hand.
Inside the supermarket, the customers at the checkouts appeared to be having amusing conversations with the till-staff. The supermarket trolley attendant began picking up litter. A man approached me and asked if I’d like my car washed. I said yes, but that I’d stand outside with my friends, and wait.
Steven John’s short fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous online magazines and printed anthologies including Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020. He is Joint Managing Editor at The Phare www.thephare.com literary magazine and is a part-time Creative Writing Lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire, England. Steven lives next to a river that floods, in a house described as ‘a bit wind in the willows’.
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