LONELINESS IS BEIGE AND TASTES OF MUSHROOMS by Emma J Myatt (1st place, Flash Feb22)

It’s a yellow Friday and I’m about to finish when I see a man in the closest aisle, prodding different packets of biscuits. His mask is the right colour and his boots have elements of December in them. He picks Bourbons and comes straight to my till. I slap on my customer grin.

‘Your smile is orange,’ he says. I stare at the words hanging between us.

‘Sorry,’ he says.

I shake my head, hold up an onion. Wobble, ‘What day is this?’

‘That’s easy,’ he says. ‘August.’

*

Colours have a smell; days are feelings, numbers taste. My days shift between shades of red to blue to yellow, to turquoise and back and everything in between. The hours pass in months and sounds and textures.

You don’t need to know anything else about me. These things make my hours processing customers and their shopping an overwhelming kaleidoscope that wears me out and fascinates me, in equal measure. And ensures everyone avoids me during break.

Beep: a bag of oranges that smells of Tuesdays and feels like 12. Beep: a tin of soup that is a mountain side in Spring. £14.93 pence please, which is a Wednesday in July, and smells of beetroot, which is also a cave.

The beeps themselves are musical, and the customers’ masks don’t always go with their colour. A woman in green who should be wearing a blue mask tries to talk to me so I beep faster. Like my colleagues, she’ll soon realise. I’m fast, and to all of them that’s my best asset.

*

He watches me as he asks with a smile that’s braver than mine, ‘What colour is today?’

I’m about to answer when I realise that it’s not important. It’s the fact he asked the question.

‘It’s joy,’ I whisper, and as I scan his Bourbons they feel like a beach and I can smell the sun.

As he puts them in a bag he says softly, ‘It’s yellow, isn’t it? Like a hymn.’

I nod. I only know we’ve stopped moving when the woman behind him – purple, all the way, and a bit like anchovies – does this on-purpose coughing and tuts loudly. Like the sound of an aeroplane landing.

Our hands touch as we both reach for a tin of mushrooms.

‘Such a lonely food,’ I can’t help saying.

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ he says. ‘Beige. And cold, like Autumn mud.’

I realise our hands are still touching. Anchovy Woman sounds as if she’s going to burst. And I’m feeling fizzing orange and warm sandstone, safe and solid, as sparks ping back and forth between us. And I know, as surely as I’ve ever known anything, that this man is a safe, seaworthy boat.

I finish scanning his food, he pays, I get up.

By now it’s obvious there’s Something Happening and all is hush. My colleagues gawp and their faces are gone off cheese and slate tiles. My boat-man and I head to the sea, that is outside.

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