5,320 words – approx. 18 minutes
The small, bare bedroom above the shop that Bernard Higgins owned was dark and cramped, but it didn’t need to be anything else. Its ceiling was sloped, with the lowest part directly over the pillow. When he had first moved in Bernard had several times cracked his head on it in the morning, but now he was well-practiced at sliding from the bed and moving, hunched, to the window, where the ceiling was highest and he could almost stand upright.
The room’s oppressive character meant that Bernard was quick to leave it upon waking. Each morning he dressed with speed, descended the steep, narrow stairs that smelt of moths, and walked through the rows of stoppered jars and heaving shelves to the front of the shop where, when he turned the heavy metal key, the corrugated shutters would slowly, gratingly lift and bring an advancing tide of light.
The Traditional Sweet Shoppe on Skelmsby High Street was sandwiched between Merton’s Tailors on one side and Discount Bargain Stores on the other. Almost every morning Bernard would, after opening up, notice some territorial infringement from his left-hand neighbour: a bucket of mops fallen across his storefront; a pillar of cheap sunglasses blocking part of his window; or a series of black bin liners strewn across the street. Bernard was never entirely clear whether Mr Anwar understood his polite grimaces and pained gestures, but these awkward remonstrations generally led to the desired outcome, and in spite of their regularity did not seem to harm relations between the two. It had crossed Bernard’s mind more than once that perhaps Mr Anwar was simply unusually accommodating, or as reluctant to engage in confrontation as he was – but he was also never sure that his neighbour understood his rueful shrugs at all.
On this particular occasion there had been high winds in the night, and Bernard opened the shutters to find a collection of tea towels flapping uselessly over the street like fish on land. He gathered them up as best he could, chasing one in particular to the end of the street, and winced a little at the clammy feel of the muddier parts.
Mr Anwar had a separate door for his flat, unlike Bernard, and he answered it very quickly. When he saw Bernard with an armful of damp and dirty tea towels he said nothing, just blinked slowly several times.
Bernard had never quite got used to always having to speak first. “I, er, think these are yours,” he said, hesitantly. He lifted his shoulders a little as if to offer Mr Anwar the load. A once-white tea towel slid apologetically from the pile and flopped to the ground by Bernard’s left shoe, one corner curled as though in a feeble gesture for help.
“Yes?” said Mr Anwar. Bernard sighed.
“I think these are yours,” he repeated. He never felt entirely comfortable around Mr Anwar. Perhaps it was his lack of discernible first name, or that it was impossible to tell how much he had understood, or if he used his words to mean what they seemed to. It was like talking to a child, or a dog.
Mr Anwar blinked again, then nodded and stepped forward, beckoning for Bernard to pass the towels as though he was guiding a lorry. Although Bernard was not a tall man, he had to crouch a little to hand over the bundle. Somehow no more fell to the floor during this transaction, but Mr Anwar could barely see over the top of the pile. When Bernard tried to add the one that had fallen by his shoe, Mr Anwar had to splutter and spit out some stray corners before he could be heard.
“No, no. Yours. Yes, okay.” And with this cryptic remark he left Bernard standing holding a wet tea towel, entirely uncertain as to what his neighbour had thought was the content of their conversation. Bernard slapped the side of his stomach absently and, holding the towel gingerly by an edge, went inside his shop.
The Traditional Sweet Shoppe was lit by bulbs that never quite seemed to warm up, and in the sepia twilight this created you could see dust particles floating aimlessly. Bernard had had 25 years to adapt to this, but still found himself occasionally pawing at the air as if he was pushing aside a bead curtain. His desk sat at the back of the shop floor. It was empty save for a neat pile of papers, a lamp, and an old till that spelt WELCOME in ominous green, digital letters. Running down the wall alongside it was a radiator, over which Bernard draped the towel before settling down with a mug of coffee, its steam twisting upwards.
Friday morning was, for Bernard, one of the most productive times of the week. The door sign was turned to OPEN, but he could be reasonably certain of not being disturbed, at least not until 3:30, when the after-school rush of children charged in to spend their pocket money on gobstoppers and fizzy cola bottles. It was the perfect time to catch up on orders from abroad that had arrived during the week. They would come from America, Germany, Australia – anywhere, really. The Traditional Sweet Shoppe had a dedicated international customer base, and one that seemed not to notice if the prices charged for postage and packing were rather higher than those quoted by Royal Mail. There were even the occasional visitors in billowing, floral-print dresses or straining striped shirts, making the pilgrimage as part of a visit to the Dales, and exclaiming their wonder at the tangle of strawberry laces and hard, frosted pear drops. But mostly he only corresponded with them by filing their orders and taking their payment, a situation with which he was perfectly satisfied.
The shop could get cold at this time of year, but from August onwards Bernard was sure to wear a thick cream jumper over his shirts, the collar hanging fang-like over the jumper neck. He did this even in unusually warm, late summers, as the draughts that somehow found their way in under the door and through concealed holes in the walls kept his temperature stable. As a cool-blooded man he felt little discomfort at this.
Bernard had just completed a particularly lengthy order (there was a neighbourhood in San Francisco that went wild for British sweets at Hallowe’en) when the blurt of the door alarm made him look up. It was a moment before the door clicked to and he realised no-one had come in. He blinked at the space where a person was not, and went back to work. But the upper level of his mind refused to be diverted from its sentry duty, and when the alert rang again his eyes snapped to the door, unsure at first whether it was another false alarm or a customer. He was only certain when he saw, unimpeded by any human shape, the swinging door.
With a curse covered by his wheezing, Bernard stood and strode from his desk. The rough static of his breath filled his ears and the thought grew wildly that if he could just get his hands on whoever – but too late. The noise of the outside came to him with a whirr, and he saw two – no, three – bikes wheeling down the road, their riders half-crouched in identical jackets. For a moment he stood, red-faced from the exertion of his failed pursuit then turned with a shake of the head back to his desk.
Some of the other shopkeepers had had trouble with these kids, but they had moved on quickly. Bernard, on the other hand, had been plagued by them for months now. The local business forum meetings he had attended had been sympathetic but there had been no action. They seemed to have chosen him randomly, as a disease does, and the question of what could be done to stop them rebounded around his head for the rest of the day. It distracted him from his work, and meant he filled a box marked ‘rhubarb and custards’ with white chocolate mice (almost, weeks later, causing a divorce in Los Angeles). He could hardly call the police about so trivial a matter as teenagers opening his door – but that was the only solution he could think of. He was still mindlessly simmering when the first child of the day entered the shop, and to Bernard’s surprise the clock read 3:30.
They had run from school, their faces flushed and blazers flaring behind them; they were the first, and here was their sugary, glistening prize. For a moment they paused as they surveyed the vast array of jars and plastic containers with hinged openings, a different scoop for each one. Bernard watched the excitement on their smooth young faces blend into determination as they realised that the flood of their classmates would soon submerge any advantage that their speed had conferred. Then they set to work, shovelling humbugs and fudge into rectangular paper bags, flitting in a practised manner from one side of the shop to the other. Hands planted palm-down on the counter, Bernard took this all in – their fiddling hands, the way the older boy’s tongue stuck out ever so slightly in concentration, how the younger boy tenderly cupped and weighed the bag after depositing every scoopful.
Their advantage was short-lived, but by the time the main wave broke upon the shop they were handing over scrunched notes and pocket-blackened coins to a smiling Bernard. It was a transaction of mutual satisfaction.
According to the sign blu-tacked to the door, only two children at a time were allowed in the shop, but neither the children nor Bernard paid it any notice. They were nearly two to a jar now, jostling and shoving, uprooting handfuls of strawberry laces and tangy, fizzy lizards, spilling foamy eggs onto the floor, and crunching hard toffees underfoot. During all this Bernard was a flurry of roving eyes and hands, watching for surreptitious pocketings of flying saucers as he weighed bags and took money and gave change.
When the door chimed for the last time Bernard was breathing heavily, and the shop had the expansive stillness of a kitchen after a party. A few minutes went by before he began to pick the discarded sweets from the floor and from between the thick floorboards. He had to hunch as he moved – a relatively recent requirement that lent him a scuttling, crustacean appearance – as straightening up repeatedly would risk agitating the nerve in his back. Better to do it just once at the end, when the floor was clear.
Scurrying to and fro, from one side of the room to the other, to the front display (where somehow there was icing glooped onto the floor), then back to the pedal-bin behind the counter, Bernard was engulfed in the unmistakable talcum and hair gel scent of children. It mingled with the sticky, gelatinous smell of the shop, and seemed to cling to his sweater.
Bernard knew he was not the most intelligent man, but he prided himself on a certain level-headedness. So when the breeze hit the back of his neck and he heard the alarm, the fleeting certainty that it was those damn boys on their bikes again was accompanied by a disappointment in himself at having leapt to that conclusion. He turned around and straightened up with an awful spasm that seemed to travel the length of his spine.
He cried out, confronting not an empty doorframe – or worse, the hooded outline of his tormentors – but a moustachioed man and a young boy, aged around seven or eight. The man moved in a well-oiled but rigid way – ex-army, thought Bernard, or serving policeman.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I want some sweets!” said the boy. His eyes widened as he took in his surroundings.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place!” Bernard gave a conspiratorial, parental wink to the man – father, presumably, although you could never be sure. It was not returned.
The boy was pressing his hands greedily to the pick ‘n’ mix containers as though he might be able to taste the sweets through the scratched plastic.
“One small bag of sweets, Oliver,” said the man.
“Can I have some of these dad?” said the boy, pointing at a landslide of white chocolate buttons topped with tiny candy spheres.
“You can have whatever you want, as long as it’s one small bag.” Then, addressing Bernard, the man said, “You do small bags, don’t you?”
“We – I charge by weight.” For some reason Bernard had a strong impulse to invoke the plural, some sort of safety in numbers. Suppressing a grunt he crouched next to Oliver, who was staring in wonderment as though he had never seen chocolate-covered raisins before. Bernard rocked back on his heels, a little too far as it turned out, and when he threw out a hand to steady himself he felt a stretched pain spread across his lower back.
“Are you alright?” He must have made a noise, because both the man and the boy were looking at him.
“Yes, yes thank you.” He eased himself back to a squat.
“Come on Oliver, hurry up.” The man’s eyes lingered on Bernard, then he looked around, aimless and impatient. Bernard placed an encouraging hand on the boy’s lower back, to guide him towards a decision.
It happened quickly after that. At the same time the boy stepped forward to make a choice, Bernard heard the man’s voice, sharp and solid.
“Get your hand away from him.” The boy span round, his eyes lit with a fear that dissipated only when he saw his father looming over Bernard. Bernard was semi-prone and helpless on the floor, tiny specks of unknown grit studding one fleshy palm, the other twisting uselessly on a wrist caught fast in a strong fist.
The man’s eyes were diamonds, hard and glittering, and Bernard stammered into them.
“I’m sorry! I- I- I didn’t mean it! I mean, I didn’t mean anything!” And then, when this provoked no change, “I was just giving him- I mean, I was trying to- I mean- I mean-” He was aware that this was self-incrimination at its most stupid, but seemed unable to prevent himself from babbling, as though confession might be a defence against the rocklike hand that was sure to soon collide with his face. He turned to his left and clenched his teeth and eyes to protect them from what was to come.
But nothing came.
He wasn’t sure at first how long it was before the high whistle that cut like cheesewire through his mind faded, the wire slackened. It must have drowned out the sound of the man and his boy – Oliver – leaving. Bernard could almost have convinced himself that the encounter had in fact never happened, were it not for the slight aftershock shaking of the door, the fact that he was spread on the floor, and the staccato drilling of his heart.
It is a strange fact that at the point when the mind is most vulnerable to attack, it can be relied upon to turn upon itself. Once he had risen to his feet (carefully; he could not take the co-operation of his limbs for granted), turned the shop sign to read CLOSED, and climbed the stairs, Bernard lay down in his narrow bed. The shifting shades of the ceiling were indistinguishable from those behind his eyes. The sweet, sticky air that rose from the shop enveloped him, but he didn’t notice. It is possible to become used to almost any situation if you are exposed to it enough.
The pent-up thought that first exploded inside Bernard’s mind was anger – at the man for his belligerence, and at himself for his failure to challenge him. The former led so clearly only to a spiral of rage that Bernard instead found himself focusing on the more promising topic of his own shortcomings.
Because, could he truly, in the honesty of solitude, look his ceiling straight on and say that there was no truth in what the man had implied? (And what was that, exactly?) His blood fizzed like sherbet as he replayed the scene in the cinema of his mind, projected so vividly on the backs of his eyelids and the dark cloud in front of him. He saw his hand, a little lower each time, rest on the boy’s back in a series of repeated frames – and was there, perhaps, a fanning of the fingers, spreading down the spinal ridges to the soft fabric that marked the border of one intention and another?
It was all so difficult to tell, and even the central question was hard to articulate. Bernard tried to pin it down from multiple angles: in his mind; by speaking aloud; even by clutching his face with his hands. But in place of a resolution came an image of three young men sat around a pitted wooden table. A memory, viewed from above. The pub was bustling, but they could hear each other speak easily enough in the alcove they occupied.
“A sweet shop?” said one. An uncertain smile played on his lips, and his hair was already streaked with the early signs of baldness. “I don’t know, Bern, where’s the money there?”
The man directly opposite – Bernard – shifted on the seat as if it were bulging uncomfortably beneath him, and laid his hands on the table. Before he could speak, however, the third man said something he couldn’t catch, and now both this man and the balding man were laughing into their hands.
“What? “What?” Bernard looked from one to the other, but no answer came, and their laughter became ever more maniacal until it and the hot blush of confusion and shame spread across a quarter of a century, and Bernard slammed his mattress with an outstretched palm as though slamming a trapdoor on the scene.
At least, he reassured himself, as he tried to contain his galloping thoughts, that was all there had been. Since then he had simply been a sweet shop owner. But even that innocent fact had now taken on the flavour of the grotesque. And how easy it was to transform his dedication to his work – the infrequent trips outside, the long hours at his counter staring out at the darkening street – into sinister, skulking behaviour. At some level he observed his thoughts with reluctant approval at their remorselessness. He was the prosecutor interrogating his own defences with a curled lip, pulling apart his every protest with a terrible, snarling ease – and the judge and jury as well.
This cross-examination lasted through the night, across Bernard’s bursts of thin consciousness and his shallow periods of sleep. When the rattle of his window in its frame woke him he had hardly slept. It was a bright day.
After showering and changing out of the clothes he’d slept in, Bernard felt better. It was as though this morning ritual represented a break with the ordeal of the previous night, and he felt a tentative optimism. Outside, Mr Anwar was fiddling with a display of cheap, plastic-looking necklaces, hunched in his heavy coat. Bernard stood a few steps behind him, making small movements as though they might somehow attract his attention. He didn’t want to startle him. When he half-turned and saw Bernard, Mr Anwar almost flinched. He stopped, then turned more slowly to face him.
“It’s cold out,” was all Bernard could think to say. No response. To illustrate his point he wrapped his arms around his body and shivered theatrically.
“You are cold?” asked Mr Anwar. Before Bernard could answer, Mr Anwar took a series of shuffling steps forward and plucked at his jumper.
“This. This is not enough.” He shook his head sadly. “You need coat!” And he proudly hoisted his lapels to display to Bernard the sort of coat he needed. He lifted a finger like a cricket umpire signalling a dismissal. “Yes. Come with me.” Bernard had no choice but to follow, and was happy in any case to get out of the chill wind. He had never been inside Mr Anwar’s shop, and as he walked through the confusing piles of buckets and spades, plastic-framed mirrors and camping equipment, he felt like he had drunk too much coffee, although he had had none that morning.
They stopped next to a clump of golf clubs leaning in all directions from a tired bag.
Bernard inspected the coat held up in front of him. It was black and thick, and only a little frayed. He reached to feel it, and was surprised when Mr Anwar passed it straight to him, moustache twitching upwards as he smiled.
“For you, ten pounds.”
It seemed to Bernard that the sale had been unilaterally agreed, and he dug a crumpled note from his pocket. Mr Anwar nodded and disappeared into the back room, leaving Bernard surrounded by this surreal collection of items.
When Mr Anwar did not return, Bernard realised that their interaction was over. It took him a few moments to emerge from his daze, and once he had done so he put on his coat – there was no point getting cold, after all – and went outside. The brief, prickling sensation of having done something he had not intended to was soon replaced by a rising pride: he had spoken to a neighbour, been outside in the cold blue daylight, and now had a coat that reached to well below his waist, even if his shoulders were swallowed by its width. Against these unarguable successes, the insinuations of his internal prosecutor were weak, toothpicks thrown at an elephant’s leathered hide.
He was conscious of the need to act quickly to set this new, active mood in stone. He acted now on instinct, relegating his consciousness to a passive observer. From a tall cupboard he took out a folding chair and table, and set them out in front of the store. Then he scooped a handful of sweets from each pick ‘n’ mix drawer into a bowl, and placed it on the table. The last task was to tape a marker-penned sign reading ‘Free sweets’ to the front of the table. At first the wind sent the paper flapping upwards, flipping it over so the invitation could not be read, but he was able to fix this with a little more tape. Sat in his coat he already felt more confident, and this new sense of wellbeing, of being part of a community, was bolstered when the first three passers-by he hailed accepted his offer. There was a freshness to him, a sense of purpose, that he did not remember feeling before. By midday, Skelmsby was as busy as he had ever seen it, and he had refilled his bowl twice. The thoughts of the night before now seemed absurd, and he could put the events that had spawned them down to an honest misunderstanding. Even the realisation that within the bustling stream of shoppers could be the man who had, he saw now, simply misinterpreted his intentions, was quickly dispatched, pushed from his mind by his determination to maintain this mood. Perhaps he would go to the pub tonight as part of his continued resurgence, he thought, unsure of the seriousness of this idea.
A dangling jelly snake distracted him from his daydream. It was held by a gloved hand that slowly lowered it into a gaping mouth. It reminded Bernard of the way birds fed their young in nature documentaries. The boy turned to face Bernard, angling his handlebars towards him.
“Can I have another one?” Bernard nodded. Suddenly he couldn’t speak. The sun had been smothered by a cloud, casting a grey pall over the windswept street. He watched as the boy tipped a handful of assorted sweets into his mouth and smiled as he chewed them.
“Can I have another one?” he said again, through his mouthful. Bernard could see that through the boy’s masticatory actions the sweets had begun to merge into a single mass, snakes, mice, buttons all melded into one sugary organism.
“Sorry,” said Bernard, shrugging as pleasantly as he was able. “Just one handful per person, really.”
“Aw, go on!” said the boy. “Just one more?”
“Sorry,” said Bernard again. He shook his head and pressed his lips together, hoping to convey the impression of ruefulness, as though rules were rules.
The boy considered this, his nostrils flaring in shock and anger. There was something equine about him. Then he leaned in until his sugar-smelling face was inches from Bernard’s. Somehow, Bernard resisted the urge to lean back. He braced himself, shoulders tensed. Slowly, deliberately, eyes fixed on Bernard’s, the boy deposited his gelatinous load into the bowl. A rope of spit trailed from his lower lip.
“We all know you’re disgusting,” he said. Bernard could not have replied at the moment, but even if he had been able to it would have been too late. The boy rode off, rearing his bike like a horse balking. No-one had seen the exchange, or if they had they had considered it none of their business, and Bernard sat unmoving for what seemed like several minutes until a shape filled his vision.
“Please may I have a sweetie?” The girl’s pink coat sleeve slid up her arm as she arced it towards the bowl. Only just in time did Bernard pull it away and explain, with apologetic looks to her mother, that if she waited just a moment he’d be back with some very special sweets just for her.
The rest of the afternoon was punctuated frequently enough by visitors that by the time he folded up the chair and table and took them inside, Bernard’s confidence was largely restored. There had been no sign of either the man or the kids on bikes, and Bernard could again believe that the world, if not the high street itself, was a warm place. He resolved to raise the matter of the kids and their disruption at the next community meeting – perhaps all it would take were some structured activities to rid them of the boredom they were dispelling by taunting him.
He ate a small dinner and watched the news on the television at the foot of his bed with little interest. At around seven o’ clock he judged that it would be an appropriate time to go out. He swung his coat on in a single movement – it felt heavy and serious and of the world. The clank of the shutter closing brought Mr Anwar out onto the street, but when he saw what Bernard was wearing he beamed.
“Very nice.” Bernard nodded in reply. His every move felt wonderfully calibrated, a precisely measured action, the satisfaction of doing exactly what is required, and no more.
It was not a long walk to the pub, and Bernard enjoyed it. He turned right down the main road, then left at the school. The paint on the railings was flaked where thousands of small fingers had strummed the bars. He let his own fingertips brush the metal as he strode past, making a metallic echo as his breath steamed in front of him.
The last time Bernard had been inside a pub was several years ago, and he approached the counter with trepidation. An irrational fear bubbled inside him that he was not allowed there, although in the mirror that ran along the back of the bar he could see that he certainly looked old enough. He couldn’t meet the barmaid’s eye, and in his mumbling had to ask for his drink twice. When it arrived he sipped at the head to reduce the risk of spilling it. He was still wearing his coat; there was a draught from somewhere. He stood at the bar slowly drinking the nutty, slightly spiced pint until a bony man began hammering at the slot machine next to the spot Bernard had chosen, and he decided to move.
Although the pub wasn’t full it was small, and it was hard to find a free table. Bernard wandered, his drink sloshing suds up the side of the glass in his hand. He passed empty tables with half-drunk pints as markers, or proprietary scarves and bags guarding chairs.
As he stepped out of the way of a barman carrying a tower of smeared glasses, Bernard was sent tumbling forward by someone clattering into his back. He staggered hunchbacked for a few steps, holding his glass in front of him like lantern. He turned to apologise, raising a conciliatory palm, but someone was already striding towards him, well-oiled but rigid.
“Sorry mate, are you alright?”
“Yes, sorry, fine thanks,” said Bernard.
“Good.” A pause. “Are- are you the sweet shop man?” Bernard blinked and nodded, recognising the man for the first time. He felt as though someone had tied parcel string around his chest and was pulling at both ends.
“I, well, I wanted to apologise,” the man continued. He scratched the side of his nose and looked away. “About yesterday, I mean. Ollie had been winding me up all day and I just wanted out, you know? To tell you the truth,” his smile released a puff of alcohol into Bernard’s face. “I was a bit hungover as well. You know what kids are like, never bloody quiet. Last thing I needed. You got kids?” Bernard shook his head, watching the man’s eyes for any sign of suspicion. The bony man at the slot machine let out a bark of frustration.
“Well anyway, let me buy you a drink.” He gestured to Bernard’s glass, which had in fact remained unspilled. Bernard let him order anyway, and when the man passed him the drink they shook hands.
“Good to see you Bernard,” said Mark. “Have a good night.” He patted Bernard’s shoulder and moved away to a busy table by the window.
A familiarity with your own company has its advantages, and Bernard drank his second pint sat on a high stool at the bar quite happily. There was something about being around people, though, that lifted him, seemed to hint at possibilities. Next time, he thought with a chuckle, if he saw Mark, he might ask to join him. For the first time in a long time Bernard stepped out into the night air happy, and a little drunk.
The sky was cold, clear, and quiet, save for the occasional metallic bang that reverberated along the empty streets. The sharpened air seemed to give Bernard definition, and his evening was a warm glow in his mind. Tomorrow he would restock the shelves and clean the displays; he had meant to do so for weeks.
Outside the school he paused for a moment, hands grasping the railings, feeling their cool metal against his face. It felt good. But it was cold, and his hands soon throbbed, and he hurried homewards.
By the time he connected the sounds that rang across the street with the figures his straining eyes could make out, it was too late. The insect-whirr of pedals and shouts of departure filled the air, and the last violent clang hung there, until it faded and its absence left an inverse hole in the silence.
They hadn’t managed to damage the shutter much. A hollow had been punched by a bike wheel slamming repeatedly into it, but that could be repaired. No, what caused the pressure-cooker hiss in Bernard’s ears was the word, the five letters sprayed across the metal in tall, thick, unforgiving red letters.
He could hear shouts in the darkness, further away each time. Perhaps they had been right all along. Bernard stood still for a while, then took off his coat, raised the shutter and, shivering, went inside.
Poor Bernard. Alternatively, creepy Bernard – I’m simultaneously sympathetic to and repulsed by him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. And the idea of a jelly snake as a sinister plot element was too good not to use…