The sales were still running and the streets were packed. All along the one side it was final reductions, half price or less and all along the other side it was big clearance, everything must go. They had planned to meet at a coffee shop and she had arrived first.
He came in with a box under one arm. “Where are we sitting?”
“The table by the window. The bags are there.” She waved her hands in the general direction. “Which cake do you want?”
He shook his head. “No cake. Just coffee.”
“You’re having cake. Which one?”
“I don’t want cake.”
“Okay. Then I’ll chose for you.” She peered at the prices through the glass counter.
“Stop bullying me.”
“I’m not bullying you. I’m being nice to you.”
“I won’t eat it.”
“You will too.” She pushed him away. “Now go and sit down.”
Another couple came in laden with shopping and joined the queue. She settled up and spoke briefly to the manager. The place had been open for three weeks and it still had the gleam of optimism about it. A rack of neatly folded newspapers hung from the wall and there were wind chimes and flowers in vases. She sat down between the bags and the window. “You’ve got that look.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What look? There’s no look.”
“That look you get before you start on something. Please don’t.” She picked up a fork. “I’m tired, I have shopping left to do and I don’t want an argument.”
“What argument?” He closed his eyes and then opened them. “There’s no argument.”
But she could see the thing before it happened. “It’s not the young people speech, is it? Leave them alone, for god’s sake. The world does belong to them. You’ve had your turn.” She tapped her plate with the fork. “Eat your cake.”
The cake remained untouched. He had found a focus for his irritation. “Look at this. This kills me.” He fiddled with the comment card and then put it down. “Why do they ask? They don’t want the truth. Yes, yes, it’s all wonderful.”
She sighed. “They’re doing their best.”
He grimaced. “There’s no point in trying to bring quality to the world.” He squared his shoulders. “Pile it high and sell it cheap to the peasants. As long as they’ve seen it on television, they’ll buy anything.”
“Oh god. Not the class speech.” She glanced around. “People are looking at us.”
But there was no stopping him. “Dress like a film star. The latest fashions at the lowest prices. Dine like a gourmet. All the fat and salt and sugar you can eat.” He waved a napkin. “And then go and laugh at the added value in all the hoity toity shops.”
“Do you think you’re bringing quality to the world with your sarcasm?” she asked, staring at her plate.
He shrugged. “I think it needs to be said.”
She raised her head. “No, it doesn’t. You’re just airing your prejudices.”
“I’m just saying what I see.”
She shifted in her chair. “Don’t you think that other people see it too? Don’t you think they’re trying to make the best of it? Do you expect them to wallow in their poverty?”
“I expect them to live within their means.”
Her eyes narrowed. “That’s low,” she said sharply. “People work hard.”
“Which people?” he asked, spreading his hands. “All people? The people on the other side of the street?”
“You know what I mean.” She smacked his arm. “If everyone was as smart and funny as you then you’d be out of a job.”
“Now who’s being sarcastic?”
She let the question hang. She broke a corner off her cake with the fork and pushed it around the plate. She knew that he was warming to his theme.
“Mummy, the shops are open again.” He rubbed his hands together. “Yes, darling, have whatever you want. Have all of it.” He clenched his hands to make fists. “We’ll only be fighting off the bailiffs for a fortnight until daddy secures another loan.”
“Look at all the happy smiling faces in the catalogues. Buy stuff. Be happy. Look how happy and beautiful we are. Buy stuff.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
He stuck out his bottom lip. “You used to like these routines.”
She sighed again. “I still do. Just not here, not now. Okay?” She took a sip of coffee and looked at him over the rim of the cup. Men were like children, she thought. In order to get the best out of them, you had to patronise them.
“Branded like cattle, they move as one, chewing up everything before them.” He noticed her expression. “Okay,” he said with a grin, “I’ll shut up now.”
She looked out between the letters painted onto the window and saw another coffee shop, also new, between a charity store and another charity store. But he had begun to tackle his cake and so she tidied a couple of crumbs onto her plate and said nothing. There was, she thought, more shopping to be done.
Jon Kemsley has recently been published in Armarolla, Ginosko, Breakroom Stories, Blood & Bourbon and New World Writing. He lives and works on the south coast of England and occasionally remembers to call his brother.