The chilled yellow interior of the fridge in the one bulb backroom of the frozen pet food shop made him wince. Nick sniffed the milk. He sluiced the tea ringed mugs under the cold tap, wiping the rims with a thumbed and fingered tea towel. The Chelsea one with its chipped lip and sepia rings. The one that read Roy’s of Wroxham. Enjoy yourself but respect the water.
“Careful not to wipe the stains off,” said his uncle into the newspaper.
The constant transistor fizzed and farted snatches of thin country and western and whole prairies of nothing but static or dim chatter. What was being said was hard to make out. But he began to recognise a certain song that came round again and again over the winter weeks. The singer’s voice was gravel in the gut.
My name is Sue. How do you do?
When Nick was alone in the backroom, he darted simple, paper planes, folded news sheets, at the three bar-fire back there. The filaments sparked and bristled orange as the planes struck them and he watched them, a thrill across his shoulders spreading from his nape: wondered if one might ignite. Mostly, they fell back through the grill and onto the floor, where he’d step forward and pick up the plane, smell the nose and check the fuselage for burn marks, step back, reshape it and throw it again. But, sometimes the newspaper planes snagged and then burst into flame, becoming brief and delicious air disasters. And one time, he waved his arms about and opened the back door, saying, fuck, and shooed the smoke and the blackened, pesky flies of paper.
“Something burning in here?”
He worked for a while refilling chillers in J. Morrison’s of Streatham. The people rolling through the cool air, oblivious. He refilled the brightly buzzing aisle cabinets from a trolley that he wheeled from out back. Behind the chainlink fly screen, the men in steel toe caps swore and laughed like women, swiftly slashing, with palmed razors, the polythene packing and bindings and slinging the boxes peeled from within from one to another. Something of the song and dance about it. The forklift driver, Shifty Turner, half inch of roll-up, pencil-thick, unloading another pallet from the back of the lorry, grinning and nodding his head. A radio strapped with a bungee to the cab frame.
“The flies on the flypaper work as a totem. A warning,” said Terry.
The glossy strips spiralled everywhere.
They sure creep the fuck out of me, he thought.
“If you got time to lean, clean.”
They flew into the shaded depot, out of the sunlight, drawn by the sweet fruits in the crates and the spilt milk on the concrete. They crowded the sides of cows and sheep. They cornered the bin outside the walk-in that kept the door ajar. But they never came in.
He sat on his heels among the frosted box stacks, breathing cold cloud, counting clock and fingering ice cream from tubs. He was interrupted one Tuesday, just before lunch, by the warehouse foreman Terry Cheeseman, who was known for his keen senses.
“Dessert before dinner?”
Nick, rising too quickly, but not fast enough, most of a Swiss Roll in his parka pocket, asked what he meant and the silence hung stupidly in the air. They walked up the empty stairs, all echoes, through the fire door, down the quiet corridor, Rita Scott, behind reception, a phone cupped to her ear, nodded toward another door that read, J. Morrison. Manager, saying, “He’s on his way up, Terry.”
“Could you wrap this up in something, please, Rita.”
She accepted the Swiss Roll with pinched lips and marched it to the bathroom.
He sat in silence in the office. The silence was heavy until the warehouseman brought in the Swiss Roll in a nest of tissue and placed it on the desk. “Don’t eat it,” he said as he left. He heard what he thought was a short, stifled snort, then the door closed.
The silence of the office was ruptured again as Mr. Morrison suddenly appeared. “Right. This is what we owe you and this is what you owe us.” He had an open wage packet and from it he took a blue note and some coins, tossing the brown envelope next to the dessert, he said, “Off you go, sunshine.”
He drummed the beginning of Ant Music on to the kitchen table with a skittish tapping of a tea spoon and a butterknife. “Will you stop it,” said his mother. She was studying the newspaper. He stood by the work top and drummed the beginnings of the beginning again on the toaster and stopped again.
Silence. The hum of the toaster, perhaps. But, generally silence.
The quick, dark ponies ranged weekly over the situations page of The Chronicle and weakly, Nick’s mother, penned keen-eyed, fleet circles around them. She lassoed the slim ones, the glib ones, the ones that made her raise an eyebrow. She lassoed, finally, an odd-looking foal that kept coming back.