Air Freshener and Jam by Jill Warrener

Air freshener and jam

‘Good morning, good morning.’ Elsa hurries on her way down the street, shoes clipping the surface of the uneven pavement. She is careful. She doesn’t want to trip. She has tripped before and it was embarrassing. Schoolchildren laughed at her from where they stood, chewing gum at the bus stop. Was that a neighbour she knew? She wasn’t sure. Better to say good morning anyway, just in case.

Past the post office. She doesn’t need to go in there. It’s Wednesday. She always draws her money on a Tuesday, not a Monday when it’s crowded and she has to join a queue. She doesn’t like queues. People talk to you and you have to try to remember who they are. Past the corner shop. Such a pity. It was a lovely little shop when Mr Davies was there but it’s changed since he died. It’s got some name now, Mc something, Scottish. All newspapers, magazines and fizzy drinks. No proper food. She used to know where she was in there and Mr Davies always kept her a brown sliced loaf, every other day. Now she has to go three streets away to the Co-op. It’s confusing. The things on her list aren’t always there and she comes away without things she needs. Toothpaste. She couldn’t find toothpaste. She runs her tongue round her mouth. It was very annoying. It always used to be there, on the end of the shelf in the middle aisle, next to the toilet rolls, but it just wasn’t there. The girl behind the counter looked at her, as if she was doing something wrong, arms folded under her bosom. Little tart. Elsa knew her sort. Big gold hoops in her ears. So she’d come out without it. Today she needed air freshener. And jam. She mustn’t forget the jam.

All of a sudden there’s a dog. It wasn’t there and then it was, barking at her. And a figure in the doorway, coming at her out of the shadows. One of those street people. She knows their sort too. She’s seen them exchanging glances, handing over notes, messages on slips of paper, talking behind their hands, smiling. Pretending they don’t know what’s going on. Spying on her. Well she has their measure. Elsa, ‘La Petite’ they called her, the English soldiers. Coming and going with messages tucked into her undergarments, never knowing who might be following or who you could trust, who might answer the door, who might go missing in the middle of the night. And now these dirty youths in doorways with their dogs. She could tell them a thing or two if she wanted. She knew things.

Spots of rain dapple the pavement and the barking dog becomes an echo. Elsa feels in her pocket for the plastic rainhat she always carries and stops to shake it out. Carefully putting it on, she tucks in her hair and ties it under her chin. Of course, she’d had her looks then. Bronze curls and a very fashionable fringe, a small waist and long, slim legs. Quite the belle she’d been. All the English boys had thought so. Eyes hooded with fear, they’d followed her out of their secret places and down the street, eyes burning into her back, whispering their passions. She’d known. And how they’d waited there in their dark corners, longing for her return. La Belle. Harold especially. So young he’d been, barely nineteen when he was shot down. All those months spent in hiding, terrified they’d come for him. Waiting.

She mustn’t be too long. Harold didn’t like to be kept waiting. He got the shakes, even now.

Over the crossing, the rain coming down steadily, little rivulets running off her hat and down her nose, forming patterns on her glasses. Take them off and wipe them. She’ll do that when she gets in the shop. She must be able to see when she gets in there, find the air freshener and the other thing. What was it? There was something else. It was important, she knew it was. She’d told Harold she wouldn’t forget it. Wouldn’t forget. Something nice, she was sure of it. There was panic rising now in her chest and she was at the door. Perhaps if she went back down the street she’d remember. Yes, better to do that, retrace her steps, go back. Her feet were wet inside her thin shoes, underneath her stockings. Sticky. She’d had long legs, slim. All the boys had said so, following her with their eyes.

There had been a bad smell for some time now. She’d mopped and used a whole bottle of disinfectant but it had got worse. The last few nights she hadn’t been able to sleep for it. It had got into her nostrils and stayed there. Sweet, sickly, rotten. She couldn’t understand it. The house was clean, she made sure of that, dusting every day, never leaving food out. She blamed next door’s cat. It was a big tom, ginger, with a tail that swept from side to side, raised high above its head. Sometimes it waited on the wall for her as she was going out so that she had to scurry past. She was sure it had got in and left something, something rotten. The windows were closed normally but sometimes she opened the one in the bathroom when she was cleaning. She was sure she’d closed it but then she had found it open the other day so maybe she’d forgotten. She did forget things, sometimes. Harold teased her about it. When it was one of his good days, when he was well. Said she’d forget her head if it wasn’t screwed on. Funny English phrase. They talked in riddles the English. Well, she hadn’t forgotten his birthday, had she? And she’d made a cake, a sponge cake, and got candles. Jam! That was it, the thing she needed, jam for the cake. Of course. She could go back now, to the shop, walk in, find what she wanted and get back to Harold. He’d be wondering why she’d been so long.

Inside the shop she unties her rainhat. Shakes the rain off and puts it in her pocket, smoothes her hair. Takes out her handkerchief and wipes her glasses. Should she take a basket? No. She stands, hesitating. The girl at the counter is watching her. Elsa picks up a blue, plastic basket though she doesn’t need it and walks slowly, purposefully, down the first aisle. There are too many things on the shelves, jars and packets and bottles. Too much colour. She runs her eyes along the rows, searching, keeping her head well down. The girl can’t see her now. What was it? Toothpaste, running her tongue round her mouth. The bad smell in her hair, in her nose. Air freshener, of course. With a sigh of relief she spies it and plucks a can from the bottom shelf. Toothpaste is on the shelf above and she takes a small box. Does she need soap? Better have some, just in case, and disinfectant. The basket is heavy with the items. It was a good thing she took a basket. She makes her way to the checkout and stands properly, an ordinary shopper. There are two people in front of her, a very tall man and a woman in running shorts so she has to wait. She looks at the woman’s legs, white and pimpled with cold. What’s she doing in those tiny shorts? She needs to cover herself up. Elsa feels in her pocket for her purse. Better to get it out now so she doesn’t have to fiddle for the change. The very tall man has finished and goes out, past her, bending his head to get through the door. She’s seen him in here before, remembers his face. She’s got a good memory for faces. Now it’s the woman’s turn. She doesn’t seem to have any shopping and Elsa is puzzled. She’s saying something to the girl and they both look behind them, at her. Did the woman say something? She’s not sure. Her hearing’s not as good as it was. Maybe she was talking to the girl. The girl’s taking a packet of cigarettes from the counter and the woman smiles. Elsa smiles too, feels the basket heavy on her arm and the change in her hand. One, two, three, four items, straight into her nylon shopping bag. She only needed two things. Hands over the coins. It’s not enough. She’s holding out her hand, the girl. She wants more. Another pound coin and the girl gives her some change. She leans back against the counter, gold hoops in her ears and watches Elsa go out of the door. It’s still raining and she needs her hat but she must get outside, get some air. Elsa takes a few steps, puts the nylon bag down on the wet pavement, ties her rainhat under her chin.

The figure in the doorway is huddled down under a blanket now, just out of the rain. The dog too. It looks up as she passes but makes no sound. Elsa walks on quickly, her heavy shopping bag bumping against her side and turns into her street, Cedar Terrace. Little front gardens with tidy flowers and dustbins behind low walls. Some with railings, some with stumps. That was the war effort, melting down railings to make guns. No trees, no giant cedars, just stumps of railings. She puts down her shopping, finds the key and turns it in the lock. Suddenly the cat appears in a silent leap, close to her head. It’s been waiting for her, horrible, horrible thing with its big, yellow eyes. Elsa bangs the door shut and stands for a moment, leaning against it. A cup of tea, that’s what she needs. She’s become so English. Harold won’t say no. He always wants a cup of tea. And the cake! For his birthday. She’d almost forgotten, she’s been so busy. She’ll use the best plates, the ones with pink roses. First some air freshener, to make it smell nice. And then she’ll put that jam on the cake. Oh no. No, no, no ,no, she’s forgotten the jam! Elsa feels a howl come right up through her chest and issue from her mouth. How can she give Harold the cake without any jam? But there’s no time now and she can’t go back to the shop today. Past the cat and the figure in the doorway and the girl waiting for her with the hoop earrings. She’ll just have to serve the cake without the jam. Maybe Harold won’t notice. He often doesn’t notice things.

In the kitchen, carefully, the cake with four candles, a knife to cut it, napkins and two rose-patterned plates on a tray and two cups of tea. It’s heavy. Perhaps she’ll come back for the tea. Yes, leave them on the side. She’ll light the candles now, take it in, sing Happy Birthday. Joyeux Anniversaire, Joyeux Anniversaire. There’s Harold, sitting in his chair by the fireplace. He hasn’t moved. Hasn’t moved for days. She’ll just put his cake down here beside him on the table so he can reach it if he wants. The air is sweet, so sweet she can taste it. Not like jam but sweet like something over-ripe. She knows that smell. Bent over double, a figure in the doorway, rotting where he sat. German, she could see by the uniform. Better to leave him. Harold. Better to leave him. He needs to sleep. She must go and do her teeth with that new toothpaste. And find the air freshener. Good job she remembered that.

About the author:

Jill was born in Bath and had a happy childhood living in the idyllic Swainswick valley. She studied English at Leeds and went on to teach, first on VSO in Nigeria and then in Surrey. She writes short stories and poetry and has written one novel. 

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