October was starting to get cold, so on my way to the child-minder’s house I had dropped in to the petrol station on the Ravenhill Road to get turf for the fire and some groceries. I was numbingly tired, so when I got inside the shop I kept missing the things that I wanted, and had to revisit the same aisles several times. There was a pretty, red-haired girl shopping there as well, and I kept meeting her. After facing her for the third time, I started to get paranoid, imagining her challenging me for following her, since wherever she went I seemed to pop up like an unwanted jack-in-the-box. I stared at the ground like a pubescent teenager, in an attempt to dispel the wrong impression. She seemed to sense my awkwardness, and this put a forgiving, wry, smile on her face. On my final foray into the bread aisle I was behind her when she knocked a red and yellow ‘special offer’ sign off the shelving with a clatter. Scundered, she tried vainly to fix it back on. It didn’t cooperate, and she wedged it back as best she could. It stuck out reprovingly like a wagging finger. I managed to repress an audible snigger, but couldn’t stop myself grinning. She glanced back, acknowledged she’d been caught on, and walked off, smiling in embarrassment to herself. The wax-papered batch loaf was the last thing I needed to get, so I went round by the gaudy array of impulse-buy crisps and sweets, and towards the till to pay.
There was a man in his late twenties coming in the other direction; we both arrived at the tills at the same time. He had short dark hair under a baseball cap, a neat moustache and sideburns, and a gold ring in his left ear. He was wearing blue jeans and a tracksuit top. He had a small boy, about four years old in tow. He was speaking, loudly, in a West Belfast accent to one of the attendants. Despite the volume, I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but they seemed to be enjoying the chat, as if they knew each other already.
When two males arrive at the top of a queue like this there is generally some kind of jockeying for the first position: body language, signals, facial expressions. Unusually, this was all dispensed with instantly: he simply dropped his eyes and went round behind me to the other till. Pump 5. Fuel and fegs. Also, one a’ them air fresheners. The cashier didn’t catch it, and he had to repeat: Magic Tree, pointing at the selection on the wall. What colour? Doesn’t matter mate. This one? Aye, black one, dead on. He handed over a couple of notes, waved away the change: that’s alright mate. He tugged at the kid’s hand, C’mon you, and walked off. The cashier called after him, he’d left his Magic Tree on the counter. Fucksake man, sorry, stoned ta fuck. Pushing the boy gently in front of him he turned the corner at the end of the shelving. Cashiers and shoppers exchanged looks, but no remarks were passed. Through the window I saw them approach a blue van waiting at the pump. The driver, a man of similar age to his workmate, was waiting for them. The boy got in first, helped in through the passenger door, and was buckled in between the lads.
As they slowly pulled out into the rush-hour traffic I understood that ahead of them there were real or imagined peelers, girlfriends, and other head-boilers to be dealt with. I wondered if the Magic Tree would be up to the job.