He’d come in everyday at 9:10am. He’d slowly make his way up to me, tilt his hat and ask how I was; it normally followed by a chesty cough. When I was getting the bag ready, I’d hear him slowly make his way around the store, coughing as he went, dragging his stick along the floor. He’d return with the same three things: a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a bar of caramel chocolate, the latter for the wife, as he always said. He’d then ask for a pack of 40 Camel cigarettes, and it got so often that I had them scanned, bagged and on the till for him when he returned, sometimes even before he had come into the shop. Every time when I gave him the bag, he’d say “I’m going to kick the habit, I’m going to kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow.” He’d laugh, cough, and wish me a good day.
Anyway, the rest of the day was punctuated with visits from the same locals. Marnie, from the charity shop, came in and bought her fruit and nuts; every now and then she’d include the latest diet magazine from Good Health. William came in from the post office for his lunch. He always looked so dishevelled and tired and would always be fishing out pennies to pay for his plain cheese sandwich. Franco, from the restaurant, came in and always bought a lottery ticket. He always said “Make sure you give me the winning one this time.” That got old pretty quick. He owned the restaurant next door, which was never busy. It got slated by Ramsay. Then, just before we closed up, Higgins would come in again and ask for another pack of Camels. Had to give it to him, even though I had already cashed up the till, so just handed him the packet and told him to bring the money the next day.
You get stuck into a routine, working there. When you see the same people everyday, the small changes in their appearances and purchases spoke volumes about them. You could read people through the numbers on the till. Marnie stopped buying her fruit and nuts. Not long after, she began to put on weight – but she was a lot happier. William spent more money for his lunch and began to pay in notes. This told me he got a better job at the post office. Franco stopped buying his lottery tickets and went onto scratch cards, I suppose he worked out there’s a better chance of him winning with them. And Higgins stopped coming in, instead a boy took his place. He was silent on the shop floor picking up the milk, the paper – but not the chocolate. After I figured he was running the daily errands for Higgins, the boy told me the wife had given up the chocolate. For her health. He’d then ask politely for 60 Camel cigarettes. “He’ll kick the habit. He’ll kill the smoking habit. Tomorrow,” the boy would say. It wasn’t followed with a laugh.
I still visit the village. My parents live down there and when I’m around, I’ll get the bread for them in the mornings. I see the same people, although they don’t recognise me, what with my beard and hair and that. It’s a relief to see how people are. I saw Marnie outside the bank, she was thin and her hair was full, she looked really well. William was in a suit with a briefcase, walking with urgency towards the post office. He looked liked he owned the place when he entered. And ‘Franco’s Restaurant’ was now a cafe and was roaring with customers drinking coffee and eating cake. He looked happy, too, though I spotted a lottery ticket in his hand.
One time, I saw the boy. He was older. A man, I suppose now, he may well have been in his early twenties. I was walking past him and caught a glimpse of what he was carrying. He had a pint of milk, a copy of The Local Racer and a chocolate bar – no cigarettes, though.
Perhaps Higgins finally did it. He killed the smoking habit.
God, I wish it were that way around. I wish it were that way around.