The first crimson fingers of morning greet Chipping Norton as she cowers silently beneath a hoary frost. For the past twenty four hours a steady fall of snow has danced to the frozen ground, and virtually all commerce has ceased. The Greene Grocer, however, has been busier than I’ve ever seen it: my shelves were denuded of milk and bread hours before the first flake ever fell.
Bundled from head to foot against the cold, the exquisite Mary Robins and I walk quickly to Sieler’s Bakery at the corner of Agincourt and Main streets. We are off to replenish our stocks of bread before the morning barbarians reach our gate. As it is very early and very cold, the other shops in the Main Street are shuttered and mute, except for one. A light is on in Perkins’ Vacuums, and old man Perkins can be seen shuffling aimlessly about in his tiny, dingy, obscure store. Strangely, there is no merchandise in his shop. The heavy, ancient Hoovers and the rows upon rows of vacuum bags are all gone.
“Would you look at that barmy old bugger fannying around?” I chirp mockingly. I mean nothing by the remark, but Mary Robins glowers at me with a look that makes the frigid weather seem tropical by comparison. Without a word, she strides angrily toward the bakery, and I follow her like a confused puppy.
The bakery is warm and bright, and the heavenly aroma of fresh bread hugs us like a favourite jumper; but I barely notice. Mary Robins pulls me into a corner of the shop, her eyes ablaze with emotions I have never seen before.
“You know, Simon,” she says, “I’m very fond of you, but that was a really rotten thing to say about George Perkins. Do you even know him?”
I have to admit that I don’t. I’ve been in Chipping Norton for only a few months, but I must have walked past the Perkins’ strange little shop fifty times. Old man Perkins and his plump, white-haired wife were always there puttering around, but I never saw a single customer.
“George’s wife died last week,” says Mary Robins, softening her tone. “They were married for sixty-two years. George cared about only two things in his life, Simon: that musty old store and Sally Perkins. Now he’s lost her and he’s closing the store. He can’t manage it by himself.”
There are moments in your life when you die a little inside. I had said a dreadful thing; but worst of all, I had allowed another human being to bear incomprehensible suffering without even bothering to notice or care. I walk out of the bakery and down to Perkins’ Vacuums, where I rap gently at the door. Old man Perkins motions me inside and continues pacing wordlessly about the tiny shop.
“Mr Perkins,” I say. “I’m Simon Greene and I’m new to Chipping Norton. I just heard about your loss and I wanted to say…I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
George Perkins seems to stare at me for long, silent moment. His eyes are bleary and empty, as if all hope has left them. After a while, I realize that he doesn’t see me at all. Instead, his gaze moves slowly, purposely around his shop, lighting on every object as if he is searing the place into his memory. Then he walks unsteadily past me, through the front door, and out into the morning cold.
©2014 Middlechurch Musings, LLC