Matchstick is here!

If it’s a Wednesday evening that you’re talking about then I was in the supermarket with Karen. We do the same thing every week. I finish work at five and walk up to her office at the top of town, where I know she’ll be standing in the doorway by the time I get there, kicking cigarette butts off the step; by 5.45 we’re in the gym, haring out a half-hour on the cross trainers; then it’s into the supermarket by 6.30: late enough to miss the post-work heave, but not so late that the shelves are bare. We shop and we chat and we look at the young professional men buying white wine and chicken thighs. Afterwards we share a muffin in my car, I drop her home, and that’s it till we see each other again at the weekend. Good, organised activity for a couple of divorcees – that’s what it is.

Except when something odd happens, as it did last week. I was going through a tray of herbs when I heard my name being hissed from somewhere in the clothing section. “Kate! Kate!”, it went, the sound thick and raspy but also small – a whisper trying to be a bark. It must have been Karen. I put the pot of sage I was holding back in its little plastic place and went over to where the sound seemed to be coming from. I was creeping slowly and with my head slightly bowed, like a concerned neighbour approaching a trapped pet. Karen was definitely nearby, but I couldn’t see her anywhere.

“Karen…? Karen,” I cooed, half-enquiringly, half-reassuringly.

There came a squawk from somewhere near my knees. “Down here.”

I kneeled before the rack of two-for-five-pound blouses in front of me… And out poked Karen’s face, wide-eyed and defensive, as if from behind a shower curtain. She gave me a start.

“What on earth are you doing?” I said, hand to thumping heart.

Karen hushed me and gestured to come closer. “Quick, get in,” she said.

“’Get in?’ Get in where? For God’s sake, woman, you get out here.”

Karen paused. Her face went grey as feathers. “Kate, it’s him. He’s here. Matchstick is here.”

There’s only one word I can think of to describe Karen’s romantic life, and that is reliable. It goes like this. Every couple of months some chap will start grazing around at the edges of her consciousness. He’ll be our age or slightly older, also divorced or – as in this instance – still a bachelor. His name will be something like Ian or Roger or Geoff, and he will enjoy the theatre and going to restaurants and attending his local photography club – which are the kinds of places Karen will find him. There will be a flustery couple of weeks when IanRogerGeoff, having made some overture of an arguably romantic nature, sends Karen into a gossipy tailspin (“Kate, I think he was asking me out!”; “This Friday? You know I can’t, Kate. I’m going to Evita on Friday”). They’ll have their tentative date… And then, as inevitably as rain at Wimbledon, Karen’s backtracking begins. She will have noticed some oddity about the poor man: with Roger it was ending every sentence with “you see?”, and with Geoff the way his glasses made his eyes look tiny, like little ants running across enormous dinner plates.It will be something she must have noticed before they went out, and which anyway was no worse than her own peccadilloes (for which I refer you to her small hands or the wheaty smell of her unwashed hair after the gym). That’s all they are: peccadilloes. Yet to Karen they are insurmountable flaws, clear indications that this man is a wholly inappropriate suitor; a misfit, even. Either way he must be avoided at any personal cost, even if it means leaving the photography club or diving into a rack of skirts at the supermarket.

Matchstick’s problem was that he looked like a matchstick. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was thin and pale, both of which qualities gave him a kind of twigginess. Combined with the short black hair on what Karen described at the time as “his perfectly spherical head,” you could indeed, if you wanted, compare him unfavourably to a matchstick.  But God, he wasn’t bad. I remember thinking that at the time, and I thought it again as I saw him weighing up a sweet potato a few yards from my abandoned trolley. If things had worked out better for Gary Rhodes, he might look a bit like this guy. The light jeans/dark leather jacket combination did suggest a certain poor judgement, sartorially speaking. On the other hand he was clearly thinking hard about the vegetables, so maybe he made up for it by being good in the kitchen. One thing I’ve learned in life is that it’s a harsh woman who insists on style and cookery skills in a man, especially in a small town.

I bent down to Karen’s level to say something to that effect, but she wasn’t there anymore. I rifled through the blouses at speed, dumbstruck. Where was she? I stood up again and saw her fully twenty yards away, peeping out from the edge of a chiller cabinet on the end of the next aisle. How the hell? I mouthed at her, but she waved it down without answering. Meet me at the car, she mouthed back. Ten minutes. I watched her inch away, sticking close to the edge of the cabinet like a secret agent trying to escape undiscovered. Just before she turned the corner she looked at me once more. Be careful, she mimed, and then she was gone, slipping away like a rumour. I rolled my eyes and went back to my trolley.

The truth, of course, is that she doesn’t want to risk getting close to someone again – and moreover risk being rejected by them. That’s why she takes a minor foible like a kink in a man’s nose (Ian) or looking like a matchstick (Matchstick) and blows it up into a sign of absolute incompatibility. Oh, I don’t blame her for it really. The end of her marriage to Richard was embarrassing enough to sting any woman into high cautiousness (how would you feel if your thirty-six year-old partner ran off with a sixty-three year-old fairground clairvoyant?). But what she doesn’t understand, and what frustrates me about her, is that it’s a rare and beautiful risk to be able to take, and she‘s lucky to get as many opportunities as she does, at this or any age. Opening yourself up to someone, not knowing you can trust them but trusting them anyway: they feel like death-defying leaps. But what happens if you don’t take them? You’ll die anyway in the end. Death comes from all sides. So you might as well jump. Better to burn up in flight than to seep slowly into the sea from your own boring shores. So says Marco, my Monday night salsa tutor, at least.

If there had been any decent sweet potatoes Matchstick had got to them first; these ones were soft and starting to wrinkle. But aren’t we all. I dropped a reasonable-looking bag of the prepackaged ones into my trolley and shoved off in search of oily fish. He was still standing nearby so I had to walk right past him. In a quick moment I peeked at his hair, this combustible hair, which appeared to have been cropped but which was now growing out into taut little curls – no grey – and at the back of his neck, where, partially obscured by the collar of his shirt, I saw what was either a bruise or a birthmark. I guessed him to be thirty-eight, maybe forty years old: not a totally shameful age still to be unattached, although definitely something he should be keeping an eye on. Other than that he looked normal enough. I needed to speak to him though, to confirm both his normalness and my suspicions about Karen’s lack of it. But how would we get talking? We didn’t know each other. I had seen him from a distance the night he and Karen had met, as I waited across the car park for her outside the adult college, but he had never seen me; we were total strangers. I diverted my trolley into his path. The plan was to ‘accidentally’ bump into his cart; when he turned around I would say something friendly and apologetic, and we’d be off. But it didn’t quite go like that, because just as I hauled my trolley at his he turned and stepped right out in front of me, my front wheel catching him square on the back of his ankle. The collision was hard enough to leave him curled up on the floor like a prawn, holding his foot in agony while I stood over him apologising for all I was worth.

Still, it did the job. The ice was broken.

His real name is Paul, and he’s a freelance journalist of some kind – to be honest, it wasn’t exactly clear.  He listed a few of the publications he’d written for as he sat on the edge of a salad unit applying a plaster I’d dashed away to retrieve from the in-store pharmacy, but I’d never heard of them – some kind of technology or science industry stuff (The Data Logger? Bytesector.com?). Patched up, he asked me what I did when I wasn’t scything down innocent men in supermarkets. He’d gone from hopping rage to normal courtesy to an ironic, jokey hostility – almost a full circle – in less than two minutes. I liked him immediately. Karen was insane.

“I sell hats,” I said.

“Really? So you’re what, a kind of tailor?”

“No, nothing like that. I don’t sell hats as such. I sell boxes of them. Wholesale. To places like this.” I wafted my arms about randomly. “I really don’t know that much about hats, considering.”

“That’s okay,” he grinned, “Hats are overrated anyway. People should be prouder of their ownheads. Proud to be hatless.”

I thought about him being defiantly pleased with his own head – of having made a virtue of its peculiar roundness, of making it a political thing, like a woman refusing to shave her legs – and chuckled.

“What?” he said, still smirking. He obviously thought it was his joke that had made me laugh, rather than my speculations about his head.

“Nothing,” I said, then, indicating his cart, “You’ll be wanting some tuna to go with your potatoes and broccoli. Come on.”

And so we walked around the store together, Paul and I, for a pleasant quarter of an hour. We admired the ancient European cheeses at the deli counter; we cruised idly down the world foods aisle, marvelling at all the colourful and exotic produce; and we downed sample shots of cream liqueur at a taster stand while dance music boomed from the electrical section nearby. We ended up in the home and leisure department, and it was there, among the packets of duvet covers and pillows, that I confessed to knowing who he was even before I’d kamikaze’d my trolley into him.

“I think you know my friend Karen,” I said.

“Ah,” he replied. “Well yes, I do know who she is. I wouldn’t say I knew her though. Not as well as I’d originally hoped to, at least.” He pouted ironically. “Does she make a habit of not returning a lonesome guy’s calls?”

“Believe me, it’s not you, it’s her.”

We were interrupted by a tannoy announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. If there is a Kate Billington in the store, would you please make your way to the customer services desk. That’s Kate Billington to the customer services desk.” Then, after a squall of microphone feedback, another voice came on: “As a matter of urgency, please. This is an emergency. Repeat, an emergency.” This second voice was Karen’s.

I looked at Paul. “You see what I mean.”

I held out my hand and said it had been nice to meet him, and that I was sorry again about the ankle thing. He said it was fine, really it was fine. His handshake was considerate – not too firm, but more importantly not limp either – and his palm warm. For some reason it made me blush, which he must have noticed because we looked at each other for a second longer than you normally would. Then he asked if I’d like to go to dinner on Saturday.

“Oh, I…” I flustered, surprised at the question, even though it had been following us around the store for fifteen minutes. I did want to say yes. I can’t tell you how long it had been since I’d gone on a date. Well, I can tell you. I’m just not going to. But at the same time I felt that accepting would somehow be an act of disloyalty to Karen – even if, rightly or wrongly, she couldn’t have been less interested in him herself.

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

If he was disappointed he didn’t show it. “I understand,” he said, smiling. “Hey, I just thought I’d ask.” He shook my hand again, wished me a good night, and rode his trolley away into the sunset of the checkout lights.

I looked down at my own trolley, all single-portion bags of vegetables and tins of soup that I was buying for lunch but knew I’d end up eating for dinner, and felt a sudden spike of loneliness. I had been on my own for a long time; so long, in fact, that I had almost stopped noticing it and had even grown to be happy enough as I was. But Paul’s invitation reminded me that this wasn’t the only kind of happiness, there was an easier one, and it made the happiness I’d cultivated for myself seem small in comparison – a consolation prize, a market stall knock-off. I shuffled my cart back to the edge of the clothing section, from where, between two bald mannequins standing sentinel at the entrance to their department, I could see him unloading his own small haul of goods onto a checkout conveyor belt. Would it really have been an act of disloyalty to go out with him, even just once? Karen had only spent a few hours with him: it wouldn’t be like I was eloping with her fiancé. And besides, it was he who had asked me out, not me asking him. That seemed to matter too somehow. Neither of these arguments had occurred to me a minute ago, but now they screamed in my face. I looked up at the mannequins on their podiums, as if they might offer an answer. But they just stood there, aloof and imperious, looking better in these crappy supermarket clothes than any human ever could, the bitches. I looked down at my boring soups again. There was a chance it was wrong. But there was an equal chance that it wasn’t – and that meant that, in saying no to Paul, I wasn’t obeying the noble codes of friendship so much as missing a rare opportunity. As I admitted this fact to myself, I had the sensation, beneath the tins of soup and bags of veg, beneath the wire bottom of my trolley, beneath my feet, that the ground was softening to sand. Death was lapping at my toes. It was coming for me. So I did the only thing I could: I jumped away from it. I went back to Paul and told him he was lucky, I’d changed my mind,and he laughed and gave me his business card and I said I’d call him at the end of the week.

Driving home, Karen was still so fired up by the drama of bumping into Matchstick that she couldn’t eat her half of the muffin properly. She kept spitting crumbs over the dashboard as she spoke, or half-choking as she tried to say something before she’d finished swallowing a mouthful.

“You know, I had three missed calls from him the day after we went out. Three! There was no way I was calling him back after that. What a maniac…”

“…Forty-one years old and never married? I’m sorry, but that’s a problem for me…”

“…He’s a double sneezer, you know…”

I hadn’t told her about him asking me to dinner. She would have written the car off. I just kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the wet road and waited for her to wear herself out.

“…Did he start harping on at you about his karate? Like I wanted to hear about that…”

“…That head though. It’s like a huge peppercorn sitting on his shoulders…”

I stayed silent the whole way home, right until we pulled up outside her house, when I turned the engine off, which I don’t normally do.

“Oh,” said Karen. “Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?”

“No.”

“Is everything all right?”

“I’m fine,” I said, and turned to look at her for the first time since we’d got in the car. Her collar was badly folded at the back and she had half of a mashed blueberry on her chin. This was the woman to whom the town’s menfolk flocked.

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit hard on him?” I said.

“On who?”

“Paul.”

“Who?”

I sighed. “Matchstick.”

“God, no,” she said, frowning. “Why, what did he say to you?”

“Nothing in particular,” I lied. “But that’s the point. Nothing he said was weird, or offensive, or too boring. He seemed like a nice guy, all things considered. I can’t help but think you’re looking for excuses to be put off by him.”

“Oh really? Well if that’s the way you feel, I can’t help but think that maybe you should go out with him.”

I said nothing, but fingered along the edges of the business card in my hip pocket. Karen kept looking at me. Then she started to grin. “You fancy him, don’t you?” she said, and clapped once.

“No,” I said, kind of sulkily, like a teenager.

“What’s your problem then?”

“Well…” I said, and fished out the card. I passed it to Karen, and she studied it. In the window behind her a pair of bright blue legs suddenly appeared – a cyclist in Lycra – then they were gone. Karen kept looking at the card. I looked at my watch. Eventually she made the connection and pulled the face again, the same one she’d pulled when I disturbed her among the skirts – the shocked lemur.

“He didn’t..?”

“Looks like he did,” I said.

“The dirty so and so! My God, does he have no shame?”

And I’m afraid that was when my patience cracked. “Oh, for God’s sake!” I cried, banging the steering wheel. “What exactly is so shameful about it? Are you saying that he must be a sweating pervert to be interested in me? Or is simply asking anybody out a crime against decency now? Because I tell you, there aren’t many potential boyfriends out there who can get over that particular hurdle.”

Karen was shocked into a moony silence. “Kate… what are you getting at?” she finally said. “What’s this all about?” There was genuine surprise in her voice, as if it had never occurred to her that a guy who wears his watch slightly too far up his forearm (Karl) is not necessarily a sociopath. So I told her what I was getting at. I told her she was scared to get close to anyone because of what had happened with her and Richard and Desire (“don’t say that name,” Karen interrupted, shuddering), and that was why she reacted so feverishly to subsequent men. Softening slightly, I told her that that was understandable, but maybe it was time she tried to overcome it, for the sake of her own happiness. I told her, with a hand on her knee, that it would be hard, but I was there to support her. And I told her, with my arms folded, that she was damn lucky to get asked out so often anyway.

I may as well have told a child that the reindeer had trampled Santa. Karen looked defeated. She’s never been given to self-critique – and she has the swimsuit to prove it – but even so I couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed the patterns in her own behaviour, had never questioned her own feelings about these men. God knows I questioned my own behaviour all the time. Then again, it wasn’t like I’d fared any better because of it. I watched Karen bite her lip, nostrils flaring as she tried not to cry, and felt a terrible mix of bafflement, guilt and sisterly sympathy. I opened the car window to try and let some of it out. A cool, green air wafted in from the rainy spring evening. It was no use. I still felt bad.

We sat in silence for fully two minutes, at the end of which I wheeled the window closed again. Karen was watching me now. I gave her a smile that was all bottom lip. She managed to smile back, her eyes liquid with tears. I apologised for my outburst.

“No, but you’re right,” she said. “I should be a bit kinder to people – to men and to you.”

There was another, gentler moment of silence before Karen spoke again. “So what did you say to Matchstick?” she said. She was still holding Paul’s business card, gripping it in both hands: a bereft squirrel clutching the last nut of winter.

I didn‘t want to say it, but it was the only thing that could make things better, and after all I had promised to help her, so I said it. “I told him it would be you who would call.” I indicated the card with my eyes. “I said you’d wanted to ring him last time but you lost your phone.” Karen smiled sadly, gratefully. I felt something rise and sink in me at the same time, like two elevators passing. Now I definitely was obeying the honourable codes of friendship. As it turns out, honour doesn‘t feel all that great. It’s not standing tall on the shore, equal to your horizons. It’s more like a Saturday night on the sofa, watching the lottery and phoning your mother.

The rain had started up again. I rolled down the window once more, just an inch, and felt a few spots of wetness land in my ear.

“Are you sure about this?” Karen said as she scooped up her shopping bags. “I mean, as it stands, you still like him more than I do. And he seems to like you.”

“Give it back then if you’re worried,” I said, as a joke. Karen chuckled and turned her shoulders away, the card held close to her chest – another joke. We were so funny.

“Honestly, it’s fine,” I added, speaking to Karen’s tracksuited behind as she stepped out of the car, and to prove it I said she could even finish the muffin, which was still sitting on the dashboard. But she insisted I have it, it being the least she could do. She pushed the door closed with her foot and stood on the curb with her shopping in her hands. As I started the engine she waved at me with the same leg, then headed up her driveway. I’d almost pulled out when she turned around and shouted back at me – “hang on, what did he say when you told him it would be me calling, not you?” – but I pretended I hadn’t heard and drove off, the half-muffin tumbling off the dashboard as I accelerated away.

(c) Martin Cornwell 2011

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