Friday 16 February 2018

The Big Issue

by   James McEwan

carrot and coriander soup 

The rain came lashing down, Mary rushed into the doorway where she stopped and turned to shake the water from her umbrella.
‘Excuse me!’ she said to the man blocking the door into the café.
He was a Big Issue seller sheltering from the wet wind, and he grinned at her as he stood in her way. Mary thought he seemed nice enough so she bought a copy from him, and only then he moved aside to let her squeeze past into Harvey’s Café.
Since her husband, Bill, was no longer around this visit was one of her regular treats to have some hot broth before she went on to the Co-op for her shopping.
She found it hard to accepted that Bill had passed away, and occasionally she would imagine him in the kitchen making tea or washing up. She would slowly creep in and, as always, it was only the rain and wind prattling against the window. Often, she would stand by the sink staring out into the garden. Her thoughts would linger about Bill, and envision him out there pulling up the weeds from amongst the kale and turnips.
In the Café, she lifted her soup plate off the tray on to the table then realized she’d forgotten the bread roll, a napkin and a spoon.
‘Oh dear,’ she sighed. She took off her glasses and placed them on the table, then pushed back her grey hair that had come loose. She pinned it back with a Kirby grip.
When Bill was around he would prompt her not to forget this and that, and he would also know where she had left things. ‘Aye’, she chuckled. She often forgot where she put her glasses. Same place as always, he would tell her, on the table in the garden where she had been reading, and it was also Bill who remembered where she had hidden the spare cash for Christmas presents.
‘Poor Bill,’ she whispered on the way to the counter where she fetched a bread roll and a spoon.
Back at the table the Big Issue Seller had sat down. What! The cheek of the man, he was supping at the soup, and seemingly not so nice now. She hadn’t noticed him sneak in behind her, and although he may be hungry had she not already given him some money to help out? Clearly that wasn’t enough, oh no, here he was eating her soup. She dragged a chair out from the table and sat down. She stared at him. He looked back at her, there was not a word of apology, and he just grinned. She didn’t want to make a fuss, but still he was taking advantage. Was he typical of the type she had read about in the newspapers? He was probably one of those asylum seekers or an immigrant after a free hand out.
She tore her bread in half and dipped it, soaking up some soup. So there, she stared at him, two can play this game. The man reacted by giving the plate a slight push towards her and carried on supping. So, he wants to share, now that is very kind of him offering up her soup. She grabbed her spoon and started eating but at the same time kept her eyes on him. He looked back at her not saying a word. Probably because he doesn’t speak any English and he’s embarrassed, as he should be, imagine taking advantage of an old lady.
The carrot soup was hot with spicy coriander, and she began to enjoy this communal spoon for spoon race to finish the dish. She took the last of her bread roll and in one defiant swipe mopped the plate clean. She gave him a smug glare. He smiled, then went to the counter and brought her a coffee. He also shared half of his sugary doughnut with her.
Still he had not spoken and it seemed in their silence that she felt an affinity with his predicament. He had a clean face and appeared pleasant. Perhaps he was trying to get on his feet by selling the Big Issue, and maybe back in his country he has a family who miss him.
He got up from the table, put on his coat and gestured to her with a farewell nod as he walked out.
Mary finished her coffee. Although they had not spoken, she enjoyed the silent company of the Big Issue seller who seemed rather kind. What would Bill have thought about her drinking coffee with a stranger? Of course, it would never have happened if he were here.
She looked around. Where were her glasses? She was sure she had put them on the table and her handbag on the other seat. They were missing along with her umbrella.
‘Oh dear,’ she gasped. How could she be such a simpleton in trusting a stranger and a foreigner at that? The newspapers were right about these people, who come and take advantage of our country’s welfare. He’s probably thrown her empty purse onto the railway track and at this very minute heading to her house with her keys before she can do anything. If only Bill was still around. Her eyes began to water and she held a napkin to her face.
She clenched her fists, tensed her whole body and the soup in her stomach seemed to curdle. She stood up causing her chair to fall over backwards, but it was no use trying to run down the street screaming stop thief. Instead she would get the girl behind the counter to call the police.
She glanced around the café as tears flowed down her face and she stamped her foot.
‘Oh dear,’ she cried then burst out laughing. ‘How could I be so silly?’
Across the café at another table she saw her umbrella leaning against a chair with her handbag, and her glasses were lying next to a plate of Scotch broth, which by now had gone cold.

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