by Greg Duncan
At the supermarket self-check out facility, Geoff always made sure he scanned each item carefully as he hated getting that dreaded message: "Unexpected item in check out area." Doing it slowly also gave him time to listen to the reassuring sound of the ping as the machine acknowledged each one of his purchases.
Scones - ping; clotted cream - ping; strawberry jam - ping. He was so absorbed in his own little world he almost failed to notice the lady at the next check-out speaking to him.
"That looks like the makings of a cream tea. I can fully understand if you regard that as an essential purchase."
Geoff looked up and was startled to see that the lady looked very familiar. It was hard to be sure, though, given the large COVID mask she was wearing over her nose and mouth and right up under her glasses. But her eyes were the give away - eyes he was sure he knew from the past.
He smiled but then she could not see that through his surgical type blue COVID defences covering most of his face. But the slight lift and sparkle in his eyes that she had known so well in the past confirmed her thoughts. She knew that some say coincidences never happen but here she was in a supermarket standing beside a dear college friend she should never have lost contact with.
With an equally hidden smile she replied. "Its been a long time since we last met up." After all these years she knew his name but not so well as to be able to remember it at that moment.
Her comment confirmed his feelings - it was her - if only he could recall - was she Kelly or Lil? Not a good idea to get it wrong. So in between the pinging of his purchases he settled for a neutral reply.
"Yes - far too long." He noticed her shopping items seemed rather sparse so added "That doesn't seem much for the two of you."
"Two of us? You haven't heard? I was finally able to divorce that cheating bastard just before the COVID lockdown. Apparently one of the last cases through the courts before they shut."
"So you've been on your own as well throughout this isolation? I can empathise - not pleasant being alone is it?"
Her brow furrowed slightly - it was all he could really see of her face as she mumbled through her mask. "But I thought ... didn't you ... weren't you getting married?"
"Almost. We lived together for a few years until last Christmas when Graham came by."
"Graham? Do I know Graham?"
Geoff scrunched up his face which made his mask twitch like a set of whiskers. "No you wouldn't and frankly I don't want to recall either of them now. But he's more than welcome to her. After a while it became obvious we weren't compatible. I've been on my own since then."
At that point they both finished their pinging and made their payments using contactless cards in accordance with government guidance. But being contactless towards each other was not a priority in their minds. They continued their conversation as they walked out of the supermarket and stood close together at the road side. They were not really displaying any concern about adhering to some two metre anti-social distance guidance promulgated by a former government economist.
She enquired. "Shopping in the morning? Does that mean you're not working?"
With a slight shrug Geoff replied. "Working? No. The company I was working for had to shut down due to lockdown regulations and guess what - it went bankrupt. So now no job and loads of time. And you?"
"During my disastrous marriage I worked for my ex, but that ended with the break-up. I'd planned to move back to Dorchester after the divorce and look for a job there but then along came - 'Stagnate at home; only go out for essential items' which meant I couldn't go out looking for a job even if there was one, what with all the businesses shut. So - no, I don't have a job either."
Dorchester? That sparked a memory for Geoff and he knew now that this was Kelly. He'd always had a fondness for her and had often wondered what had happened to her. Now he knew.
As they stood talking their upbeat mood was threatened by the drizzle that began to fall. Geoff took the initiative. "Hey this is stupid standing here in the rain. I don't know what you're schedule is but I've got time for a coffee? Do you?"
She nodded her head so they both hurried over to the cafe across the road. It was one of those places for which the incomprehensible government rules stipulated that you had to wear a mask when you ordered your food but you could take it off when you sat down. They ordered a latte and a cappuccino and sat down at a table in the corner fenced off from the rest of the world by a flimsy plexi-glass barrier. Not the most inviting environment but government regulations did not include any sense of decorum, assuming they actually contained any sense at all.
They both removed their masks at the same time and stared at each other.
Geoff was the first to speak. "Unless you've changed dramatically, now you've taken off your facial armour I'm thinking you're not the person I thought you were. You're not Kelly are you?"
This unknown but very attractive woman smiled back. "No. And without your medieval visor, I can see you're not James, are you?"
"No - never been James - always been Geoff."
They both began to chuckled at this turn of events and were still giggling and joking about the mix-up when the waitress came by resplendent in black apron, black mask, a plastic visor and blue Nitrile gloves. She uttered an incomprehensible "La..an..cap..no?". The girl's mumbles through her mask turned their mirth into outright laughter. Geoff stopped long enough to confirm. "Yes that's ours."
So the waitress placed the order on the table and backed away quickly perhaps for fear of catching their contagious merriment. Government guidance said nothing about being allowed to laugh but did include the dictat that talking or singing loudly in restaurants was against the rules. And these two were certainly laughing dangerously loudly.
As they settled down, Geoff resumed the conversation. "I can't really say I'm sorry to hear about a divorce between two people I didn't know. But the divorce is perhaps to my advantage as I guess it means you're probably free to sit and chat?"
"I sure am. And having just learned that Graham took who ever she was away from someone I've just met, leaving them all alone, I can see I'm not intruding. So - shall we start again? You said you're Geoff? Well, handsome Mr Geoff - I'm Tamsin, and by the way, I adore cream teas."
"Afternoon cream tea? Could do, but unless you've got other plans, might I suggest first a government sponsored lunch?"
Tamsin's face lit up. "Hey. If the chancellor wants to pay us to eat, it would be churlish of me to turn down such a thoughtful, deeply personal and considerate invitation. D'you have somewhere in mind? If not, I know a nice place in Swanage."
That lovely seaside town was over ten miles away and since Geoff only had a bicycle, her suggestion could be awkward. "Swanage? D'you have a car?"
Tamsin pouted her lips and fluttered her eyelashes. "A girl's got to get something worthwhile from a divorce. So yes - a small open topped beamer."
Geoff swallowed hard and nodded appropriately. "That'll do just fine, ma'am."
Then after a slight pause he added "I think you'd agree, today seems to be a box of surprises."
Tamsin's face was all a glow as she responded. "Yep, but my gran always said to me - 'Never ignore the unexpected'. But come on - drink up - if we're going to Swanage it's time to go."
"Yes boss. I'm ready." As he gulped down the remains of his latte, Geoff mused to himself that Tamsin certainly qualified as "Unexpected item in check out area."
About the author
Greg Duncan is a member of the Wimborne Writers Group and lives in Poole, Dorset on the south coast of England. The books he has written (many with his wife Valerie) can be seen on his website https://www.kenebec.com/books