A Bunch of Fives - Stories by James Roderick Burns (19)
FOR THE THIRD time that week, Jerry crammed himself into the Polo and swore while he fumbled with the steering lock. Barnham Road wasn’t an ideal spot to park at the best of times - five minutes from the London Underground, it was regularly choked up like a bramble thicket by seven thirty - but this just took the biscuit. Yesterday he’d been boxed in by a junky Renault and somebody's grey Jaguar, drooping opulently over the kerb; today it was a Volvo and a long white van from the Italian dealership down the road. They were nosed up against his bumpers with barely an inch to spare, the Volvo nuzzling his exhaust pipe, affectionate as a stray dog trotting past on the common. All he wanted was to pop down to the shops but first he had to endure this ridiculous performance, scissoring back and forth fifteen times with the steering wheel clanking, hand shimmying over the gear lever, till the front of the car squeaked through the tiniest of gaps and he lurched out into the road. Some people. All people.
Still, once he was out on the main road and the shops were flashing by he felt a bit better. It always did him good to get out of the house in the daytime. Hunched over the drawing board he tended to get a little stir-crazy, doodling zeppelins and organ grinder’s monkeys and mermaids on beer mats or the Radio Times. The only solution was to get up and go. He felt a mild twinge of shame at his swearing, and vowed to give it up as he reached the busy crossroads by Sainsbury’s. Squeezing through an amber light he turned onto Recovery Road and parked. That helped his mood, too - feeding a pound into the parking meter and waiting for that faint internal creak, and the tiny savour of good citizenship.
He walked quickly round Sainsbury’s, picking up sugary items as they caught his fancy, and five minutes later was standing in the checkout queue studying faces. While almost everything about Tooting had irritated him at one time or another - the close, packed streets, hot wind whipping up grit and dust and newspapers, the multifarious generic chicken joints, the eternal traffic - these things had charmed and fascinated him too. Stopping outside a kebab shop or a Caribbean grocery, he would flip open his notebook and catch at the shadows and changing contours of the crowd as they passed. Once he’d even managed to transform the traffic, giving it a friendly, cartoony feel for a series of pamphlets about road safety. Under his irritation lay a quiet gratitude for the shifting patterns of shape and colour.
As he came out of the supermarket a lorry stood on its brakes and blasted its horn. He decided on impulse to walk along the main road towards Tooting Bec. The afternoon was bright, early summer just beginning. Traffic surged and the crowd of shoppers broke and reformed around him. He was definitely feeling better, the parking long forgotten. He picked up his pace and strode along the outside of the pavement, stepping off now and again for an older man with a shopping basket or a woman in a sari, children clinging to her pushchair. He paused outside an Indian video shop to look at the film posters. They were almost western, with pouting lips and shiny styled hair, but held something reserved and formal underneath. He felt conspicuously white, and didn’t linger.
Where the road swung to the right past an Islamic centre he crossed to a grocer’s on the opposite side. He wasn’t much of a one for vegetables, though they might have helped his weight, but he loved the look of them, poking and frizzing out onto the pavement in an explosion of green. The shop seemed to have acquired a new load of coriander. Great fat bunches of it were stacked in mounds three feet high, beads of water clinging to the leaves. He caught them with his hand as he passed, scattering black droplets onto the dry concrete.
He couldn’t remember having walked this far in a long time. A Blockbuster appeared, rather polished and incongruous amid the row of little shops, then a vegetarian restaurant and a shop lit up like Blackpool illuminations in the early afternoon. PUNJAB SWEETS, the sign said, the letters winking on and off, magenta on a navy background. Intrigued, Jerry went up to the window. The display seemed to contain only one item, artfully arranged in great variegated slabs. There must have been twenty trays of the stuff. It was heavy and white - or not white, exactly, but a darker flecked-looking creamy colour, with little granules of something or other showing on the ends where it had been sliced. The green kind had some sort of nut breaking its surface, the orange, small flecks in flesh the colour of pumpkins. He was entranced.
An elderly Indian man came out of the door, jingling the bell. He had on checked trousers and a stiff shirt, and carried a polished stick. His face wore a beatific smile. Jerry smiled back, waiting for him to go by, then went through the door.
Inside the shop smelled rich and syrupy as milk. The shop assistant looked up from behind the counter and gave him a mildly curious look. On her top half she wore a kind of formal blouse, but underneath, through the glass panels of the display, he could see shiny new blue jeans. Her eyes glittered, sharp as almonds. From this side of the window he made out a sign - Delicious Barfi - and a list describing its varieties: plain, coconut, mango, pistachio, all £2.50 a pound. The thick milky slabs danced in front of his eyes.
‘Could I have a pound of each?’ he said.
The assistant took down a large waxy box and pried out yielding sleepers of the stuff from the wall of confectionery. She criss-crossed the colours, wedging them into the box, then pressed the lid down firmly and sealed it up with tape.
‘D’yer want anyfink else with that?’ she asked. Jerry shook his head, handing over a ten pound note. He took the box off the counter-top. It felt like it contained half an armoury, or a human head.
Outside he scuttled down the road. He wouldn't try it before he got back to the car. This was a new treat, one to be rationed and controlled, teased out into the long gulfs when inspiration waned. But outside McDonald’s he broke down. Ripping off the lid, he grabbed a money-box sized chunk and sank in his teeth. Oh, heaven! Paradise! In transports of delight Jerry skipped along the pavement, stomach swinging. The taste was everything its appearance promised and more: rich, warm, creamy and solid, the babyfood of the gods. The bulky confectionery crammed round his teeth and puffed out his cheeks like a hamster’s. Fishing out his car keys he helped himself to a second piece, orange this time. Interesting. Perhaps not as sweet or satisfying, but solid nonetheless. On the corner of Barnham Road he tried the pistachio, and by his front door, coconut. All quite delicious, but none as pure and stimulating as plain barfi. Barfi. He rolled the word around in his head, liking the sound of it. Barfi. Perhaps his days would be a bit shorter now. He might get more done.
He placed the box in the fridge and headed straight for the drawing board. With the radio on, his stomach ticking like a cooling engine, he felt a subtle glow pervade him. He picked up his pen and watched ink flow magically onto the paper.
Over the next two days he finished off the box, as well as a series of short booklets illustrating the marvels of life in the library, a council leaflet and a cartoon biography of Marx that had been in cold storage for months. He cruised around the flat on a milk high. His tongue began to ache from chewing the long white slabs, gnawing the crusty edges where the barfi had set hard in the fridge. But he was happy. On the third day he yielded to a different impulse and stepped onto the scales. Only the odd few pounds. He wasn’t bothered.
At the end of the week Jerry went back to Punjab Sweets and bought a five pound bin of plain. For work, he said to himself. He started on it outside the shop, and the sun had never felt so warm on his back. The following week - it had taken him a week, after all, and that long, creaking pendulous sigh from the scales just meant they were getting old - he put in an order for a regular ten pound box. Sunita, the shop assistant, knew his name now, and he’d learned that the shop was her uncle’s and she was studying physiotherapy on the side. She didn’t like milk much.
But the work was coming thick and fast. Some of his clients were making subtle murmurs about quality - seemed to be getting a bit abstract, they thought, with more white space than hatching - but they couldn’t argue with his speed, and in the magazine market making up most of his commissions, that was all that mattered.
Jerry positively bounced out of bed. Before he had rolled out and dropped onto the floor like a slug. Or rather he tried to bounce. Bouncing was a little unseemly, after all. Why rush?
On the way to Sainsbury’s a month later he spotted a Polo working its way into a gap between two parked cars. It was a dirty off-white. He slowed down to watch it slip into place like the last sleeper on the Siberian railway, obscurely gratified by the sight. In Punjab Sweets Sunita was missing, her gap-toothed uncle standing in. He had a kindly face, but his teeth leaned like tombstones in a prairie graveyard. Jerry quickly tucked the box under his arm and made his way back onto the high street.
The summer was really hot now, in the high seventies or eighties every day. He was sweating heavily, and a thick tightness appeared in his chest when he squinted into the sun. Passing a chemists, he stepped into the cool doorway. Moist toilet wipes were on sale for a pound. They were packaged in a slim white plastic rectangle, and he bought one, mopping his brow with thick lemony paper. On the street a delivery van pulled up. A young man with ginger hair began off-loading stiff white boxes onto the pavement. Jerry pushed past him and made for the car. He wasn’t feeling well. Something heavy seemed to have lodged in his chest - perhaps it was the heat, or those pesky blue trails of exhaust fumes. He stopped on the corner of Recovery Road to catch his breath.
An image came back to him from his morning’s work. He had a sub-contract to illustrate a new bid for a tube-station, and he had imagined a blinding white space - a Perspex and tile Antarctica - with clean square lines and a dense granular floor the colour of fresh porridge. The image pleased him. He leaned against a doorway and tried to calm his breathing. Looking up, he noticed it was an undertaker’s - Yarrow and Sons, Independent Since 1873. They were having a sale on urns and memorial tablets. Most were made of clean white marble. He smiled. Behind them, in the darker recesses of the shop, was a shiny white coffin. It was long and solid, its surface pure and lustrous. He put his damp forehead against the glass. The heavy box slipped from his hand and hit the pavement with a thud.
First published in Cut A Long Story (Autumn 2006)
Next: A Doctrine of Signatures