A RETURN OF SORTS

Steve Smith 

She died over ten years ago. Yes I grieved, I cried until my whole face ached. I drank... not too much, it was under control. Of course I think about her, but not every day, not every week. So after all this time it took me by surprise to suddenly sense her presence that day in the store, one of those famous high quality brand stores that sell food, clothing, household goods. It happened on ground floor, women's clothing. Perhaps the trigger was a familiar sense of smell, a fabric warmth that transported her essence to me, an olfactory link to associate her with this very store brand which she frequented often. I actually stopped and looked around at all the passing women of a certain age, looking for similarities. Afterwards I wondered if I had felt the lightest of touches on my shoulder, a brush of air feathering my shirt. And yet, there is something missing in my interpretation, some incongruity, an intangible connection. For a brief few seconds she was with me in the room, I don't know how that could be, but of that fact I have absolutely no doubt.

I wonder if we were connected at that moment, in that place, because of the hours I spent following her around as a small boy in a store just like this one. Either looking up toward her or down at my shoes trudging along aimlessly, the vacuous pointless boredom of the whole procedure evident to a four year old. We got stuck in the lift. 

"Oh God!"

She panicked but a kind lady reassured her that we would be rescued soon by the store staff, I gripped her hand tightly, or was she gripping mine? These forays into the mazy depths of the store seemed to stretch out infinitely before a little boy whose own future felt timeless. It was a  world of endlessly hanging clothes above which I could not see sky nor the way forward, blindly holding her hand and following her hoping each corner we turned would be the last. Busy women fluttering around, in and out of the aisles, full of kind lady voices and clanging clothes hangers. My spirits lifted when I smelt the fresh air coming through the front doors as yet more ladies like her entered the building with purpose.

The time I thought I was lost was the most frightening. She would lean down toward me wide eyed and threatening.

"Son, don't run off, if you get lost..."

Convinced terrible unspeakable things would happen to me, (she never went into detail), I was rooted to the spot looking up at her issuing instructions, then duly marched along to the first point of interest. But these scare tactics wore off pretty soon and I was back in my own boyhood bubble. It took just a split second, looking lengthways along an aisle of clothes I could see pairs of legs but recognised none of them, or their owners. That second was all it took for my stomach to churn violently and freeze. But then she came around the corner holding a package, relief was the sweetest thing, and it was instant.

Steps are agony to climb, but I don't want to her to get scared again, let's take the steps, we can count them, two flights are such an effort for my short and reluctant limbs.

"OK son let's go"

Joy! We're leaving, my heart lifted, but then despair. She stopped by the flower displays.

"Oh these are lovely." I wasn't sure who she was sharing this vital observation with. She loved flowers, she arranged flowers, perhaps that's what I sensed too that day she returned, the fragrance of the fresh flowers mingled with the carpeted lines of dresses and shirts.

Today as I revisit the store in which she returned to me, walking around the verdant rows of vegetables and fruit, smelling the freshness strongly and feeling the chill of the frozen food section, I look across to the flower arrangement section and women's clothing, yearning to walk there and reconnect with her. Smell that same smell, if only I could bury my face in the warm cotton without drawing anyone's attention. Perhaps somehow she will know I sensed her the last time and she will visit me again if I go there. I want to ask her how she knew I was in this store when she visited, how can that be? This time I will see above the rows and rows of skirts and shoes and coats, and see the front doors swinging open, the point at which I can end my own journey. I am now a man in control of my own destiny and can leave when I want, then why is it that I still feel the slightest sense of astonishment when I do so?

Following many years of writing for technical journals Steve has recently had short fiction published in Gold Dust Magazine and the Avalon Literary Review. 

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