The first thing I noticed about him was his eyes. One eye was a vivid blue and the other a strange shade of brown flecked with gold. I tried to look away as he stared at me but the gold flecks seemed to draw me in, like a cobra, my head spinning around and my heart fluttering dangerously. Was I to be eaten alive? My head was telling me no, but my body was holding me there, unable and unwilling to move.
It was his voice that snapped me out of the reverie. ‘Excuse me, your trolley is on my foot.’
The organic frozen peas I was clasping dropped back into the freezer. They had begun to melt anyway, and I was already feeling guilty for buying something wrapped in plastic. I’d forgotten to pick up loose peas from the vegetable section and the arrows beneath my feet made it quite clear I couldn’t go back for them.
I retreated clumsily out of his space, mumbling, ‘Sorry’.
The skin around his eyes crinkled above the face mask. ‘It’s no problem.’ He laughed.
Was he laughing at me as I stood there flushed red from my neck up to my hair? I scratched my head, feeling the prickly heat I get when embarrassed. ‘Don’t scratch,’ I told myself, smiling. At least, I tried to smile but it was possibly more of a grimace. And anyway, my own face was hidden behind a mask too which was just as well.
‘I’m not laughing at you,’ he said. I wondered if he had read my mind – those eyes could probably see into my soul. ‘It’s this situation we’re in. Have you noticed people either avoid talking to you altogether – no eye contact even, in case a mere look could infect you, or they believe you’re their new best friend, simply because you happen to be in the same supermarket during the same pandemic and you wonder if you should be out at all?’
‘No, I hadn’t noticed – not before today, anyway.’
‘Oh, I see, it’s only me then. Sorry.’ He turned back to his trolley – half-full of loose vegetables, I noticed, with a surge of fellow feeling – and wheeled it away.
I watched his back as he went, wishing I could see into those eyes again. I was kicking myself, obviously, and wondered if I could get away with going up the next aisle the wrong way, just so I could run into him again coming in the opposite direction. But I was being cajoled along by the next person who’d been let in, who was swiftly manipulating her own trolley towards me. A voice over the tannoy reminded me to keep moving in the correct direction.
Drawing my attention back to the purpose of my visit, I pulled out my list and began ticking off the items. Realising too late that I’d needed those frozen peas, I compensated with a large box of dried marrow-fat ones. Not the same as fresh, but they’d last longer and at least they weren’t in plastic. Environmentally-aware shopping had been difficult even before lockdown, but now it was three times as hard.
The shelves of toilet rolls were almost empty, and there were only two four-packs of recycled ones left. ‘I’m not panic buying,’ I muttered, as I looked round furtively and picked them both up, ‘We’re almost out.’ I was about to drop them into the trolley, when my eyes were drawn to a sign stating ‘One of each item only. Please shop respectfully and please do not be rude to our staff.’
‘Bugger,’ I thought, as quietly as I dared, not wanting to be overheard by any shop assistant who might have been lurking about, reading minds. The second pack replaced where I’d found it, and feeling guilty I’d touched something else I’d not purchased, I moved on to the tea and coffee aisle.
Turning the corner rather faster than I would have normally, I was shocked to find myself face to face with those eyes once more. Shocked he was there, holding a brown-cardboard packet of tea-bags, and shocked that he seemed to be facing the wrong way, or was it me? I was confused, looking down at the arrows, had I got it wrong again? It only took a moment for me to see I was indeed going the right way and he was not only gazing into my eyes, but he was also laughing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he snorted. Yes, he snorted. The action making his cloth mask fill and then empty. ‘It’s just that you have the most amazing eyes. It was the first thing I noticed about you; your beautiful eyes.’
Inspiration: This piece was inspired by stories that people had told me about what it was like in supermarkets in the early days of lockdown, and the paranoia I felt when I ventured out for the first time to shop in person. The writing prompt ‘Your Beautiful Eyes’ was given at the Creatives at Tea Tray Group from Eileen Phyall. I wanted to write about something positive that could come out of a scary trip to the supermarket.
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