Shopkeeping

For a bit of cash and human interaction, I work sometimes at a shop nearby. Occasionally the owner goes out to run errands, and I mind the shop on my own. I enjoy this, the banality of it, the notion of being, even if briefly, for half-hour periods, a shop-girl (I think of the Steve Martin film, of pale, elegant Claire Danes showing gloves to wealthy men; this is not at all like that, and yet in a sense it's the same thing, really). Often nobody comes into the shop, and when they do I smile and say hello. A profoundly benign gesture, empty and yet also grand enough to bridge any gap: what kind of day is this man having? What kind of day am I having? Where does he come from? Where do I come from? Where are we going? But none of this matters, because all I have to do is smile and say hello, and in a little while, maybe, he will come and stand at the counter holding a card, which I cannot read too much into (he’s chosen an ambiguous one, a blank card, letter-pressed, it could be for a birthday or a celebration or a love letter or a bland note of thanks, for a wife or child or friend or brother), and I will say, “two pounds fifty,” and he will give me - what, the exact change? No, a five pound note, and I will operate the cash register with a confidence I don’t quite feel (the math here is obvious, but it isn’t always, and although there was a brief period of my life during which I was fluent (or fluent enough) in the language of calculus, I often stumble over subtraction, taking my time, trying to appear outwardly calm while inwardly my brain, instead of performing the necessary calculations, laughs at me for not knowing them automatically), and I will produce his £2.50 change. I will try to deposit the change in his hand as helpfully as possible. He will put it in his pocket, loose change, clanging around. We’ll both say thank you, although this transaction requires no thanks, particularly. He’ll leave. The music will go on playing. I choose music that I like. When the shop is empty there’s still the whir of traffic outside. We drink tea. I watch three men run past - lithe, athletic. The buses block out the sun as they pass. Boys, hoods up. A woman pushing a pram. Suits, leather jackets, parkas, parked cars, sirens, singing schoolchildren, drunks, a dull steel-grey sky, a row of red brick houses that look too large for their purpose. The sounds of acceleration and braking, the revs of engines as they pass, like the city is breathing.