I’ve just been for a swim in my local pool, at a time that wasn’t quite optimum. The swimming club had finished so a few lanes had opened up, but it was still a touch too crowded, with some awkward overtaking and frequent breaches of the unspoken lane etiquette. I walk out of the leisure centre feeling muscle-warm and relaxed in the shoulders, my mind cleared of some of its clutter, the skin of my face stretched taught.
I walk to Sainsbury’s Local to pick up a bottle of wine for me and N. It’s a new shop so I take my time browsing the shelves. I want to buy something else but I’m not sure what, I just want to be lured by the sight of something. I stop, start, stop, cradle something in my hand to read its packaging. I notice that milk is the same price here as in the big supermarket, but that a lot of things are more expensive. Finally I choose a bottle of wine and walk to the counter.
The woman who serves me is all smiles and cheekbones. Even so, there’s an interruption in the moment when she picks up the wine and glances at me, and her eyes roam on my face for a bit too long. Her smile fades slightly: her expression is a searching one underneath its customer service mask. I realise what it is.
‘I’ve got goggle eyes, haven’t I?’
She laughs in response: a full, hearty, relieved laugh. An embarrassed one, too, that replaces the need for her to reply. I think she seems friendly and I want to respond with something witty, to build on this moment so that we’re laughing together. I like the new shop and I want her to know this.
‘I know that look,’ I say. But as soon as I say it, I know I’ve made a mistake. My tone had an edge to it that suggested displeasure. Now she is embarrassed and stops laughing, and though a smile plays around her mouth it is no longer a shared moment, a shared joke. Instead, our differences crackle between us: she is black and I am not; she is middle-aged and I am not; she works in Sainsbury’s and I do not.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
I say something, or gesture, or assume an expression – trying to tell her it’s OK, that I wasn’t offended. But now I’m embarrassed too and I become absorbed in looking at my purse. As I hand over some money to her I’m aware of the rings around my eyes where my goggles always press and, to break eye contact, I glance down at her name badge: VERONICA.
As I walk away from the shop I think, Shit, I shouldn’t have looked at her name badge. She might think I’m going to complain about her…