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“Quarter cherry lips,” the shopkeeper says. “Fifty-seven pence.”
Henry looks at the tall jar of sweets. Then he looks at the pile of sweets in the scales on the counter and finally he looks up to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper stares back, leaning on the counter. He has slack grey jowls and thinning hair that needed cutting several weeks ago. His stomach rests on the counter, straining the buttons on his woollen cardigan. A hole has been worn away in the cardigan, just above his left breast, strands of wool fray at the edges.
Henry says, “The jar says one hundred grams, fifty pence.”
The shopkeeper continues to stare.
Henry is a patient, easy-going kind of guy – or at least this is what he would like to think. He’s actually short-tempered and has an issue with authority figures, especially petty-minded Luddites like this one.
Henry looks down at Little Matty – and he sees the eyes of his furious ex-wife staring back. He rummages in his pockets, bringing out a twenty-pound note, and then a fifty-pence piece that’s shiny enough to be freshly minted.
Henry says, “This is all I have.”
“I don’t have any change,” the shopkeeper says.
“I just want fifty pence of the cherry lips.”
“I only sell quarters,” the shopkeeper says. “Quarter cherry lips, fifty seven pence.”
Henry is well-informed about the world – or at least he is when he has Google in front of him. “Isn’t that illegal? Or something?”
The shopkeeper says nothing.
“Look,” Henry says, “have you anything cheaper?”
Little Matty tugs at Henry’s arm. “Cherry lips,” she says. She’s not asking, she’s telling and she’s using The Voice.
Henry looks around the shop, at the shelves from floor to ceiling, the rows and rows of sweet jars. The shop is narrow, barely wide enough for two people to pass next to each other. He sees a jar that says 100g 45p and pulls it from the shelf. “How much for a quarter of these?”
“Quarter sherbet pips,” the shopkeeper says, “fifty-one pence.”
Little Matty isn’t happy. She refuses the bag of Haribo. They are standing outside the local SPAR just across the road from the narrow little sweetshop. It’s late autumn so it’s cold.
Henry says, “That’s all they had!”
Little Matty looks back towards the sweetshop. “They had cherry lips,” she says. “I wanted cherry lips. You said!”
Henry tries to take her hand but she refuses. They walk back to the car.
“You couldn’t even get this right! Could you?” Sometimes, Henry’s ex-wife still looks quite pretty, and at times like this he wonders whether he should have stayed and just put up with everything.
They are standing outside the front door to the house. Her house. Their house. The house he used to live in. That she still does. The house that is still on the market after nearly two years.
“Look what you’ve done!” she says.
Henry now realises that Little Matty is crying. His ex-wife places a hand on her shoulder and escorts her inside. Little Matty and his wife walk off along the hallway, leaving the front door open. Leaving him standing there.
Henry is always unsure about the protocol in this situation. Is he allowed inside? Should he call out to make sure? “Can I come in?” sounds slightly childish. He decides to step inside, closing the door behind him. He is about to remove his shoes, when he hesitates. Another protocol issue. Guests don’t have to remove shoes, they can make as much mess as they like. His ex-wife will smile and say “Don’t worry. It’s only dirt!” But he knows his ex-wife is actually very particular about keeping the carpets clean – so when he lived here he always used to remove his shoes at the front door. But this seems somehow too familiar now.
He decides to leave his shoes on. Walks through to the kitchen. The pack of Haribo is on the worktop.
His ex-wife is pouring a glass of lemonade for Matty.
Henry’s ex-wife glances down to his shoes. She doesn’t say anything, but he knows he’s made a mistake.
“Going already?” his ex-wife says.
He hesitates again. “No,” he says. “I was just …”
His ex-wife offers little Matty a chocolate biscuit but she shakes her head. Matty takes the lemonade and leaves the room. Henry listens as she walks upstairs to her bedroom.
“I suppose,” his ex-wife says, “you want a cup of tea?”
“Well, sure,” he says.
She fills up the kettle.
“The kettle’s new,” he says.
His ex-wife takes a moment to shoot him a look that says “No small-talk please.” She turns on the kettle. Henry has to keep moving this way and that way to avoid his ex-wife as she goes to one cupboard for a mug and another for a teabag and then some sugar. As he steps around the kitchen his shoes click-clack on the floor.
“Just go into the lounge!” she says.
He goes into the lounge. His ex-father-in-law, Bill, is sitting in the corner armchair, wearing his demi-lunettes and reading the Telegraph. He nods to Henry.
Henry mumbles a hello back. He sits at one end of the sofa.
“No cherry lips,” Bill says.
“No,” Henry says. “That shopkeeper, he’s just – he’s so damned …”
Bill looks up from his paper. “Frank?”
Henry doesn’t know the name of the shopkeeper. “The sweetshop. The one in the village.”
“Yeah, Frank. Cooper’s boy.” Bill looks back down to his paper. “Odd lot.”
Henry’s ex-wife walks into the lounge. She has two mugs of tea, one for Henry and one for her father. She places the mugs on coasters on a low coffee table. “He didn’t get Matty any sweets,” she says.
Henry says, “That’s not entirely –”
“Now she’s upset.”
“He’s selling in ounces,” Henry says. “That’s illegal! Isn’t it?”
“Well it’s too late now,” Bill says. “I’ll take her up in the morning.”
“Honestly!” his ex-wife says. She walks out of the room.
After a moment’s silence, Bill folds up his paper and places it on the coffee table next to the mugs of tea.
“There’s some paperwork,” he says. “She wants me to go through it with you. If you’ve got time?”
Henry considers his schedule. His plans for sitting in his flat for the rest of this particular Saturday, wondering what to do with himself. “Sure,” he says.
Whilst they go through the paperwork, Bill says: “The Coopers always were a rum lot. Back then, they were the only sweetshop in the village. Not like now. With the supermarket.”
“It’s hardly a supermarket,” Henry says. But he wishes straight away that he hadn’t said anything, because Bill shakes his head and gives him with a pitying look.
“We all bought our toffees in there,” Bill continues, “on the way back from St Judes’ – St Judes being the local high school – “but we never went in our own. Always two or three of us at a time.”
“Cooper – Frank’s old man – nasty piece of work and short on his measures. You had to keep an eye on them scales, make sure he wasn’t holding it with his thumb. Then there was that kid that time.”
Henry waits for Bill to continue, but Bill just goes back to shuffling through the papers.
“So?” Henry says.
Bill looks up. “What?”
Bill peers over his demi-lunettes and Henry wonders how he has missed this obviously vital component of village folklore.
“This kid,” Bill says, “I can’t remember his name, he got a hard time of it at school, they’d call it bullying now. He used to go in there on his own. One time, he never came out. You need to sign this one.” He passes Henry a piece of paper.
Henry signs the paper and hands it back.
Bill says, “Turned up a week later, all chopped up.”
Bill nods. “Big kitchen knife. Found what was left of the poor little bugger down by the Old Gravel Pit Lodge. Scooped his eyes out. Laid his entrails next to him. Even pulled his teeth out.”
“So what?” Henry says. “Cooper did it?”
“In the back of his shop,” Bill says.
Henry makes a huffing noise.
“It’s not like now,” Bills says, “forensics and DNA.”
Then it all becomes clear to Henry. “A kid went missing in the village. And you lot thought it was the mean old guy in the sweetshop?”
Bill sighs. “You’re not paying attention. We saw him go in that day. We told the coppers, but they wouldn’t have it. Told us to bugger off.”
Henry nods. He uses his polite acceptance face. Bill scowls. They continue with the paperwork.
“She’s gone! Henry’s ex-wife is standing at the doorway to the lounge. Henry has finished a second cup of tea and some reluctantly donated biscuits. The paperwork is done and he was about to leave.
Henry’s ex-wife is holding Matty’s piggy bank: Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet hugging. Henry recognises the piggy bank, he remembers that Winnie-the-Pooh has a slot in the top of his head.
“Empty!” she says.
Bill says, “She’s gone to Cooper’s!”
Henry tells them it will be fine and he heads for the door, patting down his trouser pockets for his car keys.
“It’s dark!” his ex-wife says.
They decide – well, Bill decides – that Henry’s ex-wife should stay at home in case Little Matty comes back. Bill and Henry head into the village in Henry’s car. Henry drives slowly, both of them scanning either side of the road for Matty’s little red raincoat.
They park in one of the free spaces outside the SPAR. Across from the SPAR, Henry can see that the sweetshop is now closed; the narrow shop window is dark.
“She should have a mobile,” Bill says, “in this day and age.”
Henry would like to agree, but the anti-authoritarian in him tells Bill, “No, she’s too young.”
Henry walks over the road to the sweetshop. In a glazed panel in the centre of the door hangs a sign with the opening times. The shop shut ten minutes ago. Henry peers through the glass. He can see the inside of the shop, the shelves and the rows of jars. Towards the back of the shop is another doorway, open.
There’s no sign of the shopkeeper, Frank.
Bill says, “I’ll start walking back. You stay here.”
Henry waits outside the shop in the cold. He watches Bill walk down the hill, turning the corner by the church. He looks back inside the shop –
A figure is standing at the back of the shop, in the doorway back there. Henry stares at the figure. The figure walks out of sight.
“Hey!” Henry taps on the door. “Hey!”
After a moment the figure appears again. The figure looks like Frank – the tatty cardigan. The figure stands there staring back at Henry.
“Hey! Just open up will you? I just wanted to ask …” Henry’s voice trails off. The figure is shaking its head. The figure picks up something from the counter and Henry sees a flash of light on metal. A knife! The figure steps away, out of sight again.
For a moment Henry stands outside the shop as his vivid imagination creates graphic scenes in his mind. Then he steps back. And kicks the door.
Henry has seen this sort of thing enough times on TV to know exactly what he’s doing. The kick has to land right next to the door handle, smashing the lock away from the frame. Henry discovers that this is actually a lot harder than it looks on TV. The door is still intact and his ankle now feels like it could be broken (it isn’t).
Henry tries the shoulder-barge technique. This actually seems rather less effective than kicking. He goes back to kicking at the door. The frame eventually begins to splinter. He swaps legs, but he finds out that he’s as right-footed as he is right-handed. So he goes back to the kicking-foot that he started with.
The door splinters and flies open.
He walks through to the doorway at the back of the shop to a storeroom. He finds another door at the back of the storeroom. This door opens to a lounge area with a further door – to a hallway, stairs leading up and then another door. He goes through this doorway and enters a dining room of sorts with a narrow table along one wall and two chairs. Another door. The whole building is like this, one room after another, one door after another. Another storeroom. Then the kitchen.
The kitchen is very dark. At the far side of the kitchen there is another door and a table. The top of the table is covered with an assortment of strange objects: dark fleshy red strands laid out in parallel lines, a set of teeth still in their gums (both lower and upper) and a pair of eyes. Frank is standing in the middle of the room and he is holding a knife.
Henry yells out, “Matty!” Then at Frank, “You bastard!”
Frank’s knife is very long, the kind of knife you would use to chop up large pieces of meat into smaller pieces of meat. And this is obviously what Frank has in mind because he lunges at Henry, lifting the knife up and bringing it down towards Henry’s head.
Henry once attended a Karate lesson. Karate is one of the few things in Henry’s life that he understands he knows nothing about – and, what’s more, that he understands he will never know anything about.
During his one and only lesson he was punched in the side of his head and temporarily lost the peripheral vision in his right eye. The sensei took Henry to the local hospital because the sensei said he was afraid that the injury could be a detached retina – which, it turned out, it wasn’t.
But perhaps Henry learned something in that single lesson because, as the knife arcs down towards his face, he lashes out with his left arm – and the knife is knocked from Frank’s hand to go clattering across the kitchen floor. Henry’s right hand, which seems to have clenched itself into a fist, slams into Frank’s face and the shopkeeper collapses to the floor, quite unconscious. Later, Henry will replay these last moments over and over again in his mind, wishing that there had been someone there to see them. But now he steps towards the table. Then he hesitates, terrified of what he knows he is about to find there.
That’s when he hears a thin little voice calling out. Little Matty’s voice wailing: “Mummy! Daddy!” from behind the door in the far wall.
Henry experiences a sense of relief that he will only ever feel again once in his life (perhaps twice). He slides back the bolt on the outside of the door and Matty flies out, hugging his waist and saying, “Daddy, daddy!” over and over again.
The kitchen lights flicker on, and Henry turns to see Bill and a policewoman standing at the doorway on the other side of the room. Henry glances at the table next to him: at the teeth, the eyeballs and the dark red fleshy strands – at what he now sees as pink and white marshmallow, foil-covered chocolate and strawberry shoelaces.
Henry and Bill and Matty head back towards the front of the shop, leaving the policewoman to look after Frank.
As they step out into the street, Henry hesitates and then he heads back into the shop. He searches the rows of jars until he finds the one he is after. He tucks the jar under his arm and goes back out to join Bill and Matty on the street. He unscrews the plastic lid and offers the jar to Matty. She reaches inside to take a handful of smiling cherry lips.