George could smell a blend of coffees as he made his way down the crowded aisle in the supermarket. ‘Nonsense,’ he told himself sternly without actually uttering a word. ‘All of these packets, boxes, tins and bottles are tightly sealed – no aroma can escape those confines.’ He spoke to himself more often these days – he used to talk to Shep. In his mind’s eye, George saw rows of glass jugs half-filled with bubbling and steaming coffee; he could ‘see’ the vapour trails of aroma swirling about the crowds of shoppers who passed by without so much as a sniff; he could ‘taste’ the rich, slightly bitter flavour of his favourite brew – exactly as he enjoyed it first thing in the morning.
Every morning George would put the coffee on to brew before going outdoors to feed the chickens and check for eggs. For years Shep had been at his side, wagging her tail while she sniffed at the ground to catch up on the latest news. Once George had gathered the eggs and picked a handful of parsley growing outside the kitchen door, he would refill her water bowl, toss out any dry crumbles she may have missed and then top up her food bowl. She seldom ate more than a bite or two until he had poured over the bacon fat once he’d cooked his breakfast.
A presence; a knee-high presence drew George’s attention from the rows of coffee on display. Shep? He looked down at the little girl holding onto a miniature shopping trolley. She’d been shoved aside by other shoppers with overloaded trolleys and was barely leaning against his leg, as if for protection. Her slight warmth was how Shep would make her presence felt when he had been absorbed by his farming books for too long.
Shep would wait until he’d finished his coffee in the patch of sunlight outside the kitchen. She would be up and ready to accompany him as soon as he’d drained his mug. He’d nearly fallen over her more than once when her exuberance got between him and the sink – which is why he’d taken to washing his dishes in the evenings only. Well, he used to.
“You really should get yourself a dishwasher, George.” His mother chided him about this every time she came to visit him. How she had changed since she’d moved into town after his father had died. Her world now consisted of a sewing club, book club, supper club, and bridge club – even a travel club. She frequently declared that life was too short for washing dishes by hand anymore.
Conscious of his sink at home overflowing with crockery, George shook his mop of curly hair – he really should get it cut one of these days – and bent down towards the wide-eyed girl at his knee. “They’re a lot of bully drivers you know,” he pointed at the mass of trolleys passing them in the aisle. The girl nodded her head solemnly, while looking down at the floor. “Where is your mother?”
She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. “I don’t know.”
“What does she look like? Tell me what she is wearing today.” He spoke gently, just as he spoke to his cows when they were birthing – and always to Shep.
The girl shook her head. Both of her hands were clutching the handle of her little trolley as if it were about to take on a life of its own. “She’s got brown boots on.”
George looked around then lowered his tall frame to her height. “Can you tell me what her hair looks like?”
She looked into his eyes with a sparkle in her own. “It’s funny. Her hair is a floor mop, just like yours.” A smile lit up her face. I really must get a haircut, he thought.
Just then a shrill voice called out, “Greta! I’ve been looking all over for you! Come here at once!” The woman with the ‘floor mop’ of brown curly hair tugged at her daughter’s arm and glared fiercely at George. “How many times have I told you not to talk to strangers – especially not to men?” She half dragged the child away, leaving George feeling strangely shocked and bereft.
As he straightened up he caught the eye of a blond woman about his own age. She shook her head slightly, shrugged her shoulders in a way that sympathised with his plight then she moved on. He would have liked to talk to her, just as he would have discussed the situation with Shep on their way back to the farm.
George looked into the shopping basket at his feet: bacon, eggs, milk, tomatoes, bread, sausages … he’d lost his appetite since Shep had died. He hadn’t bothered much about what he ate or cared to clean the sink. He sighed, for he hadn’t had coffee for over a week – only that dreadful herbal tea his mother had left after her last visit. He needed coffee, really good coffee.
Oblivious to passing shoppers, George turned his attention back to the coffee-laden shelves. He placed a packet of his usual brand into his basket then reached for a yellow box of a coffee that was new to him. There was a red box too. He held them up to compare them; he shook them; then held them close together to read their labels more carefully. He was trying to imagine what these coffees would smell like brewing in his kitchen. A new aroma, a new routine – even a haircut – should help him tuck his memories of Shep into a smaller corner of his mind.
As he held the yellow packet to his nose, the shrugging-shoulders blond suggested, “Why don’t you just buy them both?” Her smile was broad and her eyes sparkled with a sense of fun. “It’s just that this is my third trip down this aisle on my way to nowhere,” the sweep of her arm (he noticed her ringless fingers) indicated the jostling crowd of month-end shoppers, “and you’ve remained engrossed with these two boxes. I can recommend the red one by the way.” A gap appeared and she steered her trolley past him.
“Thank you,” he smiled for the first time in weeks. “I will.” He placed the boxes in his basket and moved towards a till where he would be well positioned to waylay Shrugging-shoulders near the exit. Perhaps, he thought, she would agree to have coffee with him at the coffee place next door.