Saturday, 27 June 2015

"After Hours" by Judith Higgins

In the dispensary, the daughter uses a spatula to mix ointment on a marble slab. It's like toffee – soft and glistening. She slicks it into clean jars and prints Ichthymmol on the labels.
            'Draws a boil nicely,' the pharmacist, her father says, tall at the desk in his white coat, starched and ironed each week by the mother. He's checking prescriptions, counting out tablets. From the kitchen behind the shop, there's a smell of bacon and potato, the murmur of voices on the radio, pans clattering. Dinner’s at seven o'clock. 
            A loud knock disturbs their work. The mother says no one should come and wheedle at the side door for medicine after hours but the father nods 'yes' and his daughter opens up. A woman stands there, her bare neck raw with cold, the damp waves of her hair flattened by a tweed hat, a jumper bagged over her skirt. She smells of wet wool and cheap perfume. Can she trouble them for  Milk of Magnesia? She sways, rubs her belly, reaches into the freckly crevice between her breasts and brings out money twisted in a handkerchief. Into the daughter's hand, she counts out four, warm, silver coins.
            Moving forward a step, the woman peers into the dispensary, her dark eyes bright. She wants to thank the father for his kindness. A step further still and her boots are on the good Wilton. She avoids the gaze of the mother, now standing with her arms folded, her back to the kitchen. 
            The father listens to the woman’s symptoms. All day long, she says, they've been getting worse and she's walked so far along the lanes in this cold weather, with the frost hardening. The daughter fetches the tablets and the change and holds them out but the woman talks on. Her eyes dart around the dispensary, alight upon the neatly labelled jars arranged on the counter. Maybe she could take the special boil ointment too. Last time it worked a treat. She pulls back her jumper to reveal a red mass on the swell of her breast, presses it with a grubby finger, lips pursed against the pain. The daughter looks away but the father stares.
            In the hall, the grandfather clock strikes the hour. Seven o'clock. The mother slams the kitchen door and the woman steps back. She shan't bother them anymore; it's late. The father – she says Mr and his name – is a proper gentleman. But if he wouldn't mind, one jar of ointment for the boil? More fumbling for money, then she tucks the jars away, thanks him again and smiles, her teeth ragged but white, a dimple creasing one cheek.
            After she's gone, her perfume travels with them into the kitchen where the mother glowers by the stove and the dinner is on the table, getting cold.

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