Saturday, 15 June 2019

'Badge of Honour' by Jacqueline Saville

On the way to the post office I see a used condom on the pavement. I grimace, step over it, but it won't leave me be. I realise as I turn down the hill to the main road that our street has no litter. The occasional escaped hair bobble, elastic band from the postman, or messy leavings of a dog-owner who hasn't got the knack of the plastic bag yet, but nothing like the crisp packets, tissues, plastic bottles and stray sheets of newspaper that punctuate my walk along the main road.

Stamp bought and letter posted I retrace my steps, wondering if I've missed some nightly ritual. Do my neighbours police the stretch of pavement bordering their gardens each evening, and no-one has had the heart to tell me I've been letting the side down all these years? I pause before I turn into our street feeling the eyes on me, the tuts I've occasioned without knowing it, as someone else had to collect a flyaway receipt from my hedge again.

I pass an old man sweeping leaves and think maybe it's not the whole street it's one person with more energy for cleaning than their neat life lets them expend, so they go in search of outlets. I picture a white-haired woman in a blue nylon overall and rubber gloves, prowling after dark with a bin bag and a claw-end stick like city road sweepers. She hangs back behind teenage drinkers, waiting to pounce on their discarded cans. I must have missed her daily sprint half an hour after school finishes, gathering Twix wrappers and dropped pens, measuring her time against her personal best.

I slow down as I approach the condom. This is the one item she can't bring herself to pick up. Or perhaps it's tricky to grasp with the claw, like the cigarette butts outside the bus station. I sit on the garden wall and stare down at it, another question having arisen. How did it get there? We've got more trees than traffic but even so I can see the windows of four houses from my perch. I consider the possibility that it's a deliberate plant to vex the old woman, but then I'm fairly sure I made her up so that leaves someone having sex out here on the pavement. Or against the wall. I stand up.

Looking around I wonder whose teenagers were daring or defiant enough to do it right outside their parents' house. Then I see the man watching me from the window. It's his wall I've been resting on, his garden the condom is outside. Fifty-something, his robe was either bought by an undiscerning admirer or back when his paunch wasn't so prominent. It's barely ten in the morning, yet he has a wineglass dangling from one hand and he's looking me right in the eye, a faint smile tugging his lips. I look back down and realise this isn't litter, it's a badge of honour.

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