Six plus three

There is a couple ahead of me. It is three-thirty am. They are young, possibly students. He is in long shorts, she wears a mohair jumper, off the shoulders, and a shiny silver belt in her jeans. She is swaying, leaning into him. He steers her along the pavement. I am closer now. I can hear his voice. Soft at first, then more insistent. What’s six plus three? he asks her. She mumbles something but I can’t hear. Six plus three, he says louder and more insistent, come on, what’s six plus three. Is it some kind of game or a mental breathalyser test? It’s nine, he says, exasperated. Nine.

She was coming out of the garage, her customary plastic bag for life now full. She must’ve seen my approach, though she didn’t acknowledge it, for she hesitated and crossed the road. She stayed on the other side of the road, walking in that roll of hers, slowly. I turned to look back at her and she dropped her head. Does she talk to the man in the garage? This town seems to be a harbour for such introverts. All moods, all personas, however idiosyncratic are, if not welcome, tolerated and let be. I like that. May they continue to feel safe. Yesterday I walked past the shelter and there was a man, sitting erect on the bench smoking. Was he the ‘jackass’ of a few days ago, who said ‘woman’ to the girl who claimed to be IRA? He had a thick, black moustache and I could smell the sweat of him. I nodded my head in greeting, a half-hearted attempt at implying all was perfectly tickety-boo. He didn’t react, merely stared at me, his eyes cold and hard. I felt a frisson of fear. And walked on, my step quickening.

Standing in the queue in the post office waiting to renew my passport (and nervous about the inevitable taking of the awful photograph with me looking a hundred and ninety) I saw a young man in one of those woolen Outer Mongolian hats with stripes, toggles that hang down from the sides and topped with a bobble. He’d not joined the queue but gone straight to one of the cashiers’ booths and asked for some kind of a form. I left it. But then he must’ve picked something up for he turned and gestured that I should take his place. It’s OK, I mouthed. (The photo, as I’d expected, was awful. Happy with that one? asked the assistant. No, I said, rather too brusquely. I had to go with the second one which was equally bad. I should’ve put some make-up on. Heigh ho.)

The milkman went past as I turned for home. His van was careering. It’s a comfort though. There is something so normal about the milk delivery. Now to work. Another application. I will do my best. Get it down. Tell the truth. No fudge. No obfuscation. It will do. It will do.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.