Friday, April 10, 2020

Preserve by Ben O'Hara

Ben O'Hara's character tells a forgetful old lady a sweet story about Jack and Jennifer.

Although they were the same age, the man had to help the woman along, gently guiding her across the lawn to the bench. The hydrangeas behind it were in full bloom, nodding agreeably in the breeze.

"Who are you, again?" said the woman. Her tone wasn't abrupt, but there was a brusqueness to it. The man looked at her, contemplating how her white hair appeared as soft as dandelion seeds and how it seemed that the wind threatened to blow it away too.

"I'm a friend."

"Oh," she said, but she seemed satisfied. They sat down together, and she ran her hands down her long skirt though there were no creases to smooth away. The man's weather-beaten face broke into an expression that seemed suspended between joy and sadness.

"I love it out here," she said, breathing deeply and closing her eyes, her smile slanted, lifted on one side. "Have you been out here before?"

"Yes."

"It's beautiful," she said.

After a minute or so of silence he turned to her. "Would you like to hear a story?"

She looked at him dubiously, having been distracted from the surrounding tranquillity.

"You'll like it," he insisted kindly.

The woman regarded him a moment longer, and then she shrugged. The man cleared his throat, composed himself, and began.

He told her the story of Jack. Jack was a young man who lived in a village so deep in the countryside that it was practically lost to all who didn't already know where it was. This seclusion meant that Jack was used to a life of simple pleasures. Waking up to a chorus of bird song, working in his father's garage, walking his family's golden Labrador Archie around the nearby fields over lunch and watching him bound in and out of the long grass, the smell and especially the taste of his mother's cooking, reading a book beside the crackling fire before bed. Jack's life was uncomplicated and fulfilling.

One day, everything changed.

A village such as the one he lived in wasn't much used to change. The closing down of the local shop had generated a frenzy of consternation and gossip in the community. Some whispered that the previous owner had had debts. Miss Mable, Jack's neighbour, insisted that he'd been caught "playing away" by his wife and she'd forced them to sell up and move.

The arrival of the new owners and their renovation of the shop provoked even more of a furore. They'd settled in about a week ago, and for the first few days Jack was sure they'd be scared away by the onrush of attention. They rode out the storm, however, and like the all too temporary tempest curiosity can be, the villagers were already getting used to the new shop being part of their daily lives. Typically, though, it would take a while before they considered the newcomers as "one of them".

Having allowed the commotion to die down, Jack thought it was about time he satisfied his own milder interest as he strolled past one lunchtime with Archie. He tied Archie's lead to the post outside and ruffled his hair before entering. The soft tinkle of a bell announced his arrival.

The interior of the shop was considerably different to what it'd once been. All goods were lined up around the perimeter in high wooden shelves, the varnish gleaming. Gone were the aisles that'd sat in the middle of the floor, now empty and allowing the room to breathe. Still, as one requires when coming upon the sight of such change in a once familiar space, Jack took several seconds to process it all.

Then he noticed the girl behind the counter. He wondered (scolded himself, almost) in bewilderment at how he hadn't noticed her first. She was around his age, he thought, with chestnut coloured hair that fell in curls to her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and alarmingly clear, like a forest spring. They regarded him now, with increasing amusement, as he stood there staring at her.

"Hello," she said.

Even her voice was wonderful, and he immediately found himself comparing it to the melodious notes the birds hit when they woke him up in the mornings. Realising his mouth was open, he closed it, feeling his face reddening.

"Hello."

He turned to one of the shelves but didn't really process what was in front of him. His brain had been scrambled like an egg. His hands were numb, and his face grew hot and tingly. He stole another glance at her, then looked away quickly when she caught his eye. Outside, Archie remained upright, dutiful looking, watching the empty road.

Jack hastily grabbed two jars in front of him, just to stop standing there like a fool, and approached the counter with legs that suddenly felt unable to support him. He envisaged falling over then, the glass jars smashing and spreading their contents everywhere, and he shivered like a chill had invaded the room.

"Excuse me..."

He looked up, a thrill of excitement, shock and fear surging through him as he found himself a foot away from her and realised that he'd missed what she'd said. She repeated the price, her cheeks tinged slightly pink.

"Umm... ok..." He fumbled in his trousers, spilling change onto the counter. She deftly pulled away the sum she needed and pushed the rest back to him. Jack shovelled it into his pocket, hoping that she didn't see how much he was shaking.

"T-t-thanks," he stammered, before walking (or scurrying, rather) out of the shop and hastily untying Archie. He glanced back in. He wasn't sure if she wore a grimace or a smile as she pushed one of her locks back behind her ear, which was slightly pointed at the top.

Almost elven, he thought dreamily, and it was the tone of that voice which startled him. The entire way home, he reproached himself for looking like such an idiot. He considered himself level-headed in most situations (though admittedly there wasn't much in his life to stress him) so he was unaccustomed to how abruptly he'd lost his composure. It wasn't like he hadn't seen a girl before or talked to one. He'd had a girlfriend not so long ago, Alice, but she'd loved Archie more than she did him. Archie seemed to sense he was being thought of because he looked up, his tongue lolling cheerfully out the side of his mouth.

"Can't blame her really, old chap," said Jack.

Love. The very thought of the word made him squirm with embarrassment, and yet it provoked a warm feeling inside him that seemed to massage even the tips of his toes. He hadn't loved Alice though. In fact, he'd grown to find her quite irritating, and he'd felt relieved when they'd finally broken things off. He didn't love the girl he'd only just met either. How could he? No, for whatever reason, he'd just been thrown a little off balance. He hadn't expected to run into a pretty girl (beautiful, interjected a traitorous voice in his mind) at the new shop. He'd expected to find a morose character like the last owner, following him with beady eyes as he browsed the shelves.

I shan't be making such a fool of myself next time, thought Jack, opening his bag to see what he'd blindly purchased. Two jars of jam: one raspberry, one blackcurrant. Did anybody in his house even like jam? He stuffed the jars back into the bag and hurried home to drop Archie off before returning to work at the garage.

Labouring over an old engine for the rest of the day and getting his hands covered with glutinous oil did little to distract him. His father even asked if he was ok at one point. Jack couldn't help but be distant, though. His mind kept tracking back to the shop and the girl behind the counter. He kept seeing the way her curly hair spilled down to her shoulders, the sensation he'd felt when those blue eyes had focused upon him. After dinner later, beef stew and a hunk of bread he'd wolfed down, he shoved the jam jars into an empty shelf.

"What's that?" his mother asked, busy washing up.

"Oh," he said, "just some jam."

"Jam?" she said, turning around with a frown. "You've never liked jam."

"Well, I do now," he responded tightly, before throwing in another, "thanks for dinner," to placate her before dashing upstairs.

He took hours to get to sleep. His mind wouldn't switch off. It kept repeating things like a broken radio. Archie seemed to sense his restlessness and came into his room. Jack helped him onto the bed and stroked his head.

"I hope Mum and Dad didn't hear you, you're not allowed up here!" Archie licked his hand in response, as though relishing the conspiracy and, finally, Jack was able to settle down.

I have to go back. That was his first thought upon waking up. No matter how many times he told himself off, to stop acting so weirdly, he couldn't help how he felt. Towards lunchtime, it was easy to contrive his usual escape from the garage around then by taking Archie out. Once they reached the shop, he looked round at him expectantly.

"Nothing gets past you, old boy," laughed Jack nervously, looking through the window.

She was in there. He noticed that she was wearing something different today, a plain white blouse and a red skirt. She'd tied her hair up with a red bow and it accentuated the angular nature of her face, the prominent cheekbones. He could almost imagine a drop of water rolling down the length of them and falling off at the end.

"Pull yourself together," he muttered, puffing his chest out determinedly and entering.

As soon as she looked at him, his cocksureness revealed itself to be fake and he found himself giving another awkward greeting.

No, no, no! What are you doing?

He returned to the same shelf and, this time, he saw that its entire length was occupied by different jars of homemade jams. It must be something of a speciality. Without further consideration, he picked up another couple and approached the counter.

Say something... just bloody say something!

Despite the jabbering in his head, he couldn't obey it. The very concept of words seemed impossible. He paid for the jam, not daring to look at the girl because, surely, she would be scowling at him, she'd think he was weird. His cheeks ablaze, he left the shop, as quickly as though he was being chased out.

That's just your humiliation, it's beating you over the head with a stick.

Archie looked up at him and grumbled as he untied his lead. Jack sighed, looking at the jams he'd wasted his money on today. Apricot and strawberry this time. He ruffled Archie's hair.

"I know, I know." His heart was only just beginning to resume its normal rate. He tried to look back into the shop, but he couldn't. His neck had become as recalcitrant as a rusty old hinge. What an unpleasant sensation it was to both yearn, and yet be afraid, of looking at someone. Was she watching him? It felt like something was burning in the back of his head. Probably a glare. No doubt she thought his antics were pathetic.

By dinner that evening, however, his caustic self-chastising had softened. He'd smuggled the jam into the cupboard without his mother noticing this time, which was good because his parents were bound to question why he was spending his money on jam and not on whatever boys his age usually bought. With a full, warm belly, he felt pleasantly rested, and his earlier return to the shop didn't seem so dreadful.

Just think of it as an aborted mission. You need to go in there again, at least just to show you're normal.

Archie's tongue found his hand under the table. He was likely begging for scraps, but Jack took it for encouragement.

The next day, he returned. And the next day. And the day after that.

Gradually, he was able to not stare at the floor the entire time, feeling dizzy and his heart pulsating madly, nor drop his change over the counter when he paid. He started to observe more and more things about her. She often tucked one of her curls behind her ear when her hair wasn't tied up (what that might be a sign of, he wished he knew), she had several freckles on each cheek, so delicate that you only noticed them when close to her and, when he was close, he noticed her smell. It was sweet, but not in the artificial way of the preserves upon the shelves. It was like the summer air when the sun is at its highest in the sky and the wind is blowing gently through the fields.

Their interactions followed a pattern. They'd always exchange greetings and farewells, and he'd always buy two jars of jam. The store held other goods of course, but he daren't break the routine. He felt fearful that, if he did, he'd make a fool out of himself in some way. Yet, after a couple weeks, he became anxious that, if he didn't, they might never get beyond simply being cordial.

Jack resolved to try something else. He had to engage her in conversation. Such a task, however, seemed as daunting to him as going into battle. His mind churned every night with thoughts on what he could say, dismissing hundreds of potential opening gambits. How would he know what might impress her? Each time his weary mind finally fell asleep, an exasperated voice at the back of it would ask him why he felt like he did and what on Earth he was doing. She was just a girl. He was usually too tired to pay much attention to it.

It became eminently clear to him one day, too, that he must act when his mother opened the rarely used cupboard that he'd been storing the jams in and stood back with her mouth open.

"Bleedin' hell, Jack! We've got more jam than the bleedin' shop!"

Evading her questions had been monstrously uncomfortable, as had his father's knowing smirk as he'd shielded himself from the conservation with his newspaper.

You've got to say something to her, Jack, he thought the next day. Archie seemed to know what was happening as they neared the shop. He dragged Jack over to the post by the window and sat down to be tied up. His soft black eyes looked up at him in what could've been interpreted as an exasperated manner.

"I know, buddy," he said, his voice light and nerves tingling in his stomach. "I'm useless, I need to do something don't I?"

He left him and entered the shop.

"Hello."

"Hello."

He wandered over to his usual spot, perusing the jams. He had to have bought every flavour by now, but he couldn't read the labels. Inside his mind, a dilemma was raging.

Say something... say something...

Say what?

Just say something. Anything!

You're just standing there, you're taking too long...

And then, tentative, came her voice. "Excuse me, do you need any help?"

He'd been standing there for a while, but he couldn't believe that she'd spoken to him. His mind became blank, his mouth dry, as she came over. It was the first time he'd seen all of her. She had an upright posture, and the hem of her skirt glided over the floorboards.

"I...erm..." he paused, feeling like he had a rock lodged in his throat. "Yes... I'm caught in something of a jam."

Everything seemed to stop as horror seized him and squeezed.

Caught in something of a jam...

Oh no...

The air felt tense, like invisible fabric pulled tight. She shuffled her feet, and the awkward pause seemed to extend forever. Somehow, he managed to look at her and saw that she'd averted her gaze, grimacing. Her cheeks were red.

"I..."

"- Erm..."

They cut across each other. Jack felt his insides squirming like worms.

"N-n-never mind, I think I'm ok actually. S-s-see you."

The sound of the door clattering as he made his escape resonated inside his head. He barely registered dropping Archie off back at home and returning to his father's garage. All he could think about was what'd just happened, what he'd said.

He'd experienced sleepless nights before. Fear of the Boogeyman as a child, when he'd been picked on at his first day at school, the night his Grandfather had died, the evening before school exams. But this, one pathetic interaction with a girl, was up there. He was too ashamed to admit that it probably topped the lot. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard himself say it again. Caught in something of a jam. Then he saw her reaction. Each time, it grew worse. He remembered her scowling at him and then, in one particularly harrowing dream, she screamed at him to get out of the shop and laughed nastily when he tripped over in his haste to leave.

He emerged the next few mornings with black rings underneath his eyes like bruises. His mother doted on him, showing concern, but his father was wiser to the truth, and Jack was always enraged to catch the teasing glint in his eye as he peered over his newspaper. He wondered, in dismay, if the entire village knew what'd happened as well. Gossip could spread like wildfire. In any case, one thing he didn't do was return to the shop. He avoided it like it was a quarantine zone.

What must she think of me... she must think I'm such a loser...

Why do you even care so much? A scorning voice would say.

I don't know, I just bloody do, Jack would reply miserably, his mind inevitably drifting back to wondering what the girl was doing, thinking, at that moment.

Even Archie seemed down recently. He usually conducted himself with exuberance on their walks, but he trod along their usual path with his head down. He ignored the long grass on either side and didn't even bother chasing a rabbit which appeared ahead of them one time before diving back into cover.

"What's wrong, boy?" said Jack one day, crouching before him.

Archie grumbled, his ears flat, nudging his wet nose against Jack's palm. Jack frowned, wondering if he'd eaten something funny and that was the reason for his despondency. When Archie's mood persisted over the next couple days, he started to worry, but soon, with some wretchedness, he realised that it might be because of him.

"Is that it, Archie? Is it me making you feel like this?"

The sun was warm on the back of Jack's neck as he bent down, but Archie's tongue was warmer as it licked his palm. Jack could swear that he understood exactly what he was saying sometimes.

"You like sniffing other dogs' bums and peeing where you like, but you chaps don't get enough credit for how sharp you are," said Jack, smiling for what felt like the first time in days.

That smile seemed to have a rejuvenating effect. He watched the sunlight make Archie's golden coat glisten and wondered how much longer the glorious weather would be around. Even so, Archie enjoyed walks in the mucky wet weather of winter just a much, and Jack did too despite having to clean him up afterwards.

I've got so much of this ahead of me, what do I have do be grouchy about, honestly?

He smiled again as they descended towards the village, his mind barely on where his feet were taking him or, more precisely, where Archie was. He was marching purposefully in front, his tail wagging from side to side. Jack only realised where they were when Archie stopped.

When he looked through the window and made eye contact with the girl, he felt a sense of horror seep into his pores. That moment seemed infinitesimal, and he waited with bated breath for her mouth to harden, a clear rejection of his company, or worse for her to smirk at him in remembrance of his humiliation last time.

Instead, she gave him a timid smile and a small wave. Jack glanced down at Archie who was looking up at him with what could only be described as a cheeky grin. His black eyes glistened, and his tail thumped on the pavement.

You bloody rascal, scorned Jack, yet he was so amused by it that the sense of horror evaporated as though it'd never been present in the first place. He felt light footed and unencumbered, and a single further thought solidified his resolve.

It can hardly go any worse than last time, can it?

He tied Archie up (you could only trust his dutifulness if he didn't spot a cat) and entered the shop.

For the first time, he was truly able to assess what else there was. He went to the opposite side, away from the jams, and picked up a packet of pork scratchings for his father, sweet tobacco for his mother and some dandelion burdock for himself. All the while, he felt the familiar burn of her gaze upon him. He felt his heart move oddly in his chest, as though it fluttered, but he felt in control.

He approached the counter. She glanced down. At that point, all Jack hoped for was for their transaction to be completed without embarrassment, simply to rectify what had happened last time.

But then she smiled, and for the first time he noticed that when she did one side of her mouth lifted slightly higher than the other. He found it so endearing that he couldn't help smiling back at her. When he registered her sheepishness, she felt compelled to answer him.

"It's nothing," she said quickly.

He could've left it at that, but curiosity made its decision for him. "No, go on," he urged, biting his lip.

"Well, I'm just surprised you haven't bought any jam."

"Ha!" he said, knowing that it came out as more of a bark, but no longer caring about self critically analysing everything he did. He was dimly aware that this was the first time they'd gone beyond greetings and farewells.

"You were our most loyal customer," she said, smirking, though in a friendly manner.

"I know, but my mother noticed that one of her kitchen shelves was nearly collapsing under the weight of all the jars."

She giggled, taking his payment and handing him his change. She was on the verge of saying something else though, and Jack hadn't found himself scurrying away this time anyway.

"Is that why you haven't been in recently?"

He felt his mouth open and close a couple of times as he tried to formulate an answer, but it became easy when she smiled again, one side of her mouth pushing up, her blue eyes glinting like sunlight catching the surface of water.

"Well... I made such a bad joke last time that I thought I had to spend some time away to think of another one."

"And have you?"

"Well I'm still reeling a little, so I haven't yet."

"You should use that one in the tackle shop down the road."

His face reddened, but her sharpness made him laugh. She tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear and nodded towards Archie outside. Her smile wasn't gone. Jack knew that he wanted to make sure it stayed there.

"What's his name?"

He told her, and she said, "You must be close, he waits so patiently for you and every time you go back out his tail wags."

"Does it?" said Jack. He knew how close he and Archie were, but having it reaffirmed made him feel good. "Do you..."

"Yes, a Cocker Spaniel. She's... erm, she's called Betty."

"Betty?"

"I know," she said, covering her smile with her hand this time, her cheeks reddening. "She's named after my gran. My gran never took that as a compliment."

Jack laughed, and then there was a pause. It hung, pregnant, in the air, and he knew what he needed to say.

"Does... does Betty need a friend?"

"She does," replied the girl, glancing away but then looking back at him. He felt his internal organs melt inside but still, somehow, he hadn't becoming a dismal wreck as he had done before.

"Archie would be pleased to have one. When do you take Betty out?"

"I go over the fields around here, usually in the evening after I've finished work."

She described the route to him, and when she was done Jack grinned at her. "That's where I take Archie. So... shall I come back here later when you close?"

"Ok."

He turned, barely able to believe what'd just happened, feeling as though he was elevated a foot off the ground and struggling not to clench his fist as he walked away. Then he ground to a halt and turned quickly round.

"Wait!"

She tried to hide it, but he saw it first and she knew he did. She'd been beaming to herself watching him leave. She blushed and looked away, smoothing down her skirt, before looking back at him.

"What's your name?"

"Oh... it's Jennifer."

"Jennifer... I'm Jack."

"See you later."

"Yeah, see you later."

And with that he left the shop. When he untied Archie, Jack thought that when it came to whose grin was biggest it must be a draw.



"And what happened after that?"

"Well," said the old man, his voice breaking slightly. "They lived a full and happy life together."

"That's good then."

She closed her eyes, letting the breeze caress her and not noticing him looking at her. When she opened them again, her blue irises looked as though they were swimming.

"That was a lovely story."

"It was," he agreed.

Tentatively, he held her hand. She squeezed back instinctively. They smiled at one another and went back to enjoying the sun.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent story. Love the title. I find myself conflicted about the framing story. Knowing the meaning really saddened the entire tale for me. I guess if that is what the author was going for it was well done. Really tugged on my emotions. Well done, thanks for sharing it with us.

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  2. A happily ever after tale tinged with sadness. The internal confidence struggles of the teenagers was beautifully portrayed.

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  3. Kind of an old fashioned tale, sweetly told. Kids grow up fast now. A tale about shyness and an almost child like romance is a nice change, and having the old man tell the story to his wife from his sentimental perspective gives us a picture of the center of his life's meaning.

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