When I realise that I’m starting to imagine spending the evening with Em and Jen, I make myself start the car and drive the rest of the way home. I crank the window most of the way back up and my forehead beads with fresh perspiration.
Mr Sandhu’s Convenience Emporium is almost deserted when I arrive. A boy and a girl are debating which chocolate to buy – from their upturned noses and matching freckles I’m guessing that they’re brother and sister. Neither looks more than ten years old. I’d say the girl is older, but purely on the basis that she’s the one with the tightly clutched fist of money.
I wind my way through the narrow aisles to the back of the store and grab a pepperoni pizza from a chilled cabinet, then pluck a six-pack of Stella from the adjacent fridge. At the checkout Mr Sandhu’s daughter, whose name I can never remember, wordlessly studies my purchases with her unreadable smile. She can’t be much more than 20, and never says anything but thank you unless you really push the conversational envelope. Nevertheless, I give her my best shy-boy smile (which, admittedly, I am fifteen years too old to wear), glance at the pizza and beer and try to look embarrassed.
Balanced diet, eh?
Yes, she says. Her smile remains fixed at Mona Lisa. Undeterred, I soldier on.
I do cook sometimes though, I promise.
Guess I’d have to cook you a slap-up dinner to prove it though, wouldn’t I?
God, what am I doing? Am I really interested in a girl whose name I can’t even remember? Am I really looking to cheat on Jenny before things even get started? Am I really looking to cook dinner, however euphemistic that might be, for a girl young enough to be my daughter? Just because she has that smile. Behind me, the brother and sister laugh at something – probably me. I’m just starting to wonder what seeing Laura has unlocked in me when Mr Sandhu’s nameless daughter replies. Her smile has faltered a little (who am I kidding – it’s gone) and she looks a little uncomfortable.
I think I can take your word for it, Mr Potter. That’s nine ninety-eight please.
An extra dig there, that she not only knows but can remember who I am. I wish this was the kind of shop where staff wore name badges.
I hand over a tenner and she gives me my change, careful not to touch my outstretched palm with any part of her hand. Go away old man, and take your idle daydreams of spending the night with me away with you. But her pressed-lip smile has returned.
Thank you, she says. The brother and sister giggle at something else. I can’t get out the door fast enough.
Whilst the pizza is cooking, I crack open the first bottle of beer and considering calling, or at least texting Jenny, but I’m pretty sure she won’t answer. Instead, I fire up my PC and browse my way back to Laura’s website. The second beer has gone by the time I finish scrolling through her gallery, and the pizza is burnt. I rescue it from the oven, cut away the charred edge and eat what is salvageable. Another Stella cools the pepperoni zing.
By the time I get back to the PC I’ve opened a fourth beer and am starting to feel a little woozy, but in that comfortable way that drunkenness can occasionally have. I think again of Mr Sandhu’s inscrutable daughter, then type teen Asian babe naked in the Google search box. That thought again, what am I doing, crosses my mind but that mild spark of internal rebellion is quickly doused with beer. I’ve scrolled through six pages of image results and watched two or three videos when my mobile phone starts vibrating its way across the desk. A glance at the screen tells me Jenny is calling.