When someone popped a champagne cork at the Christmas party, Carl dived under the table.
No one said a word. The dairy lot laughed nervously, the butchers raised their eyebrows and carried on with their conversations, and the dot.com drivers turned their backs as if Carl’s behaviour might be contagious. They’re a funny lot, the dot.com drivers, they think they’re better than the rest of us on account of getting paid twenty pence more an hour.
I was listening to Frank talking about the cabbages in his allotment so I was glad of the excuse to get up and offer Carl a hand.
He ignored it, of course. Carl used to be in the Army. Afghanistan. Iraq. Everyone joked about how if a nutter walked into the supermarket with a semi-automatic, Carl was the kind of guy you wanted to have around. But not anymore, I guess.
Outside, it was freezer-aisle cold. Carl lit a cigarette and sucked in long and quick like he was gasping for air.
“Shit party, huh?” I said.
He nodded, taking another drag. His hand was trembling and his left eye was twitching. I pulled a small bottle of vodka from my handbag and offered it to him.
He took a long gulp, passed it back and said, “You like working in a supermarket?”
“I just thought I’d be doing more, you know, when I left the Army.”
“Maybe you just need to keep looking for something better.” I didn’t tell him I checked the job pages every day but there wasn’t much else out there.
“Knowing my luck, I’ll be stuck here forever,” Carl said, inhaling and staring up at the sky. “I’ll probably end up like Frank. Trying to chat up a pretty girl with stories about my cabbages.”
I slapped him lightly on the arm.
“Frank wasn’t chatting me up.”
“Yeah, he was. Not that I blame him.”
As a rule, I don’t sleep with guys from work. At least, not after what happened with Rob and the harassment order, but I’d been single for a long time and I’m not going to lie, something about the way Carl looked when he was under that table almost broke me. We went back to my flat because it was closer and he said his mother could get a bit funny about visitors at night. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought perhaps we’d talk a little more, you know, before. It was alright, though. He was a bit rough, a little too rough sometimes, but after he was softer. He talked about the army. The camaraderie was the thing he missed the most.
“You’re never on your own. There’s always someone who has your back.”
I thought that sounded nice. It was warm under the bed covers and I could see the stars bright outside the window. I was thinking about how there was bacon in the fridge and in the morning I would make bacon butties for us but then Carl said, “I should go soon.”
“Oh, okay,” I tried to make my voice sound light, “you can stay if you want, I don’t mind.”
“Nah, I’d better get back.”
Carl sat up and started pulling on his socks.
“You know, there was this one time when an IED went off right next to us. Our Sergeant’s leg was blown clean off. I don’t know what I was thinking because it was useless really but I ran and got his leg and I held on to it.”
He started laughing. “I knew it was ridiculous, it’s not like we had any ice or anything, but I wouldn’t let go of that leg. I held on to it until the medics arrived.”
Carl was really laughing now. It was the kind of laugh someone does when they find something outrageous or unbelievable, the kind of laugh that can so easily turn to tears.
I put my hand on Carl’s arm. “Why don’t you stay?”
He shook his head. “Trust me, you don’t want this.”
After he left, I lay awake in bed for a long time. It was colder now and I bunched the covers up all around me to keep warm. It must’ve have started to rain because when I looked out of the window there wasn’t a single star left in the sky.
Sam Payne has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing through the distance learning programme at Teesside University. Her stories and poetry have appeared in various places online.