They’d been playing for most of the afternoon, despite the cold, but as soon as the light began to fade, their mothers began summoning them inside. Time for dinner. See you tomorrows were called with cheer as one by one they left the square, until eventually it was just Martin remaining. He watched the sky swell grand and purple, felt the cold turn piercing, and then made his way out of the square, back to the street, urban branches closing and tugging at his coat on the way. He emerged on the wrong side. The layout was strange and entrancing at this hour, and all roads lead home eventually, he’d been told, by someone at some time. And so he walked, passing long terraces of quiet houses, then he turned right because that felt right, then left because that felt right too.
He ended up at a small row of shops, a commercial area set back from the street, a single storefront brightly lit among the darkened others. He stood in the warmth from its open doorway. From inside at the counter the woman craned her neck, looked him up and down. He asked her if he could come in and wait. She paused, looking him over again, then nodded. What are you waiting for? she asked once he was inside. Martin told the woman that he was waiting for Martin. Who’s Martin? she asked. He told her that Martin would be picking him up soon. She considered this, then eventually released a quick smile, convinced at last: he could stay in the shop as long as he liked. Until they closed if necessary. She went about her business behind the counter.
Martin went to a corner near the back, and sat on a scratched milk crate. Hot air blasted out of a heater somewhere. People came in and helped themselves to items from the shelves, then paid for these things, then left. He kept very still and quiet. One or two of these people gave him a curious glance, but none of them smiled, and none of them spoke to him.
The woman brought a bar of chocolate over. He didn’t usually eat chocolate, but she’d loosened the wrapper for him and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He placed an oblong in his mouth and allowed it to melt into claggy sweetness on his tongue. He ate the entire bar, piece by piece, and when he’d finished he folded the wrapper carefully and put it in his anorak pocket and fastened the flap.
The woman said after a while that it would soon be time for her to close. Would he like anything? Would he like her to do anything? He assured her he was fine. And anyway, Martin would be arriving soon. Thank you for letting me wait, he added.
The woman eyed him as she knotted her scarf. She sprayed Yardley on a milky wrist and rubbed it with the other wrist. She fastened her bag with the click of a clasp at the front, looked around the shop slowly and turned out the lights.
Outside again. He watched as the woman locked the door then pulled down the shutters and locked them too, then rattled them noisily forward and back to make sure they were secure. She smiled, he smiled. She gathered herself, all neatly perfumed knots and clicks, and walked away, and near the end of the row of shops she slowed and stopped and waited a second before glancing back, but Martin waved, and she waved in reply, and then she turned away and carried on and soon she was gone, and then the sound of her footsteps also faded away. And after that there was nothing, just a buzzing streetlight that he hadn’t noticed earlier, and heavy dented spray-painted shutters, a hard cold, and the sweet lingering fume of cheap scent.