The car was getting low so I went to the local garage to fill up. It’s a busy, do-everything kind of place. Not only can you buy fuel, groceries, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, but there’s an MOT, exhaust and tyre workshop right next door, too. They also run an internet shopping returns business. If you buy something online and it doesn’t fit, you can print off a ticket and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s always a lot of people at the garage, wandering in and out of the shop, pushing tyres across the forecourt. A lot of hanging around chatting and so on. With the railway station just opposite, it has a wild west, frontiers kind of atmosphere. The kind of place where if you saw a bison pull up you’d just think ‘Oh, so they’re doing that, now.’
Like everywhere else these past weeks, though, the garage is eerily quiet. I’m the only one at the pumps, and for the first time ever the workshop doors are shut. I take the parcel from the backseat and go to pay. There’s a sign at the door: Coronavirus Emergency: One customer at a time – but as I’m the only one around, I go straight in. There’s a big line on the floor and a decal of a pair of boots, so I stand on that, say hello, and wait for the woman at the counter to call me over, which she does, immediately, with a big laugh and a theatrical wave of her hand.
I haven’t seen her before. She’s a riot of colour, purple eyeshadow, scarlet lipstick and enormous, fried yellow hair roped in place by a headband. Her face slants down to the left, so I’m guessing she had a stroke at some time. She’s as vibrantly positive as her makeup, though, and we swap the usual conversational stuff with more of a buzz than normal.
I pay for the fuel, then hand over the parcel.
‘Have some chocolate,’ she says, waving to the tiers of bars and snacks to the right.
‘That’s kind, but I’ve eaten so much of that stuff lately I think I’ll explode.’
‘Nice way to go.’
She fusses around with the parcel, flipping it over, turning it around, flattening the label, almost hitting it with the scanner.
‘There’s a problem with your barcode,’ she says.
‘It’s a jacket,’ I say. ‘That’s all I know.’
‘I don’t care what it is, honey. I jus’ need to know where it’s going.’
She stops, and looks into the air for a second.
Eventually she says, in a distracted way: ‘That’s it! The nineteenth of March, 2018.’
‘Erm – I think it’s the second of April. Twenty twenty.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘Not today. I mean the day I dreamed all this.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘All this,’ she says, waving the barcode checker at the window. ‘The pandemic.’
‘Oh! Wow! What happened in your dream?’
‘I saw it all. The virus. The way it snuck in. The way it spread among everybody. I saw how people were at the beginning, how they laughed about it, then got more serious, then started panic buying. How they helped each other, then got angry, started climbing over each other to get what they needed.’
‘All of it. I saw it all. And you know what? There were two things they were fighting for. One of them was water…’
‘And the other was chocolate.’
‘No,’ she says, widening her eyes at me. ‘But I tell you what. This store here? Picked clean. There weren’t nothing left. And when the store was empty, d’you know what they started to eat? You know, don’t you? You know what they turned to?’
There’s a woman just finishing at the pump outside, getting ready to come inside and pay. I don’t want to be standing two metres away from the counter talking about cannibalism when she comes in, so I try to move the conversation along.
‘Worrying times,’ I say, blandly.
‘They certainly are,’ she says. ‘Ah! Now! The barcode’s gone through!’
She tosses it behind her into a sack.
I can’t resist asking her one more thing about her dream before I go.
‘What happened afterwards?’ I say. ‘But if it’s bad, don’t tell me.’
‘What d’you think happened?’ she says. ‘And where d’you think everybody went when they needed comfort? Yep. You got it. That’s right. The church.’
She puts the barcode reader aside, and tightens her hairband.
‘You have a nice day,’ she says. ‘And don’t worry about the chocolate.’