‘There’s one there, Mil, look.’
George is tipped fully onto his right crutch as he jabs the left under a hedge.
‘It’s a beauty. Near full size. Mil. Come back here and see.’
Mil is already four or five steps ahead. The carrier bags that stretch both her arms towards her feet make her look anchored to the spot. When she turns her head to see, her body doesn’t follow.
‘Is it still white?’
‘Come here and look at it. You tell me it’s white.’
‘It could be days old lying under there.’
‘Days? Quit that for fuck sake. This one’s barely seen the morning.’
Mil sighs. She tries to shake a frizzy strand of hair from her face but the breeze holds it to her, a single dry end getting her just at the base of an eyelash. The work of the stray curler she found on the bedroom floor that morning. The rest of her hair is brittle, greying like her skin. It ages her, a decade on at least, and the years seem to run farther with each moment of her glacial turn towards George. Her pockets bulge with things that both of them together can’t remember finding.
He brings the left crutch back down and shifts his weight about with his shoulders. When the padding is back under his right arm he points again.
Mil bends double at the waist and peers under the hedge.
‘What did I tell you this morning, Mil? These long, bright mornings. Everyone and every thing wants to be out in it. We’re in season.’
Mil shakes her head to herself and sighs again.
‘Even you can feel it,’ he says. ‘I’m in season. You’re as close to being in season as you’ll ever get.’
He takes a long, showy deep breath that sounds rough going in. His chest and jaw give an involuntary shudder as he lets it out, a muscle-echo from hours before, from a quiet moment Mil never knows about and George has almost forgotten.
Mil sets down her bags. The handles have bitten her wrists. They feel worse as the air gets at them and the blood returns.
Something under the hedge brushes her hand in a way neither painful nor cold that still makes her gasp suddenly. She pulls her hand back out and shakes it.
‘What was it? It’s got teeth, has it?’
She doesn't look at him, but shakes her head.
‘I knew it was fresh,’ he says.
‘Shut your mouth. It was a thorn.’
‘A thorn in there? Sure, what’s growing thorns in there?’
She reaches under again and quickly grabs the half-smoked cigarette.
‘Aww, would you look at that?’ says George. ‘She’s an absolute beauty.’
Mil rolls the end between her fingers before straightening up. She brings it to her nose and gives it a sniff.
‘I wouldn’t even worry about that,’ he says. ‘It’s fresh. Not minutes old. Not a thing has pissed on it, the wee darling. Here.’
He leans forward on the wooden crutches, pushing his chest towards Mil so she can drop the cigarette right into his top pocket.
The crutches make George look older, though he isn’t young. If he was ten years on, one might believe he was given them following a battle, the first and last crutches of a hero from a black-and-white war, but even with them he isn’t quite there. The lines on his face are deep but few and his white hair still has shape, though it changes with the hour. The thing that throws it all off is his left eye. It is small and tight, screwed up into a bright little marble, giving the impression that he can see even more, not less. It is the eye of an ancient in a face that refuses to wear its age.
‘Lovely.’ He makes a slurping sound, all lips and tongue.
Mil crouches, an olympian’s straight back, and lifts the bags, catching both up at once. Together they move on. Mil’s steps are short and fast, but steady as to almost make her float, while George makes large full swings on his sticks behind her.
‘What about that one you were reading yesterday?’ he calls up to her.
‘The Soviet,’ he wrinkles his nose and minces the words, ‘New Economic Policy.’
‘It’s finished,’ she says.
‘Bollocks,’ she says.
He cackles behind her then makes a down-sliding whistle. He finishes with a spit.
‘Revisionist shite,’ she says. ‘It’ll do your rolling papers. All 400 pages.’
He lets a hungry little laugh dribble off his chin.
‘You’d better start keeping your eyes peeled if I’m gonna smoke all that.’
She nods ahead up the road. A queue of people line the bus-stop.
‘Here’s a start,’ she says. ‘The bus is coming.’
George slurps again.