The town’s camping store was hushed. Except for the presence of the customer before him and the voice on the easy radio, Sam’s shop felt pleasantly empty. He was measuring a tent pole, which the man said had snapped in last summer’s winds. Clutched in his hands with the same ruler he had used for decades, the pole looked toothpick-thin.
‘Ten mill across,’ he said gently, his huge thumbs bracketing the two numbers. ‘Ten mill. Ten mill…’ With his right hand still subduing tent pole and ruler, he reached his left below the counter. He stood with his back to the road.
The customer was hoping the old man would be able to replace or repair the pole so he could go camping again this Christmas. He disliked camping, but only during and after the experience. He was looking forward to this weekend very much.
Sam slid a thick book onto the bench top and, with his thumb already in the middle pages, heaved the thing open to reveal rows and rows of tiny words and numbers. With his heavy index finger pressing on the paper, he began to read through the figures starting from the top. Partway down, he raised his eyes to the air before him as if he had forgotten his present purpose, or had been surprised by a memory.
‘Ten mill?’ his customer suggested. Wordlessly, Sam returned his gaze to the letters and numbers at his fingertip.
The radio sang softly, unselfconscious. Neither man said anything more. The longer they stood there, the more certain the customer became that he would not be camping this weekend. A lovely trip ruined. Cursed winds. He did not say these things, of course, but simply looked over Sam’s shoulder in the way cashiers lift their eyes so as not to see a client’s fingers punching a PIN. His own card was in his wallet. He wished he would be able to swipe it soon and get back to packing.
Behind Sam’s shoulder, across the street, was a woman rapidly encroaching, a thick bundle of fabric on one hip and a baby on the other. Leading with her forehead, she stamped briskly and barefoot towards the shop. The silent baby shuddered and shook with each step, clinging to the dress strap of the woman whose leathery eyelids squinted beneath the sun. The automatic doors parted without judgement.
Her heels thudded as she made her way to the other counter behind Sam, where she whumped the fabric onto the bench.
Sam turned his head. The woman glared, because her face had grown used to doing so. He took the five steps with which he was so familiar – from one counter to the other, past the radio by the cash register – and looked down at the khaki-coloured pile. The woman spoke in quick, low tones, her top lip twitching in indignant and frightening spasms. The man watched as Sam’s rounded shoulders rose, his tender baritone coursing through the floorboards, before falling once more, like rolling waves in a cardigan sea. The conversation was over.
Lips pursed and eyes wide, the woman lunged her chin towards him as she strong-armed the weight back onto her hip. The baby gripped the dress strap, quiet as luggage. Clomping out into the sunburn, the woman’s curses echoed from across the street back into the store until the automatic doors closed behind her.
Without a word, Sam shuffled languidly to his customer. It was as if the woman had just been a thought, a memory. Something to distract him from his measurements.
‘Ten mill,’ he said to his left hand, as it moved assuredly down the page.
The radio chirruped quietly.
The customer smiled. He was looking forward to camping.