The boy in the torn T-shirt tattoos a red flower onto his wrist using a needle and a red ballpoint pen. He hunches over himself, perched on the old woman’s wall – the house opposite the supermarket – from which she heckles the traffic every dole day, reeking of whiskey, paint and peonies. But today she isn’t here – because today is Monday.

The boy’s expression is grotesque with concentration: his mouth is stretched wide in unwavering dedication to his task. He is a gargoyle on a high cathedral wall and the supermarket door is a portal to a hell lit with neon strip lights.

Their constancy is really a fast-flickering, a high frequency sound which screams in my ears, though those inside do not seem to hear it. It is the voices of the dead, who laugh at the living and their cut-price purchases: all those who have perished on this ignoble plain, a spillage in the cereal aisle.

The supermarket gargoyle has failed as anathema. People come, people go, but I try not to judge him too harshly.

His eyes roll back in their sockets and he slips from the wall, blood thick with red ink.

I shut my eyes tightly and step over the threshold. I remember her. The last time I saw her she was propped up in boots with holes in the soles, and a purple puffer coat on top. Her hair was falling out, she swayed. The history of her madness is well-documented: she likes sponges, they are all she ever buys.

She stands before me, her basket full of fibrous yellow fruit.

‘Do you eat it?’ I ask her.

She doesn’t reply and continues filling her basket.

‘Do you actually eat it?’

She stops. I lean forwards and press down hard on one of the sponges, my finger’s weight impressing. We hold our breath, and the roar in the aisles is still.

Centuries pass, empires crumble, and anticipation stretches between us like a current of electricity. It holds us fixed, magic. We wait.

The sponge springs back against the transparent plastic packaging, and the spell is broken. She smiles, a fine line drawn in red-ink.

‘Sponge cake,’ she says.

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