By Mike Hickman
Back when Betty Boo was still Doing the Do, and I’d no idea what doing the do meant (which should tell you everything), I’d linger in Our Price and I’d look at the albums. And this was despite us not having a record player at home, and me not knowing the first thing about music. Or having any money on me with which I could have bought anything at all – even the reduced items in what mother called the “shit bin”. I’d always begin with Our Price – checking out Betty on LP and CD. The cassette was there, too, and I could have played that, if I could have bought it, but the boombox in the kitchen was from 1978 and only played cassettes backwards. After chewing them first. Besides, taking an album like that home; it was bad enough when I listened to Power FM. If it wasn’t the Beatles, it wasn’t permitted. So browsing it was. Always browsing.
Knowing that the assistant would give me the old, “can I help you there?” if I didn’t move on, I’d eventually give the VHS tapes the once over before sliding over the way to WH Smith and the books. Which meant venturing outside into the tiled, glass-roofed outdoor-indoor atrium of the Centre. All babble and shrieks and screams clattering against the hard surfaces. Laughter, too. And so much of it. And me skittering across, past the indoor palm trees – yes, they went in for those back then – and the benches where the winos would sit. If I was lucky. If this wasn’t going to be one of the days when I was seen. More often than not, I got away with it, even though I didn’t know what I was getting away with. You don’t, do you, until you look back?
If I had been truly interested in books, I might have gone up to the library on the first floor. Smiths was quiet – the books section in particular – but the library on a Saturday would be deserted. There’d be no chance of being bothered. I could spend hours in there, sitting at the table with the Times and the Guardian, and looking down into the food court, watching out for any sign of Billy or James or Joanna or Harriet. In any of the many combinations I knew I might find them. Because that’s what they did with their time. Pizza slices and milkshakes, that’s what I’d heard in school, from Mr Baker’s office, where they’d kept me since the divorce and what happened at home afterwards. The food court didn’t sound much like fun. Pizza and milkshakes was one thing, but how much time did they use up? What did you do then? Maybe that’s why I watched out for them. And it wasn’t like they’d have looked up. I knew that much, too.
I’d hide where they wouldn’t even think to look. Was it that calculated? Well, no, I liked books. If my no-longer classmates had shown any interest in me, other than calling out what they seemed obliged to call out if I was seen, then they’d know I was the bookworm type. And Smiths had the Treks and the Doctor Whos and the comics. My peers looked down on such things – Tim Burton’s Batman was alright back then, but you needed to go to the cinema for that and so that was never going to be a thing for me – and so, even though they might know to find me there, if they thought about me at all, they wouldn’t venture that far into the store. The chocolate at the front, that’s as far as they went. That’s where I’d seen James that time. I’d turned quickly back to the train magazines. And nothing was said, even though I’d waited there long enough to read about the new diesels on the East Coast line.
You’ll do something like that, when you’ve got the time to browse.
Betty in Our Price and the comics in Smiths. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, when I look back on it. And, despite the “issues” in the past – the names, the mimicking of my walk, the stuff they’d said about Dad – I kept my distance, didn’t I? Oh, I saw them on the benches outside Tesco (trying it on with the smoking, I noticed; I wonder if they knew I’d got there first?) or taking it in turns to nip into the Bear Factory to record inappropriate comments to be stuffed in the talking bears (of course I’d gone in and played them back). But I knew where to go and how to avoid them. I kept my distance.
So why, when I think back to that place and its atriums and its courts, and I see myself at the racks and the shelves, do I still hope they’ll be there round the next corner?
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and Red Fez.