'When you’re hirsute, pallid and in baggy jeggings, you’re bound to bump into someone'

Hilary Fannin: My fragrant, pretty, well-off school friend became wistful over the persimmons

“I remembered Sally from when we were in school together, a diligent, pretty young woman” Photograph: iStock

“I remembered Sally from when we were in school together, a diligent, pretty young woman” Photograph: iStock

 

I met an old acquaintance in the supermarket the other morning. I’d gone there early, really early, and was firmly attached to my trolley, eyeing up the unwashed roosters at a time when I’d normally be reaching for the snooze button and clinging on to my forgettable dreams. In fact, so keen was I to get my hands on a pair of shiny aubergines before the shop filled up with perspicacious seasonal buyers, their crampons ready to scale the shelves in search of environmentally suspect Christmas crackers, that I’d thrown myself out of the scratcher and grabbed the reusable shopping bags without even ditching the grimy, tomato-splattered tee-shirt that I’d been sleeplessly rolling around in just moments before. 

One of the disadvantages of returning to live in the neighbourhood you grew up in is that when you’re at your all-time sartorial lowest, when you’re at your most unflatteringly hirsute and pallid, you’re absolutely bound to bump into someone you went to school with 40 years ago, some fragrant and lovely woman moving gracefully through the fluorescently lit aisles in her freshly laundered Lycra while you’re staring, cross-eyed and slack-jawed, at a limp courgette. 

I heard her call my name just before I managed to take cover behind a crate of lime-green bananas. In truth, I’d normally be perfectly happy to shoot the breeze with someone over a sturdy butternut squash, despite being dressed in baggy jeggings (one knee of which looked like I might have been kneeling on a lasagne), but I’m under pressure to finish a piece of work before I turn into a slightly mildewed pumpkin, hence my dawn raid on the vegetable department and my desire to get back to my garden shed and write uninterrupted. 

“Oh hi” – let’s call her Sally – “hi, Sally! Goodness, I didn’t see you there,” I lied, unfurling myself from behind a brace of kumquats, which is easier to say than do. (Actually no, it’s easier to do than say.) 

We chatted for a while, Sally and I, while I breathed in her delicate floral scent and batted away pangs of envy about her sparkling molars. We were standing underneath an inflatable reindeer and a couple of aerated snowmen, something I remarked on, saying how much I resented being catapulted headlong into Christmas on a November morning when I was desperate to slow time down and forget about the imminence of the festive season. Sally, however, told me how much she loved November, loved the shops dusting off their fairy lights and digging their Westlife Christmas albums out of whatever aperture they’d shoved them into last January. (Okay, she didn’t say anything about Westlife; she’s far too polite.) 

Pre-Christmas build-up

Yes, Sally loved the pre-Christmas build-up – not long to wait now until her children started returning from their lives in far-flung places (a start-up in Belgrade, an internship in Auckland, a teaching post in Thailand, that kind of thing) to spend the holidays at home.

It’s silly, she added, but the anticipation of their arrival is almost easier than the actuality; when they’re home, she becomes so conscious of the time slipping away. She tried to stay in the moment, she assured me, but she couldn’t forget that the holiday would end and then they’d be gone again. And then what? Skype. Summer. Skype. Another Christmas? It all goes so fast, she said, I can’t believe how fast life goes. 

I remembered Sally from when we were in school together, a diligent, pretty young woman. Gentle, kinder than I was, she wasn’t one to schlep herself along the mulch-covered lanes with a cigarette butt stashed in her gymslip. She’d got married young, I recalled, to a local boy. They’d had financial success, and I was dimly aware that, after the supermarket, she’d be returning to an enviable pile of bricks and mortar. 

She picked up a waxy persimmon and held it in her hand. It’s a fruit I tend not to buy. I read once that its astringency is artificially removed so that it can be eaten at all stages of maturity; it’s a fruit synthetically devoid of bitterness.

“You think that everything lasts forever,” Sally said. “You think that it’s always going to be the same, but it doesn’t last and it isn’t the same. She smiled. “There’s a lesson we didn’t learn in school.”

“Unfortunately,” I replied.

She put the fruit back down again in its little plastic nest. “It’s too early to buy the persimmons,” she said. “They ripen so fast, and then they’re gone.”

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