by Charlie Willis
Michael McManus had a way of doing things. He would get up at six minutes past eight o’clock no matter whether it were a Sunday or his birthday or a cold day in the depths of January. Sometimes, depending on the time of year of course, this meant that he was up before the dawn broke and sometimes he was up long after the summer sun had floated up in the sky. He knew when it was winter because he had to turn on the lamp beside his bed in order to find his glasses after the alarm clock had sounded. He washed before breakfast, in the shower, with one fifteen millilitre measurement of shower cream. At breakfast he ate the rare branded cereal that had been his favourite since childhood. This brand of cereal was difficult to come by, but Michael was prepared to undertake the monthly trip out to the suburbs to purchase the cereal at an alternative foods shop run by a group of young people with long hair and piercings in unusual places. The cereal was not particularly expensive, which was just as well because Michael didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, he didn’t have much money at all. The coins for the monthly cereal trip were placed in a separate jar to the coins for the weekly trip to the supermarket. These little jars seldom sparkled in anything more than a slightly dull copper colour. There was a third jar, smaller than the first two, into which Michael placed the coins for his weekly lottery ticket. The lottery tickets from the previous weeks of Michael’s life were stacked up in boxes under the kitchen table. The lottery had never swung in Michael’s favour but he wouldn’t have considered for a moment not purchasing his weekly ticket. It was not in Michael’s nature to change his way of doing things.
One particular morning, which had up until that point played out like any other morning, the morning newsreaders broadcasted a serious public announcement. Michael looked up from his bowl of cereal when he heard them interrupt their usual show. The man in the suit spoke in a stern, worried voice about the serious weather warning that had been issued by the government for that day. There would be floods, apparently, and torrential rain. Michael felt uncomfortable about his routine being interrupted by the government. Or rather, by whatever it was that controlled the day’s weather. He tried to bring his attention back to his bowl of cereal and he took another spoonful.
The woman in the suit was talking now, walking across the studio with a clipboard in her hand. She was worried too, with a crease in her brow and her hand nervously flicking about as she spoke. Michael swallowed his spoonful of cereal with difficulty. He looked up at the television screen. He caught the words ‘panic buying’ and ‘tinned foods’ on the rolling reel of advice that ran beneath the newsreaders. He heard them talking about ‘safe places’ in the home and how to prepare your family. This was going to be a big storm and people might not be able to leave their homes for at least a week or so.
Since it was a Tuesday it was the day that Michael did his weekly supermarket trip. All of this bothersome business about the storm would not stop him from carrying out his weekly shop. He turned off the television and emptied out the jar of supermarket money into his wallet. Then he reached for the smaller jar, the jar that contained the lottery ticket coins, and he put this jar into the pocket of his big coat. He slipped the coat on and closed the front door as he always did, slowly, in order to hear the latch click shut.
There were a great deal of people milling about in the street, gesticulating and shivering in the wind. There were more cars parked along the sides of the street than usual, which made Michael feel uneasy. He kept to his brisk pace, with his eyes cast firmly on the pavement in front of him. Naturally, he took the same route to the supermarket every week and was careful to step on the same paving stones each time. This Tuesday, in order to step on the particular paving stone at the end of the street, he had to wait for a large group of children and their parents to move out of his way. It was most disconcerting to be surrounded by so many people on a Tuesday morning supermarket trip. At least, he thought to himself, I will regain some sort of normality when I reach the supermarket. There I will fetch the items on my list and buy my lottery ticket.
The supermarket was heaving. In order to find the items on his list, Michael had to duck under snatching limbs and step over frantic feet. He was propelled into the cheese section by a man pushing a trolley and a pushchair. A woman reached in front of him and snatched the last can of tomato soup out of his hands.
When he had finally got the things he needed, he looked for the queue. The bustling queue stretched from the tills to back doors of the supermarket. Michael trudged across the shop floor to join the back of the line. To pass the time while he waited, he thought about his lottery numbers. They had always been the same. His mother had bought him his first ticket and he’d been filled with such an unusual vibrating feeling of hope as he waited for the numbers to be announced. He hadn’t had that feeling for a long time. But he had certainly had the sad, heavy disappointment that comes when the unmatching numbers are announced. His was a difficult life, a poor life, a lonely life, and he didn’t think it was asking for much from God or the universe or whoever it was who controlled the weather, to ask for just a little something to reward him for his tenacity over the years…
The wait went on and on and Michael grew weary. His legs ached and his eyes felt heavy with boredom. A child started to scream behind him and the couple in front of him began to argue. A woman pushed past him to grab at the magazines he was standing next to. One of the magazines, glossy and enthusiastic, demanded its readers to ‘change their lives’ with one simple trick. Michael was intrigued. Ordinarily he hated change; he had a way of doing things. But today’s events had already rumbled his way of doing things. He wondered what they were proposing and reached out to open the magazine. The feel of the shiny cover beneath his fingers was strange and he felt breathless with the unfamiliarity of it all. He put down his shopping basket and with shaking hands began to open the magazine.
What am I doing? He asked himself, flicking through the pages to the one which held the secret of the life-changing trick.
The child continued to scream and the noises of the panicked shoppers swirled around his head. A glass bottle smashed in the distance behind him and a furore of shouting rose up.
Michael finally found the page for the life-changing trick. He read hungrily, scanning the text and moving his lips slightly as his eyes flickered over the words. There it was; do something different. Do something different.
He looked up from the magazine. A man in the shop uniform touched his arm.
‘Sir,’ he said, ‘in order to speed things up, I’m going to start taking money here in the queue. If you could let me scan your items…’ Michael stared at the man with his mouth open. The woman behind him jabbed him in the back.
‘Hurry up,’ she said, ‘people need to get out!’ The child took up its screaming again. Michael handed his shopping basket to the man. With a little scanner, the man zapped the items and then added up the prices. He was done in a couple of seconds.
‘Ticket…’ Michael murmured.
‘What’s that, Sir?’ the man asked. Michael cleared his throat.
‘I need to buy a lottery ticket,’ he said. The woman behind him began to shout at him, which caused the other members in the queue to gather around him and stare at him. The man in uniform rolled his eyes and scurried off. Within a few seconds, he was back with the slip on which Michael had to write his numbers. With shaking hands, he took out the pen from his coat pocket and began to scratch the numbers into the boxes. When he came to the last number in his sequence, he heard a voice shouting the life-changing trick in his head; do something different. Before he’d truly thought about what he was doing, he changed the last six to a seven. He handed the slip back and the man sorted out his ticket for him. The crowd surrounding him were heckling him, emitting insults and cries of frustration. Michael paid for his shopping and his ticket with the coins in the jars and then went to leave the shop.
What have I done? Tears bulged in his eyes.
That evening, after listening to the announcement on the evening television show, Michael got up out of his chair and went to the front door. He stepped outside into the pouring rain and stood still in the middle of his sodden front yard. Tilting his head back, the water ran over his face like a sheet of cold silk rippling in the wind. As the rain lashed down upon his skin he felt as though he were one with the water, as though he were a river. And as the rain beating at the muddy banks caused sticks and lumps of hard earth to jolt and shudder and shift and then break away, so the cogs and whirring wheels of Michael’s way of doing things began to slip and unhinge and float away downstream.