The bell above the door at Lochalshie’s pharmacy—never the busiest place at the best of times—rang out as the door opened. Mhari, too taken up with her TikTok stream, glanced up from her phone as the first customer of the day walked in.
Five to five, and five minutes before the shop closed. FFS, as the saying went.
“May I help you?” she asked, remembering to soften her consonants. Normally, she wouldn’t bother with politeness, but the Lloyds Pharmacy group, to which the tiny Lochalshie chemist shop belonged, had recently sent all its employees on a customer relations course.
Smile and be pleasant all the time, the consultants urged. Lloyds Pharmacy and your jobs depend on it.
“Alright, gorgeous?” The customer sauntered up to the counter, all too cheery for a Tuesday—a day the folks that decided what went on earth was fit for nothing exciting at all. He planted his elbows in the space either side of the perfume offer of the week, Britney Spears’ Fantasy, and the curling around the edges poster begging people to get their flu jab that had bleated the same message for the past four months.
Mhari straightened up, setting her phone to one side but not off so she could keep her place up on that @CurlyGal film demo-ing what she promised was a “super-quick, super-easy” up-do for the time-pushed. She tugged at the front of the Lloyds Pharmacy issued dark blue tunic. Not a flattering garment, but if you hung onto the edge of it, it made the most of your boobs.
“D’ye want anything?” she asked the customer. His eyes, always the most expressive part of him, skedaddled left, eyeing up the pharmacy’s discreet selection of condoms and lube. He leant further forward on the counter, putting him almost nose-to-nose with her.
“Thing is,” his lips twitched, “I’m so big, I’ve nae idea if any of those things will fit me.”
The voice behind made them both jump. Alison, the pharmacist, Mhari’s boss, and someone who spent most of her time snoozing in the back while pretending to categorise the prescriptions. She waddled her way to Mhari’s side. The company rules allowed her, unlike Mhari, not to wear a uniform. The tunic might have suited her better. It hid a protruding stomach far better than Alison’s skinny jeans and red vest camisole combined with a black cardigan top.
Alison marched over to the shelf, picked up a packet of condoms, and lobbed it at Lachlan. Fair play to him, he caught the packet one-handed and didn’t blush in the slightest.
“There!” Alison said, grinning at him. “Universal fit, see? Anything else we can supply ye with? Perfume for the lady?” She spun around, pointing at the Britney display. Mhari had sprayed herself from head to toe in the stuff when it first came in. The sickly sweet smell hung around her after two showers and a hair wash. It could give Avon Skin So Soft a decent run as a midgie repellent.
“Or what about cures for cystitis?” Alison mused, moving back behind the pharmacy counter, eyeing the mystery products there that customers had to ask for, leaning forward, their eyes studying the counter rather than the face in front of them. “Or this cream ye rub on genital warts and then there’s—”
Mhari snatched up her phone. “The customer doesnae want anything after all! See ye tomorrow, Alison!” She threw the greeting, friendly enough, over her shoulder, grabbed her coat from the hook behind the counter and fled, the mystery customer following behind her chortling all the way.
Darkness had set in already. At this time of year in the far north, daylight hours were fleeting. You waved at them through the window while you worked during the day and adjusted to not seeing them otherwise.
Outside the shop, a van zipped by. The driver gave them a cheery toot. Nothing followed him. Rush hour traffic in Highland villages did not exist.
Lachlan caught her hand in his, making her glance at it and him. He’d smartened up. Most of the time, he lived in tight jeans, trainers that were the exact opposite of box-fresh and fleece hoodies. Today’s attire featured black denims underneath a padded jacket she didn’t recognise and a pair of cowboy boots. He’d visited the barber shop in Oban too, by the looks of things, as his dark curly hair lay closer to his skull.
“What’s going on?” Mhari asked, lacing her question with suspicion. Surprises rarely ticked ‘the things I love’ list in her book. Fine for other people, but hideous when imposed on her.
“Nothing!” Lachlan gave her a bland smile, triggering further suspicious thoughts. “Just thought I’d surprise my lovely girlfriend with a wee visit, seeing as I’ve got the night off.”
All well and good, but Mhari had planned her night throughout the too-dull Tuesday in the shop. First, try that @CurlyGirl lassie’s trick with her hair and see if it worked. Second, pour boiling water on a packet of instant beef-flavoured noodles and grate an awfy big heap of melted cheese on top. Bung the bowl in the microwave until it descended into gooey goodness. Third, sit on the sofa wi’ a big blanket over her knees, bowl o’ noodles in one hand, remote control on the other, Bridgerton series two streaming on the TV.
“I’ve got plans,” she said.
Lachlan’s lips twitched. “Don’t tell me. You go back to your flat, try out something you’ve seen on YouTube or TikTok, make yourself instant noodles with enough cheese to give you nightmares when you try to sleep for years to come, and then flick through the TV apps before settling on Netflix and binge-watching Bridgerton while WhatsApping Katya at the same time?”
Jesus. This was why Mhari advised her younger cousins—those who bothered to listen to her—to avoid entanglements at all costs. Who wanted someone who knew you that well?
“Aye, very good,” she said, stomping off towards her flat, half hoping Lachlan would and wouldn’t follow. When he did, she slowed to let him catch up.
“If ye’ve watched Bridgerton series two for real, dinnae tell me anything!”
Lachlan, grin far too smug for Mhari’s liking, shook his head. “No, no! The Duke of Whatsit can do whatever to Lady Poshity, and I’ll no’ say a word. And I don’t want any of your noodles. I brought my own refreshments.”
He waggled a carrier bag. “Doritos. Cheese flavour. Dip. The sour cream kind. Also, a gigantic bar of fruit and nut chocolate. But you’re quite right. Folks shouldnae share their food…”
After instant noodles liberally coated with tiny bits of cheese that slid in between each coil of noodle, a night spent eating highly processed tortilla chips and enormous bars of chocolate scored second-best in the Mhari McFarlane ‘best ways to pass your time’ list.
“How big’s that bag o’ Doritos?” she asked.
“A mahoosive two hundred and fifty grams. I nabbed it from the hotel stores.”
He meant the Lochside Welcome, where he worked as part of the management team. The hotel dealt in catering sizes, and within its larders could be found products that were much, much bigger than the bottles, cans and packets you got in shops.
“Far too much for one skinny wee skelf to eat all by themselves,” Lachlan added, jostling her side once more.
Well, he wasnae lying there. Early in their relationship, Mhari made the two of them hop on the bathroom scales. When she’d lived with Katya, Katya swept the bathroom of such things, declaring, loftily voiced, that bathroom scales were a tool of the patriarchy, created to make women feel bad about themselves.
The minute Katya departed the flat for London, Mhari dug out the old scales she’d hidden in the cupboard under the stairs. As a joke one day, she dared Lachlan to weigh himself in front of her, first thing in the morning, not wearing a thing. She listened to the results, dread growing, and hopped on the scales far less enthusiastically, having taken off everything—the five earrings in each ear, the thin silver chain around her wrist, the bobble around her thick red hair—jumping off seconds later, appalled.
Weren’t lassies meant to weigh less than the men they dated?
“So?” Lachlan asked.
“None o’ your bloody business!” she replied.
To be fair to him, he never asked again, and now he dangled that extra-enormous packet of the world’s best snack in front him. They were at her front door, anyway. Lachlan leant on the pebble-dashed wall, merry eyed. If Mhari started a pros and cons list for the reasons to invite him in, the pros would far outweigh every disadvantage.
She fumbled around in her coat pocket, trying to locate the front door keys. The stack of them found, she waved them in front of her.
“Awright, c’mon up. Dinnae make a mess and scoff most o’ the Doritos or you’re dumped, okay?”
Lachlan nodded solemnly. “Fine by me.”
As this was a threat she uttered all the time, likely he didn’t take it seriously. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Hope it’s okay, but I got you a card.”
No-one wandered the streets of Lochalshie this time of night. The bitter cold, the wind and the darkness encouraged sensible people to stay inside. Still, Mhari hesitated before accepting the pale lilac envelope Lachlan proffered, fearful someone might see. She had a reputation as a straight-talking, no nonsense, no soppy shite person to maintain.
“What is this?” she asked, knowing fine the answer.
“Open it indoors if you like,” he replied. “I think it’s pretty obvious.”
The sheen of his grin dialled down a notch or two. Ach, when folks presented you wi’ surprises, they should be ready if you didnae like them.
“Fine,” Mhari replied. The door swung open as the staircase beckoned. At the top of the stairs, a cat yowled. For years, Mhari hadn’t counted herself as an animal lover but a brief spell of living with one changed her mind and Dougie (everyone always said, what? when she told them the cat’s name) reminded her of herself.
Loved his home, routine, sleeping and independence.
“Want me to feed Dougie?” Lachlan asked as they reached the top of the stairs. The flat, a typical product of two up two down houses beloved by Scottish councils in the 1960s and 70s, was two bedroom, a living room, the kitchen off that room, and a bathroom. Cosy, thanks to it being on the first floor.
He didn’t wait for a reply, wandering into the kitchen and opening the door under the sink where Mhari stored the cat food.
Dougie, tail up, trotted after him. Cats, eh? Loyalty to whoever fed them last.
Mhari shrugged off her coat. In the kitchen, Lachlan talked nonsense to Dougie. What a good, handsome boy he was! Did Sir want some yummy biscuits or what about this delicious roast chicken he’d snaffled out of the hotel…
“What!” Mhari marched into the kitchen. Dougie had stretched up Lachlan’s black denimed leg, one front paw in the air as Lachlan dangled the chicken over him.
Lachlan met her glare with an innocent smile. “Thought he deserved a treat, too.”
Determined to keep her planned night on track, Mhari located her tongs as per @CurlyGal’s instructions and found the clip again. Right, so… you took inch-wide strands of hair, wound them around the heated metal, pinned the curls to your head and…
“Aren’t you going to open it then?” Lachlan asked, pointing at the card she’d dumped on the sofa.
“When my hair’s right.”
Disappointingly, @CurlyGal’s three minute up-do for the time pushed took far longer than advertised. Mhari’s hair wasn’t half as neat either. She switched off the tongs, muttering to herself about folks who over-promised and under-delivered.
“I didnae get you one,” she said, picking up Lachlan’s card.
He shrugged. “I didn’t expect you to.”
The reasonableness irritated her. Lilac envelope slit open, she slid out the card. Lachlan being Lachlan hadn’t chosen a soppy card. Instead, the greeting on the front proclaimed, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, whisky’s far cheaper than dinner for two’.
“Aye, very good,” she said, opening the card. As they weren’t in the business of exchanging cards, she realised she’d never seen Lachlan’s handwriting. Most men were clumsy with pens, making their writing difficult to decipher.
No mistaking what was written inside, though.
Marry me, gorgeous? He’d made the question mark much bigger than the letters.
Quite, and God almighty… How on earth did she reply?
©Emma Baird 2022