Friday, April 13

Bagged Salad

THE SUPERMARKET was far enough out of town that it could not even be considered on the outskirts. It was in the middle of tree-lined fields and next to it were a shed and some horses that ran around in circles all day. A carpark sheltered it from the sound of the bypass and on a Wednesday afternoon, just before the schools finished, it was barely a quarter full. Angela pulled in and looked for a good spot; they were plentiful. There was no sun, only a sheet of luminous grey overhead. She was dressed smartly for work, her minimal hour day job as a clerical assistant, and her clothes took years off of her middle age. She was subtle in her class—children had been unkind to her, husband had been too complimentary, now she just looked best in the clothes she wore to work and she locked the car-door, checked it once and made her way to the entrance.
The entrance, guarded by discount offers on chocolate biscuits and cheap three-day flowers, someone collecting for breast cancer and a plastic dog for the blind, opened and closed by a will of its own. The ads on the noticeboard were in various coloured card, each shoving aside the other and none noticed. She pulled a rattling shopping-trolley from the queue and wheeled it, with considerable difficulty, into the supermarket.
‘ I’ll give you some change on the way out, dear,’ she directed to the lady collecting for breast cancer.
A shallow musical ditty came from the speakers in the ceiling and over it bled the customer announcements, deals, and calls for assistance at the meat counter. The low ceiling vanished on forever over the aisles of products. At the entrance were newspapers and tobacco and then further on were the fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets at that particular time of the day are a unnerving place; remove the PA echo and everyone is in silence, searching for sustenance and toilet cleaner, rustling packets of gravy granules, fingering legs of lamb. Angela remarked in her head at the people around her, many of whom seemed unbalanced and strange. This was an exhibition of overfed locals, those too stupid to kill themselves or set up a bank account; of the most unbearable smells ever to drift from old men; of catatonic dying women who dreamed of having the priest over for shepherd’s pie and imitation cola. The sane were lost among the insane, praying their own kids would smother them before they ever deteriorated to such a degree. One such mother was scolding her young daughter for straying too far from the trolley; eager to read the children’s magazine, the free gift, the colours and the weekly paper caked in ink.
Eyeing the granny smiths and avoiding the bruised, Angela hovered thoughtfully. Realising she was too considerate over apples she shook herself and looked around. Over by the bagged salads was a young lady she recognised immediately though it had been a couple of years since she had seen her last. Pondering an approach, Angela’s legs moved of their own accord and, taking the trolley with her, she walked up to the girl.
‘Hello, Kristen.’
The girl turned from the bagged salads. The look on her face was one of mock surprise, undetected by Angela.
‘Angela! Oh my god!’
A moment passed during which both parties thought about an embrace until finally Angela did so, encompassing Kristen in her arms and hugging her with the warmth that, once triggered, is inimitably genuine.
Kristen’s head fitted snugly on to Angela’s shoulders. Without meaning to, she inhaled in the scent of her hair and it was a smell she had known – or a version of – some years ago.
Supermarkets were not the right place for this and both women retracted at once.
‘How are you, dear?’
Kristen cleared her throat. She looked to the left of Angela’s head and then corrected herself. She gave a casual – ‘Yeah, I’m all right, you know. I’m OK. I’m doing fine.’
Kristen always dressed well, thought Angela. She had on a navy & white striped shirt, a bright red cardigan – the sleeves of which came to her elbows, withdrawing before her delicate wrists – and black trousers with tight creases. Her hair was as thick and black as ever, overwhelming her skull, and intoxicating. Her skin had cleared of blemishes. Cheekbones protruded, pulling your attention to the dark emotional eyes that Angela’s son had remarked upon so ecstatically during the honeymoon period of their relationship. She looked, Angela could not deny, well – far better than when they had last met in town.
‘How are you?’
Angela smiled and patted the handlebar of her shopping trolley; some onions wobbled – ‘I am fine. I just finished work and came in to pick up a few things. I always spend too much but I suppose taking a trolley round doesn’t help.’
Kristen smiled.
Then, forgetting that she had already asked it, Angela repeated – ‘How are you?’ This time the question was emphasised so much that it could only be answered honestly.
Both women were asked all the time how they were and both shrugged the question off frivolously. When one responds to such an enquiry, it is easy to disregard honesty, easy to be politely positive. However, when Angela posed the question a second time, Kristen fell comfortably into responding, recognising the genuine interest, elaborated . . .
‘What are you up to?’
Kristen – ‘I moved. Yeah, I got a place with my boyfriend near St. O— and we have a little farm out there. It’s not much. We have some chickens and some pigs and a fair bit of land, you know. It’s not massive. I mean, we don’t have any tractors or anything. It’s a nice little place.’
‘Oh my!’
‘Yeah. We sell the eggs and stuff.’ She laughed. ‘We’re thinking of starting, like, a kennel for pigs. I don’t know what you’d call it . . . a piggle, I dunno,’ she laughed again, both of them did, ‘but it’s really nice, really lovely.’
‘You’re not doing fashion anymore?’
‘No. I graduated and I still do it for myself, in my free time, you know, but not, like, as a career or anything. It’s just for fun. The farm takes up all my time, just helping Jack.’ She, at once, regretted saying her boyfriend’s name. ‘I never knew that working on it would be so time consuming but there’s always something to do!’
The rented car made a smooth noise along the motorway and in the distance stood the theme park. From the back she called – ‘Disney World! Look! There it is! It’s there!’ She was laughing. They had picked her up from the airport two days previous and it was their first holiday together. Her incessantly happy mood, childish and infectious, enlivened everyone else, though none but Angela showed it. Kristen unbelted herself and faced the window of the big people-carrier. The castle stood up, tall and white and blue and bathed in thick, hazy Floridian sunshine. Angela turned, smiling and looked at the seats in the rear. The light that came in that side of the vehicle highlighted Kristen and her son.
The image, right there of the pair of them in the back of the car, flashed in Angela’s mind. It was years ago. The photograph was very clear, without grain nor blur, pristinely saturated on her memory.
‘Well, I must say, you look great. You look amazing. Very well.’
‘Thank you. So do you.’
Angela smiled modestly. Her son had made a wrong decision. She knew that then. She knew that now. The daughter Angela always wanted, framed by bagged salads.
As the words – overheard by nearby strangers – fell from her mouth, she wished she could recall them – ‘How is everyone?’ and by this question she wanted to know how her first love was. It was agony to admit in her thoughts; someone she had pained to remove from her subconscious, returning in a supermarket and now enquired upon.
After the third pregnancy test that Angela asked her to take, she shook it and, already very sure of the answer, washed her hands. Kristen unlocked the bathroom door and walked slowly down the stairs. Angela, her husband and son were waiting on the last step, each looking up with expressions that were varied and confused. ‘Negative.’ – The son sighed. The father blinked many times and uttered something. Angela, she just wore sadness; though not sadness at the outcome but at Kristen and for that Kristen was filled with unbearable sorrow and immense guilt for her little act. Anything to get him back, she had told herself. Anything. ‘Come back into the kitchen, dear.’
‘Oh, everyone’s fine.’ With a hint of discomfort Angela started with whom she knew Kristen was really asking after – ‘Jeremy is still managing sites. He’s pretty much the same. He’s looking for a place with his mate, Jamie. Doug’s at university, studying drama, basically. And Ron’s still Ron.’ She did not mention her husband. Even her other two sons were irrelevant in the response. She purposefully remained brief over Jeremy and during the short summation she withdrew her eyes from Kristen’s.
The pair stood, staring at each other.
She wanted to add – ‘Jeremy’s not been in love since, you know.’ Kristen would argue that he had never been in love with her but Angela knew otherwise. Angela knew better than Kristen that love is born and love dies.
Instead she added – ‘And how is your family?’
‘They’re OK. My mum misses me. I moved out about eight months ago. She isn’t used to me not being there’
As she tried to calm herself, to fight it, the tremors became worse. Then Angela noticed it. Kristen wanted to run. The supermarket doors, still preoccupied with opening and shutting for no one, called out to her and she wished to flee through them, into the carpark, out into the surrounding fields.
‘Are you all right, dear?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine.’
Some time later, as Kristen was leaving the supermarket, she looked around for Angela. There was no sign of her. Many of the women that trickled down the aisles were now going to pick up their children from school. Wondering whether or not she would see her again, Kristen walked out, placing a coin into the cup of the lady collecting for breast cancer. Blood returned to her legs, steadying them at the knee and she no longer felt nauseous. The wind and the sound of the fields could be heard. She walked towards her car, loaded her shopping into the boot and got into the driver’s seat.
She did not start it up. The clocked up miles were all fat: eight, three, zero, six. Dry and crumbling mud covered the mats. The car muffled the natural silence of outside and enwrapped her in a silence that allowed her to think of the encounter she had had by the bagged salads. In the flip-down mirror above the windscreen she checked her mascara, which showed only the most minor of watery distortions. She wrote a message on her phone – ‘I don’t know if this is still your number. I just bumped into your mother in the supermarket. I hope you are well. Kristen’ She did not send it. Like the car underneath, it waited expectedly. The phone was thrown on to the passenger seat where it bounced softly. The car grunted and the revs kicked in. The needle wound up.

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