“If you were constantly tuned in to everything that was going on around you or, say, what a wonder it is to have kidneys, you wouldn’t get anything done.”
At the time I barely registered it. I was waiting for the father to finish giving his daughter a lesson and for her to put down the can of energy drink she was trying to persuade him to buy her, so I could get to my protein shakes. I filed it away, like so many snippets of overheard conversations I hear when trying to remember why I’ve come to the supermarket.
I’d left the trolley parked up by the cereal bars. It was weighed down with Austen’s dog food and becoming difficult to steer. As always, I’d picked the one out of the dozens snaking out through their shelter with a wobbly wheel. I’m so glad I demonstrated better choice when it came to pets, even if the Labrador had grown about five times bigger than I’d been prepared for.
I was becoming worried I was looking like a barren woman skulking around them, figuring she could just snatch someone else's child. And I was fully aware the more I worried about it, the redder in the face I became and the guiltier I looked. Thankfully, the father became aware of my twitching sneakers squeaking on the lino and patted his girl on the shoulder indicating she should follow him. A sweet freckled six or seven-year-old with what looked like bits of tinsel threaded in her hair. He’d begun a lecture on how a delicious crisp apple has a similar effect to drinking one cup of coffee.
I grabbed my reward and turned back to head towards my haul. I then saw something that stopped me in my verminous tracks. There was something sitting in the child seat. It didn’t seem to want to hold onto a specific shape or size. Like an eclipse, I felt looking at it for too long was wrong. There were feathers, then fur, then cracked brown bone looking just like the surface of the buffalo horn Austen loved to gnaw on.
I jumped as the ceiling cracked open. Or at least I thought it had. Slowly parting the arms above my head I’d instinctively made a shelter from, one end of a strip light had become detached from the tiles. It dangled there like the sword of Damocles. I inched over to the other side of the aisle, unwilling to take my eyes off it like the power of my glare was the only thing stopping it from impaling me.
Another conversation floated over from the next aisle. The father was telling his daughter how to work out what 20% off a box of detergent would be without looking at the helpful label. The thought of maths eased my heart back down my throat, setting it down in a pit of mild annoyance.
The blurry being had vanished. I walked over to my trolley. I touched the seat, which hadn’t been folded over when I left the damn thing and was crushing my bag of salad. The orange plastic was warm to the touch.
Returning home, I let Austen out to do her business and started putting the shopping away. I thought I’d fully calmed down but realised when trying to put the ice-cream tub in the egg tray I’d gone and put the eggs in the freezer. I rolled my eyes right up to the ceiling, where I was pleased to note the light fixtures were all where they were supposed to me. Small mercies.
I had reached the mantle of planet groceries when I saw it. A green box with gilt inscriptions. Indecipherable. I turned it over and there was a picture of a steaming tea cup on it, so I suppose that solved the mystery of the contents, if not how I came to be holding it. I ran a fingernail over the top to pry it open and had a whiff. Not bad. Apple-y.
I figured I’d paid for it, so I might as well drink it. Just what I needed.
Waiting for the kettle to boil, I caught sight of my reflection in the microwave. It seemed to me more lines were etched on my face than what I’d gone out with and my tight blonde curls, so naturally platinum I was once told I look about 20 years older than my 40 from the back (thanks, mother), stuck up like the flames of a bonfire. I asked Austen for her opinion when she came back in, lowering my face to hers so I could also check her chops to see if she’d been bothering the snails again. Her mournful whine made me wish I hadn’t.
Tea in hand, noisy sneakers kicked into their cupboard, I settled into my armchair to watch the evening news while Austen watched me, no doubt wondering whether the tea was a dog biscuit in disguise. I slurped my drink loudly, just to watch her flinch. I love her to bits but sometimes news-watching needs a dash of physical comedy, and rather her than me. I’d been skittish enough for one day.
Distracted by a small flurry outside, I looked out the window to watch a seagull take a spot on a lamppost across the street. I couldn’t tell you how long it stayed for, however, because I drifted off – somehow – to the soundtrack of bombing coming out of the nightmare box, waking hours later to a small trickle of tea in my lap where the mug had toppled over.
The bird was gone. The lamppost was now switched on. So was every star in the night sky. Mars glowing red. Saturn dressed in neon glow bands. Venus looking like a great glaucomatous eye. Flickers magnified to fireworks from a neighbour’s teen son’s bedroom as he played some video game. A moth tapped on the window, rumbling like a gong in my ears. When it eventually gave up trying to get in, and I gave up cowering behind a cushion, it left a trail of light that had me almost wishing it would return to repeat the trick.
The cup had rolled onto the floor, under the coffee table. I peered under to look for it. There was a whole other world under there, sprouting from the tangled roots of the carpet. I grabbed the mug before I could get too involved. I was still exploring mine.
Crossing over to the window was quite the hike. The carpet undulated beneath my feet. I had to keep my eyes fixed on the curtain hooks, which worked until I realised the hooks were pointed teeth, slick with saliva.
I watched a car dance down the road, jagged lightning bolts of bass flying out of the windows before disappearing into puddles. Even when it had strrrrretched around the corner I heard the driver’s techno soundtrack as if my ears had been pinned to the speakers.
My husband came home hours later to find me stroking one of the curtains. I have never before, nor since, felt anything as soft as that red velvet. I begged him for more tea. He brought me a glass of pond water. Even under the influence I was too polite to point that out, so he tells me. Fortunately he was the only thing in the room that didn’t seem to want to morph, so for me that made up for the meagre refreshments.
I learned several things from that wild night. My husband is a beautiful man and I tell him this more often. He was my eye of the storm that night. Whenever the family tried to reach out to me from our photos the mantelpiece, I would look at him for reassurance. I’d turn back and all the cousins and parents were back where they should be. He made sure Austen kept to her quarters. Who knows what I would’ve made of her.
I learned that pompous white men proselytising in supermarkets can oftentimes be right on the money. Not everyone is a mere obstacle to be shunted out of the way so we can reach our health drinks! There is something to be learned from everyone.
If that state of consciousness hadn’t worn off after nine or ten hours and I’d been stuck like that, I would never have left the wonders of my living room ever again. I notice more things now – the patterns the sparrows make when they line up on the telephone wires or the astonishing length and brightness of whiskers adorning Austen’s fuzzy face – but not to an obsessive degree.
Perhaps most importantly, my supermarket trolley never leaves my side for a moment when I go shopping now. When I unfailingly get the one with the wobbly wheel I’m just grateful the ground beneath my feet doesn’t do the same. I have seen the world in all of its dimensions and am eternally thrilled I’ll never revisit it in that form ever again.
I’ve also learned to write a list before I go shopping, and make sure I stick to it. I’d advise you do the same.