The moment I turned into the fruit and vegetable aisle, I knew I should have picked a different trolley. The left wheel squeaked around the corner, the rubber ricocheting off the granite floor. The whining cry reminded me of Harry. All alone with the babysitter. Barely six months old, his thumb in his mouth, suckling with his gummy smile. His hair, ginger like hers had been.
Tears sprung to my eyes, but I blinked them away. The funeral had been months ago, and I kept hoping things would change. But I still refused to leave the house most days and I still cried myself to sleep.
Something bit into my palm. I looked down.
The card lay in my hand from our meeting. In fact, it was clutched between my thumb and forefinger, crumpled a little in the middle.
On it read Minerva Edri. Her phone number was typed in spider-leg scrawl on a white laminated background.
Biting my teeth, I stuffed the card back in my pocket. No, it was ridiculous. Ruth would have slapped me for considering it.
In fact, knowing Ruth, she would have barricaded me on the sofa by now, wrapping my stretched belly in blanket after blanket while brining me endless cups of hot chocolate. She’d never balked at the scar above my above navel. Not only that, but she’d told me that if anyone ever asked, if anyone ever saw it, I was to tell them I’d been bitted by a shark.
“I’m a florist, sweetie. I doubt anyone would believe that,” I’d said, playfully shoving her away. Ruth smiled that sherbet lemon smile of hers: bright, vibrant, perhaps even a little sickly. She’d always been so happy. Though I loved her, I’d always found ways to poke holes in her happiness. She was kind and caring, where I was bitter and easily jealous. But she loved me. More than anyone else ever had. Or ever would, I reminded myself, pushing the near-empty trolley towards the tinned soup. The pain of Ruth’s loss was an anvil, tied tight around my throat. In the night, I awoke sweating, desperately searching for her as if she were drowning in the duvet beside me. Every time I discovered that the right side of the bed was empty, I lunged for the bathroom and vomited.
I was still on leave from work. I couldn’t walk into a room, an office, or a café, without thinking about Ruth. We’d married in the spring, four years ago. We hadn’t worn white. Just like I hadn’t worn black to her funeral. Ruth had never liked convention.
It still knocked the breath from my lungs to think that she’d been jumping around the kitchen one day, washing plates and dropping the odd cup with her vigour, then the next, she was dead on a slab after trying to stop a girl from killing herself at the train station. That was my Ruth; she never thought about herself. And, clearly, she hadn’t considered me in that moment. Me or the feisty little boy in my belly, whom we were going to name Harrison, after her twin brother who’d perished in a boating accident when they were ten. I almost a choked a laugh. Harrison had died saving Ruth. It was strange. How life seemed to circle, curling in on itself. Eating its own tail, like the snake which encircled the world.
I shook the pain of Ruth’s death from my mind. I had Harry to think about. I wondered if the babysitter was coping. Harry, though only four months, was a little firecracker. Just like Ruth. Biting back the tears, I dropped a tin of carrot and coriander soup into the trolley.
The clang of it hitting the metal bars made me jump. I hadn’t expected it to be so loud. Stopping, I looked around. There were no customers. If I peeked down the end of the aisle, there was no one on the tills either. I frowned. Had I somehow broken in? I wouldn’t be surprised. Ruth taught me to pick a lock. She said this skill would come in handy during Parent’s Evenings, though I never understood what she’d meant.
I glanced around the aisle, then at my shopping list. I still had to pick up some fish, as well as make a detour towards the wine selection.
Shoving the shopping list into my pocket, I froze. Someone was crying. No, not crying. Keening. Like a wild animal abandoned in the blizzard which had been raging since dawn struck the sky. Only this cry came from inside the shop, down one of the aisles. My breath caught.
It was a baby.
Abandoning the trolley, I raced around the coroner. The bread aisle was dark, the lights above dimmed to ash. I could see the baby, rolling around on the floor like a pinball. His blue nappy was a few sizes too big. He caught my eyes and giggled. I stopped dead.
Harry. Harry was here. I glared.
“That damn babysitter,” I snapped. I never should have trusted the neighbour’s youngest daughter to look after my child, Ruth’s child. Harry jiggled and began to crawl. Instantly, I took off after him. He was much faster than I remembered, and the aisle seemed much longer than I recalled. He crawled and scraped at the floor. I kept running, but I couldn’t catch up. He turned into the frozen food section before I could reach him. However, the moment I saw the frozen peas and tubs of ice-cream, the baby, my baby, was gone. Replaced by a toddler baring Harry’s hair and eyes sitting on the floor, playing with his toy trains.
“Harry?” I whispered. Perhaps this was stress. From the funeral, from Ruth. I often froze in shops because I thought I saw her reaching up to grab a box of cereal. Sometimes, I rushed to the toilet to vomit if someone touched my arm and I mistook it for Ruth’s hand.
The toddler who looked like my son laughed.
“Look Mummy!” he cried. “These are my trains. I want to drive a train someday. Not now, of course. I’d be too small to see out of the window”. He crawled onto his hands and knees, smashing the blue and yellow trains together.
“Harry?” I said. My voice was rubbed raw.
“Stay there, alright? I’m coming”. He nodded, but his eyes weren’t smiling. I stepped forward. As soon as I did, Harry the toddler lunged around the corner. His toy trains were left abandoned by the frozen peas.
“Come on, Harry,” I laughed to myself, thinking this were all some terrible dream. “I’m an old woman now. I’m not as fast as I used to be”. Perhaps there was a version of my life where Ruth hadn’t died and the version where she had was a dream. Perhaps I was older, much older, and Harry had left for University and the pain of Ruth’s death was a fragment of steel in my heart.
The next time I saw my son, he was nine years old and doing his homework in the DVD aisle. He sat by the shelves depicting new Blu-Ray offers, biting the end of his pencil.
“That looks difficult,” I said to him. He looked, smiling.
“Can I help you with that?” Harry shook his head and set his pencil on the floor.
“I think you’re the one who needs help Mum,” he said. I frowned. I was fine. Harry was the one doing his homework on the floor of a shop.
“Come on, Harry. We need to go home now”. He shook his head again.
“You’re giving me a life that never existed, Mum. You’re imaging me with the trains I never got to play with and the homework I never had the chance to do. You’re imaging all of this. You’re forgetting that I died in your arms in hospital after Ruth. You’re forgetting the way you held me so tight, trying desperately to stop the light leaving my eyes. The Midwife said it was stress, from losing your wife. Your lifelong partner”. My hands began to shake.
“No,” I snapped. “You were supposed to be my lifelong partner”. The nine-year-old Harry shrugged.
“Then I don’t know what to say. I’m a hallucination. I can’t help you”. The supermarket seemed to brighten. A chill slithered into the air.
Wrapping my jacket tighter around myself, I searched for Harry, who was now standing by one of the empty tills.
“I died the moment I left your womb, Mum. I’m not real”. I reached for him, tears streaming. He was real, he had to be. He had to be real. He had to play with his trains, he had to do his homework, he had to become an Engineer and have a wife or a husband or one child or no children or a dog or a cat. He had to be real. But as I stared down the empty aisle, I knew that my stillborn, who would have been named Harry, never had the chance to look me in the eyes. And, I realised, I was no longer in the shop, but standing outside the doors, an empty trolley in my hand, in the snow. The blizzard was passing, but I was trapped all the same. I’d been trapped since Ruth died. Trapped in my own skin, in my own house, in my own mind.
The snowflakes settled in my hair, melting when they hit my skin. I wrestled the card from my pocket.
Minerva Edri. I'd heard the name in passing, from one of Ruth's friends at the University. She was a ghost, a myth. Her services were only available on the black market and only known to a select few. A Consultant for Personal Termination.
I shook my head. Outsourcing suicide. It seemed so strange; yet I understood. And I was a florist – I could hardly afford the trip to Switzerland. I’d met Minerva in person first, where she had offered me a discount. I broke down into tears, telling her about Ruth, about Harry, about everything. She’d cried alongside me, handing me tissues, making me coffee in the little hotel room she was staying in. She told me about her life. Only scraps – bits and pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t hope to stick together. But she told me enough. She understood me. More than the Bereavement Counsellor did, more than the Local Council did, more than my friends did, more than my Father-in-Law did. For a moment, I pictured her with a halo.
An Angel of Death.
I smiled to myself.
I didn’t believe in Angels.
Looking into the sky, I let the snow wash over me. My tongue, seemingly of its own accord, licked a snowflake from the sky. It was acid in my mouth.
In my hand, the card was warm. I turned it over and took out my phone. Dialled her number.
“Hello?” I said. “Yes, it’s Millie. I’m sorry to call you on such short notice, but I was wondering if we could schedule an appointment”.