Another short story success on LoW, the judges of which had this to say:
Your title fits the story very well. This tired new mom with her rollercoaster emotions fits the criteria perfectly for this month’s contest. The way you describe every thing that happens in the queue, such as ‘a teenager, too busy on his phone to notice me and an elderly lady behind me has caught the whole thing and her shriveled little moon face winks conspiratorially at me’ gives the story real life. While we get to know your protagonist and her emotions, we are also very privileged to know what happens with the other characters like Moon face and the beautiful lady in blue. An amazing story!
Time slipped from me, like when I’m driving and find myself in the driveway without recollection of the road taken. I look down at my trolley, wholly uncertain of what was even in there, the time spent traipsing the aisles little more than a dull blur. Didn’t I have a list somewhere, I wondered.
God, I haven’t slept for days, how am I supposed to function?
As I wait in the checkout queue I’m jostled from behind by a teenager, too busy on his phone to notice me. The offensive brightness of his green fleece reveals him to be an employee and my eyes roll indignantly. His legs remind me of a puppy’s, gangly from growing faster than the rest of his body and they seem to barely keep up with his teetering torso as he bounds onwards, his attention to the screen unwavering.
My exaggerated exasperation is almost wasted but an elderly lady behind me has caught the whole thing and her shrivelled little moon face winks conspiratorially at me.
I’m new to motherhood, yet already it feels like I’m losing touch. It’s like a switch or maybe more like a button, a big red one that needs launch codes and once pressed can’t be undone. That lad is probably not far off my own age yet all I see now is a little boy and somehow I have more in common with moon-face.
I used to love the elderly, their shrunken forms and erratic behaviour held an inexplicable charm. I used to slothfully sit – in airports, parks, cafes – to observe people; and they were always my favourite. I could imagine the richness of their lives, history etched upon them. Now though I see frail bodies, broken by life’s burdens. It was cute when they were these mysterious creatures, far removed from myself, but now it’s like a window into the future and the glass is cracked, the sill swollen from damp. Worse is that they can sense it and give me looks that whisper, ‘you’re a grown up now, this is where your path leads.’
Realising I have been staring at the creases upon little moon face’s brow I quickly feign the barest of smiles and turn back to the checkout.
Whilst distracted, someone pushed through in front of me. Her bright blue blouse is buttoned tightly around an enviable waistline and it makes me want to poke her eyes out with her Kurt Geiger high heels. Who the hell wears heels to a supermarket? I rage to myself, refusing to look down at the hideous things on my own feet which before had seemed a glorious comfort.
Her hair smells of tulips, which only reminds me that I haven’t showered in two days. She catches me – oh no, did I just sniff her hair – and turns around. I quickly avert my eyes. The little whirring belt is stuffed with her shopping, enough to feed a large family, and the poor machine seems barely able to cope with the strain. I can feel her gaze, still upon me, and feel the need to say or do something.
‘I see you are buying pampers,’ I say pathetically whilst pointing to an identical packet in my trolley. My face is splattered with the worst of smiles, where my cheeks have lifted but my mouth doesn’t open. Like when my baby has trapped wind, except, unlike her, my sallow cheeks and sunken eyes have no endearing cuteness to redeem it.
The woman huffs with her body language alone and turns her back to me. My embarrassment fizzles away under a burning, seething disgust – how dare she? I size up the pineapple in my trolley, the result of strange and insatiable cravings since my second trimester, and imagine the weight of it smacking the woman in the back of the head.
Before I realise it I’m wielding the prickly fruit in both hands, like a daft Tom & Jerry cartoon. The absurdity of the situation suddenly sweeps over me, and I laugh hysterically at how ridiculous I must appear. If only I was buying apples, then I could have juggled them like a performing clown.
My delirious mind is on a fairground ride filled with ups, downs and no shortage of loopy bits. And now I’m muffling a fit of giggles as I see blouse-bitch cracking a whip toward the checkout girl, ‘dance, little cub’, she cries. The lion bolts, tail between legs. The gangly teenager waltzes back, looking down from atop enormous stilts and blowing me a kiss before taking the lion’s place; all the while moon-face swings delicately upon a trapeze, blowing star dust from her palm to float down behind her.
The fantastical scene leaves me with a smile stretching ear to ear; a part of me knows it isn’t real but it doesn’t matter, the invoked inebriation is invigorating.
The lion tamer looks at me funny and I give her a cheeky wink, not entirely certain whether her look was real or imagined.
My beautiful bliss bubble bursts as I hear a shrieking child, echoing from some hidden aisle. Causing immediate convulsions as my hormones kick in and send an unwanted burst of adrenaline through muscles that can no longer cope. That’s not my bloody baby, I tell myself, Lucy is at home with the babysitter, but it doesn’t matter – since her birth my brain has rewired itself to react regardless.
I can practically see Lucy, floating in front of my eyes, expulsing crocodile tears. Her petit arms and miniscule fingers point like the hands of a novelty clock, warning that I’m running out of time. I know, I’ll be home soon, I promise the phantom sprog cog but my heart is heavy. I can’t do it, not all by myself, I admit once Lucy has dissipated.
I swear, it seems that the only time she stops crying is when she’s feeding, but the ruthless biting is no relief. The miracle of childbirth feels like a scam, a veneered disguise – like an elaborate Instagram filter. What if I just never went home, teased a thought that was both abhorrent and alluring.
The next checkout over seems like a drive through and I watch enviously as several people zip ahead. Normally I’d have sussed out the queues, probably picked the middle aged miser of checkout 4 who diligently avoids making eye contact or small talk with the customers – focused simply on the beep beep of the scanner.
Not like my checkout, that has ground to a halt as green-gangly tries to adjust the height of his chair. Although it isn’t entirely his fault, my high-heeled arch-nemesis keeps distracting him with her incessant prattling. Blah blah, school play, blah, belated anniversary dinner, blah blah, Brangelina. Get a life.
Unable to tune it out I’m assaulted by a flash of my own apparent destiny, only I can’t see past the assorted sepia shades of soiled nappies and constant exhaustion. In my waking nightmare my baby doesn’t grow but feeds incessantly, continually sucking me dry as my skin withers, my bones going frail and my hair grey. Till all that remains is a husk.
‘Are you alright?’ my arch-nemesis says quietly. She’s looking at me again and I blink, realising my face is wet.
How dare you, traitorous tear ducts, make such a spectacle of me?
I try to wipe my eyes and cover my face but she isn’t deterred. Her bright blue eyes pierce through me, and I know she knows. I’m at her mercy, so vulnerable as my shoulders heave uncontrollably.
Without warning her arms wrap snugly around me. The store falls away, everything dissipating into insignificance. I don’t know how long we stood there, not even sure I’d been awake the whole time.
‘It’ll be okay,’ says my saviour as she releases me. I mutter an awkward thank you and try to compose myself.
Afterwards, as her groceries tumble through and into her bags, I watch her closely and see the gentle glistening of tears upon her own face. Noticing, as she talks to the checkout boy, that her fingers fidget with a wedding ring, her words merely a distraction. Through the makeup I can see a tiredness that equals my own. I reach out and give her hand a comforting squeeze.
When I look up I see moon-face, she’d given up on our queue and was already paying at number 4. Her tiny curled up fingers rummaging inside her purse. She shoots me a shining sage-like smile, before shuffling away.
The beautiful lady in blue is ready to leave too, I want to call out to her but feel embarrassed. However, her steps towards the exit seem hesitant and before reaching it she looks back. I raise my hand, like a child saying, ‘wait for me,’ and she does.
The checkout boy asks, ‘would you like a hand with your packing, miss?’
‘No thank you,’ I reply confidently, ‘I’ll manage.’