There was only one thing on Janet’s shopping list, but she still tore the strip of paper from the sticky-pad on the fridge and tucked it into her purse. It was a frog-shaped pad which Marcus had begged her to buy when she was picking up extra Christmas decorations at the pound store last November. She was brushing the dusty strings of tinsel, watching lines of foil float to the ground at the lightest touch, when he had spotted the frog pad. He had loved how its round cheeks suggested it had just finished a delicious meal.
She was not the sort of woman who bought idle knick-knacks for her grandchild, even if they only cost a pound, but it was the first day that Christmas was in the air. Halloween was finally over, its spooky spidery decorations replaced by the familiar glitter and sparkle of the holidays. A plastic Santa Claus was stationed by the checkout, pulling himself one creaking leg at a time into a chimney, where he raised his arms in triumph before laboriously climbing out again. The staff wore reindeer antlers and a few of them murmured tunelessly along to the carols playing over the store’s sound-system. She bought a handful of those reindeer antlers when she returned to the shop the following week, so that the family wouldn’t have to yet again squeeze fragile paper Christmas hats onto their heads and have the same conversation about whose head was biggest. The antlers must still be in the plastic bag at the bottom of the linen cupboard. She must remember to give them away to charity.
It was only a five-minute walk to the supermarket, but the wind was so strong that Janet could feel her legs quivering with the effort of pushing her along. There had been wind warnings, she remembered, though she had thought they were just for the coast. She hadn’t paid much attention to weather forecasts for the last month, or to the news for that matter. For the first time since she had sat beside her father in the sunshine one Sunday morning, and he had shown her the different parts of the newspaper and all the information it held, she had no idea what was happening in the world. She had tried to do the same with Marcus last summer, pointing out the wealth of news at his fingertips as they sat on her back steps in the morning sun. But Marcus had spotted a grasshopper and had wanted only to lie on his stomach in the grass, his eyes as close as possible to the small green creature while she read out bits of news she thought might interest him.
The supermarket came into view as she turned the corner, and she reached down and patted her purse, checking it was still in her handbag. A knee-high dog and its owner were trotting towards her,. As they approached, the dog lunged, barking at her old tan shoes. She stumbled backwards onto the grass verge and immediately sank in the muddy ground. It must have rained yesterday. ‘Charlie!’ the owner yanked the dog away and gave Janet the briefest of smiles, which she took as an apology for the startle. Her shoes slurped as she pulled herself back to the footpath.
This area had, over the last twenty years, become engorged with small, city-appropriate dogs of impeccable breeding whose owners were often oblivious to the fact that others didn’t share their love for furry companions. The neighbourhood dogs had been one of the reasons Marcus loved to visit her, or so her daughter Denise had said. Janet would often take him to the dog park where he had more fun playing with the dogs than their owners did, while she would sit on the bench and watch. She was not a dog person, but it had sometimes occurred to her that having a nine-year-old boy in her house was not dissimilar. He would throw himself from one room to the other, from the floor to the armchair and back again, with as much energy as any dog she had ever seen. Of course, he had done it while telling her about the latest class project he was involved in, or what his saxophone teacher had said, or what Denise was going to cook for his birthday dinner.
His birthday. The year ahead was littered with unavoidable milestones, like potholes grown so large that her family was as likely to be swallowed up as allowed to pass. They had ignored Christmas, and, what seemed an age later, New Year. Denise and Trevor had coped largely by refusing to leave their house, but Janet knew Trevor was due back at work soon. As regularity crept back into their days, the absence of previously Marcus-shaped things would feel even more monstrous. His first day back at school; Denise’s birthday; the athletics carnival; the band concert; Trevor’s birthday; Marcus’s birthday. And then Christmas, again.
She held her head up as she stepped through the automatic doors of the supermarket. It was a trick she had learned as a nurse, when caring for terminal patients ended the only way it possibly could, and she had to stand unobtrusively yet ready to act when the families were brought in. To hold one’s head up, her matron had told her, was a sign of commitment to a task. This was definitely a task she was committed to. She had called Denise that morning to ask what she could do for them today, and had eventually got an answer out of her daughter, who had said ‘nothing’ so many times that Janet started to hear the impatience in her own voice. Of course there must be something, and there was.
She stopped by the flower display, wondering if the last bunch she had bought for them had browned yet. She didn’t want to inundate them with flowers, which would be reminiscent of the funeral, but neither did she want old flowers filling the kitchen with their decay. She chose a posy of daffodils, deciding that if the ones in the kitchen were still upright, these were small enough to put in the second vase in the bathroom.
She walked past the magazine racks to the end of the aisle and stopped. Large sheets of paper had been taped over the signs, with new information and crudely drawn arrows pointing in all directions. The roughly conveyed information was overwhelming and her eyes skipped over the signs, unable to concentrate long enough to read them. A man in a high-visibility jacket approached her, his three chins wobbling under a wide smile.
‘Can I help you, ma’am?’
She wanted to shake her head authoritatively, but instead felt her face sag in an embarrassing display of dismay. What in the world had happened? For twenty-five years she had been coming here, her shopping list written in the order of the aisles. The familiarity was more than comforting, it was a source of pride in a job consistently well done.
‘Tissues,’ she said, seeing her pale hand rise in front of her to point uselessly towards where they used to be. ‘I need a box of tissues.’
‘That’s fine, ma’am, sorry for the mess here. We had some flooding last night and they’re using the chaos as a chance to reorganise the store. Make it more intuitive, you know. Come this way.’ He strode off before stopping abruptly when he realised her pace was a quarter of his. ‘Mind the floor there.’
She moved slowly around a puddle with a sodden towel half covering it. The floor glistened and the signs flashed at her: frozen vegetables where the cans used to be, confectionary in the pasta aisle, bread instead of cleaning products. A staff member holding a mop paused to let her pass, taking the time to flex his fingers. She had taught Marcus to mop one Saturday when he had galloped through the door to escape the rain, leaving mud all over the kitchen. He thought it was the best job in the world, skidding water across the tiles, fighting with the mop as though it was a person with hair, not a stick with mangy rope. When he put the towel down and used his feet to slide back and forward, drying the water, he pretended he was skiing, even though he had never seen snow. He tucked make-believe poles under his arms and shouted insults at the bad guys chasing him, just like James Bond.
‘It was the darndest thing,’ the fat man called over his shoulder. ‘You know the rain last night was pretty bad, and our midnight re-stockers were caught in this deluge of water coming through the roof over there.’ He gestured towards the milk which was now ready-made meals. ‘They called the management and by four am, we’ve got this new layout we have to create. We thought they’d keep the store closed but you know, there’s not much around here that’s open on a Sunday so we thought we’d do our best.’ His words flowed over her as she pictured Marcus on skis, flying down a slope in France, his cheeks pink and his smile wide, and then: Sunday. Was it Sunday? She had been sure it was Saturday. Wasn’t that what she had said to Denise on the phone? That she would come over tomorrow with the Sunday roast—what a fool. ‘Here we are.’ He stopped at the aisle that used to hold sale items—big bottles of soft drink and canned goods that would never go off but were looking tired on the shelves.
‘Thank you,’ she thought she said, and he gave a slight bow as he left her there.
The aisle was long, the tissues at the other end. She had chastised Denise last week for using toilet paper which caused her nose to redden and the skin to peel. She had hated hearing the words come out of her mouth, and yet there was something about that red, broken skin which made it impossible for her to look at her daughter and think she would ever be okay again.
The tissues were in various boxes—man-sized, whatever that meant, or eucalypt-flavoured for people with a cold, or home-brand for poor people, or balloon-covered for people celebrating. None of them were the sort you bought your daughter after her son had died. Perhaps the small packets would be better, the sort you could slip into your handbag and didn’t take up much room. She found aloe vera ones and took a packet from the shelf. The picture of a plant on the front, sagging under drops of glistening liquid, was the same green as the frog-shaped pad that Marcus loved, but Denise wouldn’t know that. It had been a secret gift between Janet and her grandson.
She took three steps back towards the checkouts and stopped suddenly. Of course she shouldn’t buy these. Even if Denise didn’t see the colour green and immediately think of Marcus, she had asked for a box of tissues. These packets quite explicitly said that Janet thought Denise would—or should—be leaving the house soon. That was their purpose, after all. No, she couldn’t buy these, not after the toilet paper conversation last week.
She tried to replace them on the shelf but everything seemed to have moved. Her eyes skipped over the shelves, searching for the matching colours. Cream, orange, pink. Blue balloons. There was nothing green. The straight lines of the shelves seemed to tilt towards the floor, or perhaps the floor was rising to meet them. She felt herself leaning, like she was balancing on a rocking boat, but when she blinked the shelves settled back into place and she froze, expecting to fall. She tried to breathe, but there was still no green.
‘Oh, God damn it—’ she heard the cry as the plastic packet in her hand split open under the pressure of her fingers. She squeezed her eyes shut.
A box of tissues, a suitable box of tissues, was all she wanted.
‘Ma’am, is everything okay?’ The fat man was back, his eyes wide, a clipboard now held to the mound of his stomach.
‘No.’ She didn’t recognise her voice, so tiny, so weak. His hand clasped her elbow. He was strong, but still her legs bent under her like a foal, the mini packets of tissues cascading around her. The lights swam but the floor was reassuringly steady, and there he was, his big face and kind eyes shimmering in front of her. His hair was fair, just like Marcus’s, but Marcus would never be old enough to get those grey patches by his ears. ‘Tissues,’ she said, in that same small voice. ‘I just need a box of tissues.’
He scanned the bottom shelf and handed her something. ‘Will these do?’
She blinked, trying to focus. Tissues, green, soft, in a box. ‘Thank you,’ she said, holding the box like it was made of glass.
Alison grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Brighton, UK. Many moons ago, she won the Henry Lawson Prize for Prose and was published in Voiceworks. After years of attempting to write novels, she is returning to the joyfully compact structure of the short story.