I leave work early. It’s a twenty-minute drive to our local supermarket, that’s a forty-minute round trip. Enough time to prepare a decent meal for two, watch an episode of a costume drama on the telly or make in-roads into my book group’s latest novel. The time it would take Tim to jog around the park, to play retro Pacman on his phone. Or maybe fool around with me, Anna. His wife.
But Tim doesn’t know how long it takes to get to the supermarket, he doesn’t even know where it is. And what started as a kind gesture on my part when we moved in together is now wearing great big staring holes in it. Five years of marriage, of dreams not realised.
I collect a trolley from outside the shop, push it through the automatic barrier which flings itself open with an enthusiastic welcome, and head towards fruit and veg. I’ve almost forgotten what a lettuce looks like, freshly picked from the soil. The shelves are lined with cellophane packets, they throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, market it as Caesar if it has croutons, Australian style if it contains grated beetroot and charge us five bucks for the convenience. I’ll mix my own leaves if you don’t mind.
Are these lemons waxed? I want to grate the rind. Does anyone know? No one stands still long enough to ask. Busy, busy, chop, chop, bang, bang.
It’s Friday today and Tim likes fish on Friday. That’s why I need lemons, and salmon. I join the queue with an older woman with a defeated face, raincoat squeezed tight at her middle and a dark-haired man with a toddler hanging around his feet. The girl behind the fish counter looks twelve. She has one of those disposable hats over her hair. It’s not a good look.
“Can I order a couple of large pieces of salmon?”
“Do you mean order or buy?”
She arches an eyebrow. Is this girl for real? She obviously thinks she’s dealing with some pig-shit thick housewife. Should I tell her I have a job, a better job than hers. And they don’t make me wear unflattering head gear.
“Of course, I mean to bloody buy! Do you think I’m ordering two pieces of salmon for Christmas?” My face feels hot, and my heart gets a leg up from my chest to my throat. I turn away, muttering obscenities. I have to get out. People in the fish queue are staring. I abandon my trolley, a sign of failure, bare empty bars, and walk. I’d like to say to friends at a later date that I walked away with dignity, but it wouldn’t be true. The girl with the plastic hat and arched eyebrow had caught me ‘on the hop’ as my mother used to say. When I was a child I didn’t know what ‘on the hop’ meant but it was usually followed by a small explosion. I would watch Mum’s colour rise. It started on her chest, pink where it had been white and freckly, like the time Dad had laughed with Mrs Flowers. It rose like mercury in a thermometer, along her neck, invading her face, and then she would roar. As I did, in the car park, slamming my hand painfully against the steering wheel.
I didn’t go into the kitchen and unload the groceries. I sat in a chair with my coat on.
“Do you want help with the bags? They’re in the car, right?”
I shook my head.
“What, no fish?”
I looked at Tim. A prickly sensation surrounded my heart. My breath shortened as he looked at me. I was constrained by his expectations of me, and mine of him. Could we find a bridge between them, or even a scrabbly path?
“Fancy a curry?”
I nod. Tim smiles, problem solved. As if what we had for dinner was all that was wrong.
When I was seven, I lost my mother in a crowded shop. I had followed her confidently through the department store, not realising there was more than one blonde lady wearing a red coat. I remember crying a little and a woman in blue taking me to an office to wait while she asked a man called Harry to make an announcement over the PA system. I wasn’t bothered, I felt important. An announcement had been made about me and everyone in the shop had heard it, and there were sherbet lemons. How much of this memory can be relied on? Surely the very act of being lost should bring about grief or pain.
At school I learnt about the signposts in England being removed during the Second World War, in the event of a German parachuting in. Without signposts they would get lost very easily. In the country inside me there are no signposts. It’s dark and raining and there’s a cold wind. I cannot pin-point the moment I was parachuted in, it seemed to creep up on me. One minute I am married to a good-looking paramedic who held my hand when my cat died. I have an exciting career in advertising and an ability to eat a packet of Hobnobs and not put on weight. Now I feel like one of those photographs taken in the seventies; faded and curling at the corners. My husband is losing hair and patience, and every day I write advertising copy for incontinence pants and support stockings. Those Hobnobs? They go straight to my thighs.
Saturday, late afternoon, it’s humid as I put on formal clothes.
“We’ll be late.” Tim looks at his watch, lines like sentries on his brow.
“So?” I’m trying to pull on my tights without snagging or tearing.
“It’s a wedding, it’s rude to be late. Unless you’re the bride.”
“It’s not a wedding, it’s a vow renewal.”
“Same thing. Why are you wearing black?”
“I always wear black. Damn it, that’s my last pair!” I throw the tights to the floor. “Let’s get this over with.”
I can hear music as Tim pays the driver. A string quartet, girls in pale gauzy dresses move elegantly to the sound of violins. Exotic canapés are passed around by waiters in crisp white cotton.
Desiree, a celebrant by profession, arrives at a clearing around which we, her guests, are arranged. Desiree and Giles are celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary by renewing their vows. I wasn’t sure I wanted the bright light of their success cast across the shadow of our failure. She is carrying a silver bucket which appears to be filled with stones.
Desiree clears her throat and begins. “Giles and I went on a holiday recently, we’d been having a few difficulties and thought time together would help.”
Giles stood next to her, a full head shorter, looking uncomfortable.
“Giles and I had an argument. I stormed into the sea and when I came out, I looked down and noticed my wedding ring was missing.”
As Desiree spoke, she walked amongst her guests with a serious face, handing a stone from the bucket to each of us. They were large stones, heavier than they looked. Grey and brown but smooth as if they had been handled many times before. Tim and I took one each and exchanged a brief look.
“We spent the rest of day looking for the damn thing and by five o’clock I’d given up on the ring. And our marriage.”
Giles was breaking into a sweat and trying to wedge a finger between his neck and the collar of his shirt.
“Just as I had mentally finished dividing our dvd box set collections, Giles burst in with my wedding ring in his hand.” Desiree beamed at us, tears in her eyes. “And I knew I was exactly where I should be.”
Tim leaned into whisper to me. “What do we do with the stones?
I shrugged my shoulders. “Stone them?”
A bubble-like champagne fizzed and warmed, elicit. I grabbed for Tim’s hand as we tried to contain ourselves and keep straight faces.
Desiree stood tall, her broad shoulder pulled back. “You might be wondering why you, our treasured friends, are holding stones.”
Tears were sliding down Tim’s face and his eyes were sparkling. I had scarcely noticed how dull they had been become.
“I want each and every one of you to close your eyes.” We obeyed. “Now transmit your well wishes, your love and your joy for Giles and I, onto those stones gathered on the very beach where I lost my wedding ring and nearly walked away.”
I looked at my husband, his face was flushed with mirth.
“Giles will now collect your stones.”
Giles came forward with the bucket as Desiree gave him an encouraging nudge.
“We will keep them in a Grecian urn we bought on our honeymoon. If we doubt our love, we will hold one of your stones over our heart and accept your blessings.”
I loosened my grip on Tim and our eyes met.
“Cab, pub, eat, bed?”
I smile. Our old saying, when we wanted a Saturday evening just the two of us. I hadn’t heard it in a while.
“Come on, Anna. Let’s go.”
“We can’t go without saying goodbye.”
Suddenly Desiree is behind us, resplendent in lilac, acres of it. “Tim, I saw your tears, you sentimental old thing.”
Later in the cab into town, we held hands and sat in a silence broken by my husband. “Would you like to renew our vows, Anna?”
“Nup. It’s not us, is it?”
“We don’t need rocks.” Tim’s face, the most relaxed I had seen it in long time.