Rue Baldry

Curly Fries

Rue Baldry

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The supermarket looks greyer at this time of the morning and the ceilings feel higher. At least it’s not busy. Most people are at work or school. Tracey can hear her own footfalls and the squeak of her trolley full of empty shopping bags. She lays a pack of fusilli flat in one, upside down to zap it with her scanner. The thin red line wavers up to the ingredients list. She keeps her thumb pressed hard on the yellow button as she coaxes it down to the bar code. It’s good to have something to focus on. It bleeps.

        She rolls her shoulders but the muscles don’t loosen. Her molars are clenched against each other and her tongue is tight to the roof of her mouth. She looks back at the pasta shelves because it’s nice to have a bit of variety in the cupboard. Choices. Bronze Die spaghetti, Everyday Value spaghetti, Quick Cook spaghetti, Organic Whole Wheat spaghetti, short spaghetti, Finest spaghetti, family packs, boxes…

        She scans the fusilli twice more, bags two more packets of the same.

        She should be in work, but she can’t face it. Numbers on a screen, answering the phone, new forms still smelling of ink, tea runs, the new girl’s red acrylic fingernails. She’s told them Josh is unwell. Which is true.

        She shudders, finds she’s pushing her trolley down the middle of the road between terraces of freezers. Meat on one side; veggie on the other. What was it Becky said about Quorn? Tracey stares at the orange-sashed boxes and bags on her way past. Shoe tap; trolley squeak. Sausages, burgers, chicken dippers, sausage rolls and bacon. Except that none of them really are, on that side, are they? Quorn, three beans, cheese, soya, chickpea, nut; meat-free, vegan, vegetarian.

        The only other people in this freezer aisle are two Tesco men, emptying the cardboard boxes in their cages on wheels.

        One says, ‘I told you she was going to be trouble, didn’t I?’

        ‘What is she like? She’s started something there!’ answers the other.

        It’s like Tracey’s invisible.

        Danny’s off work, too. She overheard him cancelling jobs first thing. ‘Bit of a family emergency’ he’d called it, voice as light as he could make it, letting his customers think of an escaped pet hamster, or broken roof slates, or a forgotten PE kit. Making himself yet another cup of tea because his first two had gone cold on him.

        She stops at the end freezer for the offers. She’s tired of thinking out meals. They can decide for her. She would get the mini Magnums, but Becky’s on that diet and she’s asked her not to buy things like that. Is that alright, at fifteen? Or is it an eating disorder? Tracey’s lost contact with her instincts. Becky’s curvy, but she’s only fifteen and Tracey can’t remember what age she was when she started her own first diet. Not that she should assume she’s the gauge for normality. But you do, though, don’t you? No Quorn in those days. Or maybe there was, and Tracey just didn’t know that it was lower in fat than pork chops.

        There’s a trolley inching its slow way up the centre aisle with a toddler gripping through the grid of its side. He lurches from one bandy leg to the other, concentrating on every step, his jeans gradually sliding down at the back. Too big because he’s not long out of nappies. That must be his grandad with him, too old to be his dad. So long since she had one that young. Funny that she didn’t notice that era ending.

        She could stock up on curly fries while they’re on a ‘two-for’. She scans one, un-pops the top of her insulated fridge bag, drops it in. Except that it’s Josh who likes curly fries. Too spicy for Tyler and Becky’s on this diet. She reaches back in for it, grabs at the wet plastic, grips it, clenches. Could she take him some? Would the nurses allow that? The iciness burns into her. Or she could keep them in until he comes home, whenever that will be. Have them staring at her, blaming, every time she opens the freezer door. And it’ll have to be two big bags. Because it’s on a ‘two-for’. A spiral is pushing into the softness of her palm.

        How can she figure out what to buy while she’s trying to decide whether they’ve done the right thing? All summer they kept him well. He was fed and warm and watched. Holding him while he sobbed in the middle of the night. Two drives out to A & E. Those early mornings carefully pushing open his bedroom door, braced against the soft resistant burr of the carpet, the nauseous drop on seeing the empty bed. Thinking about Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain. Finding Josh at the compost end of the garden, slippers decorated with dew, staring up at the stars. But he’d got better. He’d been his old self by August Bank Holiday.

        They’d had him at home for the whole of the summer. Five days back at that University and a psych nurse was phoning, wanting to release him into their care.

        Two women in navy blue uniforms are walking towards her. Just Tesco uniforms. They’re absorbed in their own conversation, haven’t even noticed Tracey with her hand shoved in a chill bag. She returns the curly fries to the end freezer. She’ll have to delete them on the scanner, but her hand’s too cold to work the buttons. She shakes it out while she heads for Bakery. That’ll be easy: the same white farmhouse loaf they always get. Hopefully, there’ll be a sliced one out and she won’t have to find a man in a white hat.

        They’re saying now that Kurt Cobain couldn’t have done it himself. Or something. Somebody said that. Something like that. She remembers a photo of worn-out plimsolls. Can’t remember the significance.

        Tracey realises all of a sudden that she needs to pee. She can’t, though, can she? How would that work with her on her own and the stuff in the trolley and the scanner full of bar codes? She can’t just abandon it here in the biscuit aisle and head out beyond the tills to the cracked tile, apple air freshener and dispensed pink soap of the Ladies’.

        Josh is in the best place. Experts. They’ll make sure he gets no worse at least. She has to think of Becky and Tyler. It’s Becky’s GCSE year. She can’t be missing sleep because Josh is yelling about heaven and upending the cutlery drawer into the deep fat fryer again.

        That had been behind them, though, by the time term started. He really had been well when Danny had reversed out of the drive with Josh in the passenger seat and the back full of Sports Direct bags and duvet and the box with the colander sticking up out of it.

        Tracey’s stopped in front of yellow egg boxes with a smiling cartoon chicken on the label. Wasn’t she going to the bakery section? There’s a white loaf on top of the fusilli. She remembers getting it now, but can’t remember if she’s scanned it. She checks; she hasn’t done. She’ll have to go through all the bags, cross-reference them with the scanner. Those curly fries need removing. It prickles her eyes and blocks her nose. Later.

        Is she getting eggs? Have they got any in at home? She tries to picture the fridge as she left it at breakfast this morning, putting back the yoghurt Tyler didn’t want after all, slamming it closed, the letter about Parents’ Evening falling off its magnet, Danny obliviously stood stock still frowning at his reflection in the microwave, her hurrying Tyler out to the car with his laces untied. She can’t remember a box of eggs in there but she can’t be sure. She opens her eyes. She envies the happiness of the cartoon chicken, so she scans it on its shelf, then sits the eggs on their own in the toddler seat of the trolley so they won’t get broken.

        They still haven’t told Tyler about Josh. Have to do that tonight.

        Do they? Can’t he be allowed the bliss of ignorantly assuming his brother’s still sleeping in that poky, lime-and-orange student room in the Facebook pictures, jauntily leaving it for lectures and library and pub?

        You don’t get many courgettes to a bag anymore. These have only got two in each. Time was, the green netting would be stuffed with half a dozen; enough to last. She won’t bother with courgettes.

        You think it’s all normal, don’t you? When it’s your first. You think that’s just what they’re like. And the other mums are also complaining that their little one sleeps at the wrong times, has temper tantrums, has nightmares. And all of that is normal. Until it gets to the point where it’s not.

        A baby cries a couple of aisles over. It sounds like a very new one. Those hiccoughing little sobs of confusion.

        This is hopeless. She’d be better off in work. She can’t go in now, though, because she’s told them Josh is ill. Which is true but not a reason for her to be off. Because it’s not her looking after him. She could say he’d made a miraculous recovery over the course of the morning. But that would mean she’d started really lying. There’ll be no recovery for Josh for a fair while. Probably. She doesn’t know. Maybe sanity can pop back into place as quickly as it dislocates.

        What’s the difference between baby potatoes and miniature potatoes, and why are none of them being called new potatoes? Maybe it’s the time of year. She gets the cheapest. Save her having to peel.

        It wouldn’t be fair on Becky to expect her to keep it secret from Tyler. To carry this heavy knowledge round with her all day. They’d only had to tell Becky because she was in the room when Danny took that phone call. But as she does know, that means they will have to sit Tyler down after school and try to find the right words to make it make sense to a child.

        She’s wandered into Cereals, though she’s pretty sure she stocked up on them a couple of weeks back. Becky might want one of these low fat ones. She stops herself. That’s daft, that is. Where’s the fat in a cereal? Is it sugar she means: Coco Pops and Frosties? They’re always running out of Coco Pops. She gets a box of the Tesco fake ones. There’s a jungle cat of some kind on the front, looking up at her with unfeasible big, blue eyes, far too pleased with itself. She turns it over to find the bar code, slides it carefully next to the bread, facing away from her.

        She wonders what Josh had for breakfast this morning. Will he have eaten it in bed like she did on the maternity ward? That solid wood tray on the long post with the wheels at the bottom. Orange juice in a tiny plastic pot. The baby in the clear cot beside her.

        She doesn’t know how his ward works. Are they all in separate, locked rooms? Or just beds with curtains around them? An adult male ward. She winces. Or are they mixed?

        Just Right feels like a sign, like it’s telling her that it’s the ideal breakfast for Becky, so she gets the own-brand version of that, too.

        She’s walked past the wine aisle before she considers that she might want a glass tonight, after they’ve told Tyler. Danny will too, probably. They could do with sharing a bottle and watching a DVD, after everything that’s happened. She turns the trolley round in a wide sweep, because she can, because the place isn’t rammed like it is on Saturdays.

        They can’t be mixed wards, can they? Because some of those men will be in there for things which would make them a danger to women. Some of them that are like that might prefer young men. Thin, stooped young men with their hair straggling over their eyes and the start of a goatee.

        She pictures him, sudden enough to stop her breathing and close her eyes, though her feet keep walking. He’s sitting on the edge of a high, metal-framed, hospital bed, wearing one of those pale gowns which tie at the back, and a dazed expression. His cheeks are wet. He’s all on his own, surrounded by shrieking patients and overworked nurses, silently weeping with his legs dangling down.

        She lets go of the trolley. She has to get out of here. She doesn’t have the energy anymore to keep pretending life’s normal enough for anyone to care which shaped pasta they’ve got in. She wants to be in her own kitchen, where she knows Danny will still be holding his cold tea mug, trying to make sense of everything on his own. They both need the other to explain it to them. She turns a slow circle on one foot, trying to remember where the exit is.

        The scanner is still in her hand. Its thick plastic fits to her fingers. She can’t abandon the trolley. Her car keys are in one of those bags. Her purse, too. Even if she digs them out and drops in the scanner, someone will know it was her who dumped a trolley full of shopping in the wine aisle, like a car in a news story about flooding, because it’s her club card registered to that scanner. How would that look? Like mother, like son.

        Can she void the scanner somehow, wipe away all knowledge that she’s been here? She looks at its little face to find out. She tries to delete those curly fries, but it wants her to rescan them and she’s put them back. She scans the bread. She pokes through her bags, scanning in a packet of jammy dodgers and a tin of kidney beans she’d forgotten. The rest of it looks ok. She can’t face the thought of the wait for an assistant to verify that she’s old enough to buy the wine, so she goes without. She heads off to the Self Scan tills.

        She hasn’t bought anything to put in the food bank box. She usually does. She’ll have to walk past it to get out to the car park. She feels bad. It curdles into the guilt already churning in her stomach. Her shoulders ache from clenching. Is there anything already in the trolley she could actually do without? Honestly, there’s nothing in there that really matters. She’s not sure why she came in here. The foodbank can have one of the pasta packs.

        No point getting the kidney beans without mince and wraps and salsa. But she’s not trekking all the way back to the chilled section now, though that would have done tea without her having to think about it later.

        Toothpaste. That’s what she came in for. She can’t be bothered to turn back and get it now. She’ll just pay for this lot, stick it in the car, come back in for the loo, then drive home and give Danny a hug.

Rue Baldry

Her short stories have been published in MslexiaThe Broken City and on the Reader Berlin online showcase. She was awarded a 2015/16 Jerwood/Arvon mentorship, and over the mentorship period Ross Raisin worked with her to complete her first novel ‘Still’, which was short-listed for the Flash 500 Opening Chapter competition, long-listed for the Bridport prize and is currently being considered by agents.

She is a mother of five living in York, UK, with a BA in English Literature from York University, an MA in Creative Writing from Leeds University and was one of York City Council’s Six by Six writers in 2002.