I was six and just the two of us, my mother and I, took Booey for a walk along the beach where she and Dad grew up, the shore a mix of black rock and pale cold sand. It was always cold —even in summer we wore wool jumpers and our noses ran and became scorched with wiping on our sleeves. But this was November, and the wind made the dog walk close to us, her ears flat, her eyes squinted. I could see the top layer of sand skittering away, so that it looked like a giant bed sheet billowing.
We were looking for cowrie shells among the debris of the tideline. I had two digging into my palm, white like the throat of a herring gull. My mother had a keener eye and held six. I felt the pull of victory slackening.
Resting in a rock pool was a black suitcase, bulging at the sides. The zip had split and where the teeth no longer held together I saw two fingers tipped with red nails and one grey knuckle where a third finger should have been. The stump of the finger, like the miniature plaster ham I had from my dolls’ house. The colour had been sucked from the knuckle by seawater, leaving just a cool grey and the white of the bone. It was the bone, I suppose, that made it so much like the tiny ham. I moved my arm to swat something away from my face and, as I did, flies rose from the suitcase in a cloud, thick and heavy.
Behind me, my mother —“Another one!” she called. “I’ve found another one!” —and then the smell, like a dead cat in the chimney in summer, a smell so tall and so broad that you can’t see over or around it.
My mother walked up behind me.
“What’s . . .” I kept looking at the fingers and trying to understand, my mother pulling me by the arm. “Come away, come away,” she said, and spitting over and over on to the sand, “don’t look, come away.” But the more I looked the more I saw, and peeking through the gaps between the white fingers was an eye that seemed to look back at me, that seemed to know something about me and to ask a question and give an answer. In the memory, which is a child’s memory and unreliable, the eye blinks.
The small supermarket in Musselburgh is open until 10 p.m. and the staff look offended by me as I walk in at 9:35. I imagine how I must appear after eight hours in the car. I splashed my face with water in a service station near Durham and my hair has dried strangely. I am unkempt enough to present as a shoplifter.
I have parked towards the back of the supermarket by the cash machines, to remind myself to get some on the way out because the shops nearer the house prefer not to accept cards.
I spend a long time at the herbs. There’s fresh ginger and the chillies and I wonder how I would go about making something with them. I put some lemon thyme in my trolley instead. Perhaps I will roast a chicken tomorrow. Or a couple of thighs. I’m not a good cook —I like thighs because when I forget them they don’t dry out.
I always overdo it on the fruit —but it’s hard not to feel excited. They have all different colours of plum from Kenya —yellow, orange, purple, red and black —and I put a carton of each in my trolley. That’s thirty plums for me to eat in a week, which is only a little over four a day and feels like something I could accomplish. Two in the morning, two at night. If I were the kind of person who could preserve things, I’d preserve a jar of each variety and just have them to look at. But they would grow a film of mould, like the time I made chilli olive oil and the bottle went black. I am missing some fundamental element of preservation. I suspect it’s cleanliness. I move on, and though I try to think of something new and interesting to cook, by the time I get to the frozen aisle, I have spaghetti, tinned tomatoes and tinned clams. A box of eggs I will never use and some sliced brown bread and the herbs. None of it I want to eat tonight. But it is at least food that suggests a certain seriousness. I am the sort of woman who is here to work. Who is doing her family a favour, not the other way round. I am no longer the person who failed every day last June to get out of bed before midday. Who stopped going to work and seeing her friends and answering the phone, and had to be driven by her sister to the hospital when the breath stopped coming in and going out, and who could only make one long lowing noise. I did not spend seven days in a room with no edges, with a sign on the door that said No Cutlery Whatsoever (including teaspoons!).
The tannoy announces that the store will be closing in five minutes and it feels a message to me in particular.
There is a woman in the frozen aisle, which I am only in because it marks the completion of my shopping trip. She has no trolley or basket even; she’s looking at the choc ices. She picks out a box of four expensive mint ones that have a woman’s mouth large and rude on the front cracking through the chocolate.
She has an unlit cigarette in her mouth, ready to go, big curly hair that has been teased and sprayed and she’s wearing pink lipstick. She smiles at me, and says, “Late-night ice cream?” and I feel so flustered I go red and then I laugh too loudly and just say, “Plums.” She smiles back and turns to leave. I’ll be hearing myself saying plums all night.
At the end of the frozen aisle is a display of Mr. Freeze’s Jubbly orange ice lollies. When we were kids, Dad, in his best moods, when he wanted nothing more than to make Katherine and me laugh, would sing a song from the advert that was on TV when he was young, lovely jubbly, lovely jubbly orange drink . Why that was the thing that made us laugh the most is hard to pinpoint, but I think it had more to do with him wanting us to laugh, than the song itself. Even so, I am standing still because, like so many small things discovered every day, I am faced with never hearing that song in his voice again. I have forgotten the fucking chicken thighs and so I speed back to the meat fridge and all the nice chicken is gone, there’s only the stuff that has had an awful life and tastes of fish. I put a tin of sardines in my trolley, put the herbs back on the shelf. Pre-sliced Swiss cheese, a bar of chocolate and some celery, just for show.
There is only one till left open, a small queue of us trying to project that shopping this late is not usual for us. I flick through a magazine. There’s a moody image of a man thumbing his upper lip to show off either his cufflinks or his watch. He wrinkles his forehead in a way that is supposed to be sexy. And then opposite him, a pale stick of a girl with hair parted down the middle, lips painted into a red bow, a puppet at rest. She stares off into the distance, sad. She’s there to be looked at by the man with the cufflinks and the wrinkled brow, but she is not there to look back.
My mother’s voice in my head —Why do all these women want to look like deer in the headlights? Why do all these men want to look like they laugh too loudly in public?
I am glad that the time spent thinking about how other people will respond or not respond to my body and face has passed. I’m older than my mother somehow because at least she participated in her life at my age —she had a husband and children and then lost part of that and now lives as it seems she always meant to, alone and with her work. She’s been working on poisonous fungi of France for nine months now. The only framed picture in my flat is one she gave me as a moving-in present three years ago, a fly agaric with a stag beetle meandering past it, for scale. It leans unhung in my bedroom. There is probably a house spider nestling behind it. My mother has found being alone a new beginning. Her house is tidy. She eats what she wants, when she wants: nothing for a day and then a dressed crab at eleven at night, or a bowl of frozen peas, uncooked, which she eats like peanuts for breakfast. I admire the singleness that she has embraced since Dad died. I think I could aspire to that, but without having to be widowed first.
Copyright © 2020 by Evie Wyld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.