Claire chose a big trolley—the sun was shining, it was a big trolley kind of day—and pushed it through the fruit section. Her heels clicked on the tiled floor. Pineapple. Oranges. The dry scent of fruit-rinds was faintly repulsive. Berries were much tastier, much more aesthetically pleasing; a few blueberries tumbled over low-fat vanilla ice cream, or a mound of raspberries, tipping the peak of a cereal mountain. A rounded half-strawberry, dissected with surgical precision, wedged on the side of a cocktail glass. She and Alan maintained a healthy, balanced diet, though they weren't above a bit of cake now and again. Tangerines. Lemons. She reached out to touch a lemon, ran her finger over the mottled peel. It felt strange, like touching the skin of the moon.
This one was ripe, but the lumps under the surface reminded Claire of crocodile eyes, lurking just above the surface of a swamp. She wiped her hand on her jeans. No need for lemons. They really didn't need to taper out suggestively like that, anyway. It wasn’t decent. Although, putting them in a cake sorted that problem. Out of sight, out of mind. Alan loved lemon sponge. Maybe she could learn how to bake one in time for Christmas. Avocados. Pears. Individually, the flesh of various fruits smelled delicious—each crate a curated bouquet of sweet, mature temptation—but the scent of unwashed fruit in abundance had always made Claire hold her breath. Something hormonal about them. Reeking of desperation. Take us home. Don't let us perish. We’re only days away from rot. Wasn't it strange how you could grow used to one man's scent, luxuriate in his perspiration, but hate the smell of dozens of similarly sweaty commuters on the train? Maybe it was the same thing with fruit.
She let the trolley roll to a natural stop in the meat section. Fridge first, because the freezer section was all the way across the other side of the supermarket. The white cabinets smelled like of bleach and sterile cold. Salmon? No, not today. Beef? No. Turkey. Hmm. Turkey, turkey. She chewed on her bottom lip, calculating. A definite possibility. The jar of korma sauce in the cupboard had been flirting with spinsterhood, but she was determined to partner it today. She’d been watching various period dramas on iPlayer while Alan was away on his business trip; as a result, she’d started thinking about marrying all her condiments off. Turkey goes with korma, doesn't it? Mmm. Bit of a risk, maybe. Best to stick with chicken. A good, solid, dependable breast. She took a step towards the chicken section but misjudged the distance; the trolley banged against her hip, the handle sliding out from under her palms. She grabbed at it, but her hands were slick with sweat. A reliable breast. It slid another foot out of reach. She’d been clumsy all morning. Old Faithful. Like the geyser. A fountain of chicken breasts. She suppressed a giggle. She must look mad, standing here on her own, laughing at refrigerated chicken. What would Alan say? She'd tell him later on the phone, how it felt like laughing in church. Not that either of them had been to a church in years, not since Janet's son got married to that Romanian girl. Four years ago. No, five. No, four, definitely four. Their son had started school recently. A touch early, but they said he was a bright boy. So handsome in his little shirt and tie. Judging by the Facebook photos she'd seen, they were pregnant again.
Her hands felt disgusting. She wiped them on her jeans again, rather than on her olive suede jacket, and wished she had a wet wipe handy. Suede looked great but it wasn’t practical. You couldn’t throw it in the washing machine. You couldn't simply soak the dirt all away. You had to undergo treatments and buy special oils. The sun was pouring in through the supermarket windows. She caught a glimpse of herself; a short, outlined figure, with neatly bobbed black hair. Large yellow banners proclaiming weekly deals shaded rectangular patches on the tiled floor. Behind her, the entrance mat—flanked by two vertical security checkpoints, which made it look like a particularly dramatic scene from The Neverending Story where a boy had to dive between two laser-eyed angels—was smeared with patches of snow. Outside, the drifts had been melting all morning. Pure snow last night. Coming down white as God's dandruff. Today, ice dribbled down each individual mound, transforming the soft peaks into stiff, unmalleable summits. I shouldn't have worn these heels. Not the end of the world—she’d brought the car. She couldn't take off the jacket though, despite the heat of the sunshine. The creamy cotton top she had on underneath displayed her bra too much. She’d thought it looked fine when she put it on that morning. It had always been fine before. A perfectly serviceable top. But after she'd picked up the mail from the mat, she'd caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror and realised her bra was beaming out of it in two circular spotlights.
Claire zipped her jacket up further, all the way to the top. She gripped the trolley handle harder and guided it further down the poultry aisle. She bent down to pick up a packet of chicken breasts. The label on the front said 'free-range' and '0.300kg' and '4.05.' The stamped date was 13th September. She ran one finger over the date, expecting it to change. It stayed indelibly marked. 13th September. The font was supermarket black, curiously square-ended. The other packets were marked with other dates. 21st September. 23rd September. Claire checked her watch. It was a beautiful watch, a modern but classy Skagan. Alan had bought it for her last year when they visited Barcelona. The strap was a light tan, the colour of Alan's shoulders after a long day at the beach. The face was cream, the colour of young bone. Such a lovely holiday. The second hand scrolled, rather than ticked, a smooth continuous motion from one moment to the next, inexorably marching onwards. She poked the watch face. The date window said 17th September. It was very clearly 17th September. She realised she was squeezing the packet of chicken, her hand crushing the plastic packaging. She loosened her grip. It popped back into shape. A little bit dented but no real difference. It's expired, that's all. This packet had been overlooked. Some underpaid and under-attentive floor worker had simply overlooked it while front-facing.
Claire knew all about front-facing. She'd read about it in a book; the Guardian continually recommended the latest in contemporary, urgent literature, featuring earnest, wide-eyed opinion pieces every week about how valuable each was and how much it reflected on modern society. Alan bought the Guardian on Saturdays, and they normally spent a couple of hours at lunchtime with tea and scones, catching up on the week's events.
The particular book Claire had in mind—The Angst of the Unripe Aisle, or Satsumas Are A Bit More Expensive Than Tangerines And This Is A Metaphor For Class Warfare, or something like that—had been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year. She'd read it on the beach in Barcelona, determined to expand her repertoire at cocktails with the girls. It was about a young woman in a purposefully unspecified Northern English town who worked in a supermarket part-time while trying to write a novel. The sentences were either incredibly small or very, very long, which was probably supposed to mean something. The ugly appearances of the characters were probably supposed to symbolise something, too, but to what end it hadn’t been clear. Maybe the author didn’t know herself and was just fudging things a bit. Claire preferred the kind of books where young women moved to large country manors to run large houses—or take care of someone rich's children—and then fell in love with the owner of the large house and the children, who was usually a bit grumpy to start with on account of how his ex-wife had died or cheated on him or whatever, and everyone ended up living happily ever after once things had wrapped up.
She supposed that, in the past, people would have written about the moors as an easy way to say how boring and lonely everything was, but there weren't that many moors left anymore. Unless you counted the Lake District, or maybe that bit around Broadmoor; it had moor in the name, so it was probably moor-like. Hadn't Shakespeare called Othello a moor? Strange, that, comparing a man to a patch of grass. She'd never read any Shakespeare past what they'd been made to analyse at school, and that was a long time ago now. Romeo and Juliet, that had been romantic, hadn’t it? She wasn’t sure about the others. When the subject came up on University Challenge, she always guessed Richard the Third. Often, it was the correct answer. Alan had teased her about it one day, having only one answer to multiple questions, but he had to admit he didn't know much Shakespeare either. He'd thought there might have been one about Cleopatra, but she wasn't sure that was right. Surely Shakespeare wouldn’t have known anything about Egypt. He didn’t have proper newspapers, for one thing. Sally's daughter Jilly, when she'd been home from university a few weeks ago, had said she learned that some mammoths were still alive when the Egyptian pyramids were built. Claire wasn't sure about that. It sounded like fake news.
Anyway, she'd been thinking of that supermarket book. The protagonist had been less a character than a collection of traits that the author, a man—and ooh, didn't that show, especially in the kitchen bits, no clothed woman thought about her chest that much unless a bra wire had started digging into her ribs—had evidently cared about. The young woman was supposed to be very cool, so she drank a lot of red wine and smoked real cigarettes and didn't much care if her boyfriend slept with other people because she was too busy thinking about how important her novel was. Alan had laughed and said he didn't know any woman, even Claire, who wouldn't have given the lad a right kick in the middles for that sort of behaviour. She'd smiled, but it had perturbed her. She couldn't imagine ever kicking Alan anywhere, never mind his middles. She was quite fond of his middles.
On the beach in Barcelona, Claire had read the most pretentious bits of the book out loud to Alan. He’d laughed so hard he had actually cried, his beautiful brown body rolling helplessly on his towel from side to side. Like a turtle flipped onto its back. She’d been powerless to stay composed in the face of this spectacle, her own giggles rapidly harmonising. The nearest sunbathers glared at them through cream-slathered slits.
Alan had used his beach towel to dry his face. Wrinkles creased up the corners of his lovely brown eyes. The book, needless to say, had not been his cup of tea. He liked crime novels, not murder mysteries or psychological thrillers; he preferred the ones that were like films written down. Spies fighting each other on trains, stopping terrorists at the last minute with a well-timed speech, usually followed by a predictable but justified bullet. She'd got him a new book for Christmas—still more than two months away, but she felt better if she was organised. Two months. She realised she was squeezing the packet of chicken again. She'd forgotten where she was. Her knuckles were as white as the inside of the big fridge. Barcelona had been lovely. Alan had said they could go back next year after his big project was all sorted. Two months. The second hand on her Skagan scrolled onwards. She watched the little gold bar do a full circle.
The chicken was expired. It looked no different from the rest. The flesh was still pink and firm. It didn’t have the shiny grey hue that she associated with bad chicken. Claire put her hand on the side of the fridge, on the plastic transparent bit. She couldn't hold herself up anymore and the trolley's wheels were a bit wonky. She leaned hard on the fridge, her whole weight slumping against it. The plastic gave a warning groan, then cracked like a gunshot.
The nearby shoppers looked around. It was early afternoon; the supermarket was relatively empty. Claire liked shopping at this time. No queues. No crowds. One man was holding a different-coloured plastic pot of soup in each hand. He had been studying the labels on each, lifting first one then the other nearer his face. She recognised the squinted scowl of a man too proud to wear glasses. Alan had done that for years until she'd dragged him to Specsavers. He still didn't like wearing them. Perhaps he’s allergic to something. So many people were allergic to things nowadays. Teresa from the baker's shop was allergic to pomegranates, Claire knew. Several people from Alan’s office had nut allergies, although she thought Jim was probably exaggerating his allergy a bit on account of how Lisa from HR fawned over him. Alan thought so, too. She wondered how people dealt with allergies before warning labels existed. Maybe they just died. A lot could kill you, in those days. Things could still kill you now.
The man was wearing an ill-fitting suit; the trousers were an inch too long—easily taken up, she thought, if he had a wife or girlfriend who cared—and the sleeves were more than an inch too short. His pale, chubby wrists stuck out like link sausages, stuffed to bursting with undercooked meat. She reached for her zip with her free hand. They might be able to see her bra, even through the suede jacket.
The two girls at the end of the aisle had been kissing a moment before. Now they were silent and watchful. Their matching haircuts—shorn on one side, long on the other—made them look quizzical; Claire’s hairdresser’s cocker spaniel did that same head-tilt when she tried to get it to sit for treats instead of rolling in all the fresh cut hair. One of the girls was wearing a leather jacket over a pretty blue dress. The other was wearing a loose, white t-shirt and skinny jeans with artfully ripped holes in the shins. They wore matching black boots. Doctor Martens, obviously. Students, probably. No more than nineteen or twenty. It was nice that girls could kiss in the supermarket now with nobody making a fuss about it. It wasn't like that in her day. The world had learned to be kinder to people. That was lovely.
An employee was trudging up the aisle towards her. His grey hair was cut in an uneven fringe and combed sideways; he wore a red fleece vest with the supermarket logo, and his badge proclaimed he was happy to assist. He looked like a teacher she'd had at school. Mr Garrett. Maths. No, not maths. Something like it. Physics maybe. But she hadn't done physics.
'Good afternoon, missus. Can I help you at all?'
Claire stood up straight. The world wobbled under her feet but remained, thankfully, horizontal. She thrust the packet of chicken out. 'This is expired.'
He reached for it but she pulled it out of his grip. He stayed where he was, hands out and palm-upwards, ready to receive a sacrificial offering.
'I'm sorry, missus. Sometimes produce does get overlooked. I can take it through the back and have it destroyed, no problemo.'
Destroyed. She chewed her lip again, feeling a slight blister forming. It’s not the chicken’s fault. Sometimes things were fine after the best-before date. She'd watched a TV programme on the subject two nights ago, since Alan wasn't around to tease her about documentaries. Food was fine for ages after the supposed expiration date. Big Supermarket wanted you to believe otherwise. Fake news again.
'I just wanted to know why. How can you leave it here, among the other chicken? Do you not do, like, daily checks?'
‘Naturally we do, madam.’
Ooh, she'd sunk to madam. Any moment now she'd be getting a 'ma'am' and then it was going to be proper handbags at dawn. The employee rubbed his face, his fingers making a scratchy sound over his stubble. His eyes drifted downwards, sliding over the front of her jacket. Her heart was thudding.
‘Never mind.’ Claire pushed past him, hauling the trolley along behind her. She swung around, pushed the trolley hard down the cereal aisle, then scuttled into the next aisle. The employee called after her, but she ignored him. Home baking. Flour. Eggs. Flavourings. She was still holding the chicken. She tiptoed to the end of the aisle. Slid the packet inside her jacket, feeling the chill of the refrigerated contents against her chest. The exit was clear. The security alarms—silent sentinels—held their breath. She crossed the threshold. No noise. The car was parked close to the supermarket entrance. She yanked open the door and flung herself inside, nearly losing a shoe in the process. She threw the chicken into the passenger seat. It bounced off. Landed on the edge of the mat. She swore. Reached down under the glove compartment and grabbed the packet. She put it back on the seat. It wasn’t safe. A wave of emotion came over her; when she was a child, a girl in her class at school had punched her own dolly's face and laughed about it. Claire couldn’t understand why someone would do such a thing. The dolly wasn't real, but surely feelings were real. She sat the chicken up, flesh-side outwards. Slid the seatbelt over it. Clicked it into place.
'You'll be safe enough there.' She wanted to say something else to the chicken but didn't know what.
The chicken didn’t answer. Gravity tugged the fleshy pieces down into a squashed pile at the bottom of the packet. She touched the plastic below the cardboard slip. Dry. It's not leaking yet. Everything's fine.
She took the wrong route home. It wasn’t the route she and Alan preferred. They liked the one with fewer roundabouts, even though it had one more traffic light. He would play DJ; everything on the mainstream channels was full of heavy beats and high-pitched squealing, but he always managed to find a seventies station and they would sing their lungs out all the way home. Claire switched the radio on as the car rumbled forward, but could find nothing discernible. Just a series of booming noises interpreted with some white noise. A thunderstorm in a beer can. A mistake, to have noise where there should be music. A creeping wrongness.
The traffic light had turned yellow. You were supposed to say 'amber'. Red amber green. But they were yellow most of the time, as yellow as lemons. She pressed the tips of her fingers into the leather of the steering wheel, pushing away the memory of mottled lemon-moon-skin.
She thrust the accelerator pedal down hard. It happened in a series of blinked shots. More like still photographs than moving video. The white truck was coming towards her. She saw clearly the whiteness of the truck, like a big polar bear. Like a fridge full of expired chicken, barrelling towards freedom. She felt fine. Her inner self was sitting in a high-backed chair like a Bond villain. Her inner self looked like Sandra Oh, dressed up in a beautiful gold ballgown, striding through a fancy party in an advert, while violins swelled and climaxed around her. She waited and watched herself swirling through dancers who spun and slung and stretched. That part of her, that controlled, perfectly coiffed part of her leaned forward into the camera and ordered, very quietly, push.
She pushed. It was the wrong pedal. Instead of braking, she accelerated. The truck roared past, horn blaring. The driver’s face was visible for a strawberry-quarter; reddened mouth-wound twisted in rage and fear. She screamed back, the wordless wail of a stricken animal. A gazelle caught by the throat. She'd wanted the truck to hit her, and it hadn't. She'd wanted to go to Barcelona, and they wouldn't. She'd wanted to give him a book for Christmas, and she couldn't. None of it was fair. Had they not lived quietly? Had they not been good people? Had she not lived her life without offence, taking joys in small things and causing few ripples?
He would be back in two days. She drove, her body carrying the motions out without any instructions. Her face was wet. She couldn’t remember crying. She apologised over and over; whether to the chicken or to herself, she didn’t know.
Alan’s boots were on the welcome mat next to her slippers. He was sitting at the kitchen table. A man-shaped sack of root vegetables, slumped against the back of the chair, disregarding the freshly ironed white shirt she’d prepared only that morning. He lurched forward when the door closed behind her. There were two items on the table. One, the fruit bowl, the contents of which had diminished over the week and which she hadn't replenished. She realised she was holding the chicken up to her chest, like a small shield. The meat had slopped down towards the bottom of the package again. The flesh and blood still contained inside. It's not leaking yet. Everything's fine.
The second item was an envelope. The creases in it had been smoothed out by hand; the stains from last night's lasagna adorned one corner. The hospital logo peeped through the orange smear. She should have cut it up. Eaten it with her morning cereal. Hidden it in her handbag. Disposed of it in the bin next to the bus stop at the end of the road. Burnt it to bloody ashes.
Alan. She'd seen this expression for the first time approximately two years and fourteen days into their thirty-two-year marriage. They had stood side by side on the wet grass, watching the tiny casket lowered; he had taken her hand without a word. He had crushed her fingers against his own, grinding bone on bone; she'd wept with sheer relief that here was understandable, familiar pain. The second time, it was four years, nine months, and seventeen days into their marriage. He hadn't cried then. Neither had she, beyond a few cursory tears at the same graveside. The grief was too big. It expanded, trapping them inside a blown bubble of chewing gum. The outside world felt muted. Airless. They hadn't talked. Hadn’t argued. A silent, mutual decision. Expired. Next time they were in bed together, she had rolled over and rooted around in the bedroom drawer for what they'd needed. He'd put it on without a word. They kept going. It was what they did. Together.
The packet of chicken slid through her fingers. Hit the carpet with a muted thunk. Alan cleared his throat, one fist pressed hard against his mouth.
‘When were you going to tell me?’ He spoke through his knuckles.
The chicken had started to leak. It lasted this long. Made it all this way. She’d tried to save
it. Blood pooled against the lush cream carpet, spreading out to touch her shoe.