He pushed the trolley round the end of the aisle, ignoring the stacks of boxed mince pies.
It would be Christmas Day in just over two weeks’ time, but he and Jenny had already agreed, without really talking about it, to abolish Christmas. They couldn’t go through with it. The calendar would be different this year. Remembrance Day had come and gone, but it would be Remembrance Day on Christmas Day. Even that was going to be terrible.
On Remembrance Day itself they’d adopted, without ever talking about it either, a sort of double position, both to mark it and to ignore it, they couldn’t work out which way their superstition should go. But he remembered now – how could he forget? – coming here about a month ago. It was just days before Remembrance Day. The clocks had gone back, it was dark outside. He remembered pushing the trolley then.
How he wished it was still then.
There’d been little boxes of poppies, with plastic jars for coins, by the entrance. He’d wondered whether to buy one. Yet another one. Whether to tip in all his change. But the bigger thing, already, was Christmas. Christmas stuff, Christmas offers. It was Christmas before it was even Remembrance Day. A sudden wave of anger had hit him. It had been Halloween less than a fortnight before. The shops had been full of pumpkins and skeletons.
No one saw his anger, it stayed inside. He wasn’t even sure if it was anger exactly. He’d pushed the trolley in the normal way, his list stuck in one hand, his mobile in his top pocket in case of problems.
“Shop patrol to base. No fresh ginger, Jen. What do you reckon?”
That sort of problem.
He did the weekly supermarket run – his duty, or his regular volunteering – and for several months now not a time had passed when he didn’t think: And what are Doug’s little problems right now? His tricky two-for-one choices?
He’d never forget how his mobile had rung – right here in the rice and pasta aisle – and it had been Doug. In Afghanistan, in Helmand. That sort of thing was possible now.
He was talking to Doug. And Doug had phoned him. So he couldn’t say, “I’ll get your mum.” (Why did he always say that anyway?) Doug had phoned his number.
Shit – was it something bad? Was it something he should know first?
“I’m in Waitrose, Doug. By the pasta. Doug! Doug! How’s it going?”
What a stupid way of putting it: “How’s it going?”
But Doug had wanted to know all about his shopping list. He’d seemed tickled by the picture of his father pushing a trolley, holding his list, dithering by the shelves. And while Doug was so keen on the situation in Waitrose, he hadn’t wanted to ask his son about the situation in Afghanistan. His anger, if that’s what it was, had dropped away.
“You should stick with dried, Dad. Fresh is a scam.” Doug had said this in Helmand. “Try the fusilli for a change. The little curly ones.”
A November evening, days before Remembrance Day. But Christmas was coming apparently. Doug had called from Helmand.
He couldn’t think about it now. He couldn’t not think about it. He could hardly enter Waitrose again. It was almost impossible to go now – though he had to – to the spot, in the aisle, where it had happened. Where he’d spoken to Doug and looked around at all the others with their trolleys and baskets and thought: They don’t know, they don’t know I’m talking to my boy in Afghanistan.
He and Jenny would never eat fusilli again, that was for sure, they’d never eat those things again.
And had it been anger, just before Doug called? Anger was sometimes supposed to be a substitute for fear, so they said. Or grief. Had that surge of anger, or whatever it was, been some sort of advance warning? If he hadn’t had it, if he hadn’t got angry, then would nothing have happened? But then if he hadn’t had it, would Doug have called, just then?
Everything, now, was a matter of mocking superstition.
But Christmas before Remembrance Day! And now it was almost really Christmas. The aisles were crammed and glistening with it. He couldn’t bear it. The only good thing was not to think. The only good thing was to ignore, ignore. But he couldn’t.
He pushed the trolley. He couldn’t even bear to think of Jenny. Maybe she took the opportunity while he did these supermarket trips just to sit with her head in her hands, tears trickling between her fingers.
He couldn’t bear to think of calling her to ask, like he used to, about the rice. “What sort, Jen? Regular? Basmati?” Such things. It couldn’t be done, it just couldn’t be done any more. Their little foodie fads, their fancy cooking. Their being nice to themselves and splashing out – Waitrose not Tesco’s – now the lad had left home.
Puy lentils, Thai green sauce. That sort of shit.
He couldn’t bear to think about how thinking about Jenny only half a mile away was the same as thinking about Doug three thousand miles away. He wasn’t here, he was there, but you could talk, just the same, on the phone. Now the simple words “here” and “there” confused him utterly. Doug wasn’t here, but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there at all.
Or – and this is where it got really terrible – Doug was there. Doug was in a mortuary in Swindon, pending a coroner’s decision. They couldn’t have Doug yet. It was pretty clear now that they couldn’t have Doug before Christmas, maybe even for some time after Christmas. All they wanted for Christmas was Doug. But Doug would be spending Christmas in a mortuary in Swindon. And anyway Christmas wouldn’t happen this year.
“Christmas is coming.” He remembered when he was a kid how the words had excited him almost more than the word Christmas itself, the idea that it was on its way. At Christmas, or when it was coming, you made lists, you dropped hints. He wanted to remember now – but at the same time didn’t want to remember – every present they’d ever bought Doug for Christmas, every one.
Had they ever bought him any kind of toy gun? If they had, then it could have been another of those signals, those things that become real. So they must have done. If only they hadn’t. Or if only Doug had been a girl. If so he’d have been called Natalie and the list of presents would have been different.
He tried to think, while trying not to think, of all the presents. But it wasn’t so hard to remember being the man, in years gone by, in the days when Christmas was coming, looking for a gift to give his son. Not to remember being that man was the harder thing.
Fifteen, twenty years ago. Wars on TV. But there were soldiers to do all that stuff, and he’d never thought it was wrong or unmanly of him to be traipsing round Mothercare with Jenny and Doug – “Dougie in his buggy” – while there were wars going on. He felt it was the right thing to be doing. And it had never occurred to either of them that one day Doug would get it into his head ...
“Stick with dried, Dad.”
Why had he been so interested in pasta? Was that what they got out there? Dried stuff. Not stuff in tins. Pasta, all the varieties. Had it been a soldier’s advice?
Before him suddenly was one of those floundering young mums with a loaded trolley, two small kids swinging from the sides, using it as a jumping-off point for marauding charges up and down the aisle.
Nothing, once, on these shopping trips used to get his goat more than these bawling little bastards, these kids their mums or dads seemed unable to restrain, Doug never having been a noisy, out-of-control child. He’d been proud of that. He’d been proud of his soldier-son too. But now these screaming brats in front of him simply made him stand stock-still. They were kids. There was their mother. They were, all of them, both there and here. The kids were only doing what kids do. He looked at the mother’s strained, about-to-burst face. He thought: She doesn’t know how lucky she is. He wanted to look hard at her, to catch her eye, so she would see something in his.
But beyond her was the pasta section. He couldn’t go there. He had to go there. They were out of pasta, he’d checked. They weren’t interested in food any more, but they had to eat. They were out of even basics now: pasta, rice. Fuck mince pies.
He’d told Jenny, of course, about the phone call, of course he had. Should he have kept it a secret? It was why they’d eaten the things, that same evening – with a tomato, garlic and basil sauce. A bottle of Sicilian red. They’d been Doug’s “choice”. They’d never eat the fucking things again.
He had to go there, yet he couldn’t. And now anyway this losing-her-grip mother was blocking his path. She was standing exactly where ...
Everything was like this now: a reason for, a reason against. He was suddenly furious with this useless hopeless mum. Was it anger? What was it exactly? He understood how violence gets done. He pushed his trolley forward, in a no-swerving, no-yielding way, as if to smash into her trolley. Did she catch his eye? Did she see something in it? She was probably thinking: Bastard of a man. She moved in any case, she got out of his damn way, so did the screaming brats. And he was suddenly there, on the spot where he’d spoken to Doug.
His mobile had rung. He’d thought: What now? What had Jenny forgotten to ask him to get? It was the last time he’d heard Doug’s voice. It would have been the middle of the night in Helmand.
He saw them, in their little clear-plastic bags, alongside the lasagne and the tagliatelle. He even knew what the word meant now. Had Doug known? He picked up a packet. He knew that it wasn’t for them to eat. It wasn’t even for Jenny to see, to know. He had to do it. He held the scrunchy packet. He’d put it separately somewhere, he’d hide it. He grabbed a big pack of spaghetti and tossed it into his trolley anyway.
“Fresh is a scam, Dad. The dried lasts for ever.”
He clasped the fusilli close to his chest. They’d never get eaten. He’d put them somewhere, God knows where. Under the seat in the car.
Christmas wouldn’t happen this year. No presents, no lists. But this was his gift for Doug, or it was Doug’s gift to him. He didn’t know. Everything was this and that. The woman had gone. He’d somehow even cleared the aisle. He felt the pieces of pasta beneath the shiny plastic like the knobbly, guessed-at things inside a Christmas stocking long ago. The little curly things.
‘England And Other Stories’ by Graham Swift is published by Simon & Schuster, £16.99Reuse content