Jennifer Hand’s short story, Now and Then, was highly commended in the 2015 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award.
“Subtle and understated, this double portrait brings together a young woman with her older self in the mundane setting of a supermarket” (Judge, Maureen Bettle).
Read Jennifer’s piece below and stay tuned for more winners and shortlisted stories from our 2015 awards.
I’m like in this shop because I’m sick see, and can’t go to work. But I have to get some Aspro because my head is aching and I feel freezing though I’m definitely hot. It’s some kind of flu. And everything looks so weird. I mean it’s all bigger and noisier and I can’t find what I want and I can’t remember where things are. So I have to go up and down all the aisles. And I haven’t seen half the things before. I mean tampons in a supermarket, and condoms! I must be hallucinating. What is my mind thinking of! Embarrassing!
And I’d better get some food because you can’t starve just because you’re sick. There’s lots of old people here because it’s a weekday. And there’s like this long queue because these old people just sort of shuffle around and there’s only a couple of checkout chicks free. They all rummage around in their purses, the oldies I mean, trying to give the right change and chatting to the checkout chicks and smiling as if this is an outing. I’m wishing they would hurry up because I’m worried that someone from work might see me and then they’ll think I’m not sick but I must have Aspro and I can’t starve can I?
I mean it’s not greed. I’m not even hungry. I don’t feel like eating. Its proper food I’ve got not chips and lollies. I need to eat to get better. And I’m already thin and mum’s right when she said that I’m a bit shapeless. I don’t want big breasts but some shape would be good. I don’t want to be really girlie but it would be good to be noticed. Sometimes I think boys like me but maybe it’s only as a friend. I’d really like someone to love and to love me.
I look up as the queue moves a bit. The first old lady’s finished. I’m trying to be polite because it must be awful being old, with nothing to do but shuffle around all day and chat with checkout people. And sort of look so… like… well… old really. And the old guys are worse really because they sort of smile and eye up the checkout chicks in a sort of … sleazy way but you can’t blame them really because well, crikey, just look at these old women. And they probably haven’t looked in a mirror for a while and seen what they really look like. This old guy looks at me up and down and winks. I hate it but maybe it means I look okay and anyway he’s old so I just try to smile politely at him but I can’t really stand it so I look away quickly. And now I’m just standing here trying to look patient and ill. Get it? Look patient and like a patient… ha.
It’s hard to look patient when you’re worried about someone from work seeing you. I don’t want to lose my job. I mean it’s not the most wonderful job but it is quite alright. Do I want to do it all my life? Obviously not but I don’t know what I do want to do. That career person said think of what you’re interested in, what you like to do. Well, I like playing sport but I’m no good at it and anyway it’s not a job, no money in it not for a girl anyway. I really like bits of this and bits of that—bits of science; bits of history and geography; bits of general knowledge—like that. Maybe that teacher was right—my problem, no stickability.
Oh no! Now there’s a price check. I turn around. There’s a woman behind me that looks familiar. I think I know her. She’s tall and stands up quite straight. She’s quite thin. She doesn’t look too bad I suppose but pretty wrinkly. She’s got a bit of hair on her crown that sticks up. She should do something about that. Who is she? She’s a bit impatient even though she is old. Sort of sighing and breathing hard. She’s obviously in a hurry. What does she have to hurry about I wonder?
If things don’t start moving, I’m going to be stuck here when the office workers come out for lunch. I’m just such an idiot. I should have come earlier; gone to different shops. I should have got some water so I could take this Aspro but the line behind me just keeps growing and I’d just wait longer. I can’t think what to do. Shall I leave now but then I’ll have no painkillers. Or food. I’ll just hope things hurry up. I mean it’d be bad luck.
And then behind her there’s a woman with a couple of children who want some lollies. They’re making my head worse with the noise they’re making.
‘No lollies, no’ the mother says and the kids dust up. You’d think the mother would have some control. She’s right not to let them have lollies, though. I’ll do that if I have kids. I’d really like to have kids. The older woman turns and says to the kids ‘you’re very good at waiting.’
They’re obviously not and the kids look at her as if she’s mad but it has shut them up. They stand still trying to make her notice them by being good. She looks at them and smiles. She says to the mother
‘I’d like to lie on the floor and shout and kick sometimes, I suffer from such bad queue rage these days.’ The mother laughs. How can that old woman say those things? You’d think she’d be embarrassed. Talking to all and sundry. I wonder if she thinks about it at night and has to pull the blankets over her head. I would.
Now she leans over and picks up a magazine out of the rack and riffles through it. She stops at a page and reads something. Then she turns to the mother again and says
“My stars say that I’m going to find love’ I nearly choke, but then the woman says
‘But I don’t want love only money.’ Crikey, just as well I’m thinking but she is laughing with the people in the queue who have heard her. I wouldn’t laugh if I was her. I mean I have a look and she hasn’t even got a wedding ring. I mean we’d all like some money but love is the most important.
I wish I’d remember not to come to the supermarket on pension day. There I go again forgetting that I’m one of them. I grit my teeth and straighten my back. I count the people in the queue. Four women with the weekly shopping—they’ll take a while; an old guy with a couple of cleaning products (crikey)—should be quick unless he feels compelled to charm the girl on the checkout; and then a young woman maybe 20, looking a bit shifty. She’s only got a couple of things but she’ll probably try to pay with an EFTPOS card that doesn’t have enough money and then we’ll have to wait while she tries her credit card. One day I’m just going to say ‘for God’s sake I’ll pay!’
I look around and do that sighing between my gritted teeth thing. Where did I pick up that rude habit? When did that start? The young woman in front of me turns and looks at me. She looks familiar somehow. She’s tall and slim—very slim for these days. Good posture I’m thinking and straighten my shoulders again. She’s looking at her feet a lot and then sneaking a look around. I thought she was shifty but when she looked at me I could see that she was edgy and unsure; a bit worried about something. Poor thing, who’d be young again?
She turns away and runs her hand over the back of her head flattening a stray lock sticking up from her crown. I smile to myself. You’ll still be doing that in a few decades time, I think, if my experience is anything to go by.
I look around the supermarket. It looks a bit strange today. I can see why things are taking a while, it looks like the computers are down; the scanners aren’t working. The checkout people are entering the price in the cash register by hand. Crikey imagine that. Good job they can still do it. When did barcodes start? These things change and you just forget the old ways. They used to count the change out by starting with what you had to pay and then working their way up to what you had given them. It was better in a way; it meant they started with the small change; you didn’t end up dropping it all as it slipped off the notes.
Oh good, the queue’s moving. The young woman in front smiles half heartedly and looks away from some old guy who is ogling her. She shrugs her shoulders sort of wiping the look off. I remember that feeling. Honestly silly old fart, gut hanging out over his belt, probably thinks he has flattered her. For god’s sake.
The kids behind are getting restless, who can blame them. They start to quarrel and whine at their mother for lollies. I wish they didn’t put the sweets there just by the check out. It’s hard enough to avoid wanting them when you’re grown up. Oh look! Scorched Peanut Bars, Fry’s Chocolate Creams, my favourites, haven’t seen them for years. I thought they stopped making them. They must be making them again—I’m sorely tempted.
It’s hard for parents. Everybody thinks they could raise kids better. I remember how it was. There’s no winning—if you chastise them some people glower critically, if you don’t others do. The young woman in front is looking a bit critical out of the corner of her eye. She’ll learn. Grandparenting is good though—all care, no responsibility. Suits me: no responsibility. Maybe that’s why I didn’t achieve more—lack of commitment; always looking for the next interesting thing. Music, art, history, bit of science; all for a bit. Jack of all trades master of none. That teacher was right—no stickability! Still, ticked all the usual boxes: marriage, children, divorce, career of sorts and now retirement. Pretty good really. Can’t expect more? Somehow I’d like more though. I’d like to do something. Achieve something more.
I know, I’ll read my stars while I wait. Rubbish really. What am I thinking? I suppose I’m hoping that they could say something inspiring and new that would make me motivated and even at this late stage find something that I could really commit to; do something special and individual. Oh no! It’s love again. Have mercy! I wouldn’t go through all that again. This love stuff—you give up a lot for it. But still I’ve had my moments, thank goodness. Glad to remember them though rather than relive them. Maybe I’ll find something, some goal; maybe I won’t. Should I care? It’s life really; how humans have always lived. Life, just life. One good thing—you seem to grow into yourself as you get old —there I’ve said it—old. Wish I’d done it sooner, grown into myself, maybe I would have achieved more. Still did okay. Yeah, did well.
Oh, we’ve moved up. It’s nearly my turn. Those kids are still staring at me. I nod and smile, ‘Very, very good’ I say, ‘I’m very impressed.’ Their mother and I exchange smiles as her children stand up straight and nod back, looking seriously well behaved.
At last the girl in front is being served. She is just putting her stuff on the counter: Aspro, bread, hamburgers, lettuce, sauce. All healthy food for a young person. A middle aged man in a suit is trying to queue jump. Crikey he looks just like old Rob Friels. You’d have to say it must be his son, or grandson more like. Or some poor sod just born unlucky. God I hated that man, Mr Friels. He set out to make me unhappy for some reason. Looking back I can see that I worked hard alright. A few mistakes here and there, well quite a few maybe, but I was young. He always tried to make me cry. I wouldn’t though. A bully really. He’s dead now I heard. Got dementia. What a way to go. Still he never amounted to much. Pff, just another nobody, whatever he thought of himself.
The guy in the suit, the Mr Friels lookalike, isn’t queue jumping after all. He walks straight up to the girl. She goes very red. Her hands start shaking and she drops her purse on the floor. The man leans towards her
‘Hallo, Mattie’ he says. Crikey, same name as me, I think. He goes on ‘What are you doing here?’ He doesn’t sound caring or even curious, more threatening.
Mattie’s voice is shaking. ‘I’m sick,’ she says.
‘Yes but what are you doing here?’
‘I had to get Aspro, and food,’ she says. He stands over her and stares down. She tries to stand up to him and stare him out but she can’t keep it up. Her shoulders drop and her eyes fall looking at the ground.
He smiles. But it’s not nice.
‘You’d better come and see me in my office. First thing tomorrow. 9 o’clock. I’ll expect you.’ He marches off.
Crikey, I’m thinking, she’s sick—can’t you see? I’m thinking are they still allowed to treat people like that?
For a moment there is silence and stasis. The people in the queue who heard and the checkout girl look uncomfortable. Mattie is looking down at her Aspro and food.
The checkout girl breaks the spell. ‘Do you want a bag?’
Mattie looks puzzled.
‘Well… Yeah. Of course.’
‘They cost 15 cents’ explains the checkout girl.
‘What?’ says Mattie as if she doesn’t understand. Then she shrugs and nods, ‘okay.’ Life has got away from her. She shakes her head and sighs between her teeth.
‘Twelve dollars forty, then’ the checkout girl says. Mattie looks dismayed
‘Sorry, what, she says.
Mattie shakes her head but holds out some notes and the girl counts her change.
Mattie picks up her food and walks out of the shop. Her head down, she looks defeated, but then she straightens her back and strides out. As she turns the corner out of my sight I see her lift her hand and rub it across her eyes. I’m falling back years. My heart goes out to her. It takes courage, I think, when you’re young. It’s all ahead. You don’t know if you can do it. You just have to hold your nerve.
I’m coming out of the ladies. I had to get some water to take the Aspro. And have a cry. I’ve rinsed my face now and I’m pretty sure no one can see I’ve been crying. Crikey, the toilets are flash. They must have redecorated them recently, and there’s no towels only blowie things that don’t really work. When did that happen?
It’d have to be Mr Friels that saw me. He hates me I think. I don’t know why. I try to work hard. Maybe I’m just wrong. Maybe immature like he says. Anyway he didn’t see me cry. I don’t think he can sack me, but I’m not sure. I feel a bit sick. What can I do? I’ll worry about it later.
Look at that, they don’t have doors to come in and out of in the new ladies just a corner, good idea, you don’t have to touch anything. And I’m just walking around the corner of the entry into the corridor that leads to the car park and bus stop when I hear someone call my name,
What now? I’m thinking, what else? But it is a woman’s voice. I turn around and it is the old woman from the queue.
‘You’re okay, Mattie,’ she says.
‘I’m fine,’ I answer but then I hear that she didn’t ask.
‘Yes, you’re fine,’ she says. ‘Better than fine. You’re great. You’re doing great.’
I stare at her. Who is she? How can she know anything?
‘You’ll do fine. It’ll all be okay. Good things. And that man, I heard him, but he can’t hurt you. Get it? He can’t, whatever he thinks.’
I’m staring at the old lady and starting to feel a bit better, less sick, less worried. It’s weird but she’s looking a bit better than she did too, a bit more stylish, a bit more successful, sort of shinier—a somebody. She looks kind and my eyes tear up. I look away for the moment and blink a couple of times. When I look back she is gone. I look around. I can’t see her but everything looks more normal now, more recognisable, more like usual. The Aspro must be working.
I walk out to go home.
‘I’m fine,’ I say to myself, ‘I’m better than fine, I’m great. I’m doing great.’