The Supermarket

This is a chapter that was cut from An Ordinary Epidemic/Before This Is Over at the last minute for length reasons. It was one of my favourite scenes and I was sad to see it go but 'kill your darlings' and all that...

Anyway, I've been thinking about it recently given the circumstances we find ourselves in and I thought I'd put it here in case anyone was interested. (Links to where you can buy the novel on this page.)

Hannah had a list and a trolley, she took a deep breath in and let it out. Making the pantry complete was something she could do, something to prepare. It might only be a ritual, but it was better than waiting and doing nothing.
        Bored queues of people were not what she expected. Maybe this was how catastrophes always started, like a minor disruption to an ordinary day.
        She ran her eye down the list, a sensible list of fruit, vegetables and fresh meat. Things to add to all the dried and canned food at home. Healthy things, good things, things to make meals out of.
        In the tinned goods aisle, a young man pushed a trolley brimming over with instant noodles, tins of soups and tubs of chocolate pudding. Below the ‘Limit Three Per Customer’ sign, he tipped tins of vegetables off the shelf, taking precisely three of each kind. He was either stocking up for disaster or doing the monthly shop for a share house.
        The aisles were only a little more than a metre wide, the North Shore was only a bridge away. Anyone here could have been on the other side of the harbour twenty minutes ago. The teacher of those two kids in isolation could be here buying groceries. A doctor or a nurse could have finished the morning shift in that hospital and stopped here on their way home.
        She rounded the end of the breakfast cereal aisle. The way ahead was blocked by a woman with a toddler sitting in the fold-out seat of the trolley. She watched as the toddler waited until her mother was looking the other way to pull a packet of Coco Pops off the shelf. The child twisted around, leaning into the trolley, holding the tall package in both hands, trying to put it in with the rest of the shopping as her mum turned back. ‘We don’t want that one,’ and the mother took it from her.
        ‘We do.’ The child was very matter of fact.
        ‘We can have a different one.’ The mother shoved the Coco Pops back on the shelf at an eccentric angle. The little girl started up a wail of ‘Noooooo.’
        The mother handed her a big box of muesli. ‘You like this one.’ And the little girl clutched it with a kind of surprise, turning it over as if to discover what she liked.
        Hannah couldn’t keep her eyes off the Coco Pops. She could almost see the girl’s hand prints all over it. Prints filled with germs picked up from her mouth, her eyes, her nose, from any other packet she touched, from the handle of the trolley. Every box out of place was a potential germ mine. Even the ones neatly in rows had been put there by the hand of some uni student with doubtful hygiene, working a few hours a day to support themselves.
        She kept her eyes on the ground, not on the shelves. This wasn’t the North Shore, there were no germs here yet. She had to make herself believe that the boxes on the shelves were safe. Except the ones touched by toddlers.
        Breakfasts, that’s what she needed. Anything to drive the thought of germs out of her head. Bacon and eggs, and maple syrup for pancakes. Something to make it an adventure instead of a confinement. A big block of cheddar would do to make sandwiches but what she wanted was something they would relish. She could imagine sitting around the kitchen table with Sean, Zac, Oscar, a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. Yes, that’s what she wanted, for her kids to say to her years later, ‘Remember that time we shut the front door, and didn’t go out for weeks, and we had cheese and crackers and played cards all day.’
        She was still watching the floor, not thinking about grubby toddler hands, thinking instead about bacon and blue cheese as she turned into the aisle that ran along the back of the store. If it hadn’t been for the shrieking that made her look up, she would have run into the shopping basket dropped in the middle of the passageway.
        An elderly woman was mutely clutching to her chest a large puffy plastic bag full of white powder. A much younger woman was yelling and clawing at the bag. ‘You took that out of my trolley, you old bitch, I saw you. Get your own powdered milk.’ Still the older woman stood like a statue, arms wrapped around the bag.
        There was only a small gap between the two women and the dairy cabinet. Hannah considered the odds. She would only be next to the women for a few moments, but she would have to sidle up close. She felt her breathing quicken. Was she pulling in more air? Was that how it worked? Breathing more germs? She could escape if she went all the way back down the aisle and up the next one, which would take her straight to the cheese. The younger woman continued to thrash and scream. Right behind her, Hannah could see brie and blue cheese. They could be in her hands in seconds.
        She murmured, ‘Excuse me,’ and held her breath as she leant around the two women. The younger one paused to give her an outraged look, and the older took the chance to walk away. The younger woman chased her, pushing her forward. The bag hit the ground, the older woman following its arc until she landed on it, sending up a plume of powdered milk.
        Hannah seized the cheeses, then two more of each, because she could. She picked up a vacuum sealed packet of bacon from the shelf underneath. It shook a little in her hand. She forced herself to slow down, dig around for one from the bottom of the pile. The use-by date was a few days later. She rummaged around to find more of the fresher ones, and took four. She’d hide them somewhere in the fridge, otherwise they’d all get eaten right away.