Then I win a prize with Writers Victoria for a short story called Price Check.
So shut up and write already a friend said, the best advice I've had for a while.
Here's what the judge said about the story (and he's a judge so he must be right)
An exploration into early motherhood and the secrets we all keep. It is a story about isolation and an exploration of how we can do something for ourselves. “Put simply,” said Steed, “this is the freshest, most original story among the competition entries. Both about parenting and yet not, it showcases a voice I'd love to hear more from in years to come.”
She pulls on her jeans, three red leather bangles and a shirt that can be unbuttoned modestly.
There’s a slightly sour smell in the air. The washing spills out of the laundry basket. She pulls back the covers on the bed. As she draws back the blind, dust motes rise like ghosts in the strong morning light.
Three-and-a-half hours, at least. She knows that she shouldn’t count, but adding up the hours of sleep, helps her feel like she has some control over the night that has just passed.
From the other end of the house the spoon is reaching its crescendo as he stirs his coffee. Her jaw is clenched in irritation. She gathers the plastic bag, full of wipes, poo-ey nappies and an empty tin of ointment, from the change table. Glancing into the mirror on her way out, she sees her hair is in fuzzy disarray. She pushes it down with her free hand.
“See you later – have a good one.”
A last slurp of coffee, a crunch of toast, a trail of crumbs on the bench, one perfunctory kiss, then he is gone.
She watches his broad back recede down the quiet street, the sun is just climbing. Her engorged breasts begin to leak through her shirt as she stands in the front yard.
The garden has the classic renters look: slightly desolate, in need of a mow, and all the charm of a cup of tea gone cold.
Back inside, she positions the cushions, brings the infant to her, her right hand supporting his head, the left cradling his body. She feels a tingling light headedness, followed by a sense of relief as the milk drains out of her. The baby belches, leaving a thin sour stream on her sleeve.
Stay calm and relax.
Some people say chocolate is not food, it’s just chocolate.
No husband has ever been shot whilst doing the dishes.
She arranges the fridge magnets one more time.
It seems like she is always there in the house, always just being there with the baby.
The radiant heat from the traffic and the concrete throbs. It’s 10am and already it’s already over 30 degrees. If she closes her eyes, she can pretend that the roaring noise is the ocean, not the traffic. The northern suburbs of Melbourne are heavy and tired from the incessant heat.
It took her till now, till she had the baby, to understand the seasons and to understand how the sun travelled across the sky in Australia.
Arriving from the UK ten years before, understanding those things hadn’t mattered. That was a time in her life when she hardly understood herself, never mind her surroundings.
When she was pregnant though, someone had said Oh how lovely you’re having a spring baby. It clicked then, that spring was late in the year, that the heat came at Christmas time, that an English winter was an Australian summer. She had not understood it till she had birthed, nor had she ever looked or cared about the direction the sun travelled in during the day.
The position of the pram could be changed to suit the direction of the sun. The sun rose in the east, traveled north and set in the west. The pram faced west as she walked to the supermarket, the hot sun behind her. It mattered somehow that she knew this that she knew where the sun would be, so she could change the direction of the pram as she walked around the streets.
Milk, nappies, coffee, something for dinner, the list was created to put purpose into her day. A trip to the supermarket felt like an achievement, something started and completed in one day. Unlike the rest of it: the blur of feeding, the saté poohy nappies, the thin streams of vomit always across her back, the all pervasive smell of wipes and milk, the long stretch of the days.
She knows no one in the suburb where she lives. Most days she speaks only to the check out chicks at the supermarket. Often she stares at passers by - wishing that they would be her friends.
She pauses on her walk and looks up. Nothing assails her quite like the silvery green of gum trees, the endless varieties, the red explosion of colour, their gracefulness, their starkness. It always makes her stop and heightens her sense of loneliness and reminds her that she is here, in the Southern hemisphere – in Australia.
The baby sleeps through the walk down to the supermarket. She usually has an hour or so before her breasts spring a leak, before she has to unharness her self, find somewhere to sit and feed the infant. Then she can release the engorged heaviness into the infant’s wide, hungry mouth.
She passes the black and brown Alsatian, barking at number 365. A renovation that seemed to be taking forever at 451. At 517 the garden is made up of a manicured lawn and topiaries in the shape of strange animals, all with plastic black and white stuck on eyes, the kind you would usually find on a teddy bear. It would have taken hours to keep the strange beasts in shape, but she has never seen anyone tend the garden. She imagines that they do the topiary work under the cover of darkness, a torch guiding the hedge trimmer, the light deranged and the shadows short. Number 599 is dilapidated, its letterbox stuffed with unopened mail and yellowing newspapers.
She crosses the road to the supermarket; the heat seems to intensify around all of the parked cars. The cool air is a blast as she enters.
Her shirt is sticking to her back. In the stark bright light, she feels stale.
Her anonymity is amplified in the uniformity of the place, the groupings of cleaning fluids and toilet paper, the frozen items and the boxes of cereals, stacked, neat, an orderly flow of people in and out, the shelves always stacked, the shelf stackers never seen.
She contemplates the slithered tuna enrobed in a succulent mornay, surrounded by a trio of spring vegetables and wonders if it really is food fit for humans or as the tin suggests for animal consumption only.
She trawls up and down in the supermarket, holds the pacifier in her hand momentarily dreaming that this could be the answer to the endless sleepless nights, then hangs it back on its hook knowing that her choice to breast feed means that she is the eternal pacifier. The very thought of it makes her nipples tingle, and not in a pleasurable way.
Haribo Gold bears 330 each was 4.40 SAVE 1.10
Haribo Gold bears Mini.
1 Pack 250g
Some lines for the bar code.
Some numbers beneath the bar code the number 22 in a circle.
|Excuse me there are |
Haribo Gold Bears in my comedy
She places the yellow and green sign for Haribo Gold bears into the basket underneath the pram, pays for the things that she has bought for dinner, the nappies, the coffee and leaves the supermarket.
The heat hits her like a heavy sponge. She begins to walk up the hill back home and feels something beyond the usual drag of tiredness. She stops momentarily to understand what the feeling is, and places it: it is the feeling of excitement tinged with purpose.
Between the feeds, the burping and the poohey nappies that night she sits by the glow of her computer. Her tiredness makes her sway and almost hallucinate, but she keeps going.
Haribo Gold bears 2.20 each was 4.40 save 2.10.
The slightest change.
The next day she goes down the hill, purposeful, the drone of domesticity a momentary back drop. She enters the supermarket.
Haribo Gold bears 220 each was 4.40 save 2.10
She places the label onto the shelf.
She does her shopping, slowly: bread, eggs, baby wipes, some washing up liquid, some fruit and a small box of tea.
She slows her pace down, dawdling, not caring that her time might run out, that her breasts may spring a leak, or spurt even.
Her basket fills; she has bought some light globes that she doesn’t need, some cleaning cloths though she already has some at home, hoping and waiting.
Eventually she realizes that it won’t happen today, that today she will have to go home without seeing her work in action, that the warmth spreading across her shirt and the baby’s stirring movements means that she must leave, now before the infant begins to bawl.
Deliciously fruity Nanna’s Apple Pie.
400 each was 520 save 1.20
The slightest change.
When she gets home, her shirt is damp, with map like patterns running across it. The souring milk smell makes her almost dry retch.
The infants hands are clenched, his face is red from crying.
She feeds the baby calming him with a slight rocking movement.
She changes out of her soggy shirt, places the infant into the basinet, the one that can be wheeled around the house and places it next to her computer.
In the first week there was an orange string bag of onions 1 kilo was 250 save 100, imported cherries from the US, an assortment of confectionary, pet food and an electrical juicing machine, all altered slightly.
It took until Thursday, 4 days into the alterations for her to be in the store to hear it:
Price check on grocery.
She watches, whilst pretending to be fascinated in a show and tell magazine. A film star’s ex lover gets married to her best friend. Another film star reveals her fat busting techniques.
She peers over the magazine as the customer says:
The sign said $4:00, it says it’s on special.
She watches the young assistant go up isle 7 and brings back the yellow and green sign.
The numbers slightly altered, the lines slightly changed. Her sign, oh so carefully mimicked, oh so carefully changed on her computer. Her almost forgotten training as a graphic designer, dulled by the exhausting birth, the endless feeding, the intense boredom of early motherhood, sparking strangely back into the life because of a packet of Haribo Gold bears. The jelly confection so sweet on her lips as she worked on the yellow sign taken from the supermarket shelf.
The checkout chick shakes her head as the scanner waves over the top. She shakes her head again after a few futile attempts, waiting for the expected beep sound. The customer, shows signs of irritation, eyes moving slightly upwards, a short sigh, a shuffle of the shoulders, a pursing of the lips, a quick glance at their mobile phone.
The Haribo Gold bears are given to the customer at the price displayed on the yellow and green label.
It was small things at first, then large packets of toilet paper, then gourmet ice-cream crazily priced at $12:00 boasting pistachio, drizzles of salted caramel and shards of toffee.
Was $12:00 Now $2:00.
Her head is dull with sleeplessness, her ‘work’ interrupted by the shrill cry of the infant wanting another feed.
A month in and her living room is strewn with supermarket labels. Her walks up and down the hill to the supermarket becoming a daily thrill. She cannot know who will buy what when she is there, whilst she is there buying her nappies, her things for dinner, some milk. She can only hope.
Thirty two days in and as she enters the supermarket she feels dull and lugubrious, the incessant ache of her nearly full breasts, the buzz of tiredness making her temples throb.
The saxophone crescendo to Jerry Raferty’s Baker Street filters through to her as she approaches the nappy isle. She begins to hum along to the lyrics.
Through the staccato rhythm another sound comes to her. The sound of alchemy at work, the moment she has till now, only imagined.
There has been one call, and in quick succession another, she hurries down the isle, not even bothering to get the nappies that she has come in for.
There is another call and another.
She stands in the bright light and smiles, her backdrop are signs boasting that everything is Special.
All five check outs that are operating, all of them making the same call. Along with the call, she sees the flashing lights indicating that the operator is requesting assistance. They are like beacons. Then the noise, to her a beautiful melody. Five check out chicks yell at once:
Price check, price check, price check, price check, price check.