The Great Explorer

Entry by: Tauren

7th October 2016
Courage is the preserve of the Fearful,
Not the Fearless

Noel went to bed a husband, and awoke a widower. This had come as a terrible shock to him not least because he`d always assumed that he`d die first, something he`d have been unsurprised to learn that May had also believed, and an event that had left him quite unprepared to deal with the outside world.

None of this he considered as he stood by the array of shopping trollies outside his local Lidl, euro coin in hand. It wasn’t his first time here, he`d visited many times before, but always, excepting yesterday, in the company of his wife.

May, like his mother, had had very traditional values and ideas on the separation of duties between man and wife, so closely paralleled were their opinions and so seamless was the handover from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law that he never even noticed the exchange on his wedding day.

He had gone shopping with her religiously every Friday after work, May had refused to learn how to drive, “man`s work,” she`d sniffed when he`d offered to teach her how, he`d collect the trolley and follow one pace behind as she loaded it with all the essentials, eyes downcast for fear she might think he was trying to usurp her authority.

She would carefully place each item in its preordained place within the wire framed carriage so that it could be unloaded in specific order onto the conveyor belt at the cash register, and then reloaded into the waiting bags, just as precisely.

After their first shopping trip as man and wife he`d made the mistake of attempting to help her unpack on their return home, she`d slapped the back of his hands, and in a harsh tone said, “Make yourself useful and mow the lawn.” After that he never interfered with the “System” she employed in distributing the chattels to the various cupboards of the kitchen, or “her domain” as he came to call it. Now without her he was bereft in more ways than one.

Yesterday, four days after she had passed, and a day after friends and family had stopped calling, some with platters of food, he had decided that he should venture to the supermarket, an opening foray as it were, and purchase some food for himself; it had not gone well.

It was not, he thought an ambitious project, he was a firm believer in walking before you attempt to run, and had decided to simply purchase a loaf of bread and some milk, perhaps if he were feeling adventurous he would buy a pound of butter as well, though he had checked the fridge and there was a half-pound still there, but really could you have too much butter? He didn’t think so; the trip had not gone to plan.

It had started off well enough; he had eschewed a trolley, thinking he only wanted two, maybe three items at most, and could surely carry them to the till. But it was when he reached the bread aisle that, as the saying goes, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” that it all went awry.

He found himself presented with an array of bread he had not expected, not just different suppliers, but an abundance of types of loaf; a panic attack ensued, made worse when he tried to escape the way he`d come in, finding that the doors wouldn’t open from the inside. Blindly he`d barged past the queue at the tills without so much as an excuse me, and had had to sit for a whole ten minutes in his car before the shakes subsided; today, out of necessity, he was determined to do better.

This morning, for the first time since childhood, he had poured himself a bowl of cereal; only to find himself out of milk. Toast was equally out of the question, what kind of philistine eats toast without tea, and who drinks tea without milk, he had felt like he`d fallen into one of those peculiar paintings where everything leads back to the same point, one without milk.

So, he had carefully inventoried the cupboards, a veritable Aladdin’s caves of wonders, full of can`s he was sure he`d never heard of, what were legume’s, he`d wondered, the picture on the tin being quite unhelpful. Eventually he`d settled on a system, he`d made a list of everything that appeared to be in short supply.

He`d added cappuccino to the list as there were only three sachets left in the box, before realising he didn’t drink cappuccino, that had been May`s favourite drink, and crossed it out. Then he fussed over the worry that more than three guests might call on the same day, all asking for cappuccino, and he`d run out, so he wrote it back in. Then he`d reasoned that this eventuality was quite unlikely and crossed it out again, then re-entered it a third time, because, you never know, and anyway how much could a box of cappuccino sachets really cost.

All that had taken four hours, now he was standing, gazing into the distance, trying to decide did he need a trolley, or one of those long handled basket deelies on wheels? When a voice asked, “You alright there luv?”

Startled, Noel looked around, a black woman, close to him in height was giving him a concerned look, her plump round face creased into a frown, and before he could respond she plucked the coin from his fingers, inserted into the trolley`s slot and pulled it free, obviously thinking he wasn’t sure what he should do, thinking perhaps he was having a senior moment; “there you go,” she told him, her charitable duty done.

When he made no attempt to move the trolley she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Oh yes, fine,” he said, “It’s just,” a sense of foolishness overcame him, he blushed, “It`s just that, well I hate to admit this but….. I`ve never been shopping on my own.”

Feeling wretched, he explained about May, and how she`d always done the shopping, while the woman, she told him her name was Anna, which surprised him, he`d expected something more exotic; while Anna nodded sympathetically.

It was about then that Noel realised this was the first time he`d had a conversation with a black person, he`d lived his entire life in Ireland, which was about the most white and not just Christian, but Catholic country, on the planet. Even when there had been immigration during the Celtic tiger years, the immigrants had come mostly from Poland, another white Christian country. He had never holidayed abroad, May refusing to travel more than a hundred miles from Cork in any direction, so he had seen most of Kerry and Waterford, and once they`d traveled all the way to the cliffs of Moher, which May had declared had given her vertigo a hundred yards from the edge, so in truth he couldn’t say he had really seen them.

Now as this woman, who said she`d come all the way from Nigeria, patted his hand, speaking in her curiously melodious voice, Noel wondered did this make him a racist?

He thanked her for her help and waited as she untethered another trolley, steering it towards the entrance; falling in behind her, trying to follow her, without looking like he was following her.

To his dismay she stopped at the cake display, he consulted his list, no cakes. May had been a stickler for baking her own, shunning store bought on principle. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Noel could go on ahead of Anna, or fake interest in the display, cowardice won out and he picked up a pack at random, cherry bakewells; did he like cherry bakelwells? He couldn’t remember ever having them.

To his relief and some consternation Anna moved on to the bread section, tossing whatever she`d chosen into her trolley, the words higgledy-piggledy, crossing his mind for the first time in nearly sixty years and he couldn’t help wonder what May would have said if she saw how Anna had just dropped the cakes into the trolley.

Anna looked back at him, as he stood, box In hand, indecision written across his features, he grinned at her, put them back on the shelf, spied an apple tart next to a plastic box with a pair of garish pink cupcakes in it, and felt a wave of relief in the familiar, he picked it up, went to place it carefully in his trolley, saw Anna was still watching him, and dropped it the last inch onto the wire mesh.

At the bread section he surreptitiously pulled part of a bread wrapper he`d torn off the slice pan in the bread bin earlier, picked up a corresponding loaf from a plastic basket and feeling quite pleased with himself, was just about to pace it in his trolley when he saw Anna watching, shaking her head at him, he shook his own back at her in confusion.

“You going to eat all that?” she asked.

He looked at the loaf; it did seem quite a lot for just him. She walked back and picked up a half loaf, dropped it in his trolley and pried the large sliced pan from his hands.

She sighed, took the list from him and said, “Come on,” then turned back to her own trolley, a relieved Noel in tow, I`ll do it by myself next week, he thought.

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