Novel Excerpt: The Map of Antarctica – At the Supermarket
Ellie wandered down the aisles in the supermarket in small steps and with large dark eyes. There were piles of vegetables either side of her. Okra, Pak Choi, Leeks, Potatoes, a whole array of different potatoes in fact, lay bunched and stacked beneath the fluorescent strip lighting. Vegetables always come first in a supermarket, she thought. They are fresh produce, they will go off. It is a good business model to have people encounter fresh goods first, they will buy more of them that way, while they are still new to the world of exchange. She moved forwards. The wheels of the trolley were slightly askew and she had to put more effort into the right hand side to keep the vehicle from drifting. Music was playing, sweeping people along through the constructed flows of items. Soups melted into pastas followed by condiments. Eggs, sugar, then teabags. Combinations to make you think about your day, shelves built like hours. There is no need for thought here, all is convenience and ease, and is lit up for all to see. Ellie liked to reach to the back of the shelves to get her goods. A tin that has been in the dark might have something extra to it, something unexposed. She walked and accumulated things to put in the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator back at the house.
It was in aisle number 4, stood directly beneath a sign that read ‘sauces, tinned goods, vinegar’, that she became struck by a sense of unease. There was something missing, she thought, something absent from her psyche. It might be that she had forgotten something but maybe it was larger than that, an unexplored element of her self. A pending future. Futures, she knew, could weigh heavily on a person, lock heavy jaws around a woman’s path. Why now though, she questioned, why in the supermarket? She flinched as people brushed past and held jars of tomato red up to the light, squinting. Ellie continued shopping with a furrowed brow and cramped posture, still unable to pinpoint what was wrong. She bought fresh bread and resisted biscuits. She peered at the other people that padded around on the shiny floor but noone so much as glanced at her. She checked her list and she had covered all of the items and more, beyond this point was excess. She continued, because, supermarkets were built for excess. In the bakery section she watched as a child ate a muffin, two women stood nearby talking about hair dye and skin cream.
She found herself stood in the medical section staring at toothpastes. Different shades of blue and white, different logos with clinical designs of smiles and stars. She thought of the action of opening her mouth and inserting the toothbrush, pushing the paste around in circles. There was something unsettling about allowing the world into the body. Between the teeth and past the lips. Ellie shuddered. People dreamt of being naked in places like this. Vulnerable in clinical environs. Eventually she wandered off towards the frozen goods. Lines of freezers with chickens, bags of peas, potato waffles and ice cream. She opened one of the doors and a cold steam puffed outwards and the glass became condensed. She closed the door without taking anything and moved towards the buzzing exit.
The checkout was such a violent prospect after the solitude of wandering the floor. People queued with clenched jaws. When they had hung around long enough they stacked their foods high on the conveyor belts in a seeming competition for the most impactive display of goods. There was a row of people at the front of the lines frenziedly putting their purchases into carriers and then slotting the bags back into the trollies. She offered a furtive hello to the woman at the till and felt suddenly vulnerable to her environment. She had to pay for these items, laid out in a visual map, they were becoming hers and everybody could see. There were no embarrassing items particularly, no condoms or sanitary towels, but they still showed something about her, something she wouldn’t choose to share if she had the choice. Now she understood why people were so quick to stuff the items into bags, conceal them until they got safely home. She did the same in a synchronised display before paying by card and making her way through the automatic doors. The car park tilted with boredom, packed full of locked vehicles lined up in painted white grids. Sun glinted off countless windscreens in a sweep of graduated light. She pushed the trolley forwards.
The boot of Ellie’s car had a blanket and some water bottles in it. She lifted the bags across one by one, lowering them until the thin plastic gave into shapeless forms. She had accumulated, somehow, six carrier bags of goods and they sagged as she lowered and locked the boot. She sat in the driver’s seat and locked the door and put on her seatbelt, sat for a moment or two and looked out at the view.