She has a small, pale face, with large blue eyes and absurdly long eyelashes. Her skin is so white it looks painted, and yet it’s flawless. She never has the bruised shins and scraped knees I see in her classmates. Perhaps she doesn’t play the way they do. Perhaps, like a perfect porcelain figure, she sits, unblinking, afraid she’ll smash if she moves. She has white-blond hair which curls at the ends, framing her face and catching the light.
When I am with her, people smile at us.
She has small soft feet in patent black shoes and ankle socks with a lacy frill. When she walks beside me she makes a little pit pat sound, four steps to my stride, four pit pats to my plod.
Sometimes, after bath-time, when she is fed-full and sleepy, and I have read the last sentence of the last page of her story, I look down to find her nearly sleeping, delicate eyelids closing on talcum powder cheeks. And I am overcome with such a rush of feeling that I gather her into my arms and squeeze, and it is as though I cannot possibly squeeze hard enough in a lifetime of squeezing. And she wakes up a little then, and gasps.
Sometimes, when she’s asleep, I imagine I am free.
I walk her to school and I pick her up again each evening, and she tells me, as we walk, about her day. I make her lunches in a pink, princess strewn lunchbox. Sandwiches and yogurts and chocolate and fruit. We bake cookies when it rains and pack picnics when the sun shines. I fill out forms for school trips and sew name tags in cardigans. We make craft out of cardboard and she brings it to school for Show and Tell. When there is a theme day at school I make her miniature costumes. Animals and bonnets and storybook heroines. We watch cartoons and read fairy tales and colour pictures and make dens.
There is another thing we do. Which she doesn’t bring up in Show and Tell. I never told her not to. But somehow she knows.
As I drive into the supermarket carpark, I meet her gaze in the rear view mirror. Small pink lips, tiny nostrils, downy eyebrows below a smooth, unwrinkled forehead. And those curls.
She understands. I see it in her eyes.
And if she understands, does she judge me?
We climb out of the car. I take her hand. She has a little blue skirt on and a white t shirt with a bow. Her hand is warm and soft and small. She is quiet beside me.
I feel, as I always do, a stab of guilt. Perhaps today we won’t do it. We’ll buy cakes and go home.
I think this every time.
I look down at the top of her white-blonde head and I wonder, does she think it too?
The supermarket is bright lights and loud colours and people. It blurs a little and I blink, blinded slightly by the heave and rush of it, its sharp edges and cold floors.
I remember once when she was only a baby and I was stumbling through the weekly shop, half crazy with tiredness, and I realised, only as I finished at the checkout, that I had left my top unbuttoned and my nursing bra open. That my left breast had been clearly visible for the entire time I had been there. And no one had noticed. No one had even looked. I recognised then, that overnight change from Woman to Mother. Sexless and ageless. A functional object. Not a toy but a tool.
I cried bitterly that day, in the car, hunched over the wheel in the driver’s seat. Gasping, raking sobs, because everyone had seen and because no one had looked. I had a sudden, insane urge to run back in there. To march into the meat aisle and take off all my clothes. But my nudity, like my tears, would not matter anymore. She mattered only. Only she.
I have stopped, the memory overtaking me, and I glance down to see her looking back up at me, silent. At the corners of her eyes her lashes, so dark against the pale of the rest of her, flick outwards, graceful and feline. Her gaze is blue marble. She is achingly beautiful.
Today will not be the day we do not do it.
I grip her hand in mine, a little firmer than necessary and she falls into step beside me. So obedient. So knowing.
We need something. I always carry an item, just in case anyone is watching the ancient security cameras, just in case anyone notices. Just in case I am anything other than invisible beside her. I walk, purposefully, through the vegetable section. The item is important. It is a prop, snatched from mundanity. Details matter. It will not feel the same if I am carrying a broccoli.
She is leading me now. It’s subtle, but her small legs are just a couple of paces ahead and the pull of her hand in mine is stronger. She chooses the item. She seems to know the requirements. Last time it was a hairbrush, the time before that a handbag. A box of Lindt chocolates. A gift set of candles.
It occurs to me suddenly that she did not always choose the item. That this game has evolved. That we play it together. She is a rule maker, complicit.
A chill runs through me.
We walk, as if to make it realer, through cosmetics and into refrigerated goods. I glance down in surprise and she has dropped my hand and is reaching into the fridge to pull out a four pint plastic carton of milk. She staggers a little under its weight, uses both hands to offer it and I feel the freeze in my palm as my fingers close around the handle. This doesn’t follow the usual pattern. There is no edge of glamour. It is awkward and heavy. After a while that cold will spike and needle. I look at her, sharply. Is this a punishment?
But her blue eyes are bland.
We look at each other and the world slows around us. And then, very deliberately, I look away.
My heart, as always, pounds in my rib cage. My breath comes in little staccato bursts. Carefully, I examine some butter. I pick up a yogurt and read the label. I move a few paces further and consider some cheese.
When I turn back, she is gone.
There is that immediate rush, that heady concoction of pain and relief. I breathe in, and when I breathe out, my breath is sighing.
I step back, as if to view it better, and I take in the supermarket. It feels different now. I let the background music flood through me, smell the bread in the bakery, see the bewildering beauty of the great, bright bounty of it. I am myself. I am free.
It is a giant, ‘flagship’ supermarket and above me, there is a mezzanine floor full of perfumes and shoes and clothes and jewellery. I breathe into the clamour, readjust my cramping index finger on the four-pinter of milk, and walk tall, to the stairs.
We have been doing this for some time now. Years, perhaps. It began as an accident. Just after Dan. Sodden with grief and half dead with exhaustion, I had taken my eyes off her just for a moment, and she was caught in the swell of the Saturday shoppers and swept, a white blonde curl of driftwood, away. There was panic, and beneath it, a surge of relief. When I found her, I hugged her closely to me.
But then the next time it happened, I did it on purpose. I never admitted it. Not even to myself. But I moved away a bit too far, looked away a bit too long, and then she was gone and I was me. For a minute.
And then the time after that I simply caught her eye. And she looked back at me, thumb in mouth. Eyes wide and wise and knowing. And then she was gone.
Each time she moved a little further away. Until eventually this was just something we did. There are infinite supermarkets. We avoid, carefully, repeating it too many times in the same branch, with the same people. Gradually we began to travel further to find new and bigger supermarkets. Easier places to get mutually lost.
And I am not sure. I don’t time it. I’m not sure I want to know. But I think each time she leaves it just a little bit longer. And I’m not sure at what point she began to make up the rules.
I run my fingers over fabrics, turn beads so they glint in the over bright light. I sniff perfumes and try lotions, apply lipstick to the skin on the back of my hand. I flirt just a little with an elderly gentlemen, notice the appreciative glance of a pubescent cashier. I sway a little to the wandering beat of the music, try to pick out the instrument that made it, before it became old and tinny and piped. I move constantly, slip in and out of the shelving, sit down on a stool and admire my ankle in the foot mirror. Twisting and turning it like the beads in the lighting, trying on red stilettos like a beautiful memory. Ignoring, for a while, my black leather flats. I am bright and chatty with the girl on the perfume counter. I smile and I laugh and my laughter is light. I try myself on like a passing costume, ignoring the places where I ache or where I weep.
I wonder what world she inhabits, as we wait for each other, what bright things those dimpled fingers reach for, what movements turn that shining head. I have started, only on the last few occasions, to wonder which one of us is really doing the leaving.
I think of my voice, bright and sharp and brittle. “Eat up now, there’s a good girl. Don’t touch that it’s dirty. Come along. Hurry up. Drink your juice. Let’s play snap.” Does she, too, need a break? Just a moment away?
Which are getting longer.
I leave the stilettos and move downstairs, shifting the four pints of milk to my other hand, wriggling blue tinged fingers to recirculate the blood. I wander to the magazine isle, pick up Cosmopolitan, and I flick through the pages, drinking in the gloss and the colour and the daydreams inside it. I read the newest sensation and I mentally note the latest health craze. I allow myself to become morbidly fascinated by the ever more terrible celebrity crises, but despite myself I am growing uneasy.
I look around and I don’t see her. And despite this being the object, a familiar cold feeling shoots through my abdomen. Fear, I have learned, comes swift and sudden, and is gone as quickly as it hits. This time it comes like a wave, breaking over me into tiny, scurrying eddies, which just as quickly disappear.
It comes like a contraction.
I thrust the magazine back onto the shelf and turn quickly, to make my way back down the aisles. I feel my muscles tense, hear the speed in my feet, flat and black again in their sweating leather. My heart thumps inside me and I am moving, fast now, scanning the aisles.
Maggie Parker, she was at school with me. I suppose she must live out here. I haven’t seen her for years. I grit my teeth and grin through them.
“Maggie! Long time no see!”
“I know! I was thinking of you just the other day, remembering when we used to hide by the old bus shelter on the coast path? Remember that? And play around with matches and Kevin’s Dad’s fags?!”
And boys. We played around with boys. Laughter and breathlessness and our body lotion and their after shave. Squeals and whispers and the smell of cheap cider.
“Those were the days!”
They were glorious. Heady and hysterical and free. And free.
In that moment I see her. Suddenly, over Maggie’s shoulder and all the way down the morphing tunnel of the aisles at the other end of the building. Stood, quite still and pale, by the cleaning products. Blue eyes, wide and solemn and fixed on me. For a moment we both freeze, caught in the heat of our locked gazes. And then, as if making a decision, she inclines her head slightly, just enough to break it, to shatter the long, flimsy line of air grown so brittle between us, and before I can move again, she is gone.
“Helen?” says Maggie, her voice seems too loud and too deep in this context. Back in the day we all thought Maggie’s voice was so sexy. She was going to go into news reading or do the voice over in adverts.
“Yes.” I say, and then quickly, “Yes. Let’s meet up. Let’s. Let’s just do it all again!”
She laughs, “Oh Helen, I think I’m too old for it now!”
There is a pause. I want to back away mentally or to erase my suggestion, but somehow it happens only physically and I scrape the skin from the back of my heel on the edge of a life sized plastic cut out of Isla Fisher advertising hair dye.
Maggie looks contrite, and slightly curious, “but still,” she says, conciliatory, “we could maybe do a bring and share dinner or something. With all the old crowd. We’d have to invite their wives. And our husbands.”
Our husbands. Dan. She doesn’t know. I swallow a spike of spit and it stabs in my tonsils.
“Sounds good.” I say hoarsely. And I wish that I too, was pale and blue eyed, and could command such attention and yet slip away so slyly.
Dan. Daddy. Gone.
I watch carefully, furtively from behind the displays of kitchen utensils, as Maggie Parker pays for her basket and leaves. It is important, somehow, that Maggie isn’t watching. That Maggie isn’t here when she reappears. My reflection flushes and starts at itself, distorted in coffee machines and knives.
I am a ghost, I think, I don’t belong here.
As always, when the announcement comes, it makes me jump, and I realise how long I have been wanting it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a lost little girl here, who says she cannot find her mummy…”
It’s time. And I feel it coursing through me, that terrible mingling of relief and regret. I take a breath, just once more, and then I turn and I begin to make my way to the front desk. I feel the stabbing, already, of hot tears in my vision, the blood rushing to my face, the milk forgotten on the floor somewhere. I walk faster. And then I run.
I run to the desk and as I run I see her standing there and she is small and pale and she has bright blue eyes like her father, and she has bright white curls that frame her face. And I run and a noise escapes from me, a cross between a sob and a bellow, and she sees me too and her bottom lip quivers and we run together. We ran at each other, like charging animals, and I catch her in my arms and she clings on and I bury my face in her hair and I hold her and I know I will never let go.
“Mummy” she says and I say, “Sweetheart.”
I am vaguely aware of smiles around us, people turning to look at this touching reunion, and I do not care that they look only at her. I am suffused by something hot and violent and I stroke her head and I recognise it as love. There is no joy on earth like this.
Like this finding again of the thing you had lost.
“I love you,” she says and I know she feels it too.
“I love you too Sweetheart” I say, and in that word she is she and she is me and she is Dan. And we pull away and we walk back to the car, hands warm and tight and we are together and, for a moment, I am Daddy.
As I drive home, spent, I feel the tight cool of dried tears on my skin, like a facelift. I feel the air on my cheeks and the life in my veins. Reflected, again, in the rear view mirror, she sleeps, head lolling. Her eyelashes are wet and clumped together, darker still and more beautiful, for all their salty joy. A single shiny curl sticks to the side of her face, and, in the light, I can see a tiny fur of downy white-blonde, on the tip of her ear. She is beautiful. She is inscrutable.
And I feel a wave of sorrow swell and fall, beneath the joy.
I don’t know which one of us loses the other.
And I don’t know when it is we are the most lost.