Standing in line at the checkout, she is warm and her armpits damp, despite the chilly day and her coat and scarf. She holds her breath as she watches each item scanned, then placed in her bags by the operator. Her eyes flick to the screen.
Glancing along the conveyor belt, she nervously estimates the cost of the remaining items. She can’t go over $70.
As she’s tallying in her mind, a voice breaks in. ‘Hello Audrey, fancy seeing you here.’
Audrey looks up, annoyed. She purposely drove to a supermarket two suburbs away, wasting precious petrol in the tank, so she wouldn’t bump into anyone she knew. Yet, here is Tilly standing in front of her, wearing Gucci sneakers, a beanie with a pom-pom and a plush winter coat that probably cost more than the sneakers.
‘Oh, hi Tilly.’ Audrey smiles and glimpses Tilly’s trolley. It’s overflowing. Her smile fades. Her mind fills with images of stabbing Tilly, for no other reason that her smug richness.
‘Just getting a few things today?’ Tilly enquires.
‘Yes,’ Audrey lies. This shop has to last her family a week. ‘Just a few essentials.’ She laughs nervously. It’s too loud, too awkward; even the checkout operator looks up.
‘Yeah, me too,’ Tilly responds. Audrey is now picturing ripping her limbs off and throwing them down an aisle.
‘M’am,’ interrupts the checkout guy. ‘That’ll be $79.90, thanks.’
Fuck. Audrey fumbles in her purse for her card. It won’t go through, she knows this. But is it more embarrassing to ask the operator to delete a few items, or for Tilly to watch as her card is declined.
Her cheeks are burning. She’s so hot. The guy, holding his hand out towards the eftpos machine, is standing on his head. Audrey looks at Tilly, her face is like one of those circus mirrors: long forehead, squat chin, bulbous nose. Audrey shakes her head, breathes deeply out of her mouth.
‘Audrey,’ asks Tilly, her brow creased—she clearly hasn’t had her latest Botox treatment—in concern. ‘Are you OK?’
Audrey wobbles. She holds her hand out, holding her card, but Tilly takes control.
‘Go sit,’ Tilly motions towards a bench. ‘I’ll get this for you.’ She’s already given her card to the checkout guy. She walks Audrey to the bench, helps her sit.
Audrey is acutely aware of a cacophony of noises around her. A toddler is screaming. Beeps from machines as items at other checkouts are scanned. Voices over the PA. Shoppers chatting on their mobiles. Outside, she hears the high-pitched signal from a truck reversing into the loading bay. A crash as two cars collide in the car park. She lets her head fall between her knees.
After a time, she feels someone sit next to her. She raises her head. It’s Tilly. With two trolleys. She’s sliding out of her coat, rolls it up and shoves it between the handle and back of the trolley.
‘Are you feeling better?’ Tilly asks again.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’ How is she going to repay Tilly.
‘Let me take you to a doctor.’
Audrey shakes her head. ‘I’m fine now, thanks. Just had a small wobbly.’
‘At least let me take you home. Steve can come back for your car later.’
‘No, thanks Tilly. I’m OK. I’ll be able to drive home.’ Audrey’s face is still burning. She slips out of her own coat.
‘Look! You’re not alright. You’re burning up. I’m taking you to my doctor. I insist.’
‘No.’ The last thing Audrey can afford is a doctor’s bill, and an expensive prescription for medication. ‘I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. I’m perfectly well.’
She stands and grabs the handles of her trolley. ‘Thank you, Tilly. I appreciate your help, truly I do. I’ll repay you for the groceries later.’
‘Oh, don’t even worry about that. It was only 80 bucks. Buy me a coffee and we’ll call it even.’
Not even close to even. Audrey smiles at Tilly, who’s still sitting on the bench, as she struggles with conflicting emotions: gratitude and resentment. She’s extremely grateful to Tilly. Audrey can now put $20 worth of petrol in her car, maybe even buy a special afternoon treat for the kids. But at the same time, she wants to punch Tilly in the nose for having life so fucking easy.
Audrey pushes the trolley. ‘Thanks again. See you at pick-up, I guess.’ She looks back. Tilly is bent over, reaching in her handbag for something. Audrey glimpses purple, yellow and black stains on Tilly’s lower back, where her jumper has exposed her flesh.
She stares in amazement, her jaw slack and mouth gaping open. Tilly stands upright, spins to face Audrey. This time, her cheeks are pinkish red, but her eyes are glowering, as if daring Audrey to acknowledge what she’s just seen.
Audrey gives a wan smile, and starts to walk to her car. She doesn’t look back; she’s too overwhelmed in her thoughts.
No one’s life is perfect.