The smell of frying onions allows Laura to locate her Nan, in the kitchen at the back of the house.
“I didn’t know Somerton had a supermarket,” says Laura. “Where is it?”
“Two miles down the Barnford road. Never go there.” Nan is short on words, short on all fronts.
“Blot on the landscape,” said Nan. “The shops in town have everything you need.”
That’s not true. Laura has been doing all the shopping for a month, because Nan is vulnerable. The food in the local shops feels a hundred years old: ginger wine, winter-mixtures and custard creams.
Nan empties a bag of grey mince into the pan. Laura would have claimed vegetarianism if she’d known what Nan could do with meat. Three stepmothers (consecutively) have raised Laura, each treating her better than the last. They were all trying to impress her Dad. Nan sees no need to impress her son, or anyone.
“I’ll go there tomorrow,” Laura announces.
“Well, do what you like. Don’t listen to me.”
Laura will, and won’t. She has been taking her Nan at face value.
“I suppose you want your fancy things,” Nan murmurs.
Laura does want her fancy things. If she was still in London, she and her fancy girlfriend would be stalking shopping centres, eating sushi and sea-salt caramel ice-cream, red at the wrists from trying lipstick samples. Venturing into perfumiers and jewelers, cool as cucumbers, because (Candice always said) they can’t know that you can’t afford it. Then retreating, with sleeves and pockets full of beautiful, stolen things. Slick silver cylinders, bottles cut like gems, made more desirable by risk. Laura misses Candice so much she wants to howl, but she misses the other fancy things nearly as badly.
At least at a supermarket she can buy a packet of cigarettes. The proprietors of the town shops would want to see her ID, and they might snitch to Nan. But Laura senses the supermarket will be staffed by bored teens with no loyalty, just like herself.
“If you must go,” says Nan, “I’ll make you a list.”
Laura doesn’t object. A shopping list can be a good disguise.
Nan takes all evening to write the list, like she’s doing three-dimensional chess in her head. When she hands it over, though, it is the dullest list in the world. White flour, white sugar, white sliced loaf.
Dad had driven Laura from London to Somerton Weston right at the start of lockdown. He said they’d be better off there, living with Nan, and nobody in their right mind would want to stay in the city. Laura wanted to stay in the city. Dad said she was too young to live alone in their flat, in a pandemic.
“The time’ll fly by,” he promised. “Then we’ll come home, right?”
He’d tried to make amends. He’d let Laura have his old bedroom, strung a hammock between two trees in the garden. But Laura was disconsolate and Nan was prickly. According to government guidelines, the three Giffords were now a household, but Dad couldn’t charm them into being a family.
Dad had gone off on longer and longer drives, despite the lockdown rules. A week ago, he’d not come back to the house at all. Nan grew more snappish, but Laura was calm. Dad had left her before, abandoned with each of the stepmothers, for a fortnight or longer without explanation. Laura had sent Dad just one text message, a joke, to show him she wasn’t freaking out.
Laura walks South out of town on a hot and empty road, winding between green wooded hills. Where is Dad, right at this moment? Probably back in ghost-town London. A tractor passes, smelling of dung. Laura stumbles, one foot in the nettle-filled ditch.
The road turns, the supermarket looms, and Nan wasn’t wrong: it’s an eyesore. The woods have been scraped back, and a big white warehouse dropped onto the plain. A row of six giant oaks stand sentry over the carpark.
Inside the supermarket it’s blessedly cool. Nature is sweaty and chaotic, and coolness is a sophisticated achievement: the marble atrium of a museum, the ice-cubes in Candice’s gin and tonic, the glass cases of a department store. Laura salivates, knows she’ll come back again and again to bask in the fluorescent light.
The supermarket shelves are full, recovered from the stockpiling frenzy of March. Laura starts to follow Nan’s shopping list.
6 bananas, on her left.
Mild cheddar cheese, pulling her over to the chiller aisle.
Bran Flakes. The cereal section is miles off-course, down the other side of the store. Well, Nan’s never been in this shop, so of course her list is in the wrong order. There are no Bran Flakes. Would muesli be too dangerously exciting?
Slipping off-list, Laura wonders what she can pocket. It’s too hot for long sleeves or a big coat. A tiny bottle of truffle oil catches her eye, because it would fit in her palm. Or a sachet of saffron. She could post it to Candice.
Suddenly a tall couple are hovering just behind Laura. She abandons the idea of theft, and steps aside for them. They’ve already moved on. Laura relocates to the bath products. It happens again. The strangers seem to be interested, like Laura, in the good things. When she turns to see them, they’re whisking out of the aisle, wearing long, sweeping clothes. They look out of place. Maybe they were here on holiday and got stranded. Everyone else in the town is as small and dull as the town itself.
Laura pulls herself back to her Nan’s shopping list. Mustn’t look suspicious, even though the only security guard is dozing on his feet by the door. Packet of frozen peas. Laura puts Quorn mince in her basket, too, and prepares to announce her conversion to vegetarianism.
Where now? White sliced loaf, back near the entrance to the shop. She finds the most seeded, weird-grained loaf she can buy, just to annoy her grandmother. Not because Laura craves the bread. Not because it reminds her of brunch with her Dad and Candice.
By the make-up display, she pretends to sneeze while she slips a lipstick into the watch pocket of her jeans. Then she takes the final lap of the shop at high speed, grabbing up the last items on Nan’s list. The list keeps forcing her to double back for one more jar or tin. Tearing through cleaning products, Laura catches a glimpse of a curve and a wicked sharpness, like a heron stalking through water. She backs up, to see what caught her eye. A trick of the light: the only curves are the white bottles of fabric softener.
Nan hasn’t mentioned Dad at all. When Laura asks (over a meal of Quorn Bolognese) it feels like forcing open a rusted gate. “Have you heard from Dad?”
“No. Bet you haven’t, either.”
During her daily permitted exercise walk, Laura had found an unlocked Wi-Fi and checked her email. Candice (now in the South of France) had sent a long letter of complaints, but there had been nothing from Dad. “No, I haven’t.”
“Probably gone back to London to fix something.”
A few days ago the reassurance might have worked. But now it’s not enough. A long lockdown here, alone with Nan, is too awful a prospect.
“That’s against the law,” Laura says.
“He’s always wandered off. Never stuck at things, ever since he was small.”
That’s better than reassurance. Laura wants to hear her father insulted more. She wants to think about him when he was shorter than Nan, stuck in the room where Laura now sleeps. “Have you got photos of Dad as a kid?”
“What about your wedding photographs, then?” Old people loved showing off wedding photos. It would be cool to see Nan’s husband, dead Grandpa Gifford, the missing ingredient that made Nan’s father tall and debonair when Nan is short and sharp as a vegetable knife.
Nan’s spines bristle. “Ha!”
There’s no pleasing the hedgehog-woman, so Laura returns to her hammock with Vogue magazine.
When she comes back into the house, a few photos have been dropped on the coffee table. They show a young Nan with dark hair, in the garden of this house, a baby in her arms.
“When was that?”
That was wrong. That would make Dad fifty, but he was younger than that, younger than all the parents of Laura’s friends. “And that’s Dad?”
“You trying to catch me out?”
Nan is flanked in the photo by a grey-haired man and two women. “Who are they?”
“My brother and my sisters.”
They’re so much older than Nan. Maybe Nan was a menopause baby? No wonder all Laura’s other relatives are dead.
Nan doesn’t look like a radiant new mother in the photo. She’s pale and dazed. Her sisters are nervous, her brother scowls. They should all be happier at the baby of the family having a baby. And where’s Grandpa Gifford?
Nan’s hands are spread out against her baby’s back, no rings on any of her fingers.
Laura smokes all her cigarettes in the garden and goes back to the supermarket, striding down the road faster now that the way is familiar. The government says you can shop for food as often as you need to. Nan has given her a new list.
The Telegraph. God, does she have to buy that?
Mild Cheddar Cheese. Again. Several aisles over, in the chill cabinets. Laura grabs taleggio, stilton, camembert.
6 apples. Nearly all the way back to the door. This list is worse than the last one for misdirection.
Stepmother number two taught Laura to decorate cupcakes. That would pass an afternoon, and maybe soften Nan’s prickles. Laura puts flour in her basket, then tucks a tube of silver sugar balls straight into her pocket.
As Laura turns out of the aisle, there is no sound.
It wasn’t loud before, but this silence is different. It’s the hush of a luxury jeweller’s shop. No, it’s the muffled white silence of snowfall. Laura remembers snow during one of their Christmas visits to Somerton Weston. The overnight wind had built up hip-high drifts, and her father told her: listen, there’s no echo.
Laura inhales, and she should smell the bread-scent they pump through the whole store, but she smells icy air. She takes two tentative steps, and feels snow compact under her feet. It could be spilled flour on the supermarket floor. She stops moving.
Laura feels her bones chill with the still cold of winter. The tall people have entered the aisle, they are gliding closer, a flash like jewels at their wrists. Are they store detectives? That thought startles Laura into walking in the opposite direction.
She hears the tills beeping again. Nothing is beneath her feet. The air conditioning blasts fresh sweat off her arms. The boy at the till sells her cigarettes without asking for ID.
As she exits through the sliding doors, back into the unfriendly furnace outside, she sees a familiar silver 4x4 across the carpark. Dad’s here. Thank God, because the bags are heavy.
Laura sits by Dad’s car for half an hour, then she springs up and stomps back into the supermarket. She can’t ask them to hail him over the tannoy as though she’s a lost child, so she runs up and down the aisles, growing less and less certain how many avenues and turnings the store contains.
Something scrapes the skin of her neck. She jumps sideways, swatting at herself. A huge gold-green beetle falls to the floor and lies there on its back, twitching its alien legs. It must have crawled from the woods, when she sat by the car, and lodged in her hair. Laura flees the store, shaking her head in spasms of disgust.
By the time she arrives back at Nan’s, the cheeses are oozing, so she serves herself taleggio with crackers.
“Your cheese has gone off,” says Nan, “from the smell of it.” She prowls through the living room, collecting up her half-empty mugs of tea.
“I found Dad’s car. In the supermarket car-park.”
Nan freezes with five mugs dangling from her hands. “Oh?”
“He wasn’t in the shop. Should we call the police?”
“What if he’s in trouble? What if he’s hurt?” Dying in a ditch, bloating in the heat under the scurrying feet of iridescent beetles.
“He’ll be with your grandfather’s side of the family.” Nan sounds ready to spit on the floor.
More Giffords? But Laura’s other family are all dead. “What, do they live near here? Can I phone them?”
“Yes and no,” says Nan. “And no.”
It’s a floor-plan of the supermarket that her Nan has drawn. She must have been to the supermarket, to know the layout. What a trivial fib.
When Nan walks in, Laura is too surprised to bluff. “What’s this for?” she asks.
“To make the shopping list.”
“You said you’d never been there.”
“Had to go once, to see what they’d done.”
“Why did you draw a map, if you’re not going to put things on the list in the right order?”
Nan plucks the map right out of Laura’s hand and thrusts it into her apron pocket. “It is the right order. You’d better stick to it!”
Laura doesn’t need Nan’s map to enact her petty revenge. In the hammock in the garden, smoking a cigarette, she takes Nan’s meandering list and rewrites it as an orderly tour of the shop. That’ll annoy the old biddy.
The hammock under Laura rocks, threatening to spill her out on the lawn.
“Hey!” Laura clings on with one hand. Her cigarette burns through her favourite T-shirt, digs a point of pain into her belly. “Stop!”
Nan gives the hammock another vicious shake. “What the hell are you doing?”
Laura starts to say that it’s her pocket money, and her lungs, but Nan ignores her cigarette entirely. She grabs the new shopping list and crumples it in front of Laura’s face.
“I was putting it in the right order!” Laura cries.
“You’ll be in deep trouble if you change that list.”
Is Nan threatening her? She could tip the hammock, Laura could fall, she could break an arm. Dad should never have left Laura with this madwoman. Laura curls up, braced for injury, and stays that way as Nan stomps back up to the house.
Later, she jams her bedroom door shut and sketches out the supermarket again. She maps out Nan’s list and can’t make any sense of it. It’s not dictated by anything practical, such as finding the lightest items first, or the frozen food last. And the route it creates across the store is full of dead ends and doglegs.
Then Laura draws other markers on her map. The ways she walked when the tall people pressed in and the shelves seemed to slip away. The corners she turned when she thought she saw the heron stalking, and smelled the snow.
When she joins up the trajectories she took, they make shapes. Rings radiating from a centre, like ripples from a stone thrown in water.
Laura writes herself a new shopping list.
In front of her stands a matted, long-legged dog. Lurcher or wolfhound, it is as tall as Laura’s waist. Someone calls it, a figure far away. Their silhouette is hard to make out, as if seen through drifting snowflakes. They remind Laura of Candice: dark lips, bright metal. The dog shambles off towards its owner, towards homewares. Laura pulls out her phone to photograph it, only catching the tip of its tail. Then she follows.
When she turns the corner, both dog and owner are gone. A silvery scent like sweet mint hangs in the air.
Laura gets back on track, following an arcing path around the top of the shop, past bread and beer and down to frozen produce. It is the longest loop that Laura has sketched. It sweeps round three-quarters of a circle, speeding her to the centre of the design. Laura feels her feet quicken, her spine straighten. This is nonsensical, this is all sunstroke and fantasy. But maybe the tall people will be here, maybe they’ll be her family, maybe they’ll tell her where her father has gone. She imagines Candice prodding her onwards: they can’t know that you don’t belong here…
The tiled floor turns to hard mud. The shelves become steep earth banks, held together with tree roots. The trunks soar up past the supermarket ceiling, and the branches form a black tracery against the pearly sky. It is nature, but with nothing haphazard about it. The trunks have been trained and the roots guided, the grass dusted with glass crystals.
Laura is snapping another photo on her phone as something blunders out of the undergrowth. A badger trundles along where the toilet roll should be.
It stops and looks her in the eye. “Are you the Gifford child?” it says.
Laura runs, collides with the glass door of a freezer cabinet, and flees the shop.
There’s a black and white sketch of the site, six oaks standing sentry. Between the trees is a clearing with a pattern in the grass, at least a hundred feet wide. Whorled like a thumbprint, the path doubling back on itself, until a walker might lose hope. But the path worms its way, in the end, to the centre.
Laura smells something sickly sweet. Nan is standing behind the sofa, holding a glass of ginger wine.
“If you keep goading them,” Nan announces, “you’ll come to no good.”
“When they cleared the ground for that supermarket, I thought: you don’t want to put it there.”
“Because of the maze?” Laura shuffles along the sofa, to keep some distance between them. “Wasn’t it protected? Historical?”
“Disputed. And they built the supermarket in the Spring, when the path’s overgrown. It showed better in drought and frost.”
“Why don’t they shut the supermarket down? If it’s dangerous.”
Nan shrugged. “Safe for most. Bad for you. You want to go, don’t you? You’re half-way over.”
Laura can’t say how she knows that it is better, over there: more luscious, more artful, full of high company. Like kissing Candice, but over there Laura would never feel inadequate or clumsy.
“I don’t blame you.” Nan sniffs. “But I can’t recommend it. Is it Winter there, now? That’ll freeze your eyes shut.” She holds out a packet of dusty custard creams. Laura takes one, to make peace.
“So is Dad there?”
“Could be. I fought them for him, when he was small, but you can’t keep that lad from doing what he wants.”
Laura may as well speak the impossible things aloud. “So could I go there for a while, and come back here again?”
Nan gives the suggestion due consideration. “You’d be gambling. I lost twenty years. It only felt like a month, to me. Your father’s lost as much, in dribs and drabs.”
To Laura, stuck in a sluggish eternal present, Nan’s warning sounds like another temptation. “Could I take a friend with me?”
“What? No!” Nan reaches over and pats her shoulder, hard: stay there, stay down. It’s the first time Laura can remember them touching. “I know it looks pretty. But they’re not good people.”
What Laura hears is that they’re strange and honed and fine, and their world is a wonder. Laura won’t make the same mistake. She won’t come back with a baby, for goodness’ sake.
“They’re cruel and careless. That’s where your father gets it from,” adds Nan. “And double for you, I suppose.”
Laura feels dizzy. She focuses on the gritty crumbs of biscuit on her tongue. “Dad didn’t tell me any of this.”
“It wasn’t a secret. I told your father, I told anyone who asked me.”
How well had that gone down, in a small town? “Did people think you were mad?”
“No! They knew it was true, they remembered me. They didn’t like it but they knew I wasn’t lying.” She is mulling over fifty years of resentment. Or more than that: if Nan reappeared with Dad in 1970, then did she go missing in 1950? “Go if you must. But there’s nothing real, there.”
But Somerton Weston doesn’t feel real to Laura, either. She knows she should try to be better than her father. She makes an offer: “You could come with me.”
“They don’t want you, once you’re old. I told you, they’re not good people. But don’t mind me.”
Laura doesn’t. But then, as she packs up her clothes in her bedroom, the key turns in the lock of the bedroom door.
Laura shouts, at first. It’s illegal to lock her up, Nan is mad, she’ll call the police.
Nan calls back that she wishes she’d locked her son up, years ago, then she’d still have him. Or her own mother should have locked her up, then she’d never have had her son in the first place.
There’s a tree close to the house. Laura climbs from the window and finds her way, branch by branch down to the ground. She jogs down the long road, wondering if a police car will overtake her. And has the supermarket closed for the night? Laura will sleep in the carpark. But the store is lit up in the dusk, and the doors slide open.
As Laura treads the aisles and paths, the temperature drops unnaturally fast. Her heart thumps but she walks steadily, like the last steps out of a shopping centre with sleeves full of treasures. She feels herself being pressed to one side and then another. She feels a gentle prompting impulse to shift her weight onto her back foot, and then push forwards again. She realises it’s not a labyrinth, but the pattern for a dance.
The impulse, pushing her forwards, has become a blizzard at her back. Now there are tall companions on either hand to guide her, in their long robes, fur-cuffed, with ice on the fur. Graceful as teasels dipping in the breeze, and just as pointed and dry. Escorting her towards a snowy clearing.
Laura wants to meet her family. Laura longs to see the beautiful things, craves them like a cigarette.
Laura really wants a cigarette.
Laura stops by the racks of sliced white bread, staring up into the pearl bowl of an unknown sky.
She follows the path towards the centre. The years brush her bare skin as they fly by.
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