Sausages. She has to endure this hell for sausages.
Sophie fumbles with the Covid-19 tracer app on her phone. It’s 6.03pm. If she can get in and out of the supermarket in eight minutes, she’ll still make it to the Local Board meeting.
At the entrance she peers through mask-fogged glasses for a QR code poster, finally spotting the familiar yellow imagery as she’s halfway through the turnstile. She tries to back out, but the metal prongs prevent her retreat. Another shopper shoots her a scathing look. Giving up on scanning in, Sophie manually types her location into her phone. Someone shakes the turnstile behind her.
‘Move it, lady!’
Seven more minutes. She hurries to the meat section. The sausage selection is overwhelming. Whatever she gets, it’ll be wrong. She grabs a packet and rushes to the dairy section. Skim milk, whole milk, double-cream, goat’s milk. She goes for organic. The old-fashioned glass bottle will give Joy a kick.
Four more minutes. She may as well get eggs. She rises on tiptoes looking for her favourite brand. A tall man grabs the last box and puts it in his basket.
‘Hey!’ she says. ‘Hey!’
Three more minutes. There’s no time to think through the pros and cons of other brands. They’ll just have to go without.
The self-checkouts are busy so she heads to the 12 Items or Less queue. The tall man gets there first and Sophie watches as he unloads her eggs.
Two more minutes. The checkout operator scans the last of the man’s groceries. Fifteen items. FIFTEEN!
‘Is that everything for today?’
‘And a pack of Blue 25s.’
Sophie slaps the conveyor belt. ‘No!’
The checkout operator looks up, her eyes wide behind pink-framed glasses.
‘He’s already got 15 items!’ Sophie says.
The man ignores her. ‘Blue 25s thanks.’
‘He’s breaking the rules!’
‘In a hurry, are you?’ asks the man.
‘But you don’t want me to have more than 12 items?’
‘Okay – what will I put back?’ He strokes his chin through his mask. ‘I’ll put back the shaved ham…’ He pulls the ham from his bag and passes it to the checkout operator. ‘I’ll keep the eggs. But I guess I don’t need the juice.’
Sophie looks at the checkout operator’s name badge. ‘Call your manager please, Mingmei. I’m in a hurry.’
Mingmei’s hands hover in the air. The man passes the juice to her, and she takes it.
‘I just need to get rid of two more things so I can get my cigarettes. Well, my kids don’t really need this shepherd’s pie.’
One more minute. Sophie picks up her sausages and hurls them at the man. They splat to the ground, and he laughs.
‘Umm,’ says Mingmei.
The man reaches into his bag and pulls out a can of dog food. ‘If my kids aren’t getting dinner, it wouldn’t be fair for my dog to get any.’ He considers the dog food, then extracts a block of chocolate. ‘Or perhaps it’s the wife who should go without?’
Sophie grabs the milk bottle. With a flick of her arm, she sends it hurtling past the man. It shatters against the wall behind him – CRASH! And there’s another sound – the tiny ting of something metal. She looks down at the bare fingers of her right hand. Christ. Oh, Christ. She runs to the wall and crouches, feeling amongst the milk and broken glass for the ring. Her face is hot. She’s crying, molten, spluttering like a pot on the boil. She yanks her mask down so she can breathe. The man pulls out his phone and videos her.
‘Mingmei you little bitch, I want to speak to your manager!’
Sophie realises the shrieking voice is hers. She sees herself shatter into thousands of tiny pieces. She sees herself refract onto millions of mobile phone screens.
Sophie juggles her handbag, her phone, the glasses slipping down her face, and Artemisia’s cage as she scans into the veterinary clinic. 5.29pm – she’s made it just before closing. She stands on the yellow social distancing dot behind the counter.
‘I’m here to drop my cat off.’
A man walks out of a consultation room, and his large dog bounds over towards Artemisia. Sophie snatches the cage up and moves out of the way.
‘I’m going to need you to keep social distancing, please,’ says the receptionist, pointing at the yellow dot.
Sophie’s phone rings, and she rummages in her handbag for it. ‘Hello?’
‘Hi, it’s Nina from Billy’s after-school programme here.’
‘Is someone coming to pick him up?’
‘Yes, my husband’s coming to pick him up.’
‘It’s just that it’s half past five.’
Sophie fights the urge to throw her phone against the wall. ‘Give me a minute.’
She dials Mark’s number.
The receptionist looks up. ‘There aren’t any more appointments today.’
‘Oh I know, I–’ And then Mark answers. ‘Did you pick Billy up?’
A pause. ‘Can you do it?’
Mark curses on the other end of the phone. ‘Fine.’ He hangs up.
Sophie turns back to the receptionist. ‘I’m here to drop Artemisia off. The vet wants to monitor her insulin overnight.’
‘You’d normally drop her off in the morning.’
‘I’m pretty sure they said to drop her off now.’
‘I just don’t think you would be dropping her off now.’
Sophie bites back a swearword. ‘Is there any way you can check?’
‘I’d have to ring and find out.’
‘That’d be great.’
The receptionist rolls her eyes and dials her phone. Sophie texts Nina, ‘Mark is on way’.
The receptionist hangs up and looks at Sophie, face impassive. ‘Okay, leave her with me and I’ll get her sorted.’
‘Great.’ She waits for the receptionist to apologise. ‘So I was right? It’s okay to leave her?’
Sophie bends down and peers into the cage, into Artemisia’s big green eyes. ‘Love you, girl.’
She waits for the receptionist to pick up Artemisia’s cage. The receptionist doesn’t move. Sophie storms out, wishing she could slam the automatic door.
Sophie gets in the Toyota and motors home. She remembers she still hasn’t changed Artemisia’s kitty litter. Will Artemisia have used her flooded litter box or her second-favourite spot, namely any discarded item of Sophie’s clothing? She wonders if anyone let the cat back inside after her 4am ablutions. Mark must have, when he gave her the injection? But then, he’d never said he’d actually done it. Christ.
She pulls up outside the house. It’s from this patch of the pavement that, if she stands on tiptoes, she can see the “peep of the sea” she remembers from the real estate ad. But there’s no time for peeping today.
She opens the door and finds Joy on the couch playing solitaire.
‘Seen the cat?’
‘Are you going back into town?’
‘If I can find the cat.’ Sophie kneels and peers under the couch.
‘Are you going to the supermarket?’
‘I wasn’t planning on it.’
‘I think I could do with some meat,’ Joy says, and Sophie wonders if Joy is actually going to do some cooking. ‘I know you’re vegetarian, but I fancy some sausages.’
‘Sure, no problem.’
Sophie has a brief window between the vet and the meeting that she’d planned to spend practising her speech. Why not use it running errands for her mother-in-law? She heads into the kitchen and pulls the shopping bags from the cupboard.
‘Milk. I don’t like that soy milk.’
‘It’d be a boring world if everyone liked the same things,’ Sophie says, refusing to be goaded into a conversation about dairy farming. Why can’t Joy just be grateful to be alive?
Sophie goes out the back and searches the garden.
She peers into the glasshouse, where a familiar tabby shape lies curled between the weeds. Sophie picks up the skinny body and Artemisia protests weakly. Sophie locks her in a cage and packs her into the car.
As she drives towards the highway she notices the diamond sparkling on her tense right hand. She consciously loosens her grasp on the steering wheel. Lets some blood back into her knuckles. She’s been gripping onto things so tightly lately.
‘Leaving early?’ asks Janelle.
‘I have to go to the vet.’ She cleared this with Janelle earlier in the week. Why has everyone forgotten about the cat’s appointment?
‘That’s right – weren’t you going to start early to make up the time?’
‘I’ll make it up tomorrow.’
But she won’t, because she’s getting that lump checked tomorrow afternoon. She hasn’t bothered asking for Janelle’s approval to attend the appointment. She’ll just feign a headache.
‘Remember to get your restructure submission in by the end of the week.’
Sophie nods. ‘Will do.’
But it’s not good, because she works for one of the best-paying employers in town. If she has to find another job she’ll take a pay cut, and that will mean extending their mortgage and reducing the amount they were hoping to contribute towards Billy’s university fees – that is, if the kid ever learns to read.
‘What’s that?’ asks Janelle. She points to something poking out of Sophie’s handbag – the index cards she took from the stationery cupboard to use as cue cards for her speech.
‘Oh, just some notes for my submission.’ Sophie tucks the cards deeper within the vinyl lips of her bag. ‘See you tomorrow!’
The person on the other side of Sophie’s desk is not standing on the Covid-19 social distancing sticker. He is leaning over her computer monitor, he is not wearing a mask, and she can feel his hot breath on her face.
‘Tēnā koe,’ Sophie says, taking the opportunity to practice the “Māori Greetings for Absolute Beginners” she’s learning with her team. ‘Could you please stand back a bit?’
She indicates the sign on the reception counter, which clearly asks customers to stand on the yellow dots, wear a mask, and scan into the Covid-19 tracing app.
‘I applied two days ago and I haven’t heard back,’ the customer says, leaning even closer.
‘Okay, I’ll have a look in the system. What’s your surname?’
‘Van Doren. V-A-N-D-O-R-E-N.’
She types it in. There are no results. ‘I can’t see anything here under that name. What’s your first name?’
‘Did you put a gap?’
‘Did you put a gap between the van and the Doren? There’s a gap. Van, with a gap, then Doren.’
Sophie takes a breath and types van Doren into the system. Everyone’s just trying their best, she thinks. But is this guy? Is this guy really trying his best?
‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing here under van Doren. Can I have your email address?’
He sighs loudly. ‘Markus with a k, underscore, vandoren, all one word, at gmail dot com.’
She types it in. It’s not in the system. ‘I can’t see it in here.’
The customer smacks a hand on the counter. ‘Van Doren! With a gap! It’s not that fucking hard! Fuck!’
He storms out, his long leather jacket swishing behind him, and she realises, too late, that he’s probably made a mistake. He probably intended to go to the polytechnic’s School of Art, not the university’s School of Arts. She presses a hand to her temple.
‘That didn’t look like a delightful customer moment.’
Sophie turns to Janelle. The comment sounds like a joke, but Janelle doesn’t joke about delightful customer moments. Janelle didn’t get a master’s degree in protofeminist renaissance painters from the School of Arts like Sophie did. Janelle went to business school.
‘He probably meant to go to the School of Art.’
‘Right,’ says Janelle.
Sophie’s eyes heat with tears. ‘He spat on me when he was yelling. I’m going to go and wash it off.’
‘Be quick – we’ve got our restructure update shortly.’
Sophie locks herself in a cubicle and sits on the toilet lid. She texts Mark, Hope presentation goes/went well. She wonders if he’ll wish her luck for the restructure meeting, the vet, or the Local Board presentation. He’s probably forgotten about all three. She looks down at her fingers, down at the ring on her right hand. She doesn’t have anyone to remember her worries, any more.
She brings the Toyota to a stop outside the school. Everyone else on the school run seems to have electric cars. Hey, she’d like to save the planet too, if she could afford it.
‘Have a great day, Billy. Love you.’
‘Okay!’ Billy leaps out, slams the door and hurries away. If he knew what she’d been through to have him, perhaps he’d return her ‘I love yous’ more often. Lately he seems like a teenager in a kid’s body, too cool for kisses and cuddles. He’s beautiful, perfect, the most perfect thing in her life. So what if he turns out to have dyslexia? Einstein was dyslexic. Leonardo DaVinci. Steve Jobs. Billy will probably be a genius.
She heads towards her work and drives up and down several streets before finally seeing someone exit a carpark. She puts the indicator on and waits. As the car backs out towards her, a woman in a four-wheel drive comes down the street from the other direction. Without looking at Sophie, the woman slips into the empty space. Sophie fights the impulse to ram the back of her car. Instead she accelerates too quickly, briefly crossing the centreline as she careens away.
‘Breakfast,’ Sophie calls, and family members appear from various rooms, creating a bottleneck in the hallway before spilling into the kitchen and sitting at the table. She dishes up cereal and fruit for Billy, two free-range eggs on two pieces of toast for Mark, two eggs on one piece of toast for Joy, and two pieces of marmite on toast for herself, because she’s run out of eggs.
As soon as she sits down Sophie remembers the semen stain in the hallway and gets up to sponge it out. She’s on her hands and knees when she hears the alarm on her phone go off in the kitchen.
‘Your alarm’s going,’ yells Mark.
‘It’s the cat alarm!’ She dabs at the stain. ‘Can you please inject Artemisia?’
She chucks the cloth into the laundry basket and catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her silvery roots are showing through, just three weeks after going to the hairdresser.
She hurries back into the kitchen, where Mark shrugs on his suit jacket.
‘Can you put the recycling out?’ Sophie asks.
‘Soph, I’m in a hurry,’ Mark says. ‘I’ve got that presentation today.’
Sophie also has a busy day, which she would remind Mark of if his convalescing mother wasn’t sitting there, slurping her eggs. Instead she says, ‘Remember to pick Billy up from his after-school programme.’
Mark shoots her a confused look.
‘We talked about this last night. I’m taking Artemisia back to the vet, and then I’m speaking at the Local Board meeting.’
No one seems interested in Sophie’s quest to dismantle capitalist oppression and restore peace to their town.
Mark tousles Billy’s hair on his way out. ‘See you after school, buster.’
‘It’s nice to be back at school, isn’t it?’ says Joy. ‘Now that this China virus is under control.’
‘It’s not the China virus, it’s Covid-19,’ says Sophie.
‘It’s biological terrorism.’
Sophie shoves cups into the dishwasher with the maximum socially acceptable force. ‘It could just as easily have started here.’
‘You can’t trust those people. My father, Billy’s great-grandfather, fought against the Japanese in the war.’
‘That’s a completely different country, it was a long time ago, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the pandemic.’ Sophie looks over at Billy and gives him a big, artificial smile. ‘Why don’t you get your backpack ready and your shoes on?’
Sophie wipes the benches. Three more days. Three more days, and then Joy will be back in her own house, doing her own cooking and stacking her own dishwasher.
She slides the ring onto her right hand, then grabs her keys and a mask. ‘Billy? Let’s go.’
‘Have you thought about dyeing those greys?’ Joy asks.
Artemisia scratches the curtains. Sophie holds onto sleep with one side of her brain and excavates her memories with the other. She’s still getting used to the requirements of her newly diabetic cat. She didn’t change the kitty litter last night, and if Mark didn’t either, Artemisia will have saturated her litter box. No wonder she wants to go outside.
Sophie gets up, pads down the hallway and opens the front door. She must remember to call someone to organise a cat flap.
As she walks back to the bedroom she feels Mark’s semen shift inside her. She quickens her pace, but it escapes, sliding down the back of her nighty and plopping onto the carpet. She’ll have to sponge it off in the morning. Sponge away all those little hopes and dreams. Once she enters menopause proper, she’ll fend Mark off more often.
She gets back into bed, aware now of the subsonic rumble of the refrigerated ship down in the port. The generators on the huge new ships boom around the harbour at night. She thinks of all the refrigerated lambs bound for offshore mouths. It’s the third time this week that one of these death ships has kept her awake – along with half the town. She wrote to her Local Board about the noise, and they’ve invited her to speak at their meeting tonight. She doesn’t usually stick her head above the parapet, but this is her chance to make a difference.
God, what time is it, 4am? Will she be able to get back to sleep before her alarm sounds? If she keeps focusing on the ship, she’ll never drift off. She tries thinking about something nice. She finally got her share of her mother’s meagre estate – that was nice. She’ll wear her mother’s wedding ring today – the tiny diamond on her finger a little gleam of hope.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from the IIML. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom and elsewhere.