Alice Thompson walked briskly towards the shop. She felt as if she ought to have a basket to swing. It wasn’t the same with a squishy cloth bag. She chuckled, remembering doing this walk with her mother all those many, many years ago. One hand would be holding Mummy’s hand and the other would be swinging the basket and somehow she always managed to hit the grumpiest people with it rather than the ones who would laugh it off. Like sour old Mrs Higgins for example who would rub her elbow and mutter about children nowadays and stomp off with a face like a prune and her stockings sagging at the ankles and Alice would look up at Mummy and Mummy would wink and grin and sometimes they’d both skip to the shop together. It was strange how Mummy’s face was remembered so clearly, those laughing dark brown eyes, that lovely dark hair in a roll round her head. When they went out, she’d wear a bright headscarf. “Hitler’s not going to stop us from looking pretty,” she’d say.
Alice paused to peruse her shopping list, there was always something she’d forgotten. “Mustard, Custard, Beef Extract.” Had she really run out of nothing else? She looked back towards home and frowned. There were so many cars whizzing about these days. There only used to be one or two. Still plenty of grumpy people about though. She looked for Mrs Higgins but couldn’t see her, perhaps she’d done her shopping earlier. Turning back, Alice was surprised that the baker had changed his paint scheme and the goods inside the window looked impossibly tempting. Must have been up all night making those things out of cardboard: cakes and whatnot.
She blinked, looked back at her list and shrugged, speaking to the inner disquiet, “Mummy always said a hot cup of beef extract will comfort you when there’s not much in the cupboard and custard’s a real treat and mustard…” Why did she want mustard? She visualised the little yellow tin with the red writing and the bull’s head and the royal crest. Why did mustard have a bull on it? Was it because it was nice with beef? A bit cruel to the bull, that is, sticking its head on the tin of something you’re going to eat with it.
She walked more slowly now until she arrived at the shop. It too had transformed, very gaudy, and the name of the grocer had gone and was replaced by a big bright nonsensical word: “Costbeater”. Alice’s hand shook as she pushed the door open. Inside the place was full of shelves and goods, floor to ceiling: goods of all kinds, bright and jolly and meaningless. She picked things up at random. What were noodles? What was ravioli? What was soy sauce? Alice’s legs felt weak. She must be in a dream. There shouldn’t be this much stuff here. There should be a brown counter and all the goods behind it; all the goods Mr Perkins could obtain anyway. And she and Mummy would read out their list and give up their coupons…
Oh no, she’d left the coupons behind. What was she going to do? She could feel her eyes fill. Then a voice said, “hello Mrs Thompson, are you O.K? Oh dear, you look a bit upset. Come and sit down, come on, here’s the chair. Take a deep breath and let me look at your list.”
Alice let herself be led to a chair and sat, shaking, wondering who Mrs Thompson was. She wiped her eyes and looked up at the girl who had helped her. She was very brown. Maybe she’d been out in the sun a lot, or more likely she was one of those evacuees. People from London looked different didn’t they? She was kind though, the brown girl. Alice smiled and wondered if they could make friends. She handed over the list and the girl smiled. “Ah yes,” she said, “I’ll get these for you, just you sit there.”
“We’ve forgotten our coupons,” said Alice. She looked round, “where’s Mummy?” she asked.
The brown girl’s smile dropped a little. Then she brightened, turning to beckon someone from the back of the shop.
Alice tucked her handkerchief back into her sleeve, then looked up into her mother’s eyes. Big brown eyes smiled down at her. Her mother’s hair was darker than usual but the headscarf was so pretty, blue and pink today with bits of gold. Her skin was browner than usual too. Still she’d been out in the garden a lot recently. But her eyes were the same: kind and happy.
“Don’t worry about the coupons,” said Mummy, “bring them next time.”
Alice looked at the list again. She felt like she had just woken up and frowned, “I can’t think why I put these things on there,” she said, “it’s cheese, bread and milk I need.”
“I thought as much,” said Mrs Patel, “But don’t worry, just sit there while we get your shopping and then I’ll see you home safe and sound. I’ll just ring your daughter so she’s there waiting for you.”
“Maybe the beef extract too, then,” said Alice, “I can make her some when I’m home. She seems a bit sad these days. There’s nothing like a cup of beef extract to cheer you up. Liquid comfort, my mother used to say. Liquid comfort.”
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission