By Catherine Ryan.
I go shopping.
Some things you have to do without and some things are just necessary. I make an art of knowing how to tell between the two. Knowing the difference between the luxury and the essential. Knowing what’s really must see, must do, must have. When the cash is gone, when your card gets spat back out at you. When your child is suffering.
That’s when you cross the line. When you wash your hair, dress well for a day at the Mall, put on lipstick and go shopping.
I walk. To save the bus fare. I have a list, but don’t need to write it down, it’s scratched into my memory from her repeated cries. I remember how cruel teenage girls could be, how they were in my day, only twenty years ago. When I desired what everyone else wanted, but few could have. Gold medal. Sash. Representation. Symbols that said I could do it. That I was fierce. That I could do what they all couldn’t.
But now what my daughter craves is what everyone else has. What my daughter needs is not to be beaten up, not to come home from school bruised and grazed because her jeans don’t have the right cut, her shoes the wrong brand, her top the wrong label. And all way way too old.
Do the lap. Walk purposefully up and down each side of the Mall. Stop and work through the racks, looking for the right cut, right brand, right label. Looking for who’s not looking. Which shops’ll be the safest bets. Done my preparation. Made my plans. Sit down outside and have an apple and a jam sandwich from home. Rest a bit. Watch. Buy just one coffee, takeaway. Saves thirty cents. And. Let’s go shopping.
Friendly, open relaxed, just like before a comp routine. Just like those days, the aim is to hide the effort. Don’t let the pain and the work show. Make it look like you’re flying through life with ease and grace, and that that is all that the judges see.
My target’s a rack towards the front of the shop, good for a quick escape, and some distance from the counter. And I wait outside, until a mother and daughter enter, clearly on a mission that will involve a lot of work for the shopgirl. Her focus on the change-room mirror and trying to get a sale while averting an argument, I make my move. Slip the jeans off the hanger and into my bag and slip out of the shop. Easy. Too easy. The alarm goes off, but I’m already gone and no-one really bothers about it anyway. I’m happy. Next. But do pity the shopgirl. Does she get docked for that? I care for a moment, and wonder about her life. But stop. I have the jeans. The right cut.
They’ll fit her perfectly. I can just tell.
I’ve invested another dollar in a locker at the library, where I go and deposit my shopping bag from this first trip. Put the jeans in the locker, and take out another green bag for my next round. And the next one, and then next one, and by the time I return from the final one, I’ve filled the locker with all the right stuff.
Walking home. Not too far. About six kays. It’s cold, but I’m not. Fired up with the adrenalin of a win. Reckon I’ve pulled over six hundred bucks worth, but it’s not the money that counts. It’s what she tells me it’ll mean.
They wouldn’t beat me up if I had … if I had … if I had …
God, I just want her to come home from school one afternoon without the weeping. Without having to drag the reasons from her. Without her having to protect me from my guilt. Without either of us having to face how hard the world judges a loser. I just want to stop her cringing from the text messages she gets well into the night. The ones that collapse her face before she quickly regathers it for me. I just want her to laugh and smile.
I’ve laid out all the clothes on her bed. Jeans. Runners. Two tops. A skirt, jacket, and three fantastic hats. Some make-up too, and the cutest little handbag. Nike. Roxy. Mossimo. I’m sitting in the kitchen with my cuppa, waiting for her. She slips in home quietly, as usual, through the backdoor. Drops her backpack. Picks up the cat and scratches under her chin. Looks at me with sad heavy eyes and a nothing’s changed shrug. I offer her a cup of tea and a piece of Black and Gold Fruit Cake.
“No thanks,” she says.
And before I can ask how her day was …
“I’ll be in my room, “she says.
I nod, silent, and listen to her footsteps disappearing down the hallway.
Door closes. I wait for screams of joy. Nothing. I drain my cup and pour another. Crumble a piece of yellow cake. I’m struggling to hear any signs. I fight the urge to go to her. I want to give her the time to savour it all. While seeing her smiling face, kissing it … Don’t want to make a big song and dance about it all though. The cat returns, rubbing its back against my leg. Her door is ajar, but still no sound. Cat moves away, disinterested. Patience. Patience. Wait for the results.
And before I’ve heard her, she’s standing in the doorway, dressed in the new jeans, top, jacket, hat and runners, wearing mascara and eyeliner. She’s just standing there. Looking at me. Looking gorgeous. My gorgeous daughter. I’m getting teary. Can’t believe it. Hands to my face in quick surprise.
“You left the security tags on,” she says.
And she’s still looking at me, and I can’t …
Oh, I forgot. I’ll get the pliers, or the wirecutters or …
But before I can finish and share …
“That’s pretty fucked Mum.”
I wanted to …
“I know. And I know we can’t afford it.”
I wanted to …
“So you stole it?”
You were getting beaten up Sophie. Every day.
“And I don’t know that? You stole it all Mum!”
I couldn’t bear to see …
“You fucking shoplifted Mum. It’s what ten-year-olds do on a dare.”
You were getting beaten up, I said.
And she glares again, shaking her head.
“You’re pathetic. Weak and pathetic.”
Screaming at me, staring at me, her eyes still weighted with sadness.
Shooting barbs, tongue brandished.
“You fucking skank hypocrite. We’re better than that.”
But, I try, I try to say, I did it for you…
“Hypocrite. You’re worse than those bitches. I believed ... You’re a loser Mum.”
And her eyes sad and proud and disgusted and hopeful and loved and shamed.
I could always read a judge.
And I try not to waiver.
“I’m going out,” she says, “I’ll be back for tea.”
And she turned, walked out, a fraction, I swear it, a fraction taller than before.
But without a kiss goodbye.