One day long long ago, in the mid-80s, someone caught on to the brilliant idea of putting jelly and fruit into a can together and calling the resulting taste sensation Jelly Fruit. There was Peaches in Orange Jelly and Pears in Passionfruit Jelly. There was lurid packaging with hot pink graphics that wouldn’t be out of place on a Culture Club or Duran Duran album. And there were about 37 cans of it in our pantry.
After an inevitable meal of lamb chops we’d ask hopefully, “What’s for dessert, Mum?” and for a long time the answer would always be Jelly Fruit. When you opened up the can it would come slithering out with a revolting schloooooooooop. It didn’t even wobble like normal jelly, just stood there unblinking with the peaches smooshed up against the sides, pleading to be set free. You had to cut it with a knife, it was thick and uncompromising like a can of dog food. I’d whisper to my sister in a poor Scottish accent, “Sooooo chumpy you can carrrrve it” and Mum would wave the knife at me and glare.
My mother and grandmother shopped like the world was about to end. We were apparently about to be living in some post-apocalyptic hell and have no food, no clothing, nothing at all, so we had to hurry and stock up. They also loved a good bargain. At 59 cents a can they couldn’t resist buying the Jelly Fruit in bulk. Even though it was only available in a supermarket about an hour and a half away.
It wasn’t that unusual to go long distance shopping. My home town was small and publicly everyone subscribed to the “shop locally and help our town’s dismal economy” way of thinking, but made secret expeditions to Bathurst or Orange to take advantage of the Big Town Bargains. I particularly remember the January post-Christmas trips to Orange. We’d stop by and pick up our grandmother in our ancient yellow Mitsubishi Lancer. It had no air conditioning and black vinyl seats that fired up something fierce in the summer. My sister and I would be moaning and complaining in the back seat for the entire journey as the upholstery barbequed our thighs.
The day was planned with great precision. It began at Big W where they’d pick up a dozen boxes of Christmas cookies and bags of tinsel and plastic reindeer and angels.
“Why do we need another star for on top of the christmas tree? We only have one tree”, whined my sister and I.
“Shut up! It’s On Special!”
It didn’t matter if we already had it at home or simply didn’t need it, if it was On Special we got it regardless.
“Muuuum. He already has a pair of tennis shoes. He only has two feet. Why does he need anotherrrrrrrrrr pair?”
“Shut up! On Special!”
“Muuuum. I don’t like pink. I don’t want pink swimmers. You said before redheads shouldn’t wear pink!”
“I did not! On Special!”
My grandmother was just as bad.
“Oooh purple mohair wool only 39 cents a ball!”
“But Nanny, you said you can’t knit anymore because of your arthritis!”
And on and on it went. Again at K-Mart. Again at Lincraft. Again at the second hand bookshop that smelled like death and tobacco. By this time my sister and I had managed to stretch about 47 syllables into the word “Mum” and were begging for lunch, for a drink, for a bullet.
“Muuuuuuuum. Are we going home now?”
“No we are not going home now!”
“Because we’re going to Franklins! Your grandmother wants to get some more Jelly Fruit.”
“But I HATE Franklins!”
“You can’t hate a supermarket. That’s ridiculous.”
“But it’s stinky and cheap and the aisles are too cramped and it doesn’t look pretty like Woolies.”
“How is it cheaper if we have to drive an hour to Orange to get it?”
“You shut up back there! I don’t want to hear any more of your logic!”
“Can we wait in the car?”
That is when she yanked the rear-view mirror around to maximise the impact of her frosty glare. She lowered her huge, horrible plasticky sunglasses that looked like fly eyes (bought on special at K-Mart in about 1982) and fixed her black, black eyes on me. “You’re coming in with me and that’s all there is to it!”
The grocery shopping was the most humiliating part of the trip. My sister and I stomping behind Mum, scuffing our shoes and muttering as she crowed, “Oooh 2 litre Dynamo is only $3 here! Can you believe that? It was $4.50 back home. Shauna, put three bottles in the trolley!”
Franklins tried to spoil their fun by putting a limit on how many items you could buy per sale item.
“Ooooh Cream Wafer Biscuits on special! Only 89 cents a packet!”
“But Muuum, it says Limit 6! Limit 6! That means you are limited to six!”
“Limits! I’ll get around those limits!”
Getting around those limits meant giving us kids some cash and an armload of biscuits and send us through separate checkouts. Then we’d all meet outside with our collective purchases, Rhiannon and I glowering as my mother and grandmother did some sort of triumphant victory dance around the trolley.
All these years later and Mum claims to have reformed, but last trip home I shared my bed with six boxes of cornflakes and a 3-foot Santa statue. And at last count my grandmother has about 12 packets of chocolate biscuits and 20 gallons of softdrink in her pantry. She’s diabetic, and I’m sad to say my dear grandfather can pretty much only eat mush these days, so I don’t know who she’s buying it for. Some days I wonder what deep psychological issues they both must have with their compulsive need to surround themselves with so much junk. What pain are they trying to mask by shacking up in a fortress of Earl Grey Tea ($1.99 for 200 bags, on special), ceramic chickens, and Tim Tams? Or maybe they just really do love a bargain.