The Woolworths supermarket was the main attraction of my hometown, the beating heart of a rural metropolis. It was the modern equivalent of a town square, the place to meet and greet and catch up on local news. You’d go in for bread and milk and come out with the latest on hip operations, infidelity scandals and corruption on the local council.
“You’ll never guess who I ran into at Woolies the other day,” The Mothership would say in our weekly phone calls. She never saw people, she always ran into them. I’d always picture a violent collision of shopping trolleys, her half-price loaves of bread flying into the air and knocking down small children; escapee apples rolling down the aisle. Mum always chose the most fabulous verbs, even the most banal story became action-packed. “On Wednesday or was it Thursday, at 7 o’clock or was it 7.30, I jumped out of bed then dived into the shower, then I ducked down the street, dashed into the post office then zapped into Woolies…”
In a small town like ours there was about a 95% chance you’d run into someone down the aisles. “This will just be A Quick Trip To Woolies!” Mum would promise as my sister and I whined, “So you’ll not be waiting in the car, you’re coming in with me!” But there was no such thing as a Quick Trip To Woolies. It quite often started in the dairy section with Mum deeply absorbed in raking through what she called the Chuck-Out Bin, a place where marked-down near-death cheeses and yogurts lurked. To her an expiration date was not a recommendation but a challenge.
“Look at this, a six pack of Ski Fruit of the Forrest for only 99 cents!”
“There’s nothing wrong with them!”
And then suddenly there’d be a tap her on the shoulder, followed by a chirping voice, “Hello Sharon!”
The Mothership would spin around in a flash, a welcoming smile automatically pasted on her face. She was used to this. It could be a neighbour, a colleague, a relative you didn’t like very much, or often in Mum’s case, the parent of one of the kids she taught. They always had something to say and didn’t mind taking half an hour to say it. They barricaded her in with their trolleys so she couldn’t escape.
Sometimes it was someone interesting that you’d genuinely want to catch up with, but it was more fun to watch when it wasn’t. She’d nod and smile at their scintillating stories with her arsenal of phrases like “Oh really”, “You’re joking” and “That’s terrible!”. It looked like she had their undivided attention but she was actually busy stopping our attempts to replace Chuck-Out Bin Yogurt with chocolate bars.
She could get stopped half a dozen times in one shop. Tap tap tap… Hello Sharon! Spin, smile, story time! Over and over again. It was incredibly tiresome for a couple of kids who were huuuun-gry and just wanted to go hooome. Rhi and I would amuse ourselves by spying on other people’s trolleys and making snap judgements on their contents, a habit we never grew out of. Ooh look, they’ve got Neopolitan ice cream and topside steak. And it’s not Home Brand Neopolitan either, the bastards!
Even when I grew up into a post-university sullen, unemployed bum, The Mothership would still drag me into Woolies; apparently I still wasn’t old enough to wait in the car. These expeditions filled me with terror. I didn’t have Mum’s diplomacy skills. Who would we run into today? What would they ask me? How much of an idiot would I look like? What if I saw one of my old teachers and they found out their swotty student has amounted to naught? There was nothing worse than being confronted with people from the past when the present and future are looking rather shoddy.
Most times we shopped late at night – for me it meant less chance we’d see someone we knew, for Mum it meant a greater chance the BBQ chickens would be reduced to half price. I’d still send her out in front of me, like a canary down a coal mine. But despite hiding behind cornflake displays or towers of oranges I’d soon enough feel the inevitable tap tap tap and perky greeting, Hello Shauna!
I’d do a feeble Spin and Grin. “Why helloooo!”
The questions were always the same. “So I hear you’ve finished your degree! What have you been up to?”
Oh plenty! I rise at noon to pull the blinds down so no one thinks I’m home, then I eat lots of ice cream and watch Days Of Our Lives. And then I curl up in a nest of rejection letters and cry great self-indulgent sobs, then it’s naptime until Walker: Texas Ranger comes on.
“Oh, not much.”
“So have you got a MAN yet?”
“Oh, not yet.”
“Well dear, it will happen when you least expect it!” Sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “And same goes for your job situation, I’m sure!”
And then I’d wallow in self-pity and paranoia, thinking they’d rush home and tell their families, “That Shauna, she peaked way too early.”
My fondest Woolies memory is the day Rhiannon abandoned Mum at the Chuck-Out Bin. She stalked her at a distance for about twenty minutes, waiting for the perfect moment. She tip-toed up behind as Mum examined a two-pack of garlic bread.
Tap tap tap. “HELLO SHARON!”
“Hellooooo!” The Mothership wheeled around, cheesy smile in place. Her face was thundercloud dark when she saw who it was. Rhiannon cackled and danced in the dairy aisle.