Vanilla

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It was Thursday, late night shopping day, and Jolyon and his mother had reached the freezer aisle. Jolyon was bored, slump-shouldered and near to tears. He had been thinking for some time about a game a boy at school had told him about. He couldn’t remember what the boy had called it but the idea was simple enough: to compete with someone to see who could sneak the most expensive item into a random shopper’s trolley without them noticing before getting to the checkout. Jolyon didn’t have anyone to compete with – he could hardly ask his mother to play and, in any case, he had decided to play a lower risk version of the game, one in which it was his mother’s trolley that was the target. He had already got a packet of shortbread biscuits in there, some disgusting-looking brown bread, a three-pack of baby socks, and a stack of those puzzle magazines people buy to take on planes with them. Now he was eyeing off the ice cream, stretching out along both sides of the freezer aisle in Babylonian walls of sugary splendour. His mother only ever bought vanilla, boring old vanilla, white and plain and bland. As he looked up from the lino, where something had recently been spilled and mopped up badly, he saw her standing there, a two-litre tub of home brand vanilla ice cream in her hand. She seemed oblivious to the cold, the faint, wintry swirls peeling off the tub and reaching, graspingly, out of the open freezer door.

‘It’s so expensive,’ she muttered. ‘Even the cheap stuff.’

That was because, Jolyon thought but could not be bothered to explain, there was a world shortage of vanilla – something to do with the big companies developing a sudden preference for the real over the artificial versions – and prices had risen accordingly. There was basically only one country, he had heard somewhere, where vanilla was produced, and even there – where was it? Mongolia? Macedonia? – the flowers only opened once a year. These were interesting facts, Jolyon thought, not vanilla at all. If his mother knew, he thought, she probably would not be complaining. Maybe supermarkets should be more like art galleries, he thought, with little bits of information tacked to the walls next to everything so you could see where things had come from, how they had been made and transported, and what you were supposed to do with or think about them now that they were here.

His mother was crying.

‘Mum?’

She sniffed but did not look at him. He looked at her hands, pinkish and raw-looking from the cold. He had clearly misjudged her mood, would be in terrible trouble when they got to the checkout and she discovered all the things he had stowed away in the trolley. He might even be grounded, something that hadn’t happened since Dad had died.

‘Mum. I’m sorry. I’ve been putting things in the trolley you didn’t want. Stupid things. I know how you always say to keep to the list or we won’t be able to afford everything. I didn’t keep to the list. I’m sorry.’

She glanced sideways at him, a single, fleecy sleeve flicking out to wipe away tears, snot. Her eyes were red like burning coals.

‘I’m just thinking of those flowers,’ she said, ‘in Madagascar. The ones the vanilla comes from. They only open for one day a year, you know. Isn’t that something? Blink and you’d miss it.’

She slipped the tub of vanilla ice cream into somebody else’s trolley when they weren’t looking, grabbed the biggest container of Neapolitan she could see, and headed for the checkout, Jolyon trailing silently behind her with the trolley.

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