By Anne Godwin
Christmas Eve in the supermarket. The Wilson dynasty has turned up with one representative of each of the four generations, as if to take part in some family game show. Having appointed myself unofficial captain, I have to say that I am pleased with our team’s performance so far. Dad’s prowess in navigating a route through the battalions of overladen trolleys should earn us a good few points. Sing along to the musak, never mind the words: Gran and the baby have represented us on this round with great enthusiasm, their dedicated training over the last few months with Baby’s First Book of Nursery Rhymes putting them several steps ahead of the competition. Come to a consensus on the mince-pie question: this was a challenge, with so many options and none of the others supporting my preference for the vegetarian range, but our skilled teamwork got us through in the end. Be so engrossed in your own debates that friends and acquaintances can pass you by without making eye contact: our natural advantage on this one is such that we must now be heading for the jackpot!
The checkout is our final hurdle. I have taken up the crucial position, unloading the provisions onto the conveyor belt. At the head of our formation, Dad packs the scanned items. I’ve tried to get a system going — a bag for the vegetables, one for baked stuff, another for booze, and so on — but it doesn’t work; Dad’s too chaotic, and I have to accept that we’ll lose points here. The oldest and youngest Wilson oversee all this without comment, Gran clutching the handle of the trolley where my niece is enthroned on the pullout seat. They observe the work from a distance, as if their contribution is simply to wait, and be admired; Gran majestic in her white wool coat trimmed with fake fur at the collar and cuffs, the baby resplendent as a rose from her cheeks to her tiny boots.
“Daddy!” my little niece calls out, and we all stop and look at her; not only the Wilson clan, but the checkout woman, and the shoppers in the queue as well. I can’t see the baby’s face but she’s pointing and rocking her whole body in delight. I look from Gran to Dad to check they’ve noticed the significance: her first word of more than one syllable. She’s developing so quickly; every day, it seems, brings a new accomplishment.
“Daddy!” she cries again, and now we all turn and look to where she is reaching out with both arms. A man, resembling her daddy, my brother, in little beyond gender and age, pauses in his packing to give the cute baby a friendly wave. Our checkout woman smiles, and resumes processing our purchases. Babies, hey, says her smile, don’t they do the funniest things? Who knows how their minds work? Who knows what they mean when they call out ‘daddy’ to a stranger?
“Daddy!” a third time, desolate now. Gran picks up the baby and squeezes her tight to her bosom; our love for her so desperate she could drown in it. Past the till, our operation has come to a halt in disorderly piles of provisions. Dad just stands there, huge useless hands stuffed in the pockets of his down jacket. The waiting queue grows impatient. There are turkeys to stuff, presents to wrap, lives to live. I reach down into the depths to take the last item from the trolley: a ring of glossy green holly leaves dotted with crimson berries. I cradle it in my hands for a moment, making out I’m hesitating over a loose thread on the tartan ribbon. I’ve taken our team so far and now I’m stumbling with the winning post in sight. It’s so hard to let it go, to send the wreath on its solitary journey along the conveyor belt. What if it were damaged before we got to the cemetery? We’ve got to have my brother’s grave looking smart for Christmas.
I lay down the holly wreath and go over to where Dad stands, redundant, and finish the packing.