She’d tried to avoid taking her purse because it’s ruining the waistline of her jeans, but, having lost her bag, the only bag that would work with these jeans, with this whole figure-hugging dream of an outfit, she doesn’t have anywhere else to put it. She wanted to look nice today. It was only a trip to the shops for a couple of hours but they were her two hours, by herself, and she wanted to look nice. She wanted to feel nice, today, of all days.
She regrets having to take the purse with her without a bag but it’s a necessary evil given the shopping she’s going to be doing. Normally when she comes to the elephant it’s easy not to break open a note: at the clothes stalls where everything costs £5 or is easy to round down, and coins, if you know what you’re doing, can be a rarity. There’s something comforting about whole numbers. But today she has different business: small, proper things to handle, and round numbers won’t cut it. It’ll be a wonky transaction, this one, and her trousers will fill with silver and copper like an athlete who never comes in first. Today, she knows, as the shopping centre rumbles into sight beneath the railway bridge, today will be a patchwork of awkward purchases, and change is inevitable.
She’s turned out the opposite of her father, she thinks, pushing open the glass door from the New Kent Road and taking a moment to examine herself in the smoked glass of a closed shopping unit. The half-whitewashed windows cut her reflection off at the neck and she looks like one of the half-mannequins hanging from the stalls outside. She looks again at the ruined curve of her hips, her purse bulging out like a mushroom of denim. Her father loved small change, she thought. Couldn’t get enough of it. He kept it in a tray in the car for parking spaces he complained always charged you odd amounts but never gave anything back: sneaking out a pound because it was easier than finding 90 exact pence. No such tricks here, she thinks, stepping away from the window and walking past the pound shop, where combo deals dance in the window by a blue LED screen for mobile credit. No kind of 10p tricks: any money, these days, is good money.
They’d got good money from selling the car when Max got ill and they had to move down here to be in spitting distance from the hospital. Spitting distance – something her mum said. And somehow she finds herself thinking of her mum as a kid in the playground, back when she had her own name, blowing bubblegum, and measuring distances with her friends by spitting. How far could you spit? Not very, she thinks, and wonders as she climbs up the stairs to the second floor of the shopping centre whether she could spit the distance to the top. She feels the saliva gathering in her mouth and thinks for a minute that she will do it. And stops herself, when she hears her dad’s voice. Unladylike, he’d say. But then she didn’t think of herself as being much of a lady and supposed that he never really had either.
She stops for a minute at the side of one of the stalls and looks at the line of boots on display. Tall boots, right up to the knee. She imagines them encasing her calves and drawing the attentions of passers-by down to her legs, away from the purse-shaped bulge of her waist. £25, says the price tag. She thinks of the tenner wrapped in her pocket, and remembers with a taste of guilt the reassuring purple potential of an unbroken twenty. Something she hasn’t felt in a long time.
‘Got stuff to do,’ she says, by way of an explanation to the girl behind the stall who doesn’t care and doesn’t look up from her paper. She walks away. And takes a quick look around before realising that no-one is looking at her. Is that good or bad? She couldn’t say. But the linoleum hallways start to feel longer and she feels hot and worried, not knowing why, thinks again of Max but tells herself she shouldn’t because if she lets all of it out now she’ll never be able to get through tonight and being there for someone means you don’t get to have problems of your own and she worries about crying because if she cries her eyes will smudge and even though the mascara said it was waterproof she knows it wasn’t expensive enough to really be true, and she grasps the rail at the top of the stairs and holds onto it tightly, trying to stop the tears, but none of it matters, of course, none of it matters today because no-one is looking at her, despite the jeans and the hair and the eyes, despite all of the effort, everyone is too busy to notice. She starts to wonder whether she should have come here in the first place. But no, of course she should have. No one else was going to and she wanted to. Nobody knows how much, how little today means for her.
She drops into the card shop, and taps along the line of unnecessarily bright birthday greetings. ‘To A Very Special Birthday Boy’. Was that any way to talk to a 14 year-old? Was that any way to talk to your brother? She puts it back, and thinks about getting one with a football on. There are plenty of footballs. 14 year-olds are supposed to like football, right? Or would that just be a reminder of everything he’d no longer be able to do? Of course, her mum wouldn’t want her to say that, wouldn’t want her even to think it because that’s not what the physio and speech therapist and the OT said, (was it OT? She keeps thinking of ET, shrivelled and small like Max was), that change was possible, that it could come, that a full recovery was something that could happen if they all put their minds to it and gave it time, and hope, and prayer. Her mum was a big fan of prayer. She had books on it that went well past the bible, a whole stack of red and gold covers with titles like The Power of Confidence and In Our Reflection, God. She wanted to believe that but wanting something wasn’t the same as having it and lying about it just seemed to make it worse.
God. She wasn’t sure she could believe in something that distant, that unreachable. The Lord giveth, she remembers, and the Lord taketh away. He had taken most of Max away so she didn’t know how likely it was he’d give him his brain back just because they were asking him to. “Get Well Soon”. That was almost funny. But she’s gone too far, and runs her eye back to the birthdays, to the footballs and smiles and badges, all unnaturally bright colours, cheap card, plastic and poor jokes. Birthdays were hard. It was all canned laughter and sugar. Nobody, she thinks, nobody had ever given her any advice on how to take the process of ageing seriously, except an interview in Cosmo she’d read where Drew Barrymore had said the only thing she regretted about her teenage years was that she hadn’t started using eye cream and moisturiser any earlier. She knew there was more to the way she looked than Boots Advantage points but at least with things like that you could control them. You had to hold onto something. You had to pick a point on the horizon, like on the roundabout, and hold onto it, or you got dizzy and lost yourself. She always felt, these days, like she was losing herself.
She settles for a candle. They keep a small section at the end of cards with blank inserts, and arty pictures on the front. There was a lot less to them but they cost more than a quid more than the others: a tax on choosing not to be ceaselessly upbeat. But then she wonders if even a candle would be too much. This could, she doesn’t want to think about it but she has to, this could be his last birthday, couldn’t it? And candles burn out. Was that why she was picking it? Was that why she had been drawn to it?
Choosing not to think about it, putting it into the box again, she goes on her journey around the rest of the aisles as fast as she can, collecting balloons, and glue and sugar paper to make paper chains. Mum had asked for crepe streamers but she can’t see them anywhere and settles for chains instead. She’ll probably land the blame for that, she thinks, and anticipates her mum’s heavy sigh for not making the day everything she had wanted it to be, but of course the day wasn’t what anyone wanted it to be. They’d made paper chains when they were little, her and Max, on wet half-term weeks for parties she’d long forgotten about. It’d just be her fingers this time, and it would take twice as long, but perhaps Max would enjoy seeing her do it remember all the time they’d had before. Before today.
Paper and glue and scissors and balloons, as well as the card, come to an expectedly awkward total, leaving behind a lot of silver and copper to put in her swelling purse. Taking it out to pay, she looks at the swollen lining of the jeans and remembers that nobody cares and so it doesn’t matter. And on the counter she sees them. A packet of stars. Gold ones, shining in their packet like expensive, sticky smiles. She drops 50p back on the till and picks them up, shifting them into her back pocket along with the overflow of silver and bronze, a medal of success to match a lifetime of near misses.
Out to sunlight, she walks past a dancing elephant painted on the glass wall of a long-closed shop. The paint peeling, crying off the wall in long strips. But she still makes out the shape: the shape of an elephant, behind the window. She squeezes her purse back into her jeans and thinks again of her father, grim and distant except for his enthusiasm for gathering loose coins. She thinks she sees him for a moment, in her reflection. Turns around. And the seam of her pocket bursts, wide and awful, and change pours out over the floor.