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The Essentials

A shopping trip turns into a life lesson, written for Vocal's April 2023 Passing Ships challenge.

By Addison AlderPublished about a year ago 6 min read
The Essentials
Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

I hate shopping. Another chore. Another marker in my week.

Usually we get it delivered, the poor delivery person staggering up the driveway with a dozen brown bags. And that’s just one week’s groceries for me and my husband and the four kids.

Of course there’s always something unavailable, or something the picker picked wrong. And that’s why I’m here now, in an actual supermarket.

Tesco on a Friday afternoon is at least better than a Saturday afternoon. Saturdays are like trench warfare. Fridays are more like a bombing run. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to be.

Because this mission is high priority. Riley wants the dairy-free strawberry cones now, not the minging own-brand ones. And Christopher will ‘kick off’ if I buy that mass-produced beer, he wants the craft stuff. And little Charlie refuses the banana fruit pops now, so I’m getting the chocolate ones. And then there’s Kelly who will ‘literally die’ if she doesn’t have new eyeliner before her friend’s house party.

This isn’t shopping; it’s a diplomatic mission, brokering a ceasefire in the house, which might last the weekend if I’m lucky.

My list only has a dozen items on it, but somehow the trolley is already half full. When you actually come into the shop they always have more BOGOF deals and multi-buys than on the website, so I’ve been reflexively grabbing the discounts. Every penny counts! Damn, that is literally their slogan... I’m such a sucker.

I’m scanning the canapés, tossing up between some posh hors d’oeuvres – try spelling that after a couple of proseccos! – when I notice there’s a girl just along the aisle who is staring into the chiller cabinet like she’s been hypnotised.

She’s young, probably a bit older than my eldest. Her coat – large and ill-fitting on her slight frame – is hanging open and she’s wearing a band hoodie underneath (not that I know the band of course). Her ripped jeans are so tight they’re practically sprayed on. She looks like she’s not seen much sun for a while. To be fair, I probably looked like her a few decades ago, in my grunge phase. Is grunge even a thing now?

But her eyes are focussed on the chiller shelves, almost like she can’t dare herself to look anywhere else. Her hands are rigid at her sides, poised, waiting. I notice also that she’s breathing hard. I'm starting to wonder if she’s OK when--

Like a chameleon sighting a fly, her hands flick up to the shelf. She grabs a joint of meat in each hand, and slips one into each of the pockets of her hoodie, then awkwardly fumbles with her jacket until she finally zzzzzzzips it up over her haul.

I’m rooted to the spot.

This girl is shoplifting meat.

I’m a little embarrassed, if I’m honest. I’m cringeing by proxy. This amateur is clearly oblivious to the fact I’m like right here.

When I was a kid, I stole makeup. That’s easy to hide. Just slip a compact on each boob and a mascara down the centre. Then I’d style it out with my school scarf. Never got caught. But this girl, she’s not got the art down at all. She just seems...


She sees me then. I see the whites of her eyes. She knows she’s caught.

I’m holding trout croquettes in my left hand and some prawn ceviche in my right.

And her eyes don’t leave mine.

I see now that her ripped jeans and baggy coat aren’t a fashion choice. It’s just what she’s got. And she’s pale – she’s so pale – not like she’s short of Vitamin D, but like she’s missed the entire alphabet.

Her thin arms are rigid at her sides again. The poor girl’s mind is spinning out so hard on the consequences of being caught shoplifting that she can’t even operate her limbs.

Her wide eyes start to mist up.

Then I notice that her hair is clipped back with a Hello Kitty hairclip. I realise that maybe she is much younger than I thought. Or maybe that it’s not her hairclip... Maybe she has a daughter.

Of course. Why’s one girl stealing two joints of meat? To feed her family.

I understand what she’s asking now. She’s not asking me to let her get away. She’s asking me to help her survive.

She doesn’t move. She doesn’t say a word. But as clearly as if she was on her knees, prostrate and wailing, I know that she is begging, pleading, imploring.

I let my gaze drop to the trout croquettes and the prawn ceviche in my hands. They don’t seem like food anymore.

I look up at her and she’s already starting to step away from me, like my breaking eye contact was tacit permission.

‘Wait,’ I say.

She looks petrified, and I can tell she’s about to run.

‘It’s OK!’ I reassure her quickly. ‘I promise.’

And for some reason, she stops. She watches me with her big pale eyes, knowing she’s at my mercy, and having little option but to believe me.

I glance around the shop. There are a lot of customers. It’s getting busier. It must be after 3pm now. The school run’s beginning.

Then I see a security guard over by the exit.

The girl also sees that I see him.

Trust me.’ I whisper at her, then I push my trolley in the direction of the guard.

The girl doesn’t know what to do. She can’t stop me. A moment later I see her scarper in the opposite direction.

I hope she gets it.

I hope she understands why I’m doing this.

I’m nearing the exit and I call out to the guard. ‘Hey! Excuse me!’ I push my trolley up the gates.

And the alarms go off. My half-full trolley has triggered them.

‘Ma’am! Ma’am, you can’t put your trolley here.’

‘Excuse me, did you know there’s a spill over in the prosecco aisle?’

‘Ma’am can you move your trolley away from the gates please?’

‘I know, I know, but it’s spreading all over the floor. Such a shame, all that bubbly going to waste...’

I look around and I see the girls’ fretful eyes looking at me from behind a fruit display. I flick my eyes towards the gates.

And then she gets it.

‘Ma’am, can you just bring your trolley this way and I’ll call the aisle manager to deal with the spillage?’

The security guard now has his hands on my trolley and he’s pulling it out of my grip and away from the gates.

‘Y’know I just wanted to check the label and it slipped out of my hand. I’ll pay for it of course...’

The girl is waddling towards the gates, trying to look surreptitious, with her arms pinned to her sides to hold the fat joints of meat against her body.

The guard has pulled my trolley a few metres from the gate now. The alarms will stop ringing soon. I try to pull it back off him.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ I say, spinning the trolley back towards me. ‘Let me take that.’

I glance over my shoulder as the girl brushes behind me, her eyes on the floor, and she passes between the barriers.

The guard loses patience. ‘Ma’am, give me the trolley!’ and he yanks it back into the shop. I let go and it swings back out of my reach.

The alarms stop bleeping.

I turn to look at the entrance, at the throngs of people coming in: adults, parents, retirees, babies, wheelchairs, pushchairs... All the strands of human life weaving through Tesco on a Friday afternoon.

But I don’t see the girl. She’s gone.


I turn back to the guard.

‘Do you want your trolley back?’

I look at the contents of my trolley: the expensive beer and the posh crisps and the cheap fairy lights that had caught my eye and the buy-one-get-one-free apple doughnuts and...

I see them differently now. I see them for what they really are.

‘No, I don’t need it.’

Short Story

About the Creator

Addison Alder

Writer of Wrongs. Discontent Creator. Weird tales to enthral and appal.

All original fiction. No reviews, no listicles. 👋🏻 Handwrought in London, UK 🇬🇧

Buy my eBooks on GODLESS and Amazon ☠️

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Comments (1)

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  • Susanna Kiernanabout a year ago

    I really like how you bookended the story with the narrator's tasks and items she needs to purchase. It's a really effective way getting the message across and re-framing the narrator's life. You've also done really well in the show v tell balance in characterising the narrator. Nice one <3

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