Hilary Fannin: January, when it comes, is always a relief

An unexpected encounter in a supermarket brings back vivid childhood memories

'I thought back to another long wait in the aisles before Christmas, slouched over my sanitised trolley handle'

'I thought back to another long wait in the aisles before Christmas, slouched over my sanitised trolley handle'

 

I stood in a long supermarket queue a couple of evenings ago, staring into a display, of half-price plum puddings and tired-looking boxes of pasty-faced mince pies. The slowly stuttering line was due to staff shortages. Suspended in this fluorescent January aspic, tired and hungry, I thought back to another long wait in the aisles before Christmas, slouched over my sanitised trolley handle in a queue that stretched from the frozen-food section at the back of the shop all the way to the till.

It was late on the evening of December 23rd. The elderly woman in front of me wore tasselled silver boots on her tiny feet and had an enormous frozen turkey in her trolley. The gargantuan lump of frigid poultry, which she reached out tentatively to pat with her liver-spotted hand, seemed to be exerting a kind of obdurate dominance over her. I wondered how many people she was feeding and whether someone would give her a hand getting the bird into the oven. Cryogenically cradled among her sprouts and spuds and powdered custard, the damn thing looked like it could have held up a collapsing Arctic ice shelf.

I stood in the long line of battered shoppers, trying to squeeze Westlife syrup out of my shell-likes

Not a naturally festive person, I used to resent the pressure of the season, the ceaseless demand to consume with joy. I’ve made my peace with the Yuletide though; I like to cook, I’m content to pin my prayer flags over the kitchen table and happy to stick a tea light into the gaping posterior of an ornamental cherub. I’ve even developed a mild affection for fairy lights. But January, when it comes, is always a relief.

Back in the pre-Christmas supermarket queue, abandoning the trolley, which contained bottles of blackberry-coloured wine and dinner for four, didn’t seem like an option. I stood in the long line of battered shoppers, trying to squeeze Westlife syrup out of my shell-likes and examining, in great detail, the staggering amount and variety of canine chew sticks (for that is the position on the aisle at which I was stalled) available for purchase.

Who knew doggy dental hygiene would be such big business? At what point did some enterprising kid slip out of their caul and into their lab coat to bring the world “semi-moist liver-flavoured chewy wraps”? Still, I thought, peering at a stocking-shaped pack of tasty turkey and ham treats, pet food production, as career choices go, doubtless beats trying to make a living in the arts.

I heard my name being called, and turned to see an old friend under a bobble hat. He was holding a large paper bag on a string. He looked happy. I hadn’t seem him for a while. He lives in another country, beyond the reach of routine restrictions.

“Welcome home,” I said.

He said it was good to be in Ireland again, that it had been too long. He asked how I’d been. I told him that I’d had the virus but was recovered now and feeling fine.

“It’s a brilliant supermarket,” he said, something that surprised me. He is a gentle, somewhat sceptical man, more likely to be found on the other end of a pint or a snooker cue than handing out compliments to a grocery chain.

“Is it? I suppose. The vouchers, you know, keep you coming back.”

“I bought this,” he said, opening the paper bag.

Inside was a teddy bear – soft, serene, dressed in a blue frock.

“It’s for my mother,” he said.

My friend’s mother suffered no fools, at a time when suffering fools was mandatory for most women

I was transported back to a clubhouse bar on a 1960s Saturday morning, where my father drank among a tribe of boozy sailors and boozy sailors’ wives, gin and lime drinkers with boats bobbing about in the harbour, who seemed to make and lose money and children with little discernible disquiet. They were an occasionally ferocious bunch, who appeared to live without much regard for the restrained social mores of the era. I spent my childhood watching and listening to them and breathing in their nicotine-flavoured exhalations.

My friend’s mother, often present among that tribe, was a strong, indefatigable matriarch who admirably stood her ground, who suffered no fools, at a time when suffering fools was mandatory for most women. She used to fascinate and terrify me.

“It’s a lovely bear,” I said. “Does your mother recognise you any more?”

He shrugged.

Maybe it was too difficult a question to ask a bobble-hatted man, home finally for Christmas to see his aged parent and buy her a magnificent teddy, a transitional object to ease the pain of absence.

The queue shifted, the frigorific bird in the adjacent trolley inched towards the checkout.