I was thinking of 17 brushes with death, then the supermarket queue moved on
Hilary Fannin: It never occured to me that I’d ever feel grateful for mundane quotidian life
Travel posters offer promise of a holiday that seems far off in so many ways
I tore myself away from the book I’m currently reading, Maggie O’Farrell’s tense and brilliant memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, about her 17 brushes with death, to go to the supermarket to buy, among other things, milk, rashers and a spongy sliced pan.
I parked outside the shopping centre, unhooked my mask from where it swings behind the rearview mirror, covered my maw and went to join my tribe, made up mainly of middle-aged women queuing up in arch-support flip-flops and flowery face coverings.
The line for the shop runs alongside a travel agency. The garish posters offering seven-night cruises in Florida and the Bahamas and all-inclusive family deals to Disneyland have lost a little of their sheen and now look like missives from a distant age.
I was in Florida years ago. I’d been working, briefly, in Philadelphia, and went to visit my sister, who was at the time living in the Sunshine State. I lay on the beach beside golden young bodies on their spring break, ate shrimp in a surf’n’turf bar and spent most of the rest of the trip vomiting in my sister’s tiny bathroom due to a dose of sunstroke.
It didn’t occur to me that I’d be some woman or other, her cotton face mask decorated with white butterflies, standing in line at the local store
Milk, bacon, bread. And cat food. Mustn’t forget to purchase those shiny sachets of gelatinous, rendered-down dinosaur the cat insists on having in her bowl, purely so she has something to walk away from in disdain.
“Special offer: all-inclusive Caribbean cruise on Rhapsody of the Waves!”
The faded poster depicted a happy family foursome: dark-haired dad and fair-haired mother and sensible older sister and cheeky little brother in novelty sunglasses, all of them smiling their pretty heads off. I’ve seen that family grouping so many times – the advertising industry’s staple demographic, an uncontroversial unit to sample the delights of the karaoke nights.
I wonder what it’s like on board those cruise ships now; empty cities floating on quiet seas, devoid of apparently happy families standing over the breakfast buffet debating the merits of the cured sausage.
The queue moved.
I’ve always wanted to travel more adventurously. When I was young, I pictured myself in Peru, opening my arms to Rainbow Mountain. I imagined myself underneath the equator, on the shoreline of azure water. I pictured myself saying interesting things in dark bars in big cities, my beautiful shoes abandoned under the table.
It never really crossed my mind that my future included queuing up outside a supermarket just a stone’s throw from where I was born and bred, in the hope of purchasing cat litter and frozen peas. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be some woman or other, her cotton face mask decorated with white butterflies, standing in line at the local store, feeling grateful for mundane quotidian life, grateful to be all right and to understand that being all right was, in itself, some kind of privilege.
The title of O’Farrell’s compelling memoir, published in 2018, comes from a line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
O’Farrell’s 17 brushes with death include a heart-stopping encounter on a remote mountain path and a near-fatal long-haul flight. Just prior to looking for the car keys and diving under the stairs to find the reusable grocery bags, I’d been reading how she survived being mugged with a machete on the remote shores of a Chilean lake. Cumulatively, her recollections reveal the faint borderlines between life and death. She writes, without at first seeming to, of the invisible precipices we meander beside in our daily lives, unaware somehow of our own fragility, blithely trusting in the illusion of safety.
O’Farrell is not an explorer or a professional adventurer, a bear hunter or a survivalist; she’s a woman in her 40s who writes books and lives with her young family, a person who might, as we speak, be in the socially distanced queue for her local supermarket.
Despite near-death experiences apparently being its subject matter, I Am, I Am, I Am is a kind of glorious call to life, to living, to being immersed in the world. Reading it has made me miss some of the possibilities of that world. It has made me remember my intentions to go out beyond the horizon, to travel far and wide, a ship untethered to port or timetable.
The queue edged forward again. I disinfected the trolley handle with the paper towel and sanitiser spray, and pushed off – for now – into the familiar dangers of our immobilised times.