Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
There’s too much choice. I can’t possibly decide.
People hurry past me; all sorts of people of different heights and skin tones and shapes and faces. Every single one of them seems to be in a rush. And they all seem to know where they’re going.
I am a statue in the centre of chaos, planted to a bench in the middle of the shopping centre, as unmoveable as a boulder in the wind.
I haven’t been to a place like this in a very long time. They thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it, you see.
But I am managing perfectly well with it all, no matter what they might get you to believe. They told me not to come here – I’m never allowed to go anywhere with too many people, you see, they don’t trust me – so I thought it would be jolly funny to prove them all wrong and show them just how wonderfully I could cope. I would do my shopping, and I would behave perfectly respectfully. No funny business, not like last time.
And here I am, sans funny business, in this delightful social hub where people are shopping for their loved ones, where they are meeting for lunch, and where shop assistants are checking their watches to see when their shift ends.
It was all terribly exciting, watching people shop and live their lives. I had wandered round the stores, noting all the glitzy, expensive items in a dignified, unobtrusive way, and it was only until I saw a large, sweaty man clutching a pretzel walk past me, and the smell wafted its way to my nostrils, that I found myself considering my lunch. I had promised to resist but…what could it hurt? And so I took myself to the busiest part of the whole shopping centre. The food court.
The food court is a maze; it’s something that I would have drawn forty years ago when I imagined the future, with huge glass panels above our heads and loud music and smells of every kind attacking our noses without an invitation to do so. I mean, the smells. So many of them! I hadn’t expected anything like it! Chips and pizza and garlic and fish and burgers and spices and hotdogs and popcorn – my senses were dazzled; they were battered into submission until that the aromas began to merge together and became indistinguishable from one another in one united foody odour.
I saw meat sizzling on grills; saw the pink, raw burgers darken until they were fit to eat, I saw chips hauled into fryers to be oiled alive, gently glistening as people crammed them into their mouths, I saw more popcorn than I ever thought possible whirling around inside a huge machine until it was time to be chosen, I saw raw fish (sushi, they call it apparently) being diced up and transformed into seamless shapes and exotic colours – it was all unspeakably vulgar, seeing so much food all at once, but the crowds were gobbling it up, and every restaurant was full of greasy, writhing bodies, chomping away on flesh and oil and salt.
But I was not tempted. I was too dazzled; I felt accosted by choice. I left after a few minutes, seeking respite, though rest of the shopping centre seems bland in comparison. There are few smells here save the secondary stench of the food court which sticks to peoples’ clothes. Even the plants, plastic of course, bear no smell. Nothing lives in here.
I wonder if the food smells have stuck to me and give my jumper a cursory sniff, but I only smell washing powder and lavender soap. I probably smell like an old person. When I was younger, I used to hate the smell of old people. They smelt like death and flowers and talc. Now I am one, older than everybody around me, so old you might not believe me if I gave you the number, and I find my own personal aroma rather comforting.
I have decided to content myself with watching the people pass by me; it might stir my appetite into motion. A woman rushes by with two children: she snaps at one of them. Her arms are laden with shopping bags and I wonder what might be inside – toys, perhaps? But she has a face like a melted wellington and I decide she is not the type to be generous with her children at Christmas, poor things.
She snaps at the youngest again for dawdling and he retorts back with a profanity, lifting his middle finger up to add flourish to his response. I shift my allegiance to her, the little bugger. When I was a girl I wouldn’t have dreamed of speaking to my mother that way.
I wonder if I might follow them, but for now I am content to just watch quietly. It would be too obvious anyhow, there are not enough people here.
I see people carrying paper cups of coffee and tea and hot chocolate, and others sitting on benches similar to mine eating their lunch. A boy takes an enormous bite of a Big Mac and coughs, choking on it. My stomach growls, tentatively. His father distractedly offers him a litre of diet coke to wash it down with, and at the sight of him slurping on the brown liquid I feel the growling inside me turn to revulsion.
I am steeling myself to go back there and face the food court again, but it seems ever so difficult. This is where I am sure to find the best pick for my lunch, but my body feels like it’s been attacked by odours and sounds: my hands feel sticky from where I had the misfortune to put them on a railing and my feet are worn and battered from wandering round and round the restaurants on a lurid, nightmarish carousel.
Spurred on by the incessant growl of my stomach, growing stronger now, I decide to make my way back and face it head on. I merge through deflated crowds, navigating myself through the families and the couples and the single people, and eventually, I am back. I am back among the smells and the sights and the sounds, the shimmering cafes and the glitzy restaurants.
I look around me, breathing in the appetising aromas that waft past, wondering how I will make my choice. I have not been out in such a long time, it is so difficult. How do I know what’s best? Do I make my choice based on appearance? Or scent? What if, after all this deliberation, I choose badly?
I feel the familiar sense of panic swell inside me, and wonder if they were right after all. Perhaps I can’t be trusted on my own. Perhaps I have grown too old to be discreet, perhaps I should just go now before anything goes wrong.
But the sight of a plump middle-aged man sitting in the window of a popular Italian chain makes me stop. He is devouring his food: gooey cheese oozes over his pizza; pasta is slurped up into his eager mouth. I feel a stirring: I have made my choice.
I go over to the restaurant, where the hostess greets me with a wealth of menus: normal, gluten free, vegan. I falter, unsure of my response.
‘I’ll just start with a tap water,’ I say, asking to be seated near the window.
I seat myself next to the lone diner, weighing up his features.
His cheeks are wonderfully rosy, his arms are round and solid. Yes. He will do nicely.
‘Are you sure you don’t want a menu, Madam?’ the waitress asks as she brings me my water.
‘Not just yet,’ I say, wondering how long I can stall her. To her, I am just an innocent old lady: she is sure to indulge me a while longer.
I have made my choice, and he will do nicely. They said I couldn’t do it discreetly, but I remember what to do. It’s been so long since I’ve had a proper meal. Saliva dances on my tongue. I just need to work out how I can get him alone.
‘Excuse me?’ I say. He looks up. ‘Would you be able to walk me back to my group, when you’ve finished your meal, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble? I’m out on a day trip with my care centre, and I’ve managed to lose everyone.’
He smiles gently – I’m just a harmless old biddy. His face is kind; trusting. Full of blood.
Yes, I will certainly not go hungry tonight.