Me, a year ago:
Fuck. It’s Monday, and we need to do the weekly shop. *sigh*
Alice, six months ago:
“AAAOOOOWWWWW!!! Shopping?? But we did shopping last week! I hate shopping! Why do we always have to do it on Mondays??”
Alice, two weeks ago:
“Monday’s my favourite day of the week! You know why? Because SHOPPING!”
I wish I could do a before/after photo of Alice, taken in the doorway of our local Tesco. Even in a photo from January of this year, you would see on her face the resigned expression of a child about to enter into a world of aisles, tin cans, and boredom. Meanwhile, I would be mentally prepared for the longest hour of the week. Sometimes there would be a row. She would frequently be in a bad mood. I don’t blame her. I’m not too enamoured of the weekly shop either.
I’ve always liked taking Alice with me shopping. And, despite her bad mood, I’m grateful for the company. Shopping on my own is a lonely experience. On the occasions where Alice wasn’t whining, complaining, sulking, and grouching, she could be (as she usually is) very good company: Interesting, funny, and conversational. Sometimes, though, it was bloody torture for both of us.
And then, almost suddenly, it all changed.
Like most sudden changes, in hindsight, I realised that over the last few months there were hints of a new development leading up to this Damascene conversion. I would do what I always did on Mondays – pick her up after school, and take her to the supermarket. Same as it ever was. But Alice started to take the opportunity, probably with her head still buzzing from a day’s educational nonsense, to ask me questions. But not little questions, BIG questions. Big, important, lifey questions. Stuff that is, sometimes, too big even for me.
Stuff about the deep meanings of life; about friendship, about love. Questions about how and why boys behave the way they do. Heavy questions about life. Her most challenging question was a real humdinger:
“If bad things happen to you when you’re young, do they affect you later on in life?”
Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Imagine that hitting you just as you’re picking the Andrex off the shelf.
So Monday became ‘Question Day’, the day when Alice can ask all the big and heavy existential questions. Alice loved it. I also enjoyed it; any excuse to have a good and diverting conversation on the grocery run. Sometimes we would have these discussions in the car park, before going into the shop, thus avoiding the heaviest of conversations whilst trying to remember if we needed sweetcorn. Sometimes Alice could get quite emotional about the subject in hand. You know, if you had told me five years ago that a key moment of Daddy-Daughter bonding would happen in a Tesco car park on a pissy-wet Monday afternoon, I would have told you – to your face – that you were both mad, and to get the fuck away from me, because you’re a creepy weirdo who can predict the future.
And then, maybe unrelated, but possibly in the spirit of Daddy/Daughter co-operation, something magical happened. Something that I thought wasn’t possible yet, and certainly not something I had been working towards. I had always hoped it would happen, but I thought it would involve a lot of fighting to get it done, and certainly would need an amount of training.
We were in the fruit aisles, early on in the shop, when I asked Alice what I was to cook this week. Unfortunately, due to my limited cooking skills, and Alice’s rather conservative palate, the answer is always “Curry! Chilli! Bolognese!” with an occasional and hopeful “and Shawarma too?”, which sometimes I will indulge, even though it is a bit of a faff to make the marinade.
Anyway, this time Alice said, “Shall I get the chilli beans?”.
“I know where they are!”
Do you? Er… Are you sure?
Will you be OK to pick them up and bring them back?
I’m not too sure about…
Well… OK. Two cans of chilli beans. Meet you back here.
And off she ran. Alice in running-mode is quite a sight. There’s a lot of arm-thrashing, and frantic movement below the hips, but she’s not one of nature’s runners. It’s a sort of frantic and breathless enhanced walk. She definitely takes after her mother in this regard. A lot of physical action, sure, but it does not transfer into much rapid forward-motion, despite her enthusiasm. I find Alice’s running completely adorable, and while I would love her to be sprinting along with her classmates, I do find her pursed lips, grim determination, and hunched-shoulder trotting unbearably cute (although I do often worry what will happen in a zombie apocalypse, and she would have to run in order to survive).
I waited some minutes for her to come back. About 30 seconds after she left, a sudden worry crept over me. Oh God. I’ve never allowed her to run off in a supermarket before. This is incredibly irresponsible of me! What if she meets a creepy old man? What if another mother decides she is too young to be on her own and calls security on me? What if I’m being assessed and scored by other parents as I do this? What if she gets lost and cannot find me? I thought I should look for her, but what if she comes back along a different route, and miss each other, and search frantically for each other as we are separated by aisles and aisles of branded produce??
My worries were abated a few moments later when she hurtled (at her usual manic trot) around the corner with two cans of chilli beans held aloft in triumph. I practically heard Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme in my head.
Wow, Alice, that’s great!
Uh… yeah. Can you get me two cans of chickpeas from the same aisle?
And off she went.
For the next twenty minutes or so she retrieved items that I didn’t know that she knew the locations of. And then, when she came back empty handed from a mission to get muesli, claiming she didn’t know where cereals were, I showed her to look for the signs in each aisle, listing the produce to be found. And off she went again, and came back with a box of muesli.
This is amazing. I was expecting her to start helping me with the shop when she was about ten. She’s beaten my schedule by two years! Shopping is now not only easy, but fun. She is memorising the entire layout of the shop. She knows that we have certain staples every week – bread, milk, fruit, onions, carrots, pulses, meat, fish, soft drinks – and she knows where they are. She knows to ask someone in uniform to help her get stuff down from the high shelves, or to ask an employee for directions when she’s not sure where something is. She’s learned that if I’m not in the aisle she left me in, to walk along the central spine of the shop, looking left and right in each aisle until she spots me. She’s learned to say “excuse me please!” if she is blocked by people and needs to get by, and to say sorry if she bumps into someone.
I also don’t worry about her vanishing from sight, because it is her habit to keep up a stream of chatter to herself as she runs off (for once, I’m glad she’s that sort of weird kid who has stream-of-consciousness conversations with herself), and her return journey is her high-pitched foghorn voice yelling “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaddddddeeeeeeeeeeeee-*pauseforbreath*-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” with a slow Doppler-effect, until she finds me. It’s massively embarrassing, and people do stare at her, but at least I know she’s safe. She’s like those footballs for blind people that let out a stream of bleeps when you throw it into the distance. She is her own tracking device.
And she has made me incredibly proud. Two weeks ago, I got the ultimate compliment from a woman who was wrestling with a trolley and two recalcitrant children, saying, “Can I borrow her when you’re done? I’ve got quite a list here.”
Alice has been rewarded for this in the ultimate way. Not only does she have my loving pride at her initiative, and her willingness to help (not to mention her diligence and efficiency at procuring items), but she also gets extra treats. For the first couple of weeks, I let her off the unpacking when we got home (but reinstated it when I realised that she might start taking this for granted… and when she demanded to assist me unpacking because – and I quote – she “really likes helping!!”), but also because we’ve cut the shopping time by almost half, she can have early Playstation. Normally, there is an embargo on PS4/TV activities before 5pm, but now she gets an early turn on the dazzle-console because… well, fuck it. My girl done me proud. Half an hour’s extra pixellated mayhem won’t kill her.
And the best bit is: I haven’t trained her. She started doing this all by herself. And yesterday, she said she loves helping me with the shopping. She really enjoys it. She now looks forward to it.
Why?, I asked.
“Because it makes me feel like a grown-up!”
I cry far too easily sometimes.