(published as Lesley Fowler) Mockingbird, 2001
'Park here, Jan, you can park here,' my father yells, his cries mounting with each parking space I pass.
'I'm good at finding parking spots, you know,' I say, and pull up in a shady spot next to the supermarket.
As soon as he's out of the car my father starts looking around. His brows knot, his head makes short rapid movements as he scans the area.
My mother catches his eye.
'What if ------?'
'Ach! Forget Liebmann. If you see him, just walk the other way.'
My mother learnt English as an adult; when she talks, you can hear the commas in her sentences,
the structures of the language replicated as she was taught. She shrugs now and makes for the supermarket.
My father catches up with her, takes her hand and puts it on his arm.
My father is impatient.
'Give me the list, Elsa,' he says.
She puts down a pack of chicken and extracts the list from the purse she clutches high under her upper arm.
It sticks out like a whale on the deck of a skiff. She holds her arm pressed tight against her body to keep it in place.
I've offered to put the purse in my shoulder bag and been refused.
She holds out the list, he snatches it and disappears.
My mother turns to me. 'He's taken my list,' she says, appalled, and returns to the cabinet.
'What are you looking for?'
'Chicken legs, there are no chicken legs. For a soup.'
My eyesight is good. I check the cabinet. There are no chicken legs.
My mother decides on a pack of assorted pieces and puts them in the trolley. Because she is old and has shrunk, contracting towards the earth, she hasn't far to bend. The sides of the trolley rise to half her height, it engulfs her when she bends to put the chicken pieces in. When she surfaces, she rests one bony hand on the wire edge for a moment and concentrates on her breathing. Then we're off to the delicatessen.
My father arrives now, his head held up, staring straight ahead to his wife of nearly sixty years.
He doesn't see the people around him, he passes through them, a battleship cutting through bobbing pleasure craft on its way to dock.
If anyone fails to get out of the way, he's immediately apologetic.
'Sorry, sorry, so sorry,' he says rapidly. His face is pulled into lines of concern. 'So sorry, my fault.'
And he goes on as before. He doesn't have full control of his left leg and swings it out from the hip in a throw-step walk.
He homes in on his wife and thrusts a packet of square pink and yellow sponges under her nose. 'Look, Elsa.'
She pulls her head back to get the packet in focus. 'No,' she says.
He looks disappointed. The sponges are probably a good buy.
'What for?' she asks, raising her shoulders in frustration and despair; if she could have stayed in Europe, she knows, she would not have had to deal with his desire for unnecessary plastic sponges.
I have seen chicken legs in the delicatessen show-case.
'Look,' I tell my mother. 'You can get the chicken legs here.'
The young saleswoman smiles. I smile back and nod at my parents, deeply engrossed by the trolley.
'Shall I make the soup with these?' My mother shows my father the different bits of chicken.
'I don't know.' His emphasis couldn't be stronger. When has he ever made chicken soup?
She turns to the assistant and points to the drumsticks.
I take the pack of chicken pieces back to the freezer cabinet. My father returns the pink and yellow sponges to their shelf.
While my mother is choosing things from the delicatessen, I lean on the trolley and look around. A fleshy young man in shorts pauses to lean on his trolley while an old man rakes his eyes across shelves of packaged cakes. Some lamingtons join soft drinks and canned meals. I study my parents' healthier choices with pride.
The delicatessen assistant puts the finely sliced Hungarian salami on the scales.
'It's a bit under,' she says.
My mother looks at her sweetly and says thank you.
I bend down. 'Did you hear what she said?'
'No,' she says, and indicates the salami. 'But that 's what I want.'
The assistant looks down benevolently as she hands the parcels across the counter. 'What shall I do without my list?' My mother's shoulders rise again, she draws in breath audibly and releases it sharply.
In Vienna, she knows, he would not have got away with snatching her list.
Immediately, her husband's voice is heard from two aisles away.
His neck rises from a collar grown loose as he has dwindled. No one has thought to buy smaller shirts while the others still have wear in them.
He is rushing, the swing of his left leg wilder, his body jerking to and fro in his effort to reach her quickly. My mother has turned to him, still, concentrating, trying to read the nature of the calamity from his face. Her lips are drawn in, her right eyebrow twitches slightly, eyes fixed on his, waiting.
'Liebmann! Liebmann is here!' He stands in agony before his wife.
My father and Liebmann grew up in the same street. When Hitler's army marched in, my parents fled; Liebmann joined the SS.
'Na, Liebmann,' she says. 'Here we are safe.' Her eyes flit over his shoulder, checking.
His face loses some of its strain. She looks at him intently, assessing. 'Where is the list?'
He hands it over. She consults it and together they go off to the fruit and veg department.
He holds out a plastic bag for tomatoes and she fills it carefully.
Now there is only the toilet paper to get. He checks out a six pack, turns from the shelf with it in his hand, facing my mother who has a pack of four for $2.48. She reads the price to him.
'But this,' he says, 'is six, and . . .' He searches for the price.
I can see it and read it over his shoulder: '$2.29.'
'This is the better buy,' he says, holding his pack out.
My mother agrees. 'But this is so much softer.'
They stand looking at each other, deep in doubt.
Where to get it
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