The ankle twisted in a semi-circle to the left and then to the right and then to the left again. Perfect swivels, level and fluent, as if, Diane thought, the ankle itself had been manufactured specifically for that purpose. It made her think of car engines, the old sort that were smothered in thick grease, the sort her dad tinkered with at weekends when she’d been his little princess. He used to like getting stuck in, that’s what he’d say, and she used to repeat the phrase to other people, mainly adults when they came looking for him of a Sunday. Dad’s getting stuck in to the car, she’d say, and they’d smile at her, all patronising, as if she didn’t understand what he was really up to.
Following the girl and her mother into the shop, Diane picked out the least green bunch of bananas and then, passing behind boxes of pears and apples and oranges, stopped and stared at herself in a mirror that was angled on to the aubergines. Against the plump purple vegetable skin, she looked even older than usual. Perhaps I need to start wearing make-up, she thought, and then felt slightly panicked that, at 47, she didn’t know the slightest thing about face paint. She’d once run a blue liner beneath her lower lashes, but it had made her eyes water so badly she never tried again.
A group of men were blocking the corridor between the fruit and vegetable section and the rest of the shop. They were standing in a circle, around a trolley, talking and laughing loudly. One of them, a younger man with a long black beard, seemed to be the focus of attention. He would say a few words and the others would respond. Diane wished she could understand what they were saying, but she didn’t even recognise their language. It definitely wasn’t Arabic and she didn’t think it was Pashto — a friend of hers spoke that and she’d sometimes heard her talking to her father on the telephone. But right now, they were blocking her path, and she wanted to get to the mushrooms and then to the bread. She stood politely behind one of them and lifted her basket ever so slightly, to signal her intention to pass. But the men didn’t seem to notice. They kept talking. Diane stood patiently, listening to the rhythm of laughter and language, and wondering if any of them had said something about her. She worried that, compared to their wives and daughters, she must seem plain. Ugly, even.
At the checkout, she found herself once again beside the little girl and her mother. They were either Russian or Portuguese, thought Diane. The two languages sounded the same to her. She raised a hand to the little girl, curling her fingers into a shy wave. The little girl smiled a bit and then turned away. Diane felt sorry for her: she was plump, but in ten years’ time she would be obese like her mother. At least I’ve got my figure, thought Diane, and she pushed one hand into the pocket of her jeans and began rubbing her fingers against her hip-bone. At least I’m not fat, she thought. She looked at the mother and wondered if she’d been abused as a child, or whether she was with a man who was cruel to her. Pity came to Diane easily. She smiled at the little girl again, but she was actually thinking how ugly the child looked in her tight pink clothes that emphasised the flab covering her five year-old body.
She followed the pair out of the shop. The mother lit up immediately. The little girl reached for her other hand. Diane watched them, and then followed them as they walked up the High Street. She was going that way anyway, but she slowed her steps so as to slot in behind them. The little girl had taken one of the shopping bags to allow her mother to continue smoking. Diane, a few steps behind, didn’t do what she normally would have done — step away from the trail of smoke — but instead, held her head a little higher and swallowed it as it came in odd shapes towards her.
When they reached the crossroads, a man standing beside a silver people-carrier called to the little girl. She let go of her mother’s hand and ran towards him, her free arm stretched out, ready for a hug. When the mother reached the car, the man kissed her and patted her on the arm. She took one last drag on her cigarette then, looking at her daughter, dropped it on to the pavement. The little girl smiled and stepped forward, planting her right foot firmly on top of the burning tobacco. Diane watched as she swivelled her ankle again, to the left, to the right, to the left and to the right, while the mother heaved herself into the car.