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Funny Faces

The girl is dazzled by the bright displays. They pass a rack of cakes and she cranes her neck. Sit still, says the father. Or do you want to walk? The girl nods. Okay, then you walk, says the father, and lifts her out of the trolley’s seat. Don’t you start complaining about having to walk now. He says this to her, the girl knows, but he is looking at something else, inspecting something high up on the shelves. She wonders what it is. Something boring: it is not a cake. She turns to look back at the rack of cakes but the maze of aisles has closed over it, has swallowed the cakes, racks and all. She knows they are back there somewhere, in the aisles, the rack of cakes—she saw icing and cherries and something with raisins—but the father is pulling her along by the hand. She wriggles free. Fine, says the father, don’t hold my hand. But I need you to keep up with me. Okay? Otherwise I’ll put you back in the seat. She nods—she does not want go back in the seat. Happy, the girl toddles forward. The aisles loom. From this perspective the shelves seem even taller than before, taller than the father, and they are bright with objects, inducements, promises, odd things, things that look like things they have at home but are not. Bored by the shelf the father is inspecting, which contains nothing that so much as resembles a cake, the girl looks at the woman with long black hair down almost to her waist slowly rolling another trolley down the aisle. The woman looks sad, the girl thinks, but then when she glances directly at the girl and the girl blushes the woman pulls a funny face—upper lip curled back, head tilting, eyes crossing and uncrossing quite comically—then smiles. The girl giggles. The father does not see. It is a private moment, between the two of them, and somehow scandalous. Then the woman continues on her way. The girl watches her go, hoping the woman will look back at her and pull another funny face, but she does not. Soon the looming aisles close over her and she is gone, too, gone to the cakes, perhaps; the girl wonders if the nice woman would like a cake. The girl would like a cake—very much. But she knows if she asks for this today the father will say no. He has a habit of saying no—it is one of the things he says the most. No, and don’t make me say no again. No no no, in a very serious voice.

The girl is starting to feel tired.

The father is moving too quickly. She starts to run to catch up with him but almost immediately something goes wrong with her feet, one ankle catches the other, and she falls down, or rather the hard cold shining floor tilts and swings suddenly up at her. The shock, bright and overwhelming, is worse than the pain. The floor looks clean enough when you’re standing but close up it appears quite grimy. If the girl wasn’t in pain she would wrinkle her nose. She wants to scream but with tremendous effort manages to hold it in. The worst thing is that her father has not noticed. Instead the blank man with an empty basket is looking down at her—she cannot read his face. He appears to be very tall, and very slim, and he has a head like a skull. The girl pulls herself to her feet. She knows tears are not far away but it seems very important that she not linger in the presence of the blank man. If he pulls a funny face, she knows, she will scream. If he touches her she will scream. She looks at the empty basket and knows that if he reaches down to pick her up and put her in that empty basket she will never escape it and will not see the father and the mother, who is at home, again. The thought of the mother fills her eyes with tears. Holding that scream in, the girl hurries after the father, who has not noticed what has happened. This simultaneously appals and reassures the girl. For how, on the one hand, can the father not know what has happened? How can he appear so indifferent to this awful thing that has happened to her? But then, if he does not know what has happened, perhaps it did not happen after all. The world parts before her, two separate tracks of possibility. If she chooses one, or is chosen by one, perhaps she can forget the other, forgetting even the choice of another. She looks back, and sees the blank man looking at something up on the shelf. It is not a cake. He puts something in his basket, the basket she thought he might want to put her in. The girl turns away before the blank man can notice her staring at him. The father is gone. Panic floods her consciousness. The bright aisles flare brighter, so bright she cannot see. The panic is bright like the aisles. The panic dazzles her. The girl stumbles forward and is certain for a moment that she will never see the father and the mother, who is at home, again. Perhaps the blank man will find her and put her in his basket with the other thing. She can feel tears building up but she must not cry. She does not want to make a scene. If she cries, perhaps the father will hear her—perhaps. But perhaps the blank man will hear her first.

Adults brush past her, indecipherable strangers all. A tall lady peers at her briefly, appears about to say something, but doesn’t say it. Perhaps, the girl thinks, she should find an adult who works here—yes. That’s a good idea. They wear orange uniforms, the girl knows, orange like oranges, and are not strangers. She would like an orange now, peeled and cut up into slices like the mother makes. And a cake. The girl stops to look around. Down the long tall aisles she does not see the father nor any adult in an orange uniform. The aisle disappears into its vanishing point. Perhaps it has no end. A thought occurs to her, and chills her, and makes her feel a strange unpleasant queasiness somewhere in her tummy: that she is lost, and may be lost forever, may never be found. She has heard of children disappearing, children who are taken—a funny boy in her nursery, who she did not know or like, who was taken by his father, out of the country. The girl overheard the mother and the father discussing this, and wondered where out of the country meant. The parents did not know she was listening and anyway would not have expected her to understand, but perhaps the girl, though quiet, is quite precocious. Perhaps the blank man would put her in his basket with the things that were not cakes and take her out of the country, too. And what would he do with her? She doesn’t know. Nothing good. She would not see the mother and father again. The world parts before her, two separate tracks of possibility. If she chooses one, the girl knows, or is chosen by one, she will forget the other, forgetting even the choice of another. The thought of the mother at home alone without her, at home but very far away, once more brings tears to her eyes and there, there it is—she has started to cry. She balls her fists and sniffs angrily. The mother does not like it when the girl cries. The girl does not like it when the girl cries. Then the queasy thought again: lost, she might remain lost, here, in the supermarket, and she thinks how not long ago when the father asked if she would like to come to the supermarket, if she promised to behave, it had seemed like a great adventure, and maybe she would get a cake, which happened once before when she came to the supermarket with the father; he had even let her eat the cake before he had paid for it. How long ago that seems. Now her panic is a ringing in her ears.

The aisles loom and turn and the father is nowhere to be seen.

And then the girl sees it, and gasps—the cakes! Somehow she has made it back to the cakes. And something else, yes: through her tears she recognises the nice woman who pulled the funny face. The nice woman is picking up a cake. Her hair reaches down to her waist—so long. Shyly the girl approaches. The woman turns and recognises her, and smiles. The girl giggles—she can’t help it. Then she thinks she might burst into tears.

Would you like a cake, dear? says the woman, and for some reason this shocks the girl. Somehow the woman’s voice does not match her face.

The girl shakes her head. Her mother has told her not to accept presents from strangers. She feels a queasiness.

Are you lost?

The girl does not know what to say. She knows exactly where she is: she is in the supermarket—by the cakes. But also she is lost, yes. She nods slowly.

The woman pulls a funny face. At least at first the girl thinks it is a funny face that the woman pulls. The girl watches as the woman’s upper lip curls back and her head tilts, and her eyes cross and uncross, yes, which is much like the funny face she pulled before, which had made the girl laugh not so long ago, though now it feels like long ago. But this time the uncurling continues. The lip continues to curl far beyond the point it should be able to curl, and her head continues to tilt, and then her crossed eyes roll back and her mouth opens wide, then slowly wider, and the girl hears a click as of a lid unlatched, and now the woman’s lower jaw has fallen open like a trap door and her upper lid, continuing to curl, has revealed a good eight or nine inches of gum, more gum then any human the girl knows has ever had, with long thin teeth, and the girl, rooted, knows there is nothing worse than this, there is nowhere worse to be—even in the blank man’s basket, she would be better off there.

The ringing in her ear ceases to ring and the girl finds herself unrooted. The world returns: bustle of adults, sound of trolleys on the shiny dirty floor, sounds of the self-service tills from the other side of the shop thanking shoppers who have already left the shop, a voice announcement over the tannoy. The girl looks away, takes a step back, and the woman holds a cake out towards her in offering, and her face has resumed its normal smile.

Later the girl will wonder if she ever did escape that supermarket, which was located in town by the gyratory, perhaps she never escaped and any moment now she will turn around to find herself caught between looming glowing aisles. As an adult she will dream of those glowing aisles and the rack of cakes and the blank man with the empty basket and in all particulars the dream will seem real and she will wonder how you might distinguish something nominally a dream that in all its particulars seems real from a life that seems in some of its particulars not much better than a dream. In fact the dream seems more real, the dream of cakes and aisles and funny faces, even in this account of it, written by the girl as if the girl were not the girl. By this point the father will be dead, the mother, taciturn, living in a flat on the other side of town, and often when she goes to sleep, when and if she gets to sleep, the girl, grown woman now, will find herself in those long aisles again, which loom and turn, and the woman will find herself a girl, ungrown.

For now the girl has fled the smiling woman.

Then she reaches the end of the aisle and turns to see the father inspecting something in a freezer. The units hum like the ringing in her ears, which has resumed its ringing. The aisle is very cold. What did I tell you? says the father. I told you to stay with me. He picks her up. Are you going to make a scene? She shakes her head.

The girl realises that the father does not know what has happened. This simultaneously appals and reassures the girl. For how, on the one hand, can the father not know what has happened? How can he appear so indifferent to this awful thing that has happened to her? But then, if he does not know what happened, perhaps it did not happen after all. Perhaps she can forget.

Look at you, he says, and smiles, and the smile makes it all okay again. With his handkerchief he wipes her nose. Would you like a cake?

About the Author

Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer and photographer from Brighton, England. His debut collection of short stories, I Would Haunt You If I Could, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His work has appeared in venues such as Black Static, Litro, BFS Horizons, and Shadows & Tall Trees. More of his work can be seen at seanbirnie.com.