I stand in the supermarket, staring at the shelves in front of me, searching for a single pen. Beneath the bright lights are rows of gaudy plastic packages — pencils, pens, permanent markers — but none of them are what I seek. How is it, I wonder, that an entire brand of felt-tipped pens, the pens of choice in my childhood, could have disappeared, replaced by the apparently ubiquitously popular Sharpie? How is it that my decisions, as a consumer, are being dictated by a duopoly of chain stores that stock only what is trendy or what is cheap?
Fuelled by a combination of nostalgia and disgust, I stalk out of the store to a newsagency around the corner that carries the brand I am looking for. I survey the shelves once again, shelves in desperate need of re-stocking, and select a pen. It costs $4.80 — nearly double the price of a ten-pack of pens at the supermarket — but I buy it anyway.
It’s not even the colour I want.
I sit in a cafe, lured in by the breakfast special (a toastie, a coffee), somewhat dejected by my newsagency experience until I take out my new pen and begin to write. The smooth slip of the felt tip across the paper is soothing, satisfying, and I stop only when a woman sits down beside me and I have to heave my shopping out of her way. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m sitting by myself at a table for four.” We smile, complicitly, staring out into the cafe, silently sipping our coffee, savouring moments of stolen time.
A woman at another table is speaking — clearly, distinctly — to an older man sitting opposite her. Not her father — an uncle, perhaps, or an old family friend. She tells him that her mother has remarried, has moved away, has moved on. She does not know the people of whom her mother now speaks; new in-laws, new neighbours. She glances around frantically, speaks more loudly, but her words do not reach her companion. He is burdened by his own flailing, failing romance: his lover wants a ring, but not marriage. He says he will buy the ring anyway.
Outside the cafe, a grandfather rides up and down the escalators with his granddaughter. The child squeals and kicks joyfully as he tips her stroller back so she can see the blue sky above, secure in the knowledge that he will never let her fall. Inside, the woman falls suddenly silent as she recognises the table before her is a chasm.
And then a small bird, a starling, alights on the back of the chair in the space between us, bringing with it nature’s blessing in the midst of this consumerist temple of concrete, steel and glass.
I drive home in my husband’s car. My car is with the mechanic, being serviced. This car, an old blue station wagon strewn with tubes of sunscreen, CDs and smears of surfboard wax, feels so different from mine. The steering wheel is broader, yet the grip is thinner than what I am used to. The accelerator feels twitchy beneath my foot. Unfamiliar plasticky rattles fill my ears.
Stopped at a traffic light, I turn towards the back seat, trying to see what could be making so much noise, and catch a glimpse of a fine, golden hair — my younger daughter’s — snagged on the upholstery, and feel the comforting rush of the familiar in that single strand.