I get the call from Philip just as I leave the office.
“Say if it’s too much hassle, but is there anywhere you could stop on the way home and get an onion?”
“An onion? Just an onion?”
“Yep, I’ve got everything else, but I need an onion.”.
Ten minutes later I'm in the huge supermarket on the outskirts of town, on a fleeting shopping stop between the town where I work and the village where I live, between the day at work and the evening at home. An in-between visit to what feels like an in-between world.
People walk slowly, silently, sullenly; leaning heavily on their shopping trollies. It’s mostly single adults. Maybe like me, they're popping in for a forgotten item on the way home, or perhaps they're just putting off returning to an empty home, reluctant to re-heat the meal-for-one they’ve thrown in the trolley, that nobody sees, and nobody will share.
It’s a bit of a pied-piper world, no brightly clothed children careering around, no shrieking or crying. No laughing. There aren't any old people either; I guess they’re indoors keeping warm, away from the lightly falling snow. I remember how my Dad, when he got older, used to have a four o’clock curfew. It drove us mad that wherever we went with him, he always wanted to be back indoors by 4 o'clock. I couldn't understand the urgency then, his need to get back and sort out his dinner before the early evening news.
You’d never have found him amongst the after-work Tesco shoppers. Not then. But I know there was an earlier time when he was one of the people stopping on the way home to make sure there was food for his daughters' dinner. Picking up a pack of Findus Crispy pancakes, or a Fray Bentos tinned pie – quick to prepare fuel, for someone who’s found themselves suddenly having to take on the cooking, but who never really learned how. I wish I'd got to cook more meals for him myself.
I've only gone in for an onion, but the shop’s too big and I don’t know where anything is. I find myself wandering aimlessly, gazing up at the signs above the aisles, falling into the trap of wondering if maybe I should get some tea and bread while I’m there.
I turn a corner and suddenly there’s a whole aisle of Valentine gifts. Chocolate hearts, fake red roses, balloon-bearing teddies. Between the purple cellophane wrapping and the scarlet red tinfoil, I see LOVE written in gaudy shades of pink, in a dozen different fonts. Row upon row; I can’t imagine how they'd ever clear these shelves, not even if every single shopper for the next five days bought a Valentine’s present. Not even if they gave them away free at the checkout.
I've never quite bought into Valentine’s day – the idea that someone might tell us how and when to love. And when I see the startling rows of coral, fuchsia and rose, I’m more glad than usual that it’s not something we do. I know I never want to be the sort of person who thinks they must buy a love token, and then throw it into their trolley with the cat food and the washing powder.
I walk on until I reach the vegetables. The green and brown hues are a welcome sight, even under the fluorescent lighting they remind me of the real world outside, and there at the end of the aisle are the onions. I take my time choosing; it seems only fair, if he's doing the cooking, that I pick the best I can.
In the end I buy three.