My mother loves a bargain. She loves it the way people love a good book. Or a great glass of red wine. Or both of those things, at the same time, which happens to be my personal favourite.
Gerry Maguire said he was ‘good in the livingroom.’ My mother is ‘super in the supermarket.’ Why buy one red pepper when you can have a whole bag of peppers – all different colours – for almost the same price?
So what if the best before date is tomorrow and you already have the dinner bought, what with the special on oversized leeks and lamb chops (a tray of buy one get one free)? ‘I’ll freeze them’ she says when asked her intentions with regard to the wrinkling peppers. ‘I’ll freeze the livin’ daylights out of
So what if her husband doesn’t happen to like peppers. ‘They don’t agree with me’ he maintains. Isn’t that a small price to pay when you consider the amount of money you have saved?
‘Better out than in’ she says of her bilious husband in the aftermath of the peppers which she has stuffed with minced beef (400g for the price of 350g) and the last of the leeks, sautéed with the butter that was reduced in price by 20 cent thanks to the booklet of coupons that came through the door with her weekly copy of Detail to Retail.
So when she comes across the ‘two for the price of one’ offer on the cauliflowers in my local SuperValu, it is not within her gift to resist.
‘Cauliflowers are very expensive this time of year, you know’ she tells me when she returns from the shops, wheeling my baby in her complicated buggy.
‘I know’ I say even though the cost of unseasonal vegetables is not in my arsenal of common knowledge at this time.
‘But two for the price of one? That’s like…’ She shakes her head, as if trying to dislodge the most appropriate word to describe the phenonomen. ‘That’s like….loss leader gold’ she finally settles on. ‘What are you going to cook with it?’
The thing is, nobody in my house likes cauliflower. My mother knows this.
‘But two for the price of one’ she says, when I remind her. ‘I mean, how could I have walked past that? Tell me. How?’
I nod my head. I smile. I understand.
‘I suppose I could make vegetable soup?’ I say. ‘Hide it in there?’
‘That’s my girl’ she says, looking at me fondly. I see the endorphins in her smile. She’s on a bargain-buzz. I recognise the symptoms.
The baby stirs in the buggy. My mother unbuckles her, lifts her, hands her to me. Then she turns back to the buggy. The complicated buggy. She reaches inside the basket, located on the ground floor of the buggy. She needs both hands to lift the cauliflower out. If it was a marrow in the south of England, it would win prizes. It is massive, this cauliflower. We will be eating cauliflower-laced vegetable soup til Christmas. She offers it to me. I have to put the baby in her cradle. I can’t carry her and the cauliflower at the same time. Nobody could.
She bends again, reaching inside the basket for the second cauliflower. She rises slowly, her arms spread but devoid of cauliflower. Her mouth is a perfect circle of shock.
‘I must have left the other one in the shop’ she says, pulling her coat back on. ‘Yes, that’s it, when I was paying. I left it on the thingymajig, the whaddayacallit, you know what I mean.’
She looks at me and I nod. I’m pretty sure she means the conveyor belt.
‘I got distracted. I was talking to Irene about all the things you can do with cauliflower. I must have forgotten to put it into the bag.’
‘Who’s Irene?’ I ask.
‘The cashier’ she says in a voice that suggests I should already know this. It is, after all, my local SuperValu.
She looks at the baby, sucking her thumb in her cradle. ‘What are you going to do with her?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘When we go back to the shop. To get the cauliflower. What are you going to do with the baby?’ She asks these questions slowly, like I’m a newly arrived immigrant who hasn’t quite got to grips with the Dublin vernacular.
Lots of things occur to say. I say none of them. Instead, I pick the baby out of her cradle, strap her into her car-seat, fold down her complicated buggy with more difficulty than usual and heave it into the boot of the car.
‘Come on’ I say to my mother who stands at the front door with her coat on.
‘Are you sure?’ she says, now that she knows she has me. ‘I mean, you’re busy…’
‘Come on’ I say again, getting into the car and turning the key. My mother holds the cauliflower in the crook of her arm, like it is a baby, and runs to the car.
We’re there in five minutes. In the carpark, my mother insists on getting out of the car and guiding me into a spot she considers ‘tight’. Together, we make our way into the supermarket, me with the baby asleep again in the crook of my arm, her with the cauliflower.
‘Dammit, Irene must be on her break’ she says, scanning the rows of cashiers. She heads for the nearest cashier. ‘Let me do the talking’ she hisses as we approach.
The cashier is young and pretty and Polish. Her English is excellent. She nods. Yes, she is familiar with the two-for-the-price-of-one promotion. Yes, it is indeed a great offer, when you consider the price of fruit and veg these days, especially unseasonal ones. No, she has never considered putting cauliflower in a ratatouille, but she wouldn’t rule it out.
The baby wriggles in my arms.
‘Mam’ I say, poking her from behind.
My mother looks at me as if she is surprised that I am here. She turns back to the cashier and smiles the way she smiles at my father when she wants him to do something he won’t want to do. Like eat the chutney she makes. Chutney is such a good way of using up leftovers in your fridge, she says. Like the leftovers of special offers. Say on day five when you run out of ingenious ways to cook them. There’s no end to the ingredients you can populate a chutney with, my mother says.
‘So…’ my mother puts her glasses on and lowers herself towards the badge pinned on the cashier’s shirt. ‘…Carla. I’ll just go and get another cauliflower to replace the one I left behind and be on my way.’
Carla’s pretty face clouds over, like an Irish summer. She shakes her head. She apologises. Apparently, this won’t be possible. Random customers can’t just rock up and take a vegetable – even if it’s a two-for-the-price-of-one cauliflower. There is a process to be followed. Protocol must be observed.
Carla has no choice but to summon the manager.
My mother pulls back. Her smiles slips but then she nods. ‘Fine’ she says. ‘Alright’ she says. ‘I’ll speak to the manager.’
The manager has a clipboard in her hands and a pen tucked behind one ear. My mother tells the story again. About the two-for-the-price-of-one cauliflower. The conversation with Irene. The ideas for the ratatouille. How this distracted her. And the baby, of course. She pulls me by the elbow until I am standing beside her. She points at the baby. ‘I had the baby, you see’ she says, and they nod – Carla and the manager – as if they completely understand how hard it is to be responsible for one baby and two cauliflowers, all at the same time. My mother smiles. She is on the home stretch.
‘So I’ll just pop over to the fruit and veg section and take a cauliflower’ she says, backing away from them and pulling me along with her.
The baby opens her eyes, sees her grandmother and the one lone cauliflower tucked like a sibling in her arms, closes her eyes and returns to sleep.
Carla looks repentant. The manager smiles a slow and sad smile and shakes her head. ‘I’ll have to verify it on the CCTV before I can let you do that’ she says. Her voice drips with apology. Regret. Sympathy, even. She hates doing this. Especially to my mother who is a woman after her own heart with the bargains and the unlikely mating of ingredients into an enormous pot of ratatouille or chutney or what-have-you.
‘CCTV?’ I say, too loud. Heads turn our way. The looks are wary, distrustful, nervous. My mother pushes her shoulders back, lifts her head high and nods. A stoic nod.
‘Very well’ she says which is funny because she never says ‘very well.’ She allows herself – and me and the baby, awake again but quiet – to be led through the shop. We are joined by a gigantic security guard who looks like he could outrun us, should we consider making a break for it. We enter the office at the back of the shop where the CCTV system is housed. There’s a monitor, flicking to various aisles. On aisle four, a mother lifts a banana from the shelf, glances around her, peels away the skin and feeds it to her toddler, jammed into the front of the trolley. I look at Carla and the manager and the gigantic security guard but they are concentrating on my mother and don’t notice the gratuitous theft on aisle four.
‘Geraghty’ my mother supplies. ‘But you can call me Breda, if you like.’
The manager nods but does not comment on the offer of familiarity.
‘At what time did you purchase the cauliflowers?’ the manager asks, taking her pen from behind her ear and raising her clipboard.
‘Oh, em, let me see now, it must have been…oh I’d say…’ My mother examines her watch, looks at me, glances at the peeling paint along the ceiling and closes her eyes. ‘Twelve minutes past four’ she says finally, looking the manager with her clear eyes and her clear conscience. The manager nods at the gigantic security man who bends towards the CCTV machine and taps furiously at a keyboard.
And suddenly there she is. My mother. On the monitor. The image is black and white and grainy, making her look like an extra in a film, set in the 1950’s, with her two heads of cauliflower and her purse with the tight gold clasp.
My mother is talking to…in the monitor, she puts on her glasses and lowers herself towards the cashier’s namebadge…Irene. The baby is asleep in the complicated buggy. Here comes the veg. The first cauliflower runs the gauntlet of the scanner without incident. Now here’s number two. My mother’s mouth is moving and her smile is as wide as one of those curved cucumbers (part of the three for €4, my mother tells me later. Much later). The first cauliflower is picked up carefully by my mother who bends at the knees and places it – oh-so-gently – into the dark cocoon of the basket underneath the complicated buggy.
And then comes the second cauliflower. The missing cauliflower. The one that got away. Together, we lean a little closer to the monitor. Nobody makes a sound.
My mother accepts the second cauliflower from Irene as if it is a gift. A thoughtful gift. Her mouth never stops moving. I think I see her mouth shaping the word ratatouille. She walks around to the back of the pram and bends once more.
Now, we strain forward until our breaths make circles of fog on the monitor.
My mother moves the cauliflower into the crook of one arm and now, with the hand that she has freed, she unzips a section at the back of the complicated buggy that I didn’t know existed until this moment, here, in this cold, dark room at the back of a supermarket where the CCTV system sits and spies.
Into this compartment, the second cauliflower is carefully placed. The zip is pulled, the compartment is closed, coins are handed over, final pleasantries exchanged.
The baby never wakes.
The final scene in the CCTV footage is a shot of my mother with her back to the camera, leaving the shop. The cauliflower in the basket is clear as day. Now that we know, it is possible to spot the slight strain of the second cauliflower against the soft material of the compartment at the back of the complicated buggy.
To this day, my mother cannot explain why she put the second cauliflower in this compartment rather than allowing it to rest in the basket on the ground floor of the buggy, alongside the other.
The supermarket doors whoosh open. She steps through, onto the footpath outside. She lifts her head, allowing the heat from the unseasonal sun warm her face. She checks the baby. She smiles.