The Ballad Of Sara Lee

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September 6, 2009 by markstani


(This story first published in Suss)

When I heard my mother had passed away, I headed straight down to Kwik Save and stole a Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau. Took it out of the freezer section and walked right out of the shop without paying for it. Stole it. It felt good.

Next day, I did the same. Just carried it out of the store, all casual-like. Third day, I took another. A till girl said, “Excuse me, have you paid for that cake?” I looked at the Gateau. I said, “It’s not a cake, it’s a Gateau.” I looked at the till girl. She had a kind face. I said, “My mother has died.” She sighed, turned away. I continued to the door. It patched wet in my blouse.

I continued to take Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateaux in the same manner for a number of weeks. I would take the service bus into town. I worked, loosely, to a rota system: Mondays, Morrison’s. Tuesdays, Iceland. Wednesdays, Kwik Save. Thursdays, Farm Foods. I took Fridays and the weekends off, gave them time to restock. Sometimes, I walked straight out. Others, I slid them in my bag, bought a couple of other everyday items. Deflected attention. Each time, as I crossed the threshold, I thought of my mother.

I was stopped a number of times. First time, I made out I’d slipped the Gateau in my shopping bag by mistake. The girl on the till rang it up. I said, “I don’t want it.”

She said, “You put it in your bag but you don’t want it?”

I said, “I wasn’t thinking.” She pressed for assistance. I said, “My mother has died.”

Security came. He looked me over, said, “Problem?”

The girl said, “No problem.”

I thanked her, said I wasn’t thinking straight. She touched my arm, said again, “No problem.”

Another time, I walked right out, got past the trolleys, felt a hand on my shoulder. A man’s voice said, “Madam?”

I tightened, turned. Considered running. I looked at the man. He said, “Madam? Have you paid for that?”
He had a familiar face. His eyes were tired. He said, “Christine?”

He looked me over. I stiffened, felt his eyes over me. He said, “Do you remember me?”

I shook my head. I lied.

“David Brown,” he said. “You remember.”

I said, “Oh.” He looked disappointed. He began steering me back in the supermarket.

Quietly, he said, “It’s a job, Christine.”

I said, “My mother has died.”

He said, “I’m sorry.”

*

The Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau sat on the table between us. The older man said, “We always prosecute shoplifters. It’s company policy. I’m sorry.”

I said, “It’s melting.” Frosting leaked off the box, softened the cardboard. I watched the drips create a pool.

David Brown said, “Her mother has died.”

The older man said, “My mother has died. When my mother died, I didn’t go around stealing chocolate cakes. I’m sorry, lady, but if everyone in the world went around stealing chocolate cakes when their mothers died, the chocolate cake-makers, the…the Sara Lees of this world, they’d be bankrupt. There’d be no more chocolate cakes left to steal.”

He looked at David Brown. David Brown frowned. He shrugged. He looked at me. I said, “It’s not a cake.”

He said, “Pardon?”

I said, “It’s not a cake. It’s a gateau.”

The older man shook his head, stayed silent for a few seconds. Then he said, “Shit, whatever.” He motioned toward the door. David Brown steered me out. He said, “Please do not come back into this store.” Then, out of hearing, he whispered, “I loved you, Christine.”

*

When I needed to go to the big edge-of-town places I asked my brother, Michael, to drive me. Michael was on parole for lots of things, including shoplifting.

He said, “I’m not allowed in that store. Under the terms.”

I said, “You just need to wait.”

He said, “What do you want to go to that store for, anyway?”

I said, “Its value.”

First time, I came out with a couple of bags of stuff, buried the Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau. Next time, just the Gateau.

Michael said, “You got me to drive you all the way out here for a fucking cake?”

I said, “It’s not a cake. It’s a Gateau.”

Michael said, “

*

We drove. Michael said, “I saw you had one last time.” He looked across, down at my lap. He said, “Chrissie, it’s a fucking awful lot of cake.” He said, “You got no pride?”

I looked at his scrawny arms, stuck with shapes of seaweed-green. I said, “I don’t eat them.”

“You ever wonder why I had such a lot of friends growing up? Why they were always coming round? Me, mister fucking popular? It wasn’t me they wanted to play with.”

I said, “That’s disgusting.”

He said, “It’s true, Chrissie. Why’d you let yourself go?”

I said again, “I don’t eat them.” And then, “I steal them, okay? I steal them because it makes me feel good.”

*

If that made Michael think of me as even more of a fuck-up, he wasn’t saying. He got me working for my petrol money. He’d distract, I’d fill the bag. Are you watching, Mother? This’ll make you proud. Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau first. Always first. Spirits second. Sometimes, cigarettes. Sometimes, “My mother has died.” Michael would drive and swig vodka. I would toss the Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateaux from the window. Watch them flip back in the wing-mirror. Michael never asked. Just said, “It’s a buzz, huh? It’s a fucking buzz.”

*

One day, halfway to Asda, I said, “Which boys?”

Michael said, “You name them.” I named them. He said, “That’s about right.”

“Really?”

He said, “They’d have given anything to, you know…”

“Stop it.”

“You never wonder about your…about stuff going missing?”

I remembered rummaged drawers. I said, “You’re making me sick.” Then, “I had no idea.”

I stared front, hard. Blinked away tears.

Michael sighed, “You were too wrapped up in your own business.”

I said, “I had no choice, Michael. You know that.”

Michael shook his head. “We all got choice.”

*

Michael pulled up in a parent and toddler bay. He looked across and said, “Let’s do it.”

I watched the store-front. I said, “I’m not feeling too good.”

Michael said, “You just going to do a straight walk-out or you going to hide stuff? I’d say the straight walk. You got it off to a tee. You’re a natural, sis.”

He smiled at me, bent to light a cigarette.

I said, “I’m not feeling too good.”

We sat and he smoked the cigarette through. He said, “We’ve come all this way.”

I said, “Can you go, Michael? Just this once?”

Michael laughed softly to himself. He said, “I’m on parole.”

I said, stupid-voiced, “We all got choice.”

He swivelled, “You want me to put my freedom at risk to steal you a fucking…a fucking cake?” He spat the word like a cherry stone. “So you can chuck it out the window so it makes you feel better about all that shit you did?”

Inside, I cried. I stared at the shop-front and started. “The day I was twelve years old…”

Michael looked out of the window. “Ah,” he said. “Don’t give me the fucking sob story.” He crunched the car into reverse, squealed out of the car park. He muttered, “Fucking freak show.”

*

When we were on the by-pass, I said, “The day I was twelve years old. You remember that, Michael? Or you choose to forget?”

I reminded him of the day I was twelve years old. How my mother denied me a birthday party, gave me double homework that night. Presented me with a new pen. “Take care of it,” she said. “It’s a good pen.” She kissed my forehead, tight-lipped, left the room. I heard Michael outside, whooping Cowboys and Indians. I cried into my pillow. Next day, I took the pen to school. “It’s a good pen,” everyone said. I sold the pen to Charlotte Bartlett for two pounds fifty. I told my friends I was having a party after all. I bought a Sara Lee Double Chocolate Gateau and a packet of candles and a box of matches. We went to the treehouse. Three of us. Me, Jessica Bell, Marnie Sleightholme. We lit the candles, hoped the warmth would defrost the Gateau. Talked about boys. “David Brown,” I said. “He’s hot.” Half-way through Happy Birthday, my mother burst in.

“What the hell?” she said. Her face was twisted. My friends coiled away. “What in God’s name?”

I sat there, in the middle of the treehouse, ready to blow. Frozen. She saw the cake. She said, “Where’s the pen?” She asked again, “Where’s the pen?” Then she said, “A bloody cake.”

I said, “Yeah, it’s not a cake. It’s a Gateau.”

And my mother stooped forward, slapped me hard, took the Gateau. Hesitated, snorted the candles out herself, my own birthday candles. Snot flying. Tossed the cake right out through the treehouse window. There was a period of silence, then I heard Michael shout below, “Hey, a fucking chocolate cake.” Then I felt my mother tear at my arm, pull me to my feet.

*

We crested the hill, saw the silos gleam. Michael said, “We ate the lot. Me and Clint Jackson. We ate so much we were almost sick.”

I said, “Did she ask for me?”

Michael stared at the road.

“She didn’t, did she? She didn’t even ask for me.”

“She was…she wasn’t with it.”

“She never was.”

“She wanted the best for you, Chrissie. Me, she couldn’t have cared less if I was dead or alive.”

I said, “That’s bullshit, Michael.”

Michael fumbled for his cigarettes. He didn’t offer them. He said, “You smoke menthol.”

I said, “You’re just like her.”

Michael sighed, glanced across. He said softer, “It’s not too late, Chrissie. Really, it’s not.”

I smelled sweat and petrol grease. I said, “You ate it? You and Clint Jackson really ate it?” I imagined brown on their fingers, round their mouths. Laughing, smearing.

Michael drove on. Swung the car in front of Kwik Save. He said, “Just this once. Just this once I’ll fucking do it. Then this shit’s over for good, okay?”

I nodded, forced a smile.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Michael wheezed up out of the car. Shut the door, slunk towards the store without a word. His oil-streaked jeans sagged behind him. He tugged his baseball cap low. He passed David Brown into the store. David Brown noticed me, headed over. Indicated for me to wind down the window.

He said, “Hello, Christine.” Then, “I hope you’ve not come to cause trouble. Cos they’d prosecute second time, that’s for sure.”

I shook my head, tried a nice smile. Felt my face redden. I said, “I’m sorry.”

He said, “I’m sorry about your mother. Really I am.”

I said, “Don’t be.”

He looked surprised. I felt my eyes prick. He looked back and said, “That’s your brother, right?” I nodded. He said, “I read about him.”

I coughed a laugh. There was silence, then I said, “You might want to go and take a look.”

He looked blank. I nodded at his security badge. I said, “I’d hate to get you in trouble.” Then, again, “You might want to go and take a look.”

He half turned. I wound up the window. I felt him looking back, ignored his talking, his couple of raps.

I reached across for Michael’s cigarettes, the lighter. I sat for hours, till I’d smoked the whole pack through.

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