Helen was standing by the milk with a list in one hand and a phone in the other. Julia had found the Almond Thins she came in for and was looking at yogurts – her daughter didn’t like peach or cherry, so she’d been scanning the multipacks for offending flavours. When she saw Helen, she quickly turned and walked back towards the cheese.
Helen was a counsellor. She had a Master’s in Psychotherapy and diplomas in Gestalt, Energy Alignment and Neurolinguistic Programming, but most of her recent work was in CBT. Julia had seen her for sixteen sessions five years ago. She did not want to see her again.
Helen took a pint of green top out of the fridge, put it on the flap-down seat of her trolley and started walking up the aisle.
Julia picked up a wedge of Roquefort and pulled the brim of her hat down over her face. Her husband Graham loved cheese, despite being lactose intolerant; cheese and wine. Julia had come across a recipe for Stilton and shallot ice cream, which you served drizzled with port. Maybe she could make it with Roquefort instead. It would be creamier, and sheep’s cheese was easier to digest.
Helen walked past her, picking up a pot of houmous before turning the corner by the checkout tills.
Julia shut her eyes and counted to ten.
Cooking was one of the pleasant activities she’d been encouraged to schedule into her day. Several of the early sessions with Helen had focussed on finding alternative ways to stimulate the reward system in her brain. She’d begun with trying to play the piano again, but it was hard to concentrate, especially with a toddler in the room; she could only focus on the simplest of pieces and sitting upright seemed to exacerbate her cramps. She tried nursery rhymes and children’s songs; they were easier, but then Filly wanted to sit on her lap and slap the keyboard. A few weeks into the withdrawal, when Julia felt a little less jittery and her hands weren’t clammy all the time, she did occasionally pick away at some Satie or Chopin while Filly banged her xylophone on the floor. She’d only manage ten minutes though, even on a good day, and her playing never seemed to improve.
The cooking worked better. For a while. But she’d been too tired to attempt anything extravagant in the evenings, and although making gingerbread men and chocolate crispy cakes was a productive way to spend an hour with her daughter during the day, it wasn’t challenging enough to be the distraction she required. She found herself watching the clock throughout the long afternoons and calculating when she might have taken another dose of co-dydramol or Tramadol or even the cough mixture that had been such a thrilling discovery, for months after she’d been weaned off them all.
She’d gone to see Dr Adams when Graham’s parents began to suspect. They’d moved into the annexe after Rachael had had a fall and Jim couldn’t understand why he never had enough pills for his back. There was no big confrontation – they were far too kind and discreet for that – and Julia was never even sure if they’d mentioned it to Graham, but Rachael started to look at her daughter-in-law with such hurt and pity in her eyes that Julia was shamed into booking an appointment.
It wasn’t as difficult a conversation as she’d anticipated. Dr Adams had already challenged her on several repeat prescriptions, and he was very understanding. He said it was irresponsible to give women opioids after giving birth, especially if they were breastfeeding. Julia found it harder to admit that she’d never managed to get the hang of that.
They made a plan. He assured her that he would help manage her withdrawal, but insisted she see a counsellor as well, so on Thursday afternoons Julia spent an hour with Helen identifying destructive automatic thought patterns and talking through painful memories, the idea being that repeatedly going there would cause less and less distress, reducing her need to self-medicate.
Julia had predictably chosen childbirth for her imagery-based exposure. Not the birth itself – her own mother had died after a massive post-partum haemorrhage, so the obstetrician was very supportive of an elective caesarean, which was calm and pain-free – but afterwards, when she’d been left to feed Filly in the private room Graham had thoughtfully arranged. She’d felt wiped out. Not exhausted by the experience but expunged, rendered blank, and with no mother to reassure her – and only one childless older sister backpacking somewhere in Mexico – she convinced herself something else vital had been surgically removed from her body; some belly-based organ or gland had been taken away and incinerated along with the placenta. How else could she explain this sense of otherness, this disconnect? When she described to Helen the stewed, lukewarm tea and the taste of square white bread with margarine and jam, the shine on the flecked blue floor tiles and the smell of synthetic lavender, the slowly building ache in her abdomen, the taut bruised skin above her nipples, she also tried to explain how she’d observed the room but didn’t occupy it, how she’d noticed her body’s discomfort but didn’t feel it. Helen wanted her to immerse herself in the sensations, smells and impulses of that moment, but Julia hadn’t been able to do that the first time around, let alone three years later, sitting on a beige velour sofa staring at a box of tissues.
Each week they’d discussed coping strategies and looked at her thought record, trying to substitute negative feelings with more helpful ones and find ways to reframe the maternal absence in her own upbringing so that as she slowly reduced her painkillers, she didn’t live in a constant state of anxiety.
And it worked. The cravings became less pronounced, and as Filly got older, they found new and better ways to pass the time. They coloured pictures, read chapter books and made shoebox rooms for the dolls Julia had kept with her since she was a child, each box painted and filled with handmade furniture. They spent the summer before Filly started primary school designing and building bedrooms, playrooms, drawing rooms, classrooms, dentist surgeries, boutiques and cafes out of lollypop sticks, matchboxes and old cereal packets. These rooms could be put together in numerous ways: a street of horizontal shops, for example, or a vertical tower block. Each big world created from mini worlds contained within cardboard walls with uniform dimensions; secret spaces that had their own lids and could be neatly stacked away.
Julia took a deep breath and walked back up the aisle towards the fish counter and along the back wall of the supermarket, towards the drinks section. They had some very good port at home; too good to pour onto something ice-cold. As she stood surrounded by bottles of alcohol she remembered how, nearing the end of the counselling, Helen had suggested that her issue with painkillers was not dependency but addiction, and that maybe she should consider some group support.
‘Like AA?’ said Julia, horrified.
‘It’s a twelve-step programme, yes,’ Helen had said in the same flat, low voice she’d used throughout.
‘But I’m not an addict,’ replied Julia, picking her bag up off the floor and clutching it on her lap. They still had twenty minutes left.
‘When we talked about triggers and coping strategies, there were a lot of things that came up around abandonment.’
‘Yes, well… as you said, I was in effect abandoned by my mother.’
‘You say there are times you fear rejection by your husband too. I’m wondering if the feelings of relaxation, warmth and wellbeing that you experience when you take your painkillers are filling an emotional need as well as a physical one?’
‘I’m not an addict!’
‘Did you find a time to talk to Graham, like we discussed?’
‘No, not yet. He’s been very busy with work.’
Helen nodded and wrote something down in a Moleskine notebook.
Julia decided not to say anything else. She stared out of the window and regretted telling Helen about the months of waiting – dressing carefully every time they went out somewhere nice to eat or stayed somewhere a little more extravagant than necessary on Graham’s work trips – and how it was only when she’d fallen pregnant with Filly that he’d finally proposed. Helen had leant forward, pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose with her thumb, and asked Julia to think back to sitting in one of those hotel rooms, when she’d thought he was going to ask her to marry him and in fact he spent most of the evening sitting in the bar watching Formula One on TV. She’d urged her to dredge up every detail: what she’d been wearing, what she’d eaten, and again and again what she’d felt.
It wasn’t rejection, though. Being married just wasn’t as important to him as it was to her.
‘I don’t feel abandoned,’ she blurted out. ‘By Graham, I mean.’
Helen put down her pen and waited.
‘We’re a happy family.’
‘We were talking about fear.’
‘Of abandonment. The anticipation of it. But I’m afraid our time is up.’
There she was again. Standing by the tonic. Still talking on the phone. And Julia, who wasn’t an addict, was staring at the hard spirits. She quickly picked up a bottle of own-brand port and slipped it into her basket. Helen was nodding and looking at the floor.
Six years was a long time. She remembered Helen of course, but how many patients did Helen see a week? How many depressed, confused, angry women did she invite to sit on her sofa, and write about in her little book? How many did she push tissues towards, in that ugly chrome box, then push towards the door when they ran out of time? And six years ago, Helen had helped a woman dependent on painkillers. She had decided she was seeing someone broken; a mess, an addict. The woman standing eight feet away from her in the supermarket had undoubtedly had a problem, but she was none of those things, not then and certainly not now.
Julia picked up a bottle of gin too, dropped it into her basket and marched towards the till. She bumped into Mrs Bennet and they talked about how lovely the weather had been on sports day, then she remembered she needed red shoe polish for Filly’s Mary Janes, so she doubled back to the household section. When she arrived at the front of the store again, she saw Helen piling up the last few items of shopping at the checkout directly ahead of her.
Julia hesitated for a moment, scanning the row of tills for another option. Over on the far right, maybe – but no, this was ridiculous. She put her basket on the metal overhang, took out her things one by one and placed them on the conveyor belt. She stood and waited. Breathing in through her nose and out slowly through her mouth, she tried to soften the pounding in her chest. She moved all the items closer together and her hand slipped down the neck of the bottle of port, so she wiped it against her trousers before reaching out to pick up a magazine from the rack alongside the till and pretending to scan the contents page. She could feel the skin stretched tight across her forehead and a vein pulsing in her neck.
Helen half turned and pushed a checkout divider towards her.
Julia took the triangular prism of orange plastic. Their eyes met for just a moment, but there was no recognition there, and Helen turned straight back towards the cashier, unzipped her purse and took out her loyalty card.
Julia treated herself to a frothy coffee in the café. She chatted to an old couple in the queue, waved to one of the mums from Brownies, sat in the corner, took the packet of Almond Thins from her bag, ripped it open and dipped one into the foam. She found a pen and a flyer for a charity cake sale and started scribbling down a menu for Saturday night. They had some neighbours coming round for supper, but maybe she’d invite some other people too. It was short notice, but they owed the Millers, and why not that lovely girl who’d started working for Graham? Her boyfriend was an architect and Julia could pick his brains about the outhouses, see whether they could do something a bit different, make it really bright in there, use one of those clever light funnels. If she was going to get her furniture restoration business off the ground, she’d need her own space – at the very least somewhere to store the frames she kept picking up at auction and then stacking at the back of the garage.
She’d cook venison casserole with dark chocolate. And have candles everywhere and light the fire. With the right music and enough red wine, they might dance. She should definitely do more dancing. Singing, too! Hadn’t she promised she’d give the school parents’ choir a go? And if that wasn’t any good, there was always the one you had to audition for in Oxford. She’d ask Elodie’s mum about it at the PTA meeting on Friday.
Julia scooped up her shopping, flicked her scarf over her shoulder and swept back through the tables towards the exit.
She couldn’t find her keys. After scrabbling through her coat pockets and all the compartments in her handbag, she dug down to the bottom of her shopping bag and heard them clinking against the gin. Her fingers skated over smooth plastic – flat, slim, sharp-edged – and she pulled out the checkout divider. Its shiny surface winked at her like a limited-edition Toblerone.
Julia unlocked the car, put the shopping into the boot, then locked it again before crossing the road to a line of trollies slotted between two parking spaces. It was nearer than the front entrance, and if she left the checkout divider there, it was bound to make its way back into the shop. As she skipped up the curb, she saw someone approaching from the left and turned slightly to wave the woman ahead of her, but she had also stopped. It was Helen. Their eyes locked for the second it took to negotiate, and in that silence, they agreed.
Helen nodded, took two steps forward and slid her trolley into the one in front with a clank and a rattle.
Julia posted the divider through the metal bars and quickly walked back to the car. She locked herself in, swallowed the milky liquid that lurched up into her throat, and found herself humming a nursery rhyme, clenching her shaking hands.
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