It’s ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and a man and his two daughters are in a supermarket shopping for his eldest’s thirteenth birthday party. She’s keen on spareribs, while his youngest is adamant she wants burgers. It’s going to be a small family affair, just his daughters, his wife, and their grandparents. She had her school friends over on Wednesday night for the usual birthday shenanigans, so she hasn’t gone without.
For the grown-ups, he chooses steak from the deli counter and three bottles of good claret, plus some beer and sherry for aperitifs. The girls choose Coke. Like most folk these days, they’re buying too much. Instead of choosing what they need, the man has allowed his daughters to tip into the trolley a vast army of crisps, nachos and bottles of overpriced sauces.
Seeing a bottle of Texan Smokey Ketchup wedged into the corner of the trolley, he yanks it out and demands to know why they can’t make do with normal sauce. The girls yell out that it’s their special day and it makes their food taste yummy and they must have it, Daddy! He knows these facts already because he fights the same battle every time they go to the supermarket. As he places the bottle back into the trolley he sees the ingredient ‘smoke’ on the label and wonders how that is possible.
In a last-minute frenzy, the girls demand a special dessert rather than just plain old boring ice-cream. The same plain old boring ice cream, he reminds them, that they’d demanded so passionately the week before in the same supermarket. They complain for a few minutes until he agrees they can have a special dessert, just this once.
For the next five minutes, he stands around looking at the ingredients on the packets of the food in the trolley, while his daughters look for a special dessert. He guesses they’ll probably want another sauce to go with it, which he’ll end up throwing away in a few weeks time because it’s cluttering up the fridge. Even though their new fridge is the size of a small house, it’s always full.
He decides to hold firm on the sauce if they ask for it. If only so he can say to his wife when he turns up with yet another load of garbage, that at least he didn’t let them have any dessert sauce. The girls finally decide on a chocolate fudge cake, the sugar content of which is off the scale. But at least they don’t ask for any sauce.
At the checkout, he realises he’s forgotten the only thing he really wanted: a four-pack of halogen light bulbs for the outside security lights. It’s the only shop he can find them in, but as the checkout lady has nearly finished scanning all the items, he decides to leave it until another day. This mildly annoys him because it’s always the same when he goes shopping with his girls. He never buys anything for himself.
However, after a few minutes of watching them argue and fuss over the packing, he finds himself totally at ease with the world and forgets about the light bulbs. Despite everything he has to address on a daily basis: his job, his daughters, the finances, the house repairs, his parents, he wouldn’t change any of it for the world.
But he knows nothing.
All he knows is that when he got up that morning his lower left leg felt a little bit cramped and slightly numb. If he’d been a doctor he might have been able to diagnose the time bomb ticking away in his body. But he isn’t. He’s an account manager for a large insurance firm and so has no idea what is about to happen to him.
At the exact moment the checkout lady scans the Texan Smokey Ketchup, part of the blood clot in his lower left leg breaks off and enters his bloodstream. Thirty seconds later it enters his lungs.
At first, the pain in his chest is mild, like a trapped hiccup. But as the pain intensifies, things begin to blur and he starts to slip into a nightmarish super-slow-motion world. He can no longer make out his daughters’ faces but he knows they are there. He feels them touching him and holding him. Trying to help him. He sees the word ‘smoke’ drift through his consciousness and there’s a sweet taste in his mouth. He starts seeing things, things that aren’t there, things from his childhood. There are voices, the voice of the checkout lady, his daughters, all watching him plunge into the abyss.
As the man lies on the supermarket floor, he opens his eyes one last time and looks at the blurred image of his adoring daughters crowding round him in tears. Just as he did from the edge of a hospital bed all those years ago when they were born. Watching them come into the world so fragile and so utterly helpless.
He holds this image in his mind for as long as he can. Then there is nothing.