Sixteen soft pink blankets fold inwards over sixteen soft warm smiling babies. Sixteen dark-haired young mothers meet their sixteen babies' soft smiling mouths in a kiss.
Naomi looks round to see the cluster of other mothers, like herself, mesmerised by Granada TV Rental's windows*. The cluster breaks, and its various components span out across the cool maible floor.
* Granada TV Rental — the name of a supermarket.
Lucy strains to stand up in her pushchair. Naomi eases her out of the canvas straps and settles her on the red seat of the silver trolley. She pauses momentarily, to decide which is to be the first aisle of the journey; should she start with soft drinks, vegetables, frozen foods, tins — she decides on fruit juice.
As they wheel past the rack of special-offer Mars bars, Naomi gently deflects Lucy's outstreched hand, her thumb briefly stroking the soft palm of Lucy's hand. I could do the shopping with my eyes shut, thinks Naomi, once a week for how many weeks, everything always in the same place. She turns the trolley to the right, to the fridge where the pineapple juice cartons — she stops. The open maw of the fridge gapes. It is empty. Ah well. Perhaps they have run out of cartons of fmit juice.
She decides to do dairy products next; cream, butter, some yoghurt — but instead, on the racks where the dairy products used to be, she finds pizzas, steak and kidney pies in transparent wrappings, and further on packets of frozen raspberries. Something is wrong. She begins to collect, feeling uneasy that it isn't in the order of her choice, worried that if she leaves things now to go on to another aisle, they will have disappeared when she gets back.
She wheels on, to where she expects to find the vegetable racks: the net bags of apples, avocados. But instead there are long spaghetti packets, rice, curled pasta. Again she collects, panic beginning to rise. She mustn't show it to Lucy, who is happy being wheeled at such sightseeing speed.
Naomi makes confidently for the cold meat counter; it is dark, piled up with towers of soft toilet paper; the plastic box where scraps of meat were sold cheaply, the ends of cuts, is upside down, empty. For the first time she notices the other women. They walk fast, their heads slightly bent, cradling highpiled baskets, anxiety on their faces, grabbing cereals, bread, soap powders, cleansers, hurrying past pensioners, running, running.
Lucy now has a fist in her. mouth, enjoying the game.
Naomi speeds up to join the pace, taking what she can wherever she can, until she arrives at the back of the floor space, at the point where the soft drinks used to be. Naomi gasps. The once smooth space is now a raw gash, copper cables twisting like thick muscle fibre, clinging to the broken brick and plaster gaps in the walls.
Naomi hears a voice saying. Nothing is where it was. Lucy giggles and she realises that she has spoken out loud. She looks round. No one seems to have heard her. They are all too busy. Naomi looks down at the trolley. It is full of everything she has meant to buy, but none of it is in the right order.
Naomi wheels the trolley slowly towards the cash tills. Lucy, sensitive to the change in pace, stops giggling; she is now pale and still. Naomi joins a queue at a cash till, watching the other women.
Naomi stands behind a woman who fumbles for her cheque book. Naomi watches paper bags, plastic carriers, boxes and baskets flash between the tills and the plate glass window.
Naomi's turn comes. She lifts a bottle of lemon and lime out of the trolley. The outside is sticky. Naomi moves her index and second fingers to a dry part of the bottle, her hand slips, the bottle falls, its soft edge knocks against the rim of the conveyor belt and bursts.
Thick, bright green liquid squirts luminously back into the trolley, over tins of tuna fish. Lucy claps her hands in delight, and reaching into the trolley, she lifts a packet of white flour and drops it with a dull thud on the floor. A white cloud powders the feet of the women. Lucy giggles. Naomi feels a cloud of answering laughter rise in her, tries to keep it down, looks up and catches the eye of the woman queuing behind her. The woman smiles, ruffles Lucy's hair and then lifts a bag of tomatoes from her own baskets and hurls it overarm against the special offer of tea bags. Red seed drips down against the green boxes.
The women look at one another. Suddenly bits of flattened, squared ham fly free of their jellied, cellophane packets, duck pate bursts out of its blue pottery bowls, salt and vinegar crisps crackle underfoot, sliding through white cottage cheese.
The lights of the cash tills spark white, the women sitting at the money machines aren't sure which way to turn, one picks up a cucumber and slides it along the floor, into a welcoming pool of raspberry yoghurt.
Outside the plate glass window red and blue lights flash as pale men in dark blue peer through the window at all Christmas and birthday and anniversary celebrations in one.
Ten feet away, sixteen dark-haired mothers smile at their babies for the sixteenth time and enfold them in sixteen warm, pink blankets.
(Story by Michelene Wandor. Abridged)
I. Answer the questions.
1. Where does Naomi see sixteen mothers first?
2. Who is Lucy?
3. How old can Lucy be?
4. What aisle does Naomi choose to be the first one?
5. Does the sight in front of her eyes meet her expectations?
6. What does she decide to do next?
7. What does Naomi see on the racks where the dairy products used to be?
8. What does Naomi find on the vegetable racks?
9. What kind of box does she find empty?
10. Does Naomi notice the other women?
11. Does Naomi manage to collect everything she has meant to buy?
12. What does Naomi see at a cash till?
13. What happens when Naomi lifts a bottle of lemon and lime?
14. Why does Lucy drop a packet of white flour?
15. How does the woman behind her react?
16. What do the other women start doing?
17. How do the women sitting at the cash tills react?
18. What do the phrases "red and blue lights flash" and "pale men in dark blue" mean?
19. Why is the story called Sweet Sixteen?
II. Discussion points.
1. Do you find the end quite unexpected?
2. Was it an abnormal reaction on the part of the customers?
3. What caused this sort of reaction, in your opinion?