Anita loved the holidays. First, there was no school. Second, she could go to the shops with Mum and look at all the decorations, and sometimes Mum would get her one of the sweets that came in the cases shaped like dolls or cellphones.
She especially loved the giant Christmas tree that stood in the center of the mall, perfectly aligned with the clear, high domed roof. The red and silver tinsel garlands wove themselves around the tree in a never ending spiral and the baubles were way bigger than the ones at home. At the bottom around the tree, giant boxes wrapped in shiny paper were stacked against each others, and there would sometimes be a sled and electric reindeer in front of them. She knew the boxes were empty, her brother had told her, but she liked to imagine that they were filled with all the best toys and gifts, and maybe Santa would bring one to her house on his sleigh on a snowy night like in the films.
But again, she knew Santa wasn’t real, and she knew it did not snow in Zambia.
They were in the supermarket, and a popular Christmas song was playing from the speakers overhead. Mum gently hummed as she pushed the trolley along the aisles, picking an item only to inspect it, put it down and pick another. The trolley was smaller this year; when they got to the entrance, Anita had gone for the usual giant one but Mum had said;
“No, not that one,” and she got the smaller one, the one where you fit two baskets instead.
There were toys and chocolates on every aisle corner, decorated with tinsel and Christmas lights. Anita let her eyes linger over them for a few seconds before rushing to follow her mother. The supermarket was crowded today, it was a few days to Christmas and so everyone was doing their last minute shopping.
“What happens when people are not organised,” Daddy would say when he saw the long lines at the counter. He was in Zimbabwe for work, and he said he would be home last week, but he had not come yet.
“Bring me the tomato sauce,” Mum said, and Anita reached for the brand they’d always used but was met with a stern, “No, get the supermarket one.”
And so she put it back on the shelf and reached for the generic branded one. Mum was a few steps away from her now, inspecting the spices and Anita squeezed herself through the trolley filled aisle to reach her when someone called out.
“Grace!” She looked up, it was Mum’s friend from church, Aunty Kangwa.
“Hello Kangwa! Mulishani? How are you?” Mum said in her warm voice she usually reserved for guests.
Aunty Kangwa had just pulled into their aisle with the giant trolley, in it bags of rice, pasta, frozen meats and a whole bunch of other foodstuffs.
“I’m just doing some small shopping last minute, you know these holidays,” she said, she had a good-natured, husky voice. She shifted her full figure from behind her trolley to greet Mum and pat Anita on the head, her hand smelled of perfume, “iyee, this one is growing!” she said, looking down at Anita through her black rimmed glasses. There was a small smudge of hot pink on her teeth where the lipstick had rubbed off.
“Yes!” Mum agreed. She turned to Anita and said, “Mami I told you to get the All Gold tomato sauce, not this generic one!”
Anita stared at her blankly, confused.
“You know these kids, absent-minded,” Mum added, and Aunty Kangwa laughed in agreement.
Anita went back and put the generic-brand tomato sauce, picking up the expensive one that Mum had earlier told her to put back on the shelf.
“Anyway,” Aunty Kangwa was saying when she got back, “tell me, what are the Christmas plans?”
“Oh you know,” Mum replied, “the usual, church na ka small family lunch after. The whole family will be coming.”
“Oh, lovely,” Aunty Kangwa answered, “and when is Bashi Kingsley arriving?” Kingsley was her brother’s name, so Anita knew they were talking about Daddy.
“The flights have been fully booked these days, you just know how hectic the holiday season gets,” Mum responded, putting a seasoning bottle in her basket, she did not even inspect it like she’d been doing with everything else they’d bought today, “but we finally found him one for Christmas Eve.”
Anita’s heart rose. Daddy was coming home after all! They would just have to wait till Christmas Eve, and it was only five days away.
“Oh! That’s wonderful!” Aunty Kangwa sang, she clapped her hands together, and the bangles on her wrists clinked together, “God is great!”
“Indeed,” Mum replied, and with a smile, she added, “Anyway dear, we’ll catch up soon! Let me rush, these lines are too long already.”
“I know, I know,” the other woman agreed, “we’ll chat later.”
And so they pushed their way through the crowded aisle and Anita followed her mother to the shortest looking aisle.
Another popular song started playing through the speakers, but Mum was not humming along this time. They snailed up the line, the songs changing, and Anita barely keeping her excitement at bay. Daddy would be here, and they would go present shopping, and he would make that special hot chocolate with the ice cream inside, and she would show him the drawing she had made at school.
“Mum,” she said after some time.
“What time will Daddy be arriving on Christmas Eve?”
“He’s not coming,” Mum replied as they reached the counter.
Anita felt like a brick had fallen inside her stomach, “Huh?” she breathed.
“He won’t be coming baby,” Mum explained, “We can’t afford the ticket.”
But she had just told Aunty Kangwa that he would be arriving on Christmas Eve! Anita did not say that out loud though.
She nodded quietly as she watched the green numbers on the screen add up whenever the cashier punched in the items. Sometimes grown-ups lied, and sometimes they left bottles of tomato sauce at the counter.