Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

10. Shopping at Pialba

If Karen and I ever get divorced, we both know what the cause will be - shopping. I am normally a very easy going kind of guy, but when Karen and I shop together, I change. Most women are born with the innate ability to irritate men. Those who lack it, quickly learn. The result is the same - by puberty women have become the most frustrating, baffling and bothersome creatures on the face of this earth. And their skill is developed to such a degree of perfection, they are not even aware that they are doing it. My wife is a prime example.

Life is short. Anything or anybody that wastes my time, wastes my life. And Karen is my greatest life-waster. Luckily for our relationship, she more than makes up for this in other areas. Sometimes. When we shop, however, our relationship hovers on the edge of a deep, dark crevasse. The slightest nudge could send it plummeting into the abyss. I have to be very careful to maintain my equilibrium at these times, and I try, I really do, but sometimes I fail.

Karen and I rode to the shopping centre at Pialba at around half past eight in the morning. We parked the bikes together, against a wall near the entrance, and Karen went inside to do the shopping, while I waited outside with the bikes. It had been a cool, clear night and the chill still lingered. I stood in the weak morning sunlight and enjoyed the warmth soaking back into my old bones. A family rolled up in their station wagons, and we exchanged good mornings as they walked past. A little while later I nodded goodbye to them as they wheeled a couple of trolley-loads of goods out to their car and packed it all away. They gave a little toot of their horn as they drove past on their way back home, their shopping for the next week done. Somewhere inside the bowels of the shopping centre, Karen was still embroiled in our food purchases, buying enough to last us for as long as three days, maybe four.

Shop assistants came out of the entrance, to stand in the sun for a cigarette break. We would talk for a while, getting through around half of the twenty standard questions before they would excuse themselves and go back to work. Don't worry about breaking the conversation short, I thought to myself. I'll still be here in an hour when you come out for another break. And I was.

After an hour and a quarter I began to worry. What if something bad has happened to Karen? What if a maniac had run amok in the fruit and vegies section? What if a madman had hidden at the end of the health foods aisle and was even now dragging my wife behind a stand of lentils, intent on having his way with her? What if Karen was lost, wildly searching for the exit she was sure was there just a minute ago, stumbling from store to store, level to level, desperately trying to make sense of the information signs which were all telling her the same thing - You Are Here. I could almost hear the primeval scream coming from her mind. I know I am here! How do I get to where I want to go?!

Karen's sense of direction is sadly lacking. My greatest fear when we left Sydney was what would happen if I had an accident, with my life suddenly in Karen's hands. If I bled at all, I was history, because although Karen has a certificate and keeps up to date with all the latest first-aid theories and techniques, her assistance suffers because of one tiny flaw. She tends to pass out at the sight of blood. I have often imagined myself lying on the side of the road, bleeding, a victim of a hit and run accident, with Karen lying beside me, passed out in sympathy.

However, assuming there was no blood and I was merely unconscious, I would then be relying on my wife to either help me, or to find help. Hopefully, help would pass by, because if Karen had to go for help, she would probably not be able to find it, and if she did, she would certainly not be able to find her way back to where she had left me. As a result, I lived in constant fear, knowing the slightest mishap could spell my doom. I have good reasons for my fear. Karen has demonstrated her lousy sense of direction on many, many occasions, and would do so again and again during our travels.

As I waited outside the shopping centre, I wondered how Karen had managed to backpack around Europe by herself for eight months in 1989, given her woeful navigational skills. She probably had intended to travel for a much shorter time, and it had simply taken her a few extra months to find her way back home again.

The world is a much safer place having Karen as an accountant and not as a map-maker. Karen's sense of direction was a valid reason why I should be concerned about her safety inside the complexities of the shopping centre at Pialba. Another concern, equally valid, was that Karen may have been confronted by a door or a gate. It is a little known fact, but automatic doors were invented for my wife. She is one of those unfortunates who pushes at a door with all her might, while lines of people form behind her, before she looks at the big sign right in front of her that says "Pull". And those doors don't have latches or handles or locks, inventions of a devil hell-bent on raining terror down upon non-mechanically minded souls like Karen.

Country gates are masterpieces of ingenuity, and some, admittedly, can be rather tricky to operate. Others, however, fall into one of a few standard categories, all fairly simple once you acquire the knack. Karen always approaches a gate with some trepidation. She and I have travelled to some remote places over the years, and as I usually drive, it is Karen who has had to deal with gates. Usually she manages, but sometimes she fails dismally. On one occasion we had driven into the Budawangs, an area of Morton National Park in southern New South Wales. The drive in from the Braidwood road requires the negotiation of five gates. Karen had performed admirably on every one. When coming back out a couple of days later, through the very same gates, Karen was again coping well, only to stumble at the very last hurdle. She had no trouble opening the final gate, and held it while I drove through. I watched in the rear-vision mirror as she closed the gate carefully, reached through for a chain which she pulled through the gate and hitched over the knob on the fence post. A perfect job. Unfortunately, after the task was completed, Karen was standing on the wrong side of the gate!

She quickly realised her error, opened the gate, walked through and secured it again, then nonchalantly strolled up beside the car and climbed into the passenger seat. She fitted her seat belt and waited for me to drive on.

"Had a little trouble with the gate, did we?" I asked.
"Damn!" laughed Karen, "I was hoping you had missed that!"

Another gate incident occurred at a caravan park at Mission Beach in the late eighties. After a long, hot day's drive we had arrived at the park, and after setting up the tent we had adjourned to the swimming pool. We splashed around for a while, but after about five minutes I left to have a shower. On my way back to the tent I noticed that Karen was still inside the pool enclosure. It seemed strange, because I felt sure she would have returned to the tent shortly after I left. I soon found out the problem. Karen could not open the child-proof latch and was trapped inside the enclosure. The vertical metal bars of the fence, as they were designed to do, made climbing difficult. I instructed her in the tricky procedure of pulling up the knob and opening the gate. Karen had been twisting and pushing down on that knob for over ten minutes!

This memory was going through my mind as the hour and a quarter outside the Pialba shopping centre turned into ninety minutes. The cool of the morning had gone long ago, driven off by a sun that burned down furiously from the heavens. I had been following a patch of shade as it progressed across the front of the shopping centre entrance for almost an hour now, getting hotter and hotter by the minute. Should I leave the bikes unattended and go in search of my wife? Should I go to the manager's office and have him issue a Lost Child message over the public address system? Then Karen appeared, carrying four white plastic bags full of shopping.

"Sorry I took so long," she said cheerfully.
I said nothing. She knew something was wrong instantly.
"What's the matter?" she asked innocently.
"Ninety fucking minutes is the matter," I replied through gritted teeth.
"It hasn't been that long, has it?"
More silence. I know she hates that.
"It's difficult in there," she explained. "I didn't want to waste any money so I checked the prices in a few different places."
"How much did you spend?"
Karen passed me the docket. Forty two dollars and twenty cents. It had taken her ninety minutes to spend forty two dollars and twenty cents! I was not impressed. Karen could not understand my anger. We had a really good argument.

Although waiting outside while Karen shops gets me angry, actually being inside doing the shopping with her is even worse. I knew why she had taken so long. I had seen many examples of Karen shopping before. She stands in front of the jam shelf, looking at the fifty or so different brands, sizes, varieties and costs of each and every item. She picks up a jar of jam, checking to see if its low fat, or salt free, or calorie controlled. Then she puts it back, and checks out another one. Finally comes the arithmetic. This one is three hundred and seventy five grams and costs one dollar and eighty seven cents, while that one is four hundred and twenty five grams and costs two dollars and five. The first is about two cents per gram, the second is less than two cents per gram. Does Karen choose the three hundred and seventy five gram jam because it is cheaper, or does she choose the more expensive jam which represents better value for money? She leaves both on the shelf, deciding that maybe she will buy honey this time, for a change. Then she goes to the honey shelf, looking at the fifty or so different brands, sizes etc.

Being a man, I shop like a man. Walk up, grab the item you want, have a brief look at the price to see if its reasonable, put the item in the trolley, walk away. But even when Karen has finally made a choice, and the product is safely packed away in the shopping trolley, as she walks away Karen has an infuriating habit of looking back over her shoulder, in case she suddenly notices a much better product at a much better price. For me, shopping with Karen is a continual litany of "Just put it in the trolley. Walk away. Don't look back!" We do not shop together very often any more. Both of us are too aware of the dangers which await us there, but at Pialba we learned that even when I wait outside with the bikes, divorce is waiting just around the corner.

Eventually I would realise that I was the one who had to change. Karen was beyond change and would never learn to shop any other way. It was up to me to put up, and shut up. I still get incredibly upset when we go shopping but I have learned to stay calm and say nothing. Unfortunately, me saying nothing is the sign which tells Karen I am annoyed, so she asks me what the problem is, and so I tell her.

And away we go again ...

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