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Monique and her husband were sitting in an Italian restaurant in the middle of a shopping mall when things had taken a turn for the terrifying.
The events which had led to them being there were highly bizarre; she’d received this letter through the post, addressed to all of her family.
She’d almost thrown it in the bin – and would later wish that she’d set fire to the fucking thing as soon as she’d clapped eyes on it – but, to her eternal regret, had opened it.
‘Congratulations,’ the large typeface read. ‘Your family has been chosen to receive a £1000 shopping voucher.’
Monique smiled at this; money had been a little tight recently and her family could all do with being pampered.
She read on; the voucher had to be used at her local mall on a given day.
Then she turned it over and the back of the letter contained a large coupon with £1000 written on it in gaudy lettering.
‘Holy shit,’ she muttered, already planning what she could be spending the money on.
It had taken very little persuasion to get everyone to visit the mall that day.
In fact the only problem was that the traffic was crazy.
Evidently they weren’t the only ones who’d received this voucher.
The roads leading away from the mall were closed off; cop cars parked sideways across the lanes to prevent entry.
Monique had never seen so many cops.
As they drove closer to the mall, the traffic was bumper to bumper.
A few cars turned round, only to be shepherded back towards the mall by the police.
The other roads further on were one way too; it seemed nigh on impossible to drive away from the vicinity of the mall.
The traffic was insane – like some horrendous hybrid of Christmas and Black Friday.
It took almost an hour to get close enough to the main mall, most of which was spent crawling forwards in first gear.
Finally a policeman in a high-viz jacket told them to pull onto the path to the left and leave their car there.
Monique found this strange but didn’t question it.
As the drivers either side of them began to pull onto the curb, they followed suit.
The air was electric with excitement as they approached the mall.
The crowds were pretty intense, so, after bagging a few bargains, Monique and her family decided to head for some food.
This, too, was free of charge due to the voucher, so they went the whole hog.
They’d put away a garlic bread between them for starters and were waiting for the steaks and burgers to come.
Monique looked around the place.
The light above each table was housed in a hand-painted glass lampshade, casting shadows onto the crisp white tablecloths.
The tables looked pristine.
There was a buzz of conversation hanging over the place, along with the clanking of silverware on plates and the sound of food being savoured.
Monique looked at her three kids – Josie, the oldest, was ten but still carried her battered teddy everywhere in spite of the ribbings from her friends; ‘This is me, fucking deal with it,’ Monique had been mortified, yet proud, to hear.
She was texting away on her phone, her fingers moving like a hummingbird’s wings.
It was amazing how fast kids picked this shit up these days.
Monique was proud of the young lady she had become.
She looked to her other kids.
Eight-year-old Zeke, with his fuzzy dark hair and big brown eyes, was a momma’s boy through and through. He still looked like he had as a toddler, wild-haired and grinning, food smeared around his mouth.
And her youngest, six-year-old Freya, who was flicking through her new batch of Lego cards while tucking into her last piece of garlic bread with an enthusiasm rarely seen.
Her brow was furrowed in concentration, but her eyes gleamed with joy.
Life is pretty fucking awesome, Monique thought, surveying her family with pride.
She looked away, just as they realised she was watching them.
‘Will you stop staring at us, mom?’ Josie said, without looking up from her phone. ‘It’s creepy as shit.’
‘Mind your language,’ Monique said, fixing her with a stern glare. ‘And I’m just taking a moment to enjoy some time with you all. It doesn’t happen very often, with your dad’s work being the way it is. So make the most of it, cos who knows when we might all be together again.’
In future, those words would come to slay her when she replayed these tranquil last moments together.
Josie turned her nose up, shook her head and resumed texting.
Monique smiled; regardless of her attitude she was a sweet kid at heart.
‘Jenny and Mia are here,’ Josie said. ‘Is it ok if I go and meet with them?’
Monique debated for a second. ‘You not hungry?’
Josie shook her head. She had that excited look she got when her friends were mentioned.
‘Sure, why not, sweetie. Go have fun.’
‘Thanks, mam,’ she said without looking up from her phone. She wandered away.
Monique watched her go, but was distracted by the waiter coming over.
He had a smile on his stubbled face.
And it was strange; Monique didn’t usually take in every single detail, but this was an occasion she wanted to remember for a long time.
She saw a slight chip in one of his front teeth, a tiny piece of spinach at the top of the other.
A smear of Bolognese sauce on the chest of his white shirt.
‘Here are your mains,’ he grinned, again exposing the chip and the spinach in his dental work.
His forearm had a small burn like he’d reached carelessly into a hot oven.
‘Thank you,’ they all chorused.
As they ate, Monique kept glancing to the table to her left where a dad was over-exuberantly playing with a baby in a highchair.
The kid had Bolognese sauce smeared all over his tiny face like a ginger beard.
His blue eyes were glinting with mischief, his two front teeth smeared orange like his chubby cheeks.
His hands were similarly pitted.
In fact, she thought with a smile, it would probably have made less mess if they had just hurled the plate of spaghetti at him in the first place.
‘OOSH! PAAH!’ the dad shouted, smacking his palms on the table.
His eyes were comically wide, his face drawn in mock surprise as the baby popped out from behind his dirty hands.
The kid giggled loudly, then began to squeal.
The dad began to squeak too, egging the kid on to even more ear-punishing tones.
Monique feared the wine glass in her hand was about to shatter.
Her husband, Sal, scowled, shaking his head.
‘You were exactly the same when these were babies,’ she smiled. ‘So shut your mouth.’
He smiled, remembering their kids as carefree toddlers.
‘PEE-PO!’ the dad shouted, obscuring pretty much every other sound in the restaurant.
The baby’s squeal dwarfed this.
Then he began to slam his tiny hands on the highchair tray, leaving orange smears all over the white plastic.
The kid’s eyes were lit up.
The few tables in earshot looked around, but the dad could care less, he carried on inciting further high-pitched exhortations from his beaming child.
‘He hasn’t eaten much,’ the mam said.
‘I’ll get him to eat,’ the dad said, a shit-eating grin on his face at the thought of unleashing his party trick. ‘Watch this.’
‘I’ve seen it before,’ the mam said, rolling her eyes. ‘Every bloody meal time.’
The dad ignored her and began loading up the green plastic spoon with food.
The kid knew what was coming and began to wriggle excitedly in his seat.
The dad raised it above his head and to the right, keeping the spoon horizontal to avoid spilling any of the contents.
‘You ready for the aeroplane?’ he grinned, again comically wide-eyed.
Monique tried not to laugh at them.
It was nice to see a dad having so much fun with his boy.
‘OK, here it comes,’ the dad said. ‘Neeeeee-owwwwwmmmm.’
The baby opened its mouth just as the spoon arrived and the food disappeared inside.
The dad began to move his hands up and down and make very enthusiastic explosion noises, much to the kid’s enjoyment.
The kid chewed noisily, dribbling more orange sauce down its chin, then opened his mouth again when he saw his dad had the spoon ready once more.
‘Here it comes,’ the dad said, this time letting out a loud, descending whistle like a plummeting plane.
The kid giggled and devoured the food once more.
‘KAAAAA-BOOOOOOM!’ the dad shouted, again making loud explosion noises and wildly waving his arms about.
‘Bless him,’ the mam said, smiling.
‘Okay, little fella, last one,’ the dad grinned. ‘Let’s make this explosion a real whopper, ey?’
The kid grinned, whacked his hands on the tray once more.
The dad took his time with the final spoonful, milking every second he could from his kid’s laugh.
The whistling was louder this time.
The kid opened his mouth again, ready for the final spoonful.
The dad’s playful ‘Boom’ was hidden by a deafening explosion which shook the mall to its very foundations.
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