up close & personal

When everything was on the checkout conveyor belt, I dropped the basket in the stack at the end, taking a second to rearrange the handles so they could all sit evenly. The store was strangely empty for the time of day, so I could afford to take my time. When I was done I put a divider down and waited to go forward.

I think the elderly woman in front of me knew the checkout assistant from way back. They were busy chatting, and only stopped when it was obvious I was ready to pay. The elderly woman fetched her purse out – an ancient, over-stuffed thing – put it upright on the counter, and started rootling around in it, pulling out keys, passes, a photograph (which I could tell she wanted to show to the assistant, because she looked at it, looked at the assistant, looked at me – then slowly put it to one side), eventually leaning in so close to the purse it looked like if she didn’t find what she was after she was quite prepared to climb in. The checkout assistant looked across at me and mouthed Sorry. I smiled and shrugged.

At last, with a theatrical, over-the-head flourish, the elderly woman pulled out a wad of vouchers, scattering a few. I picked them up and handed them to her. She thanked me, then spent five minutes laying them out on the counter and slowly going through them. It transpired that some were out of date, some were for things she hadn’t bought, and some were inadmissible because she hadn’t spent enough. It was all pretty complicated. The checkout assistant swiped the ones that were good, gave back the ones that weren’t.

Meanwhile, another customer had turned up – a short, squarish woman in her late forties, wearing a tight, sherbet lemon top and a white plastic clip-on visor. I nodded to say hi and also to make a gesture along the lines of You might want to choose another line; this might take a while, but she didn’t meet my eye (the visor was certainly good for that). Instead, she hauled her basket up onto the shelf at the end, and then letting out a big sigh, marched up the aisle and pushed the divider forward, bulldozing my shopping.

Now, I’m pretty relaxed about people touching my shopping (not that she’d actually touched it; I probably wouldn’t have been quite so blase if she’d picked up my pack of  rolls, cradled them and started chuckling). It was just that I fundamentally couldn’t understand why she’d done it.

I mean, there was plenty of space on the belt. (For the record, all she had were four ready meals for one, two packs of sandwiches, a pack of four extra creamy fruit yogurts and a copy of the Daily Mail). She could have put double that on the belt and still had room for a mop and bucket. And of course, once she’d made such a point of pushing all my things forward like that, she was obliged to put her things as close up as she could, too.

I only had one basket of shopping; so did she. Which meant we ended up standing shoulder to shoulder, in a store that was virtually empty.

The elderly woman couldn’t remember her pin, and the checkout assistant was trying to guess what it might be based on what she knew of the woman, her age, house number and so on.

I looked to my left and tried to catch my neighbour’s eye again, but she’d taken a magazine from the rack and was busy snapping through it, her visor twitching from left to right and back again, sighing as she went, like each picture was utterly failing to deliver on any of the delicious scandals splashed across the cover.

‘There! So sorry to have kept you!’ the checkout assistant said, so unexpectedly it made me jump. I could only think in her desperation she’d decided to settle the old woman’s bill herself. She’d made a surprising amount of ground already; I saw her waddling determindely, bad-hippedly, balanced with a bag in each hand towards the exit.
‘Do you need help packing?’ the assistant said.
‘No thanks! I’m good,’ I said, moving down.
The visor woman came with me. Just in case.

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