I was busy checking out my stuff at the supermarket when I noticed the woman next to me had dropped her pen. She was wearing a baggy combat jacket, and I guessed that when she pulled an extra bag out of the pockets the pen came with it. I thought she’d probably see the pen lying there, so I didn’t say anything to begin with. But she was so preoccupied, both with the packing and with her conversation with the checkout guy. They were talking about Pompeii. Or at least, some place that got wrecked by a volcano. And not recently, otherwise I they probably wouldn’t be talking about it so lightly and happily. I thought the pen woman had recently gone there, or was planning on going, or checkout guy had gone there sometime recently, or possibly even grown up there – or at least, nearby. Anyway, the woman was too engrossed to notice the pen on the floor. It looked like quite a nice pen, so in the end I went over, picked it up and gave it to her.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘How did that get there? Well! Thank you very much!’
And she showed the checkout guy the pen, and he nodded with his eyebrows raised, as if to say well – another disaster averted.
I went back to my packing, which was piling up, because the guy on my till was due to finish or on steroids or something because he just kept it all coming at an alarming rate.
Anyway – I couldn’t help glancing at the woman, just at the moment she went to put the pen back in her pocket. She missed. The pen fell on the floor.
Which put me in a dilemma. Do I pick it up again or not?
These were the options:
1. If I picked it up again, she’d be embarrassed that exactly the same thing had happened, and in that case, maybe a lost pen was the lesser of two evils. But it was a nice pen.
2. She’d wonder if I’d pulled some kind of stunt, and would look at me as if she expected the same thing to happen a number of times before she left the store.
3. She’d wonder why I was paying so much attention to her and her pen.
Any of these options would almost inevitably lead to more of a ‘thing’. And I didn’t want a ‘thing’, I was on a mission to get the shopping, get back home and get writing, so I wouldn’t feel my day off had been wasted. I’d already had to go to the vets to get flea treatment for the dog and cat. The last thing I wanted was anything else to slow me down and distract me. (Ironic, then, that I ended up writing about the pen incident instead, but hey – that’s the way it goes. The essence of displacement activity. Writing about dropped pens at the checkout is more inviting than finishing a novel. Maybe I should just accept it – mission aborted: this novel will never be done. I’m horribly aware of its deficiencies. And my characters are getting mutinous. They spend way too much time sitting around smoking, flipping through magazines, waiting for me to come sit at the keyboard and write them some more goddamned stuff to do. But I can’t help it. I’m easily distracted. Maybe I should try cultivating the writing habit equivalent of my checkout guy – shovelling the words through in a great, undifferentiated heap. I bet he’d finish a novel in a week. And earn vouchers off the next one).
But fate took over, as it often does in these situations. The woman stepped on the pen. Even above the general chaos of the supermarket, there was an audible crunch.
‘Oh shit I don’t believe it!’ she said, picking it up and then brandishing the broken pen in the air. ‘I don’t deserve good pens!’
I hurried away.