bad penmanship

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.

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green beans & other crises

The checkout guy has only just sat down at the till. I nod as I pass by to check if he’s open; he grimaces as he hangs his fleece on the back of the chair, which isn’t a definitive no, so I start unloading.
‘I can’t believe my luck,’ I tell him. ‘This never happens to me.’
‘Yeah?’ he says. ‘Well it always happens to me. Is it six yet?’
‘No. I think it’s only about half past four.’
The nightmare continues.’
I finish unloading the trolley.
‘So! How’s your day been?’ I say, setting out the divider and moving on with my bags ready.
‘Long’ he says. ‘Very long. And I just had a very unsatisfactory meeting with my manager. I say meeting,’ he says, holding a packet of green beans in front of him, staring down at them as if they’re implicated but he can’t figure out how. ‘It was more a conversation at the bottom of a stairwell, really.’
He passes me the beans. I pack them.
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I say.
‘Do you ever get those conversations where you walk away at the end and think
what the hell was that all about?’
‘Frequently.’
He swipes a few more things through.
‘What do you do, then?’ he asks.
‘I work in community health.’
‘Ah! So you’ve seen it, then.’
‘I suppose so.’
Community health’ he says, trying out the words for size. ‘Like it, d’you?’
‘It’s alright. Keeps me in beans. To be honest, I’m looking around.’
He snorts.
‘Well don’t look around here. That’ll be twenty six pounds and ninety eight pence.’
Just at that moment a woman at the neighbouring till reaches over and taps me on the arm. It’s Jenna, a parent I used to know when the girls were at primary school. I haven’t seen her for a while, and to be honest it’s a miracle I remember her name – I think because I just say it quickly and don’t have time to panic. I offer to pack for her but she says no, she’s got a system. We swap quick summary stories about what the kids are up to, and then say goodbye – to the checkout guy, too. I walk away feeling pretty smug. I bet he’s thinking there goes the community health guy, chatting to everyone, buying green beans and everything. But then again – probably not. I bet he’s just thinking how the hell he’ll get through the next hour and twenty five minutes before he can be walking out the door, too.

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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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