Queueing for the local supermarket in lockdown reminds me of being ten years old, waiting to go on a waterslide called ‘Apocalypse’ or ‘Annihilation’ or something equally reassuring. The nonchalance of the queue baffled me; draped over railings or play fighting on the steps, we all waited to plunge toward the ground at ninety degrees. I found the nonchalance reassuring; lots of people went on this slide, some of them had even come back to do it again. It was normal, there was nothing to be frightened of.
Here at the supermarket, there is more to be frightened of. Outside, we’re kept two metres apart by black and yellow tape and an English deference to rules but inside, we know, it’s a free for all.
Who knew who had touched what or whether there was an infector stood behind you, breathing in your ear as they passed. Perhaps they touched the exact same Pot Noodle you decided to pick up. They’d fingered that expensive bottle of wine and decided against it, just like you, before releasing that cough they’d tried to suppress on the very same self-service machine you yourself had decided to use. This kind of thinking is even more pointless than fretting about falling out of the water slide and cracking your head, because unlike the slide, there is no choice of whether or not to eat.
If you have the privilege of being unaccompanied by screaming children, demanding chocolate on entry, the supermarket used to be a place to be aimless, to linger: free to enter and open to all. Unlike other shops, where eager assistants beg to help you (pressure you), supermarket assistants are busy restocking, scanning, packing, cleaning. They have no time to ask you what you want or persuade you to try the latest cereal.
They don’t need us, we need them, which in turn allows us to pack and unpack our baskets, return three times to the dried foods isle, inspect the nutritional value of various cheeses and google the ups and downs of non-dairy milk. But more than this, what makes a supermarket so enjoyable is that a person must eat, so to spend here is not to feel guilt about it. Unlike the clothes shop, the book shop, the bougie scented candle shop, to spend at a supermarket is a necessity that no one is criticised for.
Now of course, there is no time to return to the dried food isle. If you forget something, you must disrupt the carefully managed conveyor belt of people and suffer the glares of your supermarket successors, as their successor turns a corner to see their predecessor waiting for their predecessor, all of whom watch you greedily grab another can of tinned tomatoes. It is a supermarket pile up, and you are the drunk driver.
You foolishly chose a basket instead of a trolley and are now kicking it along the floor (collecting who knows how many cough droplets), trying to shove a jar of peanut butter in without damaging your 12 pack of eggs. They’re not free range. It’s quantity over morality.
You’re sweating, you’re trying to look at the shopping list that you thought would be a good idea on your phone, but the rubber gloves are not working on your touch screen - and should you even be touching your touch screen? If you take them off and touch your touch screen, then bring your phone home, then forget to wash it, then touch your face, or your partner’s, or your garden fence, touched by your elderly neighbour, will you be on your death bed, or theirs, asking yourself whether you really needed to check for the fish sauce for the Thai curry you decided to make because ‘why not learn how to cook during this time?’ said The Guardian article on ‘How to survive the pandemic’, which will ironically now be the death of you and everyone you know.
Despite deciding to get out your phone to remember to buy the fish sauce, there is no fish sauce, because it’s a pandemic and you live in West Dulwich. Now you and your partner and your elderly neighbour will die for nothing. Defeated you kick your basket along to the wine isle. You buy four bottles of £5 Merlot and put them under your armpits. One perk of a pandemic is that no one bats an eyelid at this. You no longer care what is on the list. You have alcohol, pot noodles, peanut butter and eggs, this will be enough to survive on until next week, when they’ll surely have fish sauce again.
Your self-service checkout predecessor is not even wearing a mask, or gloves, and they coughed once, you note. You try to hold your breath while scanning your items, which have somehow come to £57. You realise you have forgotten to buy chocolate. Chocolate, unlike dried foods, is an essential. Like wine, you will die without it. You apologise to your two successors in the queue and push past them. You stand frozen in front of the chocolate. There's no Dairy Milk. In a panic you choose a £10 Lindt chocolate egg and run back to the machine grasping it like a prize. You feel everyone hates you.
Leaving the shop you are triumphant, you pass by the queue with the smug fearlessness of a reality TV contestant who has been voted to stay in the Big Brother House for another week. Until then, you are safe. You have done it. You have survived. Now you can go on the slow, relaxing Mississippi River slide.
Although, of course, there is that £10 Lindt Chocolate Egg, touched by so many predecessors before you, those screaming children who demanded it on entry, fingering its luxurious, red wrapping. And you did touch your touch screen, after touching your basket, which touched the floor, which of course, was lifted and dragged and kicked by so many of your predecessors. You rub yourself down with hand sanitiser in a nearby alleyway and, as you squeeze out the last drop, realise you forgot to buy soap, if of course there was any. And soap, like wine, and chocolate, you will die without.
You return to the queue, to the very people you passed by before with that smug fearlessness. They all hate you. You smile at the security guard, who cannot see it. You pick up a bag of peas for health. You try to find the soap.