AN OPEN PEN CHRISTMAS: Methylated Spirits

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“Nous souffrons par les rêves. Nous guérissons par les rêves.”

Gaston Bachelard

We apologise for the long waiting times at the tills as I’m pushing or pulling my zebra-patterned trolley. Pushing or pulling with my left hand, my right hand with its fingers wrapped around the handle of a shopping basket. There must be thousands of us, moving chaotically and in different speeds, a whim of hungry and thirsty people who left everything until too late. And the sound of the wheels and the music playing in the background: dizzying, a weird muzak-like mantra sprinkled with dissonant overtones, barely audible over the noise, yet there. And the voices, muffled, and the mobile phones ringing unattended. And the faint infant shrieks and the unrecognisable growls, of joy or despair. And the other voices barking through the tannoy, accented and contrite and we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, Sainsbury’s would like to assure you that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience; Merry Christmas! Someone, actual people and not a recording, over and over, every other couple of minutes, word by word. It could be unnerving, yet an endearing hint of humanity can be discerned in these messages, in their tiny imperfections, in the repressed alienation and boredom of those sending these repetitive bottled messages into the void, for the minimum wage, on December 24.

Now by the vegetables section, by the cabbage, unable to move in any direction. An old lady with furious blue hair a couple of metres down is blocking the way — she’s surrounded by trolleys — she seems trapped. It looks bad but we’re all taking it rather well: no arguing, no pushing or shoving, no scenes of panic or collapse of the social order. Nothing save the occasional tut — there must be tut-tuts going on; timid tut-tuts and huffs masked by the ambient noise. We tut and huff unheard and wait for the old lady to figure out how to manoeuvre out of this mess. We wait, resigned.

Several minutes elapse and my phone battery goes from 91 to 73 while I read an opinion piece about a gadget that can detect your B.O. and tell you if you need a deodorant — very useful if you happen to lose the sense of smell, according to the writer. To stop the battery from reaching zero I check my list, a crumpled blue A4 sheet of paper: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa and some other stuff. And suddenly the old lady summons the courage, leaves the trolley unattended for a couple of seconds, grabs a bag of broccoli, comes back to her spot, and continues to move forward, pushing the other trolleys to the sides with hers.

We are free, the knot unknotted — we’re moving.

And soon some meat products ahead, we apologise for the long waiting times, we would like to assure you that everything is being done so that you have a great shopping experience. Turkey fillets, minced beef. But I’m going too fast and I slow down a bit and I feel a bump: a guy following me close has hit me with his own Sainsbury’s trolley. He doesn’t apologise and I don’t say anything. I just redistribute my weight and my trolley gets heavier and he can’t push anymore, while I move slowly closer to the left, feeling the weight of all his shopping, and then cut across to the other side, almost barging into a large woman with two large twins, seven to eight. I block their way with my basket, placing it at children’s face height. The two identically bloated gammon faces stop and then my body follows and after my body the trolley.

I grab two packs of turkey fillets and suddenly a hunch hits me as we apologise for the overcrowding and the long waiting times, once again, Merry Christmas! The list: asparagus, shallots, parsley, coriander, nu potatoes, organic quinoa, turkey fillets, mince beef, cream, cheddar, butter. Down: toilet paper. Further down mustard. Even further down: methylated spirits or firestarter fuel. A question mark next to these, I turn the page over. Chicken fillets, I knew it.

The chicken fillets are lying a bare metre down. I get two packs. British chicken, Union Jacked.

I make it to the end of the aisle and take a right turn. Trolleys here move with the order that arises out of chaos, given chaos enough time and space.

And then a left turn.

This aisle promises a world of dairy and cold meats and then cheese on my side and microwaveable foods on the other. Not many people round here — cheese people are now a diminishing demographic, suspiciously continental. I get a pack of cheddar — there is nothing but cheddar. Cheddar will have to do. I get three extra packs, in different shades of orange.

Now there are three lanes: two slow lanes by the fridges, where people move with difficulty, their direction and movements decided by the products; and one in the middle, a fast lane. In the sides, people wait with their trolleys in the ready position and then throw themselves seagull-like into the first available gap and disappear towards the fruits section, we apologise for the waiting times at the tills. I find a gap and disappear too.

More stasis. I rest the basket on my trolley, by the red grapes and the bananas — I gauge their curvature and don’t know what to think, my mind consumed with thinking of ways of getting out of this jam. I’m trapped between an abandoned fully loaded Sainsbury’s trolley and two old ladies chatting behind me. I have tried several times to push one of the abandoned trolleys without success, as the wheels are locked and end up banging against the aisle — I can’t move it from this angle. And it would be impolite to interrupt the old ladies’ conversation to make a move towards the other end — they seemed to be talking about religious fundamentalists, although now they seem to be talking about the weather.

I look at my phone: 65 percent and then at my list: all pretty straightforward until mustard. Which mustard? Dijon? English? American? Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Do they still stock Dijon in this supermarket we apologise for the long waiting times at the tills, we would like to assure me that everything is being done to guarantee that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas? And where are you supposed to find methylated spirits or firestarter fuel? Another five minutes go by until a big bald guy wearing a puffed-up Arsenal jacket pulls his trolley and starts moving. Now I’m free and walking aimlessly and soon I find myself not too far from the tills.

There are long queues — hundreds trapped in lines that end at the checkout and start somewhere in the middle of the supermarket. There are many men and women dressed with Santa Claus outfits, walking along the lines, handing chocolate to those waiting. Whoever thought of this chocolate ruse is a genius.

And now I’m walking down a fast lane and the products turn into a blur to my sides. I should stop someone from the staff and get directions but there’s no way I’ll be able to stop here so I keep walking, almost running, until suddenly and against all odds a clearing, by the cereals, a space between people trying to rejoin the circulation and I shove my trolley and then myself and it’s a tight space but big enough for one or two. Now I can breathe and watch the faces pass before me and feel nauseous.

I try to stop one of the Santa Clauses and I miss him by an inch as I have to move my trolley just in time to stop a woman from taking the place I’m keeping for the supermarket clerk when I manage to stop one, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s. Soon the woman is dragged by the flow and a she-Santa comes rushing in my direction. I grab her by the arm when she passes by and pull her next to me. She looks at me and smiles, I guess, for taking her out of that mess

“Hi,” I say.

“Hello sir,” she says. “Merry Christmas,” and she hands me a bonbon.

“Oh, thanks,” I say and I put it in my pocket.

“How can I help you?” she asks.

“Methylated spirits? Do you know where I can find them?”

“Methylated spirits?”

“Yes, it’s the thing used to light the fondue oven, or whatever you call that thing.”

“Never heard of such a thing. Let me check with my manager,” she says and gets a walkie talkie out of her pocket. She’s pretty: brunette, fine facial features under her Santa Claus’ beard. “Barney… Stock enquiry… Over… Barney… He can’t hear me,” she explains.

“It’s OK. I’m not in any rush,” I say.

“Barney… Stock enquiry please… Over…”

“Reading you loud and clear… Over…” says Barney.

“Stock check, please… Over…”

“Go… Over…”

“Methylated spirits… Over…”

“Say again? Over…”

“Yes: methylated spirits. Mike-Echo-Tango-…” I show her my list. “Hotel-Yoke-Love-Alpha-Tango-Echo-Delta. Spirits, as in spirits. Got it? Over…”

“Mike-Echo-Tango-Hotel-Yoke-Love-Alpha-Tango-Echo-Delta, spirits? Over…”

“Affirmative.”

“Roger. Never heard of it. I’m checking the system now… Over…”

“Thanks. Over… He’s checking.”

“Great,” I say. “Busy?

“Very busy,” she says, “I apologise for the waiting times and the overcrowding and I would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can so that you have a great shopping experience.” She takes a breath of air. “Merry Christmas,” she adds, and smiles.

“Merry Christmas, Virginia. Thanks for helping me, Virginia,” I say. She seems surprised that I know her name and then remembers that she’s wearing a name badge and her face relaxes.

“It’s OK. We’re here to help,” she says. I think I blush. She looks in the other direction.

“Vee… Do you copy? Over…” She lifts the walkie talkie.

“Reading you five Barney… Is it stocked? Over…”

“Negative… Over…”

“Can you try firestarter fuel? Over…”

“Sure… Firestarter as in fire starter? Over…”

“Yes… Over… Maybe we have more luck this time,” she says, Virginia.

“I appreciate your help, very much, Virginia,” I say and find out I like saying her name.

“Would you like another chocolate?” she asks.

“No, I’m OK, Virginia, I still have the other one.”

“OK.”

“Vee… Copy? Over…”

“Loud and clear… Over…”

“Also negative… Over…”

“Thanks Barney… Over…”

“Anything else Vee? Over…” She looks at me. I move my head to indicate a “no”.

“No, thanks, Barney… Over and out…”

“You’re welcome… Over and out…”

“Sorry, sir. No luck.”

“No worries, Virginia.”

“Maybe you can find something round the cleaning products section…” she says. “Something similar.”

“Thanks.”

“Or in the hardware shop next door.”

“I might try there,” I say. I don’t want the conversation to end.

“Anything else sir?” I think for a couple of seconds but unfortunately can’t think of anything.

“No. That’s all.”

“OK. I have to go. Merry Christmas,” she says.

“Merry Christmas, Virginia,” I say. She smiles and then turns around and disappears into the fast lane.

I try to spot her in the flurry of people coming and going but I can’t. She might have gone past me five thousand times already. She might have turned into particles.

The alcohol aisle. The smell coming from what could be broken bottles but could also be sweat. There are almost as many people here as there were near the tills. There are clerks everywhere and policemen carrying guns, ordering the lines of shoppers, directing them into the aisles, from either side into a sort of human funnel. Everything is incredibly efficient and the lines move fast and fearlessly. You can tell these people have been doing this for ages — it’s in their DNA.

I stop in a clearing and study the situation. They step into the aisle and they walk fast and their hands move from the shelves to the trolley and from the trolley to the shelves with determination, while the bodies circulate in a never ending stream. It reminds me of the Buddhists I saw walking around a praying wheel once in a temple in Katmandu. They would touch this or that other bell, they would avoid touching other ones. A Knowledge illuminated their practice. I lacked it there and I lack it here. But these people have it, the Knowledge. There they knew which bell to touch and here they know if white wine follows cider, where whisky is located in relation to brandy. They can recognise the labels, the semiotic clues. Or maybe they just grab whatever they can.

And suddenly the unforeseen: a bottle falls and apologies for the waiting times, Merry Christmas, and keep moving waves one of the policemen, and everyone just walks over the broken glass. A deflated look on the dropper’s face, for a millisecond, because he quickly grabs another bottle, and no longer looks deflated. At that moment I have my epiphany: obey the policemen, follow their gestures, get in, move fast, grab anything, and then get out on the other end of the boozing wheel. I rearrange my basket and zebra-coloured trolley; I will have to pull the trolley and carry the basket with the same hand. I’m ready.

I wait for the right moment while people of indeterminate class and age and gender pass before my eyes in a never ending parade, leaving no space for me to join them. And then a guy with coiffured hair, brown furry anorak — there’s a gap between him and a fat and slow guy wearing a tracksuit, walking after him. When the first one passes by my side I squeeze behind him. I can almost smell him. I CAN smell him — I can smell Kenzo for Men. And as we walk towards the booze “I won’t drop anything” I tell myself, and soon the policemen are just a couple of metres away, the closer one to me ordering people into lines, pointing the way with his Heckler & Koch MP5.

“Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Left. Left. Right. Right. Left,” says the brave Authorised Firearm Officer, a huge guy with his cap all the way down to his eyes. “Left,” he shouts at Kenzo for Men. “Right!” I get. And I’m in.

The first bottles fly fast before my eyes and I don’t grab any, too close for visibility, too many brands, too many colours, too many names for my illiterate eyes, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s and merry Christmas, and soon I’ve reached the end of the aisle without booze and turn right, grab a bottle, the first that comes my way, and shove it into one of the sides pockets of my trolley, and another right turn and two more bottles and cans, and when I’m half way through the aisle I grab some more things of whatever and put the things of whatever in my basket and soon I’m out, moving towards distant aisles, walking until I find a quiet spot in the deserted world foods section.

I’ve managed to bag a bottle of sherry, two alcopops, four cans of weak lager, one rosé wine, and a half-litre bottle of dessert wine.

And now I’ve walked the aisle from end to end several times and there’s no sign of anything remotely close to methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, no sign of anything flammable. I walk back to my trolley carrying a bag of toilet paper and kitchen rolls while I look around trying to identify the closest till. The closest one will have to do because I know for a fact that there won’t be a less busy one.

There’s a queue a few feet down. It’s ridiculously long and the shoppers are queueing by the purposely empty shelves. I grab my basket and my trolley, look in both directions and rush towards the queue. When I get there I rest the basket on top of the trolley and soon I’m not the last one any longer: a blonde young woman stops behind me. She looks blushed — perhaps she’s had a hard time looking for her own version of methylated spirits or firestarter fuel, or perhaps she’s like that. Then I recognise Kenzo for Men in the line leading to the other till — he’s red too. That’s when I clock that everyone is red and that I’m feeling quite hot. Just to confirm my discovery, a metallic voice announces that Sainsbury’s regrets to inform you that the air conditioning has stopped working but we would like to assure us that everything is being done to get it back on so that you have a great shopping experience, Merry Christmas! I take my jacket off and leave it hanging from my trolley. The others don’t do the same as they’re all carrying baskets. I feel a sense of solidarity and turn around.

“Do you want to rest your jacket here?” I ask the woman. She’s wearing headphones, the white cables popping out of her ears and disappearing into her clothes.

“Sorry?”

“Do you want to rest your jacket here? It’s hot.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” she says and I feel stupid. I turn back to face the front of the queue. I feel a pat on my shoulder.

“You know… this is a basket only till,” she says, poker faced.

“Sorry?”

“Yes,” she says and points to a sign at the end of the aisle. It looks like a basket and has some letters that I can’t read from here.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“When I started queueing that sign wasn’t visible,” I say.

“Sure,” she says and puts the headphones back on and looks at her phone.

I focus again on the sign. I can’t really tell if it says it’s for baskets only, but I’m certain that the drawing is a basket. And everyone around me only carries baskets. She must be right but I’m also right — I didn’t see the sign when I joined the queue. She might have been here before, she must know the place. But I won’t get out of the queue now that the tills are already in sight. I’m sure that this sign isn’t valid on a day like today. She taps me on the back again.

“I think you should go to the other tills. You’ll queue all the way to the front and then they’ll send you somewhere else.”

“Thanks for your concern,” I say.

“It’s unfair,” she says.

“I might have fewer things than you anyway!” I say, looking at her basket, overflowing with sweets and Nurofen, and all sorts of little things in small plastic bags.

“That’s not the point,” she says. “I’ve got a basket. This queue is for baskets only,” she says.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I say but I can’t be sure if she hears me or not because once more she’s wearing her headphones and staring at the light in the palm of her hand.

By now the other people in the queue are aware of our conversation. I can feel their red faces staring in my direction. It’s tense and I should go but I won’t. I’ll queue all the way up to the tills and if I have to go somewhere else afterwards, I’ll go. Another tap on my shoulder and I turn around with hatred bursting through my eyes.

“Hi,” says Virginia, with her Santa beard pulled under her chin.

“Oh, hi!” I say.

“Did you have any luck with what was it?

“Methylated spirits or firestarter fuel?”

“Yes.”

“No luck,” I say.

“Well, try the hardware shop.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Would you like a bonbon?”

“Sure,” I say. “Thanks a lot!”

“My pleasure.” She passes me a bonbon and I put it in my pocket, where I put the other one earlier.

“Can I ask you something, Virginia?”

“Sure,” she says and smiles.

“I’ve just realised that I’m in the wrong queue. Apparently this one is for baskets only.” Virginia looks at the end of the line. “I couldn’t see the sign when I started queueing. It was too far away,” I say.

“Oh!” she says.

“It’s not my fault,” I say.

“It’s not your fault,” she agrees.

“Because the lady here is adamant that I’m in the wrong queue,” I say and nod towards the woman, who pretends she’s not listening.

“Where did you start queueing?” asks Virginia.

“Over there,” I point. “At the very end of this aisle, by the toilet paper.”

Virginia walks to end of the line, when she gets there she points to an imaginary space with both her index fingers. I give her a thumbs up. She looks in the sign’s direction. Then comes back to my spot.

“It’s true. There’s no angle,” she says. “Stay in this queue. I’ll tell the cashier.”

“You’re amazing! Thanks a lot Virginia.”

“You’re welcome,” she says.

“Great,” I say.

“Would you like another bonbon?”

“Sure. Thanks,” I say.

“There you go. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Virginia.”

“Great. I need to get going,” she says.

“Right. Thanks for your help.”

“I’ll tell the cashier now to let you go through.”

“Thanks. Zebra pattern — unmissable.”

“True,” she says and chuckles. “Bye!”

“Bye, Virginia…” She walks away. I watch her disappear towards the tills. I turn around to face the woman behind me.

“Did you hear what she said?” She takes her headphones off.

“What?”

“Yes. Did you hear that? She said I can stay in this queue.”

“Sorry. I wasn’t listening.”

“I think you were listening.”

“Whatever,” she says. I don’t answer back.

The guy before has laid several bags of peanuts on the belt, more than ten, we would like to assure you that we are doing everything we can to fix the air conditioning, merry Christmas! Peanuts, only peanuts. The belt moves a few millimetres forward. I start unloading my shopping in the free space, a couple of bottles that I lay horizontally. When the belt moves again the bottles rattle. He turns back to look at them. I continue pulling things from my trolley. He seems irritated — he looks at my dessert wine and my alcopops with anxiety. Suddenly he moves forward and gets a plastic divider and shoves it in between my bottles and his peanuts. Then he looks at me. I don’t look back at him and just continue to unload. The belt continues to move and I slowly finish emptying my trolley. A couple of minutes pass in which the belt doesn’t move. Then it moves just a little bit and then it stops again. I hear huffing and I raise my head. The guy is tapping his feet on the ground, the woman before him has stopped bagging her items. The cashier is looking around with a concerned expression. There are some blue lights flashing on top of the till.

“The till system is down. It’ll only be a couple of minutes. Apologies for any inconvenience caused!” she says. The guy huffs and I huff too and the woman at the front huffs too and the woman behind me huffs as well. The cashier stands up from her seat and looks around. She waves her hands in the air towards the end of the checkouts. “Sorry!” she says to the old lady and sinks back into her seat. I get my phone out and check the time: it’s late, the hardware shop must have closed already. What will happen if the system can’t be fixed? There’s no way I’ll go back to the end of the queue. I’ll probably just walk away with an empty trolley. I put back my phone in my pocket and get my hand dirty with the melted chocolate, from the three bonbons, now an amorphous mass. I get the blob out of my pocket and throw it on the floor: it explodes into a brown stain.

Time does what time does and nothing really changes but the fact that we are two minutes older. The lights keep flashing and the cashier keeps moving her head in every direction. I feel sorry for her because it looks as if her head could become unscrewed from her neck. She seems pretty much near meltdown and I wouldn’t be surprised if she started crying and walked out of her job, thank you for shopping at Sainsbury’s, merry Christmas! But I can’t help huffing in unison with everybody else. And to make matters worse I can feel Peanut Man inspecting my things, again. He won’t stop glaring over my products. At first I thought it was paranoia, the unfounded suspicion that I might want to get him to pay for my things, but now I realise his is simply the lowest and mundanest form of resentment. I can feel his eyes going over my stuff. Stopping at the olive oil. Jumping to my Dijon mustard. Moving towards the washing up tablets. Coming back to the alcopops. The olives. The grisini. Chicken. Salmon. Organic quinoa. Perhaps he’s mentally calculating my bill. Perhaps he sees me as the paroxysm of the Metropolitan Elite. God knows what he’s thinking but I can tell he hates me. Suddenly the lights stop flashing.

A red chubby guy in a Santa costume is standing next to our cashier now. He’s touching the screen. Our cashier seems more relaxed. He gets a set of keys from somewhere below his huge Santa belly and inserts them next to the printer. A loud noise and the belt advances a couple of centimetres. I feel like cheering — everyone must but nobody does.

“Thanks Barney,” says the cashier. Thanks Barney.

“You’re welcome,” says Barney and he walks away, in his Santa outfit, a hero without a cape.

The cashier goes back to her normal position, the products fly from her hands to the ramp and from the ramp to the polyethylene bags and the belt moves and the system is functional again and I pull my basket from the depths below the till, and I gradually empty it, oblivious to Peanut Man, and soon the old lady pays and leaves. Charging ten bags of peanuts mustn’t be that hard as I’m soon facing the cashier.

“Hi. Merry Christmas. Thanks for waiting and apologies for the delay,” she says.

“Merry Christmas. Don’t worry. I’ve got a trolley,” I say. “It’s that OK? Virginia, said it was OK.” She gets up slightly from her seat and checks my trolley out.

“Oh, it’s you,” she says and smiles. “Yes, it’s fine! Don’t worry. She said the sign wasn’t visible from the start of the queue, right?”

“Exactly. Thanks a lot,” I say and I turn around to face the woman behind me: she’s gone.

“No problem,” says the cashier and starts moving my shopping over the laser. “Do you need any bags?”

“Just one or two,” I say.

“Sure,” she says. “Nice trolley.”

“Thanks!” I say.

She seems quite happy. She must be heat-struck in that costume but she’s happy.

Wine. Chicken. Mustard, Dijon. Tuna. Olives. Organic quinoa. From her hands to the ramp into the trolley. Heavies always go at the bottom; lights on top. Eggs will be waiting for a while, to go on top of everything else. Toilet paper and kitchen rolls in bags, hanging from the side, rattling noiselessly all the way home. And so on and everything must end and I’m finishing my packing. Before putting away the Italian antipasto selection I fan my face with it.

“It’s so hot in here,” I say.

“Terribly hot,” she says. Have you got Nectar card?” she asks, smiling.

“Nope. Sorry.” I always say sorry.

“It’s two-hundred—eighty-four fifty-eight,” she says and I shove my Visa Debit in the card reader. “Thanks for shopping at Sainsbury’s, have a merry Christmas,” she says, scratching her Santa beard.

“Merry Christmas,” I say. And then I walk out into the cold night.

o          o          o

Fernando Sdrigotti

lives in London. Twitter: @f_sd.

Fernando’s Christmas song for Open Pen:

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