I asked my son Toby what he would like for Christmas. Usually I select a present on his behalf, but at almost four years old, I noticed he was beginning to form his own opinions and tastes; It was time for him to have a say in the matter and write a letter to Santa Claus.
‘What would you like from Father Christmas?’ I asked him one day in front of a festive Peppa Pig.
He was adamant: ‘Chainsaw. Please Daddy.’
I thought this was a strange idea, so I asked him again.
‘Well, I’m not sure if I want a chainsaw, or Spider-Man costume,’ he replied. ‘…but I think I want chainsaw.’
Toby is an intelligent child, so I pressed him further, asking him to tell me just how much he wanted a chainsaw.
‘Well, Daddy,’ he told me. ‘Forty-eight percent of me wants a Spider-Man costume, and fifty-two percent of me wants chainsaw.’
It seemed to me to be an intelligent enough response, and Toby had been a good boy that year.
‘Very well. A chainsaw it is! I shall have a word with Santa.’
I immediately settled back in my chair and returned to my newspaper.
Later, after Toby had gone to bed, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts on our child’s Christmas present. I beamed and told her everything was already in hand. In accordance with his wishes Toby would be getting a chainsaw from Father Christmas.
My wife stared at me. Her lips began to purse and a small, but noticeable vein began to throb in her head.
‘You’re doing fucking what!?’ she asked.
I explained to her that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that.
‘Christ!’ she exclaimed, ‘How could you be so irresponsible? Do you even realise how crazy that sounds? Giving a chainsaw to a child? What do you think is going to happen?’
I explained, again, that I had asked Toby, Toby wanted a chainsaw, and that was that. After a lengthy debate and much screaming, neither of us were in a position to relent. I ended the argument by calling my wife a traitorous whore, and a bad parent for not obeying the legitimate will of our offspring. I also made a note to orchestrate a hate campaign against her on social media once she went to bed.
That will convince her, I told myself.
The next day she asked Toby what he wanted from Father Christmas, in full view of myself and in nothing less than a transparent gambit hopping the child has changed his mind. To my delight, Toby began dancing around the room shouting “Chainsaw!” repeatedly.
‘Are you sure?’ asked my villainous spouse.
‘CHAINSAW!’ screamed Toby, ‘CHAINSAW MEANS CHAINSAW!’
I smiled at my wife, pleased that my son’s outburst should stop her fear-mongering once and for all.
‘Sorry darling. Spider-Man lost. Chainsaw won. Get over it.’
As I hoped, she has barely spoken to me since.
I explained the situation to my friends at the pub. They all agreed with me.
My best friend Rupert, said yes, I should definitely buy Toby a chainsaw. He even offered to sell me one, as by a fortunate coincidence he happened to own a controlling stake in the local chainsaw factory.
My other friend Boris was hesitant at first, but then followed everyone else. I suspect Boris is an idiot, and had probably been drinking all day. He’s always to be seen propping up the bar and starting fights for the hell of it, but I’m pleased to be vindicated by him nonetheless.
Tim – the pub landlord – also thought this was a good idea, and immediately began to draw chainsaws on all the beermats. He regularly writes a humorous newsletter for his customers, and he promised me he would make sure the next issue would be full of pictures of children holding chainsaws. I have no idea why Tim is so passionate about this, but this is all grist to my yuletide mill.
Nigel, the local bus driver, overheard and also chipped in, telling us that he’s been saying that children should be able to play with chainsaws for years, and that this is a great opportunity to take control over who tells us whether it’s safe to buy a child a chainsaw or not. Sure enough, on the following day, Nigel’s bus overtook me on the high street. He had painted a giant chainsaw on the side. He gave me the thumbs up as he passed.
His purple gargoyle face radiated pure joy from underneath his festive hat.
At home, my treacherous wife made me watch a BBC news report on why giving chainsaws to children could be considered dangerous. I laughed at her and wrote a stern letter to the broadcasting ombudsman, complaining about such flagrant bias in the media.
Shortly afterwards, Toby came downstairs crying: Through mostly unintelligible sobs he told me he’d seen other children playing Spider-Man, and had decided that he needed a costume of his own so he didn’t feel left out in the playground.
‘Daddy!’ he cried. ‘I don’t want a chainsaw no more. Can Santa give me a Spider-Man costume?’
‘No,’ I told him. ‘You asked for a chainsaw, and now you’re getting one. Besides, I’ve already placed the order with Santa and his elves. It’s on its way. There’s no going back now.’
I noticed my wife had started sobbing too, but I think this is due the all the threats she’s been getting on Twitter rather than anything I’ve done wrong.
My son’s chainsaw was delivered by a woman whose name badge read “Theresa”. She initially looked a little hesitant, as if she didn’t agree with giving a child a chainsaw, but eventually she handed over the package without any meaningful fuss.
Toby was very excited on Christmas morning.
My wife was not excited at all and seemed to be cowering in the corner as if expecting something very bad to happen.
‘You are an enemy of this family,’ I told her as my son greedily tore the wrapping paper and began to open the box.
Toby was initially cautious, but once I got the saw blades going for him he seemed to be having a whale of a time. He tried out his new toy on the coffee table, reducing it to splinters and matchwood within a matter of seconds.
My wife wasn’t paying attention. Her hands were in front of her eyes, shielding her sight as Toby moved on to attack the corners of the footrest before shaving off random chunks of the television stand. He was having the time of his life.
I’m not sure what happened next, but I think Toby tried to lift the chainsaw higher so he could attack parts of our mantelpiece. The weight of the tool got the better of him. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, with the chainsaw following after him. Out of control, it began sawing at his left arm, just above the elbow, sheering through his juvenile flesh and bone instantaneously. The harrowing pain made him convulse and jitter on the floor, bouncing the saw across his body, causing further deep lacerations before it settled on the opposite limb.
My haemorrhaging son jived wildly in pain. Thick rivulets spouted from his arteries as his Christmas present jerked itself loose and began working on another extremity.
It was only when the chainsaw cut its own power cord that the carnage was over. Its mighty teeth finally ground to a halt.
I found myself thinking that I should have asked for a receipt.
My wife was on the floor, screaming and cradling our son’s bloody torso. Her cascading tears mingled with the weakening jets of bloody spray. The child was bleeding out, and would eventually end up a quadruple amputee at best. She screamed at me that she knew this was going to happen all along.
I looked at my wife and what was left of my son as he pumped out wet arcs of scarlet. After a few moments of shock I decided to pack my bag. My wife would have to clean up the mess on her own, or perhaps she would find another husband in about five years who would be able to deal with the problem.
As I was putting on my coat, she was still holding what was left of our son in one hand, while trying to call for an ambulance with the other. I explained that medical help would not be coming because I had cancelled our health insurance in order to pay for Toby’s Christmas present. Neither of them seemed even remotely grateful for the sacrifice.
I slammed the door behind me, muffling the screams and bloody chaos. It occurred to me that even if we could save my son’s life, the damage done to the lounge will be tremendous, and there’s no way I was going to scrub the wallpaper, let alone mop up. It’s not like I even liked Toby anyway.
I waited for the bus to take me as far away as possible, but after a while it was clear that it wasn’t going to turn up. Apparently they don’t run on Christmas day, so Nigel had gone on holiday to America to see a pen pal of his.
They stayed in a big hotel with a golden lift.
o o o
is a fiction writer. You can find his short stories online.
“Nous souffrons par les rêves. Nous guérissons par les rêves.”
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?”
“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…”
“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…”
“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…”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.