Friday, July 24, 2009


Most of the checkouts have a line of overloaded trolleys behind them, guarded by the zoned-out, the frazzled, and the weary. Aisles one and two are labelled, "Express - 8 items or less". I have one item: a box of Panadol; and I'm keen to use it. I stand at the end of the queue for aisle one.

I glance over at aisle two, looking for confirmation that I made the right selection. The queues do seem roughly the same length, so I'm happy.

I decide that there must be a lot of variables that affect how long I'm going to have to wait here; it can't just be about queue length. I start checking out the baskets and bags of those ahead of me, and compare them those in aisle two. I'm soon convinced that the aisle one customers ahead of me have taken more liberties with the eight item restriction. Clearly, the eight item rule is not enforced; and without enforcement, there is no law.

I hold my box of Panadol as conspicuously as I can manage - without appearing to be a psychopath - in the hope that someone ahead of me will be filled with guilt, or compassion, or both, and let me in ahead of them. It has happened to me before; I'm sure. It doesn't happen now, though.

It seems that the other queue is shorter now. I'm about to step across when a woman with a wide rear end arrives. I decide to stay with aisle one; though I'm satisfied that her decision confirms my judgement: the other queue was shorter.

I stand waiting, beneath the glaring, slightly flickering, fluorescent lights, listening to inane elevator-style music interspersed by the occasional unintelligible garble of some announcement. For all I know, those messages could be pleas to evacuate the building because of bomb, a fire, or imminent structural collapse; there just isn't any way to know. I suppose that the tone of the voice - which is all I can make out - points more toward boredom than panic. None of the staff abandon their posts, so I stick it out.

I keep standing, and waiting. I think that my brain may be dying, and that my headache is just one of the symptoms. I've been drifting - not watching the checkouts properly - and as I look across at aisle two I almost swear aloud. The woman with the wide load is now the next to be served, yet there are still three people ahead of me in aisle one. Clearly another variable affecting waiting time exists that I failed to properly consider: operator speed. How did I miss that?

I need to re-evaluate my position. There are now another three people behind the large woman. I decide that it's still worth my while to change aisles. I complete the manoeuvre deftly, just making it into the other line ahead of an elderly man with some Polydent and generic brand aspirin. I look up to see the operator of my abandoned checkout glaring at me. It's only now that I notice she only has one arm. I suddenly feel very small; guilty, and dirty, even.

I want to go back to aisle one now, to make amends with the amputee lady, and show that I meant nothing personal by deserting her. It was observation, logic and reason that led me away; it wasn't about her, directly. Going back is the only solution.

I realise that I can't go back to aisle one. The greybeard with the dentures that I almost bowled over is on the end of the queue; and when I look sideways at him, I can see that he is looking sideways at me. Crazy old man. He'd think I was insane if I now went into the line behind him. I don't like people thinking I'm insane. He may think I'm stalking him; which would be worse. At least in aisle two I'll be out of the shop quicker now, no matter how bad I feel.

I stick with aisle two, and wait. Suddenly, out of the background music, the murmuring, and the beeping of the registers, I hear raised voices. I look up to see the woman with the large backside arguing with the checkout operator, who's no spring chicken. She's short and thin, and her hair has been rinsed purple. She's also certain that she was given a twenty-dollar note, but Mrs Largebottom insists it was a fifty. This could get ugly. I turn to check out the progress in aisle one as Miss Purplehead rings her bell for the supervisor.

The one-armed lady now has four more people in her queue. I turn to the other, non express aisles, and see a mass of trolleys, mothers and children. I'm about to cut my losses and go for aisle one when the music is again interrupted by an announcement which this time, I can understand. "Price check aisle one." No! Not aisle one!

The mild headache I came into the store with is becoming a living, exploding, thing. I toss the Panadol onto a counter-top display of bubble-gum and walk out the store, between aisles one and two, squeezing roughly between Mrs Largebottom and the man with The Price is Wrong. I only hope I have escaped in time, with my sanity still intact. I doubt it.

1 comment:

Bernard said...

We've all been there. Maybe not as the first person character; but perhaps as the dazed mother with the overloaded trolley, or as the person who gets change for a twenty from a fifty.

There's actually a lady with one arm that's a checkout operator at my local Woolworths, which was the inspiration for that idea - in the sense that for no real reason you can feel awkward about not choosing her aisle, even if the queue is longer - it's hard to explain. She's actually no faster or slower than any other operator: I made up that part.