(Drafted before Christmas.)
Mask up, lost in thought in the queue, I overhear a fragment of a conversation. Two letters dart out like fingers: A, and E. But it's nearly Christmas, I think. All the people here in the supermarket are busy picking up chocolates, decorations, drinks and the daily newspaper. The annual selection of festive chart toppers is seeping out over the aisles in an attempt of normality. ("Last Christmas"?) A vaccine is on the way. How can anyone be in A&E? Didn't the world just stop this year? It must be the virus, surely.
Mask up, I load my basket onto the conveyor belt. It reminds me of a crematorium, except the items slide conveniently behind the clear plastic screen in front of the cashier. Transparent, cut off, the screen feels like a window, as if I'm being gently reassured that there's no embezzlement going on. I switch to thinking of an airport security scanner, uniformed guards peering into people's lives through oversized x-ray scans. Is it me rifling through the cashier's day as I pass by, or is she assessing me and my intent?
"How are you today?" I ask, muffled by mask cloth and nine months of conscious distancing. (Lockdown babies must be being born soon, "a decree went out that everyone must return to their birthplace".) She passes a loaf of bread to me. "Not too bad, thanks. How are you?" That polite, programmed response that comes out of all of us instinctively, a script that weaves us together and stops us going insane on an hourly basis. It jars awkwardly wih the conversation I just heard. The bread is too big for this bag, so I start filling a new one.
I can't help myself though. Maybe it's curiosity, fear of awkward silences, or an awareness of Christmas spirit. "Did you say you had someone in A&E?" I ask, trying to sound clear from under this mask. Without lips, my eyes and the inflections have to do the real talking, a tilt of the head carrying some hint of concern against the flow of incoming vegetables. From where I'm standing, I can talk to her without the screen in the way now. The lady in the queue behind me has started loading her shopping on to the belt - bottles of water and a glossy magazine. The thin aisle of the checkout lane acts as both a wall and a checkpoint between me and her.
Not Covid. Crohn's disease. I've heard of it but I'm a passer-by, a shopper, not a doctor. It's her son, in his twenties, taken in last night. Tests. Always tests. She hopes to hear something about the tests when she gets her lunch break. I mentally check my watch - lunch must feel like a million miles away right now. Meanwhile, more bread and chocolates and Christmas jumpers rolling past, more lives and small talk. Wham and Jesus.
The conveyor belt pauses sometimes, the never-ending line of processed goods being held up momentarily by an invisible thread being broken by something huge and global getting in the way. The lady in the queue behind carries on piling up her things into a neat stack while the belt remains motionless. As I watch, the stack turns into a tower - meat and yoghurt and tinned fruit form columns and terraces, dwarfing the line of waiting customers, all growing smaller as the heap gets higher. It looks stable even though I have to crane my neck to see the top. How does she pile it like that without it wobbling? I want to send a message down the space in the aisle, despatch a rodent with a letter asking her to wait. Even though the cashier is passing me more loaves of bread, the conveyor belt is still static and pensive.
I'm not a doctor, I can't fill the silence left by lab checks and sterilised floors. Hiding behind my mask again, I grab the bread and fill up another shopping bag. Seeded baps. White cobs. Baguettes until break. Loaves until lunch time. Bread. Always bread.