Photo: Mich Haupt
Halfway across the carpark and I remember the reusable bags in the car. Should probably get the bags. Should probably do the right thing. I get the bags. The climate apocalypse is delayed by a fraction of a fraction of a second – thanks to me.
A sign above the superstore’s automatic doors says: Covid 19. Controlled entry. Wait until the green light shows. The red light makes me wait. First and only in the queue. Can’t see any customers in the store. Step a bit closer to the automatic door. It doesn’t open. Step closer again, the tip of my nose is almost against the glass now. Wave my hand under the motion sensor. Nothing.
Is the shop actually open? The felt tipped opening hours sign is smudged and unreadable. It could already be out of date. It’s supposed to be 24 hours.
Could just Deliveroo food for the date. That’s not great though. Cooking is sensual and shows you are skilled with your hands and mind, shows a generosity of spirit. Ordering a Deliveroo shows you know how to use another app, not just Tinder. You can use Tinder for food too.
Cooking or not, this date tonight must happen. In person. Weeks of lockdown have left me…
The light above the door turns green and the automatic doors open unapologetically.
Forgot the fucking mask too. Just got to move quickly. Tell them I’m exempt if they ask. I know where almost everything is. I’ve made this meal a few times before. Hand-made harissa crab-cakes, the perfect second date meal at your place. Make them together, four hands in the mixing bowl, fingers touching by accident. No more video calls. Lockdown busting dates in person only now.
There are no employees in the first couple of aisles. The flutes that are supposed to hold flowers out to customers as they enter the store are empty except for putrid puddles of water. A neon light flickers above me and dies casting the flowerless aisle into a greyer din.
A prerecorded message plays over the store speakers, “We would like to remind customers of the current government guidance that requires the wearing of masks in public places for those without exemptions.” Passive voice. Distant and blameless but official and authoritative. I pull my shirt over my nose for a few seconds.
“We request that customers observe the one way system,” another announcement informs me. There are arrows stuck to the floor in brand colours. How does a one-way system stop…?
Don’t think about it too hard. Focus on tonight.
The fruit section has several empty trays that sport notices saying, “Due to supply chain…” blah blah blah. No more smashed avocado on sourdough. They say women are hurt most by the lockdown.
There are no individual limes left either, only nets of mixed lemons and limes. The sign says due to supply chain problems individual limes are not available. Only mixed bags of citrus. Make it make sense.
A funk surfs on a wave of air-conditioning. Some of the fruit is rotting. Not my catch of citrus, but other things. The fur of some of the kiwis are pockmarked with mould. Oranges are deflating. The salad section is also degrading. Nothing really feels clean but I find a few untarnished ingredients.
“We would like to remind customers that current government guidance requires the wearing of…”
In the chilled meats section an employee is packing cold cuts into a refrigerated shelf. She is massive. Ankle fat spills over crocs as she bends down. Her face is double masked – a surgical mask behind a plastic visor. She sees me approach, maskless, and presses herself against the shelves. I am unclean.
My phone buzzes, it’s my date, cancelling. A long-winded message. She doesn’t feel comfortable meeting up because blah blah and she is seeing her vulnerable grandma this weekend blah blah and then three 😭 emoji at the end. Apologies for cancelling sooooooo late.
I send her a picture of the basket with the message, yeah a bit late. Then mute and archive her chat.
Now what? Make the crab cakes for myself or get something else? I’d have to go against the one-way system to get something else. I’d probably get away with it. But it just takes one righteous lockdown chud with a phone camera. Just do the crab cakes for yourself.
In the canned goods aisle a couple of pensioners are taking their time. They’re wearing industrial style masks, the one with a plastic valve in the fabric. Both are wearing latex gloves that make their hands look like the plastic witch fingers you see at hallowe’en.
Behind me the pitter patter and delighted squeal of a child. She’s gone before I can see. For a moment I feel… like I want her to save me.
The pensioners glare at me. The woman shakes her head and points at her mask. I’m medically exempt, I tell them, but why bother? The man lifts his glasses and scratches his eye, still wearing the gloves. What’s the point of the gloves then? I ask. There’s a virus, he says. No, I mean… Make it make sense.
In the next aisle I feel a headache coming on. My brain feels heavy, banging against the inside of my skull. I just need a rest, this lockdown shit is too much. Just let me kneel down and close my eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” a young girl asks. She’s maybe eight or nine years old. Matte black skin, sharp cheekbones, big inquisitive eyes. She’s wearing an ankle-length, long-sleeve dress. Green with a golden feather pattern.
Just a little headache, I tell her, but I feel fine now. “Have you heard of COVID 19?” she asks. I tell her, yes, but I don’t think I have that. “You should get a test,” she says.
Where are your parents? I ask her. She raises one eyebrow, turns and runs away. Her laughing bounces down the aisle, her green dress whips at her ankles, threatening to trip her. I make a mental note to look out for any customers who might be her parents.
Sometimes harissa paste is in the sauces aisle, sometimes it is in the world food aisle. This time it is in the sauces aisle. There are lots of other hot sauces. Tempted to get one. Carolina Reaper sounds like something I should have. Try it once and never again. Then let it slowly rot at the back of the refrigerator.
More laughter and rattling behind me. The girl in the green dress is running down my aisle with a large box of candied American cereal. The box is open, the luminescent marshmallow shapes are spilling onto the floor. Hello again, I say. She laughs and pours out the cereal into a semi-circle on the floor around my feet.
“Quarantine,” she giggles and runs away. Where are the parents?
Sir, sir, we have to close this aisle for a deep clean, a female member of staff, with closely cropped green hair, mumbles at me through her visor and mask. Behind her another double-masked member of staff is cordoning off the aisle with signs that say, C-19 deep clean. Someone announces over the loudspeakers that aisle thirteen is closed due to a spillage. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
It’s just some spilt cereal, you just need a… I begin but she talks over me. Sir, we need to control your child. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we have… I talk over her, she’s not my… sir, you have to keep your distance, you’re not wearing a mask, we are trying to protect our staff from… can you help me, I need to find… sir, please, you’re making the staff unsafe…
Fuck it, off to the beer aisle. But I see the girl in the confectionery aisle. She’s opened a bag of rubbery sweets, her cheeks are bulging.
Stop opening things, I say, your parents will be furious. “You’re my dad,” she says, playfully. No, we need to find your dad, I tell her. She offers the bag to me, some sweets drop onto the floor. I take the whole bag off her. She squeals a laugh and skips away
Sir, please, you’re going to have to pay for that, the green haired staff member says to me. Is she following me? I put the half-eaten packet of sweets into my basket performatively. Someone announces over the loudspeaker that a deep clean is required on aisle 15. Really?
The girl is in the soft drinks aisle now eyeing a 2 litre bottle of cherry cola. Let’s find your parents, I say. “I want a toy,” she says. I tell her I will get her a toy once we find her parents. “But you’re my dad.” Just follow me, I tell her, and she does.
There has to be someone at the checkouts I can actually speak to. We head there. The girl reaches her hand up, grabs three of my fingers and pulls almost imperceptibly towards the toy aisle. Like a dwarf-planet in a gentle, irregular orbit, not even aware it’s under the sun’s spell.
Only one of the legacy checkouts, the ones with conveyor belts and a real person, is open. But it is manned by a napping teenager using his chin diaper as a sleeping mask. No point bothering with him.
There is nobody at the self-service checkouts either but I have an idea. Dump the basket into the bagging area. The till starts to emit a grating, ersatz ringing sound in between choruses of, unauthorised item in the bagging area.
“When can we look at toys?” she asks, gently tugging on my fingers. Just one minute, I say, I promise.
The tobacco kiosk, surely someone will be there. There is. It is attended by a woman who can only just be old enough to smoke herself. Her bleached hair is in a tight ponytail that pulls the unmasked half of her face into a formless plane. The bottom half of her face dons a surgical mask soiled with make-up and doesn’t cover her nose properly.
Can you help me find this girl’s… But she also talks over me. It must be part of the training here. She tells me, I can’t show you the cigarettes, it’s against the law. You have to ask for the brand you want… I don’t want cigs I just need to find… you need to ask for the brand you want. Can you take a step back? You’re not wearing a mask… What’s wrong with everyone here?
“But you’re my dad,” says the girl, irritated and concerned now. I know, I say. This is just a game. “I don’t want to play a game. Can we look at toys now?” Yes, I say, and she leads me to the toy aisle.
She picks a sort of princess diorama that folds up into a tomb-like case. I nod my approval. It is neat and will be easy to store at home. I pay for the toy at the self-service checkout. The woman at the tobacco kiosk is still glaring at me from afar. Someone has left a basket in the bagging area. Its contents have rotted. Just a pile of mould around a jar and some tins. Nobody has even cleaned it up.
As soon as the soulless transaction is complete, Kristine asks, “Can I hold the toy?” You can, I say, but don’t open it until we get home.
The one way system forces us to leave through different doors. From the car I can see another man, roughly my age, staring at the red light above the entrance, waving his hand under the sensor.
Once Kristine is strapped into the booster seat in the back, I buckle myself in. She catches my eye in the mirror. Shall we get pizza on the way home, I ask. She squeals a positive response. I start the car. The radio turns on. Two people are arguing about the changes to the lockdown restrictions. “I want to listen to Frozen,” says Kristine. So we turn on the Frozen soundtrack instead.
Let. It. Go.