You can’t get a signal for a mobile in Margaret’s local supermarket and she tended to think that this wasn’t by chance. A person could get lost in there and never come out, stuck in a time warp where they couldn’t decide which biscuits to buy. An unwary person could be tricked into spending a fortune. There was a lot of reading to keep them busy and discourage them from going home: posters showing smiling people holding out plates of food with recipe leaflets underneath them, tiny samples of food to try, offers to work out and best of all a row of clear plastic bins telling you about local good causes where you could drop in a blue token they gave you at the till to support them. Of course Margaret didn’t know any of the people in the photographs above the bins which were supposed to help her choose but she used her common sense and it made her feel as though she was part of something. Carrier bag charge money paid for it, or so they said. It was all very surprising. It couldn’t amount to very much money really these days. You hardly ever saw people taking a plastic bag. Margaret herself had a rather nice brown canvas bag with a row of badgers on it which even went in the washing machine and a trolley with cow markings on it for her weekend shop. Sorted. People should think ahead.
Choosing the things that she wanted to buy was the bit that she enjoyed most. Now that Jack was no longer trailing behind her, making unwanted suggestions and getting in the way she could choose anything that she liked. The reduced section was her favourite part of her shop and that was always where she started, in case someone else got in first. Once she had found a whole lot of chicken drumsticks in a big tray for thirty five pence and gone straight home and cooked them all at once. She had lived off them for three days. She could take her time now and there were all kinds of things on the shelves to puzzle her. Things like Half Spoon which allowed a person to put a whole spoonful of “sugar” in their tea while consuming only half the calories and thin gossamer sheets to put in the drum of your tumble dryer to stop your clean washing smelling bad. In reality Margaret almost always bought the same things but she liked to look at the items that she might buy one day and wonder what you were supposed to do with them. In her young days a salad had been lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with a blob of salad cream. Nowadays you could spend a fortune on things that looked a bit like a lettuce, but weren’t, and people seemed to have completely forgotten how to chop things up for themselves. Someone else miles and miles away did it for them and sent it back in a plastic tub costing twice as much as it had done to start with. Madness.
Negotiating the tills was the difficult part. She had once picked out some mushrooms from a big box, nice ones, ones that she had chosen specially, and when she got to the till it refused to allow her to buy them. The assistant said that they had gone “off sale” and they were taken away from her. Ten minutes later she had watched the whole big box being taken from the veg section and carried through the plastic swing doors in shame to be dumped in the store room. The till bell had been rung and another assistant had been sent to fetch her a small plastic pack of shrink wrapped mushrooms as a replacement. They were not the same but if she had said so she would have had no mushrooms so she didn’t cause a fuss. The girl was only trying to help and she had learned that, when you reached a certain age, you were expected to knuckle down, just get on with stuff and avoid being a nuisance at all costs. Of course she must never mention what that certain age was, or not until she was so old that she became a national treasure…. or at least she would become a national treasure if anyone ever knew who she was. Young people could faff around as much as they wanted to of course. They didn’t get judged. Not like she was. An old person was judged by how much like a young person they could still manage to be. It was hard work. She had stopped using the self service tills now, even though she didn’t want to talk to anybody, because she was never fast enough. She knew exactly what to do but she was just never fast enough and the person guarding the tills insisted on helping her the moment they saw her hesitate. Once, when she had poked the wrong picture on the screen by accident she had been been carefully shown a picture of an apple by the assistant as though she had never seen one before. For a dreadful moment she had seen herself as they saw her. A little grey haired old woman who needed help. Vulnerable. Well she didn’t need help. Certainly not. She just wanted to be left in peace to do what she needed to do. So much talking. So much repetition There were only so many times you could explain that the trolley standing next to you meant that you didn’t need a bag and yes you were capable of packing it for yourself. The worst days were the ones when there were a whole lot of strangers with buckets wanting you to give money in exchange for mauling your food about and packing it in a way that you didn’t want it packed. It was like a hold up. On those days she did use the self service tills as they were the lesser of two evils.
The day when something surprising happened had begun well. Margaret had picked out a can of dog food to donate to the poor dogs who lived in concrete kennels and found king prawns in the reduced section- the ones with garlic and coriander that Jack wouldn’t eat and she really liked. She had reached the bread section and she was staring at the empty chute where the ciabatta rolls should be when she realised that there was an elderly gentleman right next to her, standing far too close. He was smart and bright eyed, with a nattily trimmed moustache. His shock of white hair was combed back neatly and he had dressed for the occasion in a tartan tie and a tweed jacket. He was having a day out among the aisles and he was looking at her curiously. So curiously in fact that, even though she never talked to people, she told him what was the matter.
“There are none of the bread rolls I like left.”
He looked at the empty plastic box where they would have been calmly.
“I don’t like any of the others.”
The last time this kind of thing had happened to Margaret there had been a bit of an incident in the bakery which had ended in a very nice young man having to cheer her up and wish her a nice day. She didn’t want any more trouble. The man smiled at her.
“You need to ask them. They will have some in the back, they always do.”
Margaret didn’t want to ask them and she didn’t want to be given advice by a man. Men of his age did come into supermarkets but they were usually sad broken figures trailing behind a domineering wife who pointed at things and ordered them about. They didn’t know what they were doing basically. If she asked about the rolls she might have to talk to the woman who had once come out to get another loaf, a replacement for the one that Margaret had given her to be sliced, after there had been a loud roaring noise. She had claimed that the machine had “ate it” and Margaret hadn’t been sure what to think. The loaf had still been warm and both of them should have known better. The nice young man might not be there to fend her off this time. The old gentleman (and he was most definitely a gentleman to his fingertips) thought that she was hesitating because she didn’t believe him.
“I know what goes on in here you see. I have come in here for a couple of hours every single day since my dear wife died in 2011, to fetch my bit of shopping, and I don’t miss much. My wife always did the shopping and I had a lot to learn. I know everything that goes on.”
Margaret tried to work out how many hours two hours every day for over seven years would add up to. Too many. It was a wonder she had never seen him but it was a big place and she knew from experience how easy it was to disappear in the aisles. It was an ability that she sometimes found very useful. A superpower. Not the kind of dramatic superpower that her grandson admired, throwing thunderbolts and shinning up buildings, but useful nonetheless. A quiet superpower, Very suitable for old age, so long as you could keep your mouth shut, which some people couldn’t. You were able to stand by and watch while people made complete fools of themselves right in front of you.
“Thank you very much.”
He looked at her expectantly. Margaret went over to ask the woman if they had any more rolls and she said that there would be some more in about ten minutes. He nodded encouragingly. She gave him a thin smile in return and wandered listlessly back towards the salad section, filling in time, trying to remember how many bananas there were left at home and how brown they might be, when she realised that he had followed her. He was standing by her right shoulder looking anxious.
“Excuse me. They said that they were bringing some out for you.”
She tried not to look irritated. He meant well.
“Yes, I know, but they said it would be in ten minutes.”
He shook his head and held his basket in front of him defensively.
“They will have put some out for you by now.”
He walked away, still shaking his head. In the distance Margaret could just about see that the empty plastic box had been filled with ciabatta rolls. When she went to get some they were only just baked through. It was annoying.
That was just the first day. For the next few days they nodded to each other. By the end of the first week Margaret knew that the man’s name was Harry and they had shown each other what was in their baskets. Exactly one month later they had a cup of tea together in the supermarket cafe and she found out that he liked prawns and would only ever use Fairy liquid. From then on they did their whole shop together each week, pointing out good offers and suggesting things for each other. Of course once they were married Margaret never allowed him to set foot in the supermarket again.