Supermarkets are much the same the world over — especially the queues at check-out points. What extraordinary things other people are buying! There are odd snatches of overheard conversation too. But what if one is living alone, 'Shopping for one'?
'So what did you say?' Jean heard the blonde woman in front of her talking to her friend.
'Well,' the darker woman began, 'I said I'm not having that woman there. I don't see why I should. I mean I'm not being old-fashioned but I don't see why I should have to put up with her at family occasions.1 After all...'
Jean noticed the other woman giving an accompaniment of nods and headshaking at the appropriate parts.2 They fell into silence and the queue moved forward a couple of steps.
Jean felt her patience beginning to itch.3 Looking into her wire basket she counted ten items. That meant she couldn't go through the quick till4 but simply had to wait behind elephantine shopping loads; giant bottles of coke crammed in beside twenty-pound bags of potatoes and 'special offer' drums of bleach. Somewhere at the bottom, Jean thought, there was always a plastic carton of eggs or a see-through tray of tomatoes which fell casualty to the rest.5 There was nothing else for it — she'd just have to wait.
'After all,' the dark woman resumed her conversation, 'how would it look if she was there when I turned up?'6 Her friend shook her head slowly from side to side and ended with a quick nod.
Should she have got such a small size salad cream? Jean wasn't sure. She was sick of throwing away half-used bottles of stuff.
'He came back to you after all,' the blonde woman suddenly said. Jean looked up quickly and immediately felt her cheeks flush. She bent over and began to rearrange the items in her shopping basket.
'On his hands and knees,' the dark woman spoke in a triumphant voice. 'Begged me take him back.'
She gritted her teeth together. Should she go and change it for a larger size? Jean looked behind and saw that she was hemmed in by three large trollies. She'd lose her place in the queue. There was something so pitiful about buying small sizes of everything. It was as though everyone knew.
'You can always tell a person by their shopping,'7 was one of her mother's favourite maxims. She looked into her shopping basket: individual fruit pies, small salad cream, yoghurt, tomatoes, cat food and a chicken quarter.
The cashier suddenly said, 'Make it out to J. Sainsbury PLC.' She was addressing a man who had been poised and waiting to write out a cheque for a few moments. His wife was loading what looked like a gross offish fingers8 into a cardboard box marked "Whiskas". It was called a division of labour.
Jean looked again at her basket and began to feel the familiar feeling of regret that visited her from time to time. Hemmed in between family-size cartons of cornflakes and giant packets of washing-powder, her individual yoghurt seemed to say it all.9 She looked up towards a plastic bookstand which stood beside the till. A slim glossy hardback caught her eye. The words Cooking for One screamed out from the front cover. Think of all the oriental foods you can get into,10 her friend had said. He was so traditional after all. Nodding in agreement with her thoughts Jean found herself eye to eye with the blonde woman, who gave her a blank, hard look and handed her what looked like a black plastic ruler with the words "Next customer please" printed on it in bold letters. She turned back to her friend. Jean put the ruler down on the conveyor belt.11
She thought about their shopping trips, before, when they were together. All that rushing round, he pushing the trolley dejectedly, she firing questions at him. Salmon? Toilet rolls? Coffee? Peas? She remembered he only liked the processed kind.12 It was all such a performance. Standing there holding her wire basket, embarrassed by its very emptiness, was like something out of a soap opera.
'Of course, we've had our ups and downs,13' the dark woman continued, lazily passing a few items down to her friend.
Jean began to load her food on to the conveyor belt. She picked up the cookery book and felt the frustrations of indecision. It was only ninety pence but it seemed to define everything, to pinpoint her aloneness, to prescribe an empty future. She put it back in its place.
'So that's why I couldn't have her there you see,' the dark woman was summing up. The friends exchanged knowing expressions and the blonde woman got her purse out of a neat leather bag. She peeled off three ten pound notes and handed them to the cashier.
Jean opened her carrier bag ready for her shopping. She turned to watch the two women as they walked off, the blonde pushing the trolley and the other seemingly carrying on with her story.
The cashier was looking expectantly at her and Jean realized that she had totalled up. It was four pounds and eighty-seven pence. She had the right money, it just meant sorting her change out. She had an inclination that the people behind her were becoming impatient. She noticed their stack of items all lined and waiting, it seemed, for starters orders.14 Brown bread and peppers, olive oil and, in the centre, a packet of beefburgers.
She gave over her money and picked up her carrier bag. She felt a sense of relief to be away from the mass of people. She felt out of place.15
Walking out of the door she wondered what she might have for tea. Possibly chicken, she thought, with salad. Walking towards her car she thought that she should have bought the cookery book after all. She suddenly felt much better in the fresh air. She'd buy it next week. And in future she'd buy a large salad cream. After all, what if people came round unexpectedly?