Earlier today I queued for nearly three hours to score my anti-depressants and it really got me down. But I managed to do a fair bit of eavesdropping, which is a hobby I haven’t been able to indulge for ages because of self-isolation. So as I ear-wigged the two guys in front of me in the queue, I was reminded of my short story called Closed Shop which appeared in Simian Tales a couple of years back. Back home, I dug out the story and read it again, thinking I could tweak it and reset it in present day England. In the spirit of attempting to entertain and cheer up my loyal readers (thank you Kevin in Essex) I show it again below…
On a sunny Friday as boring as a Sunday I joined the supermarket queue. We seemed an odd gang of souls, clinging to our trollies, staring blankly forwards, doing as we were told with grim and British patience.
“Fifteen minutes I reckon,” said a man with glasses to another without glasses.
“It’ll soon pass,” said the one with twenty-twenty vision.
“What bargain are you after?” asked the first man.
“None in particular,” lied the second.
“Me neither,” lied the first, “Just a few bits for the weekend.”
“Me too,” lied the second.
“I make it ten now,” said the first.
“It’ll soon pass,” repeated the second.
But it did not soon pass. It did not soon pass at all, because I was subjected to ten minutes that felt like hours of the most banal, brutally inane tripe that had the nerve to try and pass itself off as conversation. Cars was a topic of debate, as was football or the lack of it. At one point I felt compelled to chip in but despite my polite intervention I did not get very far. The two men had formed a bond, two being company a third making a crowd, which at the time of writing is illegal. This was a closed shop. Somehow though, I sensed their not wanting a crowd was not because of the virus but because they feared a newcomer might jump the queue, nab the bargain they’d seen in the local rag and which was in limited stock due to the virus. A newcomer would lengthen the odds. And so they left me in isolation and continued their conversation.
I am glad I am not like you, I thought, I am glad I am not you – a closed-shop duo breaking the monotony between occasional shuffles forward. I looked up at the sky, brightly-lit but birdless, trying not to listen, wishing I were somewhere, anywhere else, because this was like death, this was meaningless, this was like being in a Kafka novel or a Pinter play. But the odd couple were warmed up now, they were getting on, they were bonding and keeping their distance.
“Terrible business though,” said the one with glasses.
“It is,” agreed the one without.
“You’d think they’d have a cure by now.”
“Or a vaccine.”
“What about Bojo?”
“Is that a vaccine?”
“No. Bojo. Boris.”
“Has he got it?”
“Even he’s got it.”
“I heard Prince Charles had got it.”
“Yea, even the Royals.”
“It gets you no matter what colour your blood is.”
“Yea. Twenty minutes now.”
“Be lucky if we get out of here in time for Coronation Street.”
“I don’t watch it.”
“Not much on at all these days. You’d think they’d put a good film on seeing we’re all stuck indoors.”
“Can’t weigh it up, I can’t,” perorated the one with the glasses, “all there is is rubbish.”
“True,” said the one with no glasses.
“You know what I can’t understand the most? The weather forecast.”
“The weather forecast?”
“Yea. We can’t go outside so what’s the fucking point of telling us what the weather’s going to do?”
“But you’re outside now,” I felt like chipping in, but stopped myself because I kind of saw his point. There was a brief hiatus here, because a security officer came to update us. Five more minutes. And all of us to a man just silently nodded, because that was all we could do, we had no choice but obedience.
“I lost my wife last week,” he said.
There was a beat of uncertainty before the one without glasses said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” And then there was another pause before he added, “Are you sure you should be out?”
“Wasn’t the virus,” said the one with glasses.
“Oh right,” said the other, with barely concealed relief.
“Cancer. They opened her up and stitched her back up again. Two weeks later she was gone. Just like that,” he said, clicking his fingers, “She would’ve been fifty today. She was lucky to even get seen, given they’re prioritising things.”
“That’s no age,” said the other man.
“I’m coping,” he said, “That’s all you can do.”
After an awkward minute that felt like longer, we were given the all-clear and began to shuffle forwards. And then we were finally in. A level playing field now, and even I was part of the gang.
It’s true, I thought, I was, and I should be ashamed of myself. I saw that I’d been harsh and unfair to judge these men, particularly the recently-widowed, because he is the same as me and I am the same as him. He is lonely and so am I, he was just trying to make conversation, tell his story and so am I. We are all lonely, we are all coping, and we are all just mortal lumps of flesh and blood, no matter what colour it is, sticking together from a distance.