The Stressful Hebridean islands.
I love shopping in the Hebrides. It’s all part of the lifestyle.
I was down at the Co, as we call it, standing third in line at the checkout having browsed the empty shelves and had almost half the things I’d come in for.
I was just running through which were the best-stocked bird-tables between there and home, in my mind, when I noticed that the Gentleman being served was elderly, in poor health, and wasn’t responding to stimulus. We’re all going to be there one day. So I smiled, congratulated myself on how patient I can be if I really try, and then, as the minutes ticked by, began chalking off the things I was hoping to get done later in the day… the dentist; the bank; the intercontinental flight I had to catch… and let them go, one by one.
Fifteen minutes later my body went into torpor – a kind of precursor to Coma, and shortly afterwards I lost the will to live. I became merely one of the statues in the queue, but with the last few electronic impulses of brain activity reviewed, with painful regret, the ambitions I had for my life that will never now be achieved.
Suddenly I was wakened…
‘Thank you! Bye! Take care now!’
…by the exaggerated cheerfulness of the cashier. There’s hope! the queue is about to move up one – and I’m still alive; I remember thinking. Before making way for the next shopper, our man had a five pound note to put back in his wallet… but where on earth can that wallet be? ‘I had it a minute ago’, you could see him thinking, as he patted his pockets. There was nothing for it but to unpack the shopping, whilst examining with some surprise, one or two of the items therein, and wondering how they got there.
‘Is this yours?’ someone asked, bending to the floor behind him.
No reply; a third person taps him on the arm, and points behind him. He looks; there is no one there.
‘Mm?’ Points again… looks - suddenly there is someone there. Right up close. Whoa – overload! Our shopper is now struggling to take in everything that is happening around him in what war journalists know as ‘a fast-developing situation’.
We queuers, without speaking, urge him to look at the wallet. We can’t move, not now, it’s been too long.
‘Is this yours?’ the voice asks again. He looks:
‘Is this yours?’
He looks at it. ‘No.’ he says, definitely.
Then he looks at it again, anew. ‘Oh yes! – Yes it is!’
Collective laughter, and the elderly gentleman meets everyone’s eyes to acknowledge what fun we are all having together.
‘Where did you find it?’ He asks, out of casual interest, whilst checking that she hasn’t rifled it.
‘On the floor.’
‘I must have dropped it!’
The very conclusion we were about to arrive at ourselves.
At length he says good-bye to all his new friends – checks he has everything both by carrying out a visual examination of the surrounding area five times, and by interviewing everyone as to whether or not they are of the opinion that he has everything… and, at last, asks to be directed to the exit he is standing next to. Gone.
The next customer, of course, does not rush to fill his place – it would seem rude. Instead she pretends to be busy examining the nutritional information panel on a bottle of bleach. Looking up, with an exclamation of surprise she finds that she is next; and, as if by magic, the cashier is ready for her.
She and the cashier are of a similar age – both in their sixties – the customer leans confidentially in toward the cashier;
‘I haven’t been at all well;’ she whispers, gravely.
‘Och, that’s terrible!’ Says the cashier unable to hide her delight: ‘…this is more like it!…’ I could see her thinking to herself… ’This is why I took the job!’
She throws a furtive glance in my direction to see how important I am; and having laid that concern to rest, leaned forward, made herself comfortable onto the belt, and settled down to hear the exact nature of the illness in question, and to allow their hair-do’s to have a bit of a tangle and really get to know each another.
For ten minutes I and the folk behind me gaze longingly at the unmanned cash desks. No one speaks. We hear to the muffled whispering; notice the accusatory glances in our direction to make sure we’re not eaves-dropping; and have our suicidal despair punctuated every minute or so by an encouraging ’Och, that’s terrible!’ from the Cashier.
‘No, that really is terrible, that is!
At last the shopper – who had so much more to say – turns to me with a resentful sniff: ‘I’m holding you back.’ she says. It’s a favourite saying – and I’ve never worked out if it is a question, an apology, or simply a statement of fact… but the expected answer – which you have to supply if you want to get on on the island – and which I found myself giving, is: ‘No, you’re alright.’
I am now back at home and responding well to treatment – but tell me: Do you have the same thing in Fortnum and Mason… those of you who live in West Kensington?
Jesus – all those words and I never found a way to mention my book.