Overeighteen In Sainsbury’s

It was another hot day without breeze in London, when the foam & spray of the Thames clots the air, when the sun makes everything colourful and faint at once. Except, this time, it was a Saturday. Liverpool St was busy, but beyond that it was quiet. The RMT strikes continued, as did the heat, and I found myself pursuing a path from my delayed platform, along Bishopsgate and Gracechurch St towards London Bridge, stopping at a mini supermarket en route. During the week, it was busy, but on this hour, on this day, it was empty. The fridges bled and kept the rest of the store cool. A woman hurried in behind me, taking a bottle of water and pot of pasta; the former appealing, the latter unappetising; there must have been someone out of shot with a stopwatch. I filled my basket with beer, and a bottle of water for health’s sake, making feeble calculations to determine how much I must be losing through perspiration, which stuck a pale summer shirt to my spine and ran its fingers from my hair down my neck. At the self-service, scanning the beers, waiting for assistance to measure my age, I heard behind me a voice from someone I had, in my daze, not noticed—‘Long time, no see!’
    The mini supermarket was between my flat and office. It was at the bottom of an unsightly eighties’ office building, bulbous in grey granite, its entrance missable for its angle diagonally to the crossroads, a narrow automatic door that breathed in & out. During the week, I might go there for lunch, but only when it was late, to avoid the queues that snaked around its aisles. They would be unremarkable lunches, but I am an unremarkable man; lunches bought at the end of an hour’s long walk around the city, eaten over crumbs at a desk. On weekends, for convenience, I might pass by there also, stopping in to buy alcohol and sweets. Then I would return home, my flat with the blinds down, stewed in shade, and if I returned unhassled, then I felt an overwhelming sense of joy.
    The shelves in the fridge were depleted, like teeth after a fight, although the remaining teeth were various colours, vibrant under the temperature’d light, the white steel undulated with dents and dust, one could reach into the back with a full arm and never reach the end.
    On this particular Saturday, the mini supermarket reminded me of my past life, a life I had been pulled out of when I was happiest. By association, it was another in a long line of graveyards, of tributes and ikons, a memorial to the roving grounds of a man still in his early-thirties – something that has only just occurred to me, and takes the breath out my lungs – who was fine with his place in the universe of nonsense, who dwelt on the jewels and his sun. Pangs of nostalgia! yes, but one becomes numb to them eventually.
    So it was I turned around to confront the speaker of—‘Long time, no see!’ and there stood, diminutively, as if recoiled, a Chinese woman in her Sainsbury’s uniform. Using her buttocks, she pushed herself off the front of the tills where she had been leaning and strolled up to me. Her appearance took me by surprise, and I exclaimed a familiar ‘Hello!’ in her direction, adding that it had indeed been a very long time. ‘Where have you been?’ she asked.
    ‘When all this pandemic shit kicked off, of course I ended up working at home for a while… well, I moved in with my parents for a bit… then I got a new job, left my old place—’
    ‘O, where are you now?’
    ‘Up between St Paul’s and Barbican.’
    ‘You go to the Sainsbury’s there?’
    ‘Yes,’ I lied.
    She confirmed I was over-eighteen with a few flicks of the wrist on the screen.
    ‘Do you like your new job?’
    ‘It’s okay, ta. Same shit, different place.’
    ‘Same shit, different place?’
    I was smiling uncontrollably, so taken aback that this stranger, who I had not seen for at least two-and-a-half years, recognised me, had distinguished me and my lacklustre presentation from the many others she saw every day. There were other shop clerks I had spoken to from before the pandemic who recognised me – and I them – and we caught up, sharing tales of how things had been, had gone, but this lady was a surprise to me.

    Often at the till, we would exchange words, pleasantries, but one never expects that they have made any impression at all on the clerk. There is one encounter with this lady that sticks in my mind, which was recalled in an instant on Saturday, the moment she said—‘Long time, so see!’ and shall be recalled now.
    It was a grey weekday in autumn – quite different to the day mentioned above – and I was on one of my lunchtime walks at work, escaping from the office to exercise my legs, clog my lungs, and stare at the city of which I never tired. I picked up a sandwich, a sugar-free soft drink (raspberry), a packet of Granny Smiths and some wasabi peas. I walked straight to her till, and remembered her from other visits. She must have been keeping an eye on me, for she said something that immediately made me uncomfortable.
    It was a stressful time at work and in my mind, and I was rundown. One of the ways this manifested, beyond the usual anxiety, discombobulation and unsettledness, was an ugly rash on the skin of my face, concentrated here & there into ghastly boils that were painful to the touch. This, of course, intensified my anxiety, causing me to clam up and not converse with anyone. As soon as she said ‘Hello’ and began scanning my items, she looked up and remarked—‘Your skin is bad,’ not with any malice or poke, but as though it had escaped my attention, as though it was the truest of facts, but also with some mild recognition that she saw my skin normally and this was indeed a change for the worse. I agreed, submissively, that my skin was bad.
    ‘Are you stressed?’ she asked.
    ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Work.’
    ‘Yes, your skin is bad,’ she repeated. I simultaneously wished to thump and embrace her, but did neither, remaining silent and downcast, looking only at the chip & pin machine, waiting in anticipation for the ending. I thanked her and said good-bye. I went back out into the street.
    After periods of prolonged mental anxiety and exhaustion, I suffer, like clockwork, a terrible rash on the skin of my face. It is sore, it irritates and itches, it is red, enflamed, it sets into pronounced boils that do not burst, it peels and flakes and is hideous to the degree that I pity the awkwardness of anyone who has to converse with me. To lay down at night with my head on the pillow is agony! I might almost grin at the location of such an affliction, on my countenance, on the only thing people may gaze upon! It seemed a cruel jab by nature, by some haywire gland or deficient tissue reckoning on my prominent coating a horror! The last time it happened so extremely was in winter, and that did not matter because I was alone in my flat, not seeing anyone, shut up. The time before that it was the tailend of summer, and I always carried around a large tube of moisturiser, until I left it at my boss’ house one evening after a night-out, and the next day he lugged it in, complaining at how heavy it made his bag. The moisturiser left my skin oily and grotesque, but it stopped the peeling and the flaking; for that, I was grateful.
    My skin is going through such a phase these days. I cannot leave it alone, picking at it all day, tormented, while trying to keep my hands off, to resist unsettling it further. I wake in the middle of the night, dragging my nails up & down my cheeks. The skin breaks, it gently weeps. It seems sad that my body would do this to itself, to me!
    The shop clerk did not mention it, and for that I was thankful. No, instead she left me with a tremendous happiness that I took with me – and the cold beers against my back – out of the store and towards the river.
    Over London Bridge, all the tourists had stopped and held their phones aloft like leaves facing the same star. I expected to see Tower Bridge rising or falling, but it did neither. Why pause to see all the fuss? I walked quickly, with great purpose, winding, dodging, smoke tumbling over my shoulder like a steam engine. The sun beat on my brow. The perspiration was dripping with gravity into my underwear. When the crowds encroached and beat at my toes, I thought of the shop clerk and her recognising me, and I her, where I left her alone in the store, the air conditioning, the products and their pallette, the not being so forgettable; just a thread, but hung on to.