One thing any Australian who comes to London is surprised by is that check-out chicks (or blokes) never pack your bags for you in supermarkets. Even if you’ve got two trolleys full of supplies to re-stock your bomb shelter, you’re on your own when it comes to stuffing it all into bags on the ‘other side’. Before the ‘self-checkout’ machines were installed, a regular trip to the supermarket ran a little something like this:
I place all of my things onto the conveyor belt, making sure to keep the jar of basil and tomato passata at the front and the melba toast at the back. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve placed the bananas in an optimal position within the line-up, I tap my fingernails on the silver edges of the conveyor belt, and watch the prophetic scene of the person in front of me unfold. This unfortunate soul, who for all I know might have a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering, is trying frantically to keep up with the merciless check-out chick, who is wearing a badge that says, ‘WINNER: fastest scan-rate in the UK. They call me Lightning Fingers.’ His groceries topple and jostle down the slide to where his reusable bags are waiting, and the concentration on his face is intense as he shoves in celery stalks, frozen pizzas, garlic bread batons and packets of chocolate-coated almonds.
I can’t help but make judgments about his ordering system (or lack thereof) as he goes along. ‘I would never have placed the lettuce there,’ I think. ‘Who puts lettuce in front of ten cans of chick-peas?’
Lightning Fingers has finished long before he’s had a chance to make a dent in the hodge-podge of items that have accumulated around him, and she leans back in her chair and raises an eyebrow at me to show that she’s sympathetic to my plight: being stuck behind this tortoise who doesn’t even know that bread is always the last thing you should put on the conveyor. I notice her raised brow but keep my eyes forward: it would be foolish to feign kinship now when we both know that in a couple of minutes we’re going to be on opposite sides of the grocery battle.
The man finally finishes, and fumbles around in his backpack looking for his card. Lightning Fingers sighs loudly, and I can almost see him scribbling a mental note to keep his card in a more convenient location next time. In fact, I can see that he’s learned a lot of things for next time. He inserts his card into the machine, with a defeated yet determined look. ‘Next time, Lightning Fingers. I’ll get you next time…’
He makes apologetic eye-contact with me as he loads the bags up onto his arms, but all I can do is bite my lip and grimace. It’s my turn.
When I went home, I had become so accustomed to treating each supermarket trip like a military operation, that I was stunned when the Woolies check-out bloke smiled at me and said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then proceeded to quickly and efficiently pack all of my things into bags (even putting crushables over to one side so that they might be placed on top at the end). He wasn’t working against me! He wasn’t even working with me. He was working FOR me.