Oct 05, 2021
20 mins read
In a land of pissed-off shoppers, is peace even possible?
My regular supermarket has changed things around again.
I hate that.
It seems a somewhat tone deaf thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, and as I hurry along what used to be the condiment section, clutching my basket, I see my own emotions echoed in the eyes of the masked shoppers around me; confused, angry, frustrated.
We don’t have time for this.
Cowboys and Kisses is playing as I find washing powder where the activated almonds used to be. I hear myself sigh in that irritated, overloud way I’ve always contributed to crotchety old ladies. Further up the aisle, where the fabric softeners are, an elderly gentleman in a biscuit-brown cardigan pulls out a bottle of Sunny Glow Softener, and his face creases around his mask.
‘This is shit,’ he says.
The words are soft; inner frustration spilling out of his lips. But then he says it louder, almost shouting, and as he does he throws the bottle down the aisle.
‘This is shit!’
I find myself watching, fascinated, as the bottle skids across the blindingly white floor. From somewhere in the next aisle I hear a wail.
‘Where the fudge are the biscuits!’
There’s a few giggles. I think it’s because of the word fudge. My feet quicken as I set off once again. I just want to pay for my groceries and leave.
The next aisle is where I normally get tomato paste. Instead I find greeting cards, and feel my mind slipping.
I can’t find anything! I’m only halfway though my shopping list. I want to leave but somewhere between frozen foods and garden supplies I feel myself pulled into a circle of spectators who are watching a tiny old lady berate a store manager. Her finger is pointing at him severely.
‘I think its very bad timing, young man, to do this while we’re all trying to get our shopping done as quickly as we can these days . . .’
Nod. Murmurs of agreement. I hear my voice join the others. The manager is sweating slightly under the bright lights.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way, and I’m happy to help you find the paper serviettes . . .’
‘That’s not the point!’ says a woman who’s joggling a plump baby on her hip. ‘I’m trying to do my weekly shop with a kid, and you’ve swapped everything around!’
‘All I want to do is make a slow cooker casserole, but I can’t find anything!’ says another woman, and promptly bursts into tears. ‘I just want to go home!’
‘If you all take a minute to look at the signs . . .’
‘The signs are useless!’ says a man, stepping forward. He looks like a farmer in his town clothes, perhaps sent in by the wife to pick up some groceries while he’s paying bills. Our city is a regional one, surrounded by wheat belts and sheep. The farmer is angry, calloused hands bunched into fists. ‘You’ve made dog’s breakfast of this. I’ve been in here for half a bloody hour!’
More nods. More voices joining in. And then someone says, ‘You can’t keep doing this! We already spend our money here. Why do you always need more of it?’
I never knew who said it. That quiet voice. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
‘If you just give me a moment, I’ll find some floor staff to assist you . . .’
But then someone else says it. ‘Why do always you need more?’
I find myself repeating it, along with half the people around me.
The manager takes a step back as it becomes a soft chant.
As one, we take a step forward.
The manager puts up a good fight but eventually goes down, arms flailing, mouth open in shock as the old lady whacks him with her walking stick, saying, ‘Its just not good enough, young man!’
He’s curled up in a ball now, begging for his life. Security is coming. I put down my basket and pick up the heaviest thing in it; a tin of Corinthian chocolate wafers. They weren’t on my list, but I was looking for tea towels, and they were there, and I was so tired . . .
As I pulled them from a shelf a worn-out looking mother of twin boys who seemed to be trying to kill each other in her shopping cart whispered, ‘Don’t you see? That’s how they get you.’
The middle-aged man beside me has a can of peas and carrots in each hand. The security guards, two men in vests, hesitate.
Someone hurls a jar of Olay Regenerist Night Cream at the tallest one, and it catches him above the eye. He collapses, boneless, and we’re running now, hurling packaged meat and tinned puddings and scented candles, animal-like screams coming from our mouths as the second guard turns and runs.
The surviving security guard has locked the doors and is calling the police. He’s saying it’s not okay to beat up store managers and kill security guards with night cream. But as he makes his speech, his thumbs hooked into his belt, the woman with the still-fighting twins lifts them out of her shopping cart and shoves them at him.
‘Attack!’ she screams, and the twins hurls themselves at the guard’s ankles. Teeth snap. The security guard is dancing around, eyes bulging as he screams.
‘Get them off me! For the love of god, get them off me!’
The twins are wrapped around his legs. He stumbles and falls to the floor. One boy immediately latches onto his ear with tiny teeth. Blood flows and we watch with shiny, embittered eyes. Someone has wrapped a blue and white tea towel around a broom handle. They light it with a Bic lighter and lift it high as police cars scream into the carpark, sirens wailing above the security guard’s cries.
The manager is being spit-roasted in the meat section.
Many have surround him in a circle, swaying and chanting, but I find the smell overpowering, so when someone suggests serving him with mint sauce I volunteer to go find some.
The condiment section has been taken over by a handful of shoppers that stop me from entering. But their leader, a sweaty man with chilli sauce smeared across his cheeks, is willing to trade. They want coleslaw, he says. And three hot roast chickens.
Three is a ridiculous number. I point out how many people are locked in here, and he relents.
‘One, then,’ he grunts. ‘But we want cola. And barbecue shapes.’
I make my way back as Cruel Summer begins to play overhead.
The meat section was taken over by those of us who first turned on the staff. The two women behind the counter quickly surrendered and were seemingly eager to become part of our tribe, but unbeknown to me, while I was searching the land for mint sauce, they rebelled and split up into their own sub-tribe. They are now in control of all the roast chickens.
I approach. They’re defensive, hostile. Susan, the older one, tells me they’ll trade for weapons.
‘There’s only two of us,’ she says, as the other woman, Barb, nods in agreement. ‘We need to be able to defend ourselves.’
I hear someone shout, ‘Where’s the bloody mint sauce?’ I know my position in the meat section is tenuous, so I agree.
Kitchen utensils have been claimed by an all-male warrior clan.
They’ve scarred themselves with a Wiltshire Staysharp. A slow burning fire fuelled by cardboard packaging heats the blade red hot, and each man draws it across their chest three times.
Those who refuse the ritual are banished to the barren land of plasticware, further up the aisle. They’re mostly younger and weaker males, their future bleak.
Over the fire looms a vaguely human-shaped effigy made from barbecue tongs lashed together with plastic ties. Jamie Oliver’s face peers out from the cover of a recipe book that’s placed on the head of this figure. I watch, fascinated, as their newest member draws the blade across his skin while the others chant, ‘Blood is life! Life is blood!’
I roll my eyes. Jamie Oliver’s smile seems to grow wider.
The farmer is their leader. He looks down at me as I ask for a knife or two.
‘No woman shall wield the weapons of steel!’ he bellows, and from behind him his clan chant, ‘No woman! No woman!’
I try to explain how offensive that is. He doesn’t listen. His arms are crossed over his bare chest, blood dripping. But as he turns away, one of the younger men takes pity on me. He slips me a small paring knife and a recipe book.
‘May our great god Jamieoliver bestow his benevolence upon you, woman,’ he says. It’s the most kindness I’ll get from these cavemen, so I nod my thanks and leave.
The rotisserie warriors aren’t happy with me.
One paring knife to defend themselves is pretty poor, given their numbers. Their hostility towards me grows, and I have no choice. I offer to join them. I never belonged in the meat section anyway.
They anoint my forehead with hot chicken juice. It burns, but I try not to flinch. I promise to uphold our territory, with my life if necessary. I’m handed a hot chicken, nestled inside its little plastic carry-bag, and begin my journey.
I trade the recipe book for a box of barbeque shapes.
I don’t know why the people of savoury biscuits would want a recipe book. Maybe its because they’re distracted; they’re at war with the other half of the aisle, the tribe that rule over assorted creams and scotch fingers and caramel crowns. I can hear the warring factions taunt each other loudly as I continue my journey.
The smoke mart has been taken over by teenagers. They’re lanky and feral, demanding chips and cola from those who wish to trade. They’re being watched over by the mothers who have created a sanctuary in the baby aisle. Their children play with each other while the women sit in a circle, breastfeeding and talking earnestly about the politics of the surrounding lands and the possibility of creating a yoga retreat.
In party supplies there’s a celebration that is said to never end. The people of this land pop streamers at each other while dancing to the non-stop music. They don’t seem to eat or drink, and whenever a Kylie song comes on they go slightly bananas. They seem oblivious to everything else as balloons fill the air, but I’m told that if you wander too close they will try and pull you in.
I skirt around the snacks aisle, even though it makes my journey longer. The people there are twitchy and half-crazed. I see a man spread-eagled on the floor, making a liquorice angel. His lips are ringed in chocolate, his eyes glazed, lost in Sugarland.
In the soft drink section everyone is begging for Cola. Someone from the distant electrical tribe hands over a kettle and a toaster for a single 1.25ml bottle. She clutches it to her chest as it’s handed over, and when I get too close to her, she growls.
The leader is short but ferocious. Muscles like MMA fighter. Spiky hair.
‘What do you want?’ she asks.
‘I know who you are, rotisserie woman.’
‘I can offer you a quarter pack . . .’
‘But a whole one is ridiculous . . .’
‘No trade!’ she screams, and suddenly her crew are behind her. They’ve made armour out of drink cartons, their cardboard-clad shapes hostile.
What could I do? I gave her my chicken.
The people of condiments are restless. The leader snatches my offerings and glares at me.
‘Where is the fowl you promised?’
‘I had to trade it, for that,’ I said, nodding at the plastic bottle in his hands. ‘My journey has been long. I could use a meal and rest before I start back . . .’
‘There’s no food in these lands,’ he said, and I suddenly notice that his people are packing jars and squeeze bottles into shopping bags.
‘We are joining the peoples of the great meat section,’ he says, watching me. ‘They’ve agreed we will be a stronger tribe together. Here . . .’ He shoves a jar of mint sauce at me. ‘I would have gone with applesauce,’ he adds, shrugging. ‘But whatever.’
I leave them to pack and prepare for their long journey.
As I pass the biscuit aisle a man in a hoodie whispers a promise of chocolate and sweetness. I keep my gaze steady, and my feet don’t slow. On my travels I have seen what people will do for a tim tam, and I will not go down that road.
When I finally reach the great plains of the meat section I’m exhausted. The mint sauce is grabbed out of my hands.
The manager is being carved and served up on paper serviettes.
My homeland has been depleted. Many chickens have been traded for water and coleslaw and lunch rolls. But that’s not all that’s troubling my clanswomen.
There is talk of war.
The coming battle is over the bathrooms.
They’re being guarded by a tribe of warriors in store uniforms. They call themselves Staff.
They have nothing but pure hate for us. They talk of how our people once murdered their leader in cold blood, back in ancient times. They refuse all talks of peace and trade.
They are strong in numbers, so invasion will only be possible if enough tribes join together.
The warrior clan are on board, of course, as is the meat section and the condiment crew. The party people don’t even hear the request; they’re too busy throwing glitter into the air and singing along to Black Velvet, and the mothers are putting babies down for naps and firmly shushing anyone that approaches.
We of the rotisserie chickens have no choice other than to join. We are too few in numbers to be truly independent, though we’ve been joined by a fourth. Janet is from the meat section. She became disenfranchised when she suggested they start wrapping the cold cuts and rationing them. Instead, they decided to trade almost a third of their supplies for cheese and olives, and are gorging on antipasto.
‘But what about tomorrow?’ she says. ‘What about the future?’
So we shall fight.
The people of Staff were ready for us.
They’re armed with toilet brushes and bleach. The clash is ferocious, chaotic, and unbelievably loud. I’m knocked to the white floor, the smell of bleach heavy in the air. Over the screams I can hear Cowboys and Kisses, yet again. Am I going mad? I get to my feet and run forward, armed only with sharpened chicken bones.
Suddenly a roll of toilet paper is thrown into the air. We stop as one and stare as it unravels in slow motion — a streaming white banner that floats gently to the floor.
The war is over.
We decide not to take prisoners, because we all really need the loo. We line up, bloodied and bruised. Some are weeping.
Suddenly a procession of people appear from health and haircare. They glide towards us, silent, their faces serene, their hair long and glossy. In their hands are band aids and bandages, aspirin and medicated creams. They start to bandage our wounds, tend to our sprains.
We’re suspicious. What do you want? We ask. Who side are you on?
‘We take no sides,’ they say, their words little more than sighs. ‘We wish only to heal.’
It’s been a long, hard morning. Will we ever make sense out of this chaos?
We’ve had our first death.
It’s from the small, strange tribe of people that protect all the peanuts. Driven mad by thirst, they went to war with the water people. But there were too few of them , and after they were driven back one of them promptly died of salt poisoning.
We wrapped his body in a blue cotton throw, and the cold, sombre people of frozen foods allowed us to place his body gently in a freezer.
Strangely, it has bought a kind of peace to our lands. We know now that we need to get along, to live in tolerance of one another, if we are to survive. We may be many lands, but we are just one supermarket, after all.
Trade has become easier and more reasonable. Children are allowed to play outside their borders, though adults must seek a clan leader’s permission to enter any land they’re not from. The mothers have lectured the teenagers about sharing and water is distributed fairly, though I can’t say the same for soft drink. Those people are still jerks.
Our one law is that anyone caught stealing will have a hand ceremoniously removed by the warrior clan leader. This was argued against by the elfin creatures of heath and haircare, but in the end even they saw that trust must be built.
As for my small tribe . . . our stocks are low and we know the end is coming. Janet has started dating someone in ice cream. She says the marriage will secure her future. Perhaps she is right, but I have a strong streak of independence and won’t marry, even for choc mint. Perhaps I will join health and haircare — they’ve set up a small salon and are offering a free cut and shampoo to anyone that wants to become one of them.
Janet has done a runner, taking our last precious chicken with her, as dowry.
We are more sad and betrayed than angry, though if I ever catch her alone I’ll use the paring knife without remorse.
Reluctantly we part ways, and I find myself cast adrift in this new world. I set off, looking for a home.
The elder of health and haircare rejects me.
‘You are from those that eat the flesh of animal,’ they sigh. I can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. Their hair is so long it brushes the floor. Their skin in translucent, glowing.
‘But I’m just trying to survive.’
‘We live on vitamins, and the light from above that shines on us perpetually. We spend our days trading peacefully with the people from beauty and cosmetics. We help anyone who is in need of pampering, expecting no reward.’ A delicate eyebrow arches. ‘You would not fit in, you — who battles over bathrooms and wields the knife.’
‘Just give me a chance, please! I don’t want to be on my own out there.’
But its no use. The elder offers me a small packet. ‘Take this peppermint conditioner sample. If you can tame the split ends of your heart as well as those in your hair, you may return.’
‘But . . .’
‘Goodbye, traveller,’ the being sighs, and drifts back to the others.
I’ve been caught up in a small skirmish between pasta and bakery.
I can’t tell if its tomato sauce or blood that’s running across the floor. I don’t even know how the battle started, except that it had something to do with breadsticks. I try to run, but someone hits me with a solid cob loaf. I see the floor coming, but I don’t remember hitting it.
When I come to, the battle is over.
I’m in a deserted no-man’s land, somewhere between bakery and pet food. The floor is smeared with red, the air heavy with the scent of parmesan. Overhead a light flickers, making me disorientated. When I sit up and check my watch I’m horrified by how long I’ve been unconscious.
The land is silent, and eerily still.
Suddenly a tiny service dog bolts out of the pet food aisle, teeth bared and tags jingling. Behind it a group of people are hollering at me and making shooing gestures. Something is wrong with them, but I can’t place it as I stagger to my feet.
The dog is still charging. The people jump up and down, urging the creature on. With horror I register the sounds they’re making; hoots and grunts and strange clicks. There are no words. Their clothes are rags. Their feet are bare.
I’m so dazed the creature is almost upon me before I run.
My surroundings are frighteningly unfamiliar. Aisles twist and curve strangely. Shelves are empty. Some have toppled to the floor. Both hair and healthcare and beauty and cosmetics are completely abandoned, and as I run along a path littered with empty shampoo bottles and broken hairbrushes, I hear a voice whisper from the bright lights above me.
‘We have fled the flesh-bodies, traveller. This land has fallen to ruin.’
I stumble over abandoned Country Style magazines. I catch glimpses of the others; faces that peer from behind cereal box camouflage, figures that sink behind the carcasses of checkouts. Something calls out from wilderness, a long, drawn-out sound that is both mournful and savage.
I keep running long after the snarls behind me have faded, looking for refuge.
A special-ops team crashes through the doors, hurling teargas cannisters and shouting.
I was asleep under a row of shopping carts, living in the outlands to avoid the violent primitives, and they don’t see me.
From the haze of gas comes startled yips and grunts. In the distance I glimpse wild-looking figures, scattering. I wander out of doors that have been forced open, only to be body-slammed by four police officers in full riot gear.
The pavement rises up to meet my face. I breathe in concrete and cigarette butts and fresh air. The smell of outside. Memories are rushing back, of a younger me, parking my car and pulling shopping bags out of the boot. I’m hauled to my feet and with wonder I see the sky. I’d forgotten its blue. I’d forgotten the sweet, soft brightness of natural light.
I begin sobbing with relief. Someone is saying, ‘What’s your name? Do you know?’
I don’t. I just know I’ve survived. I’ve gotten out of the supermarket.
*Certain events in this retelling may be slightly exaggerated.