Shampoo. Was his hair greasy or dry? Thick or flyaway? Wavy or straight? What if it was both greasy and thick? And what was normal? Did he want a shampoo that made his hair smell like a spring meadow or a tropical island or a winter morning – whatever they smelled like. What type of nozzle or dispenser cap did he want? Did he want a container that could hang upside down from the shower or one that would stand solidly on the side of the bath?
Teabags. Did he want ones that were round, square, cubed, spherical, pyramid, or novelty animal shaped? How did other people choose, what criteria did they use? Did they buy the ones that fitted with the shape of their mugs or kettle? Or did they opt for the box that best fitted with the colour scheme of their kitchen? Maybe it was a lifestyle choice and would set an example as to the sort of person he was. Would he be judged by the kind of teabags he used?
Fenney looked at the crumpled shopping list in his hand. His palm was clammy and the ink had smudged. Next item: Ketchup. Christ, there were hundreds of them. In a moment of reckless abandon, he decided he could probably live with plain chips for a week or two, all he wanted right now was to leave.
But Fenney was hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of products. All the expensive items were at head height; the ones he could afford were hidden away apologetically on the shelves by his ankles. Consequently, he always shopped with a stoop and he’d lost his bearings wandering up the aisles – the bright colours of the packaging had mesmerised him.
‘Where the fuck are the tills?’ he said aloud, forgetting where he was in his bewilderment. A stout woman in a maroon and navy coloured fleece flashed him a look of contempt as she passed. She had a name-badge and was carrying a tube of toothpaste with a real sense of purpose. There was a woman who knew where the tills were. Fenney followed her to the checkout at a safe distance.
He shuffled to the back of a shortish queue and the shopper in front made a big show of putting down a Next Customer Please block behind her asparagus. Fenney didn’t know if this flamboyance was to make sure he appreciated how considerate she was or because she just didn’t want her enormous pile of organic greenery to be associated with his little basket of misery.
He emptied his supplies onto the rubbery belt: several tubs of assorted microwaveable slop; oven chips; a loaf of bread; a small carton of milk; shampoo that promised to make his hair smell like a Scandinavian lumberjack and a box of dinosaur shaped teabags that were on special offer. He forgot to put down his own Next Customer Please block and the man behind leaned over to get one.
‘Oh, sorry,’ said Fenney and offered him a little smile. The man didn’t smile back.
The decadent shopper in front packed her branded pasta and celebrity endorsed sauces into sturdy canvas bags and moved off along the runway behind the tills. Fenney hurriedly squashed his goods into a carrier bag as the checkout girl scanned them. She wore a stern expression under her short black hair and didn’t look up as she asked whether Fenney had a store card or if he was collecting vouchers. He could tell from her tone that she’d asked these scripted questions a million times before and didn’t care what the answers were. But then, just as he was removing his card from the machine, she turned to him and smiled. It was a smile that completely transformed her face: wide, carefree and open.
‘Hope you have a good weekend,’ she said.
Was she being sarcastic? Fenney chose to think not, the smile had been too genuine.
He was almost happy as he walked through the drizzle back to his car. That unexpected human gesture had cheered him up far more than any roll-back offers or logos with smiley faces on.