Monday, 2 November 2009

5 Items or Less (Flash fiction)

One stop shopping. I have almost everything I require. I am faced with which till to patronise. Most folk would try and adduce the relative lengths and speeds of the queues, momentarily becoming tenderfoot physicists in order to attain escape velocity the soonest. Me, I plump for a different sort of fluidity. If I am to be forced to linger, then I want to have the most pleasing parallax to look out on while I wait.

I start with her feet. Three stars tattooed on the longitudinal arch. Where the skin is so very thin, that their inscription must have hurt. I can't see if she has them on her other foot, since that is shielded from me behind the curve of the aisle. They sit in a neat row of three, rather than suggesting any astrological constellation. The stars are not inked in. They do not twinkle. Down there, they look oh I don't know, diffident. Unless she has one at the apex of her neck or beneath her hair, from top to toe, seeing herself every inch a star. But in isolation? I muse on just what they might signify to her. I note both achilles are scabbed, suggesting she is in the habit of wearing shoes more punishing than the practical flats she has donned for shopping. The stars would be eclipsed by anything more elliptical curving over the instep. Perhaps they come out only at the apex of night.

She sports black cotton trousers, pleated down the front. They are quite baggy, almost Viet Cong style. But she cannot be of that generation of protest and remote empathy. Besides, her jacket is sharply cropped with razor sharp lines. They hang acute over the seam of the trousers, like a restraining harness in a rollercoaster. I take it she is of a breed that eschews the prospect of ungirding the flesh around the hips, between cropped tops and hipster jeans. Still, the divergence between the body thrust of the upper and lower arrays are intriguing.

I turn my attention to the tale of her trolley. Poised in the five - a veritable handful - items or less queue, yet she has steered clear of a handbasket. That may reflect her having a clutch bag occupying one - her left - hand. I peer between the grilles and I count them off. Indeed there are five items right on the nose. Two of them appear from their packaging to be the same, yet she has not been thrown by the unwritten rubric whereby they still count separately. She hasn't tried to buck the system. Nonetheless, this trove is dwarfed by the expanse of space in the trolley. Though they do not appear with the sharp angled sprawl of having been tossed within, neither are they stacked in any systematic way. Inside the ribcage of this metal beast, I would say more of an anorexic aesthetic prevails.

Five items is too low a spread for sampling, as to whether they are components of a shared meal or the entire constituents of dinner for one. But at least there were no foods for children's palates on show. The ring finger was still curled around her handbag, wedged against her jacket and cut off from view, so I could not determine whether it did in fact host a gold band. Her other hand suddenly started dancing in a whir of motion as she extracted the purchases from the belly of the steel beast. She ranged them along the entire length of belt spread out afore her. The first item out, did not go at the apex, but somewhere in the middle. The second one went in the van of it, while the third was placed in between both. Item four - a bunch of bananas - was set down at the rear of all. The last was the twin of the first and poised alongside it like soldiers marching on parade. She was very deliberate, as if she were playing speed chess. Seemingly demonstrating a long prescribed habit through her motions, I fancied these were regular purchases. I didn't credit she varied her menus all that much, from week to week, month to month. Again, that same sweep of appropriated space. A lebensraum. She brought the divider down like a guillotine blade to buffer her things from her neighbour in the queue. I noticed the bananas, the last in her parade, had a considerable clearance between it and the divider.

The scanner beeped into life as it read the first barcode. The till monkey informed her that the item was on offer, "two for the price of one". I could not hear her reply, so soft spoken was she and with the din of scanners and a rasping "Unexpected item in the bagging area" ringing out around me. I could see her shaking her head at her inquisitor, but then appended it with a smile. Further indicative bifurcation. Item one eventually disappeared into a carrier bag - not a bag for life, non-environmental, or just not a patron committed here for life - and by now the till monkey was working at item two's price reduction sticker with her nail. I could see the slight curl of her mouth as she watched this grocer's liposuction in action. Clearly she didn't like the thought of the contaminating touch of another on her food. Items three and four passed without incident, before she juggled one handed with the bananas. Spinning them on their axes like a body popper across the run off after the belt, in order to facilitate their best angle of entry into her carrier bag without bruising them. I silently applauded the performance, half charming, half affected, wholly hyperbolic.

"Sir! Sir?" my own till monkey chirruped at me. I turned to face him and in doing so my scanning of her was terminated. I didn't see her hand free itself up from the clutch of the bag, nor how she paid the bill. Me, I was being chided for having more than five items in my basket.

"Unexpected item in the bagging area" rasped a computerised voice feigning the female, from the aisle beyond mine.

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