Hitting the supermarket early in the morning has certain advantages; there are less trolleys trundling up and down the aisles, and the shelves have usually been freshly stocked. There are also fewer kids being hauled around, doing whatever it is that kids do in supermarkets to earn themselves a clip round the ear, so there’s a certain amount of peace to be enjoyed.
The major drawback of course is the dearth of check-out operators on duty, and you need to trawl along the row of tills assessing the volume of customers and goods, together with the relative spatial dexterity of the operators to reveal the one that might move more quickly than others.
So the other day, I lined up behind a check-out queue where in addition to the fairly substantial transaction already in progress, there was only one youngish man waiting with two items on the conveyor belt, and a drowsy toddler in a push-chair. There was nothing unusual about the young man, except perhaps that he wasn’t wearing the regulation hoodie/jeans and looked like a fairly responsible young father with his rimless spectacles and a woollen three-quarter length coat.
For several minutes I stowed my fairly sizeable haul of goods onto the conveyor belt behind his two articles, and then settled down for a spot of ‘people watching’. (I’ve got a reasonably high tolerance for queuing if there are sufficiently interesting people around me – you can never look a gift-horse – in my case good writing fodder – in the mouth.)
After a short while the toddler in front of me began to grizzle, and though I’m not one who gets off on entering into dialogue with the under-two’s, I leaned over to murmur a few words to him, which if not actually providing comfort, did at least seem to stun him into silence.
The young father didn’t engage with me, which interested me more than it bothered me at that hour of the day, and I began to ponder the behavioural differences between mothers and fathers in charge of children. Normally, a mother will immediately acknowledge other women taking an interest in their off-spring, perhaps grateful for a conversational opportunity that might not be otherwise available during the course of their day.
But a minute or so later, I noticed that the young man was now starting to unload more items onto the conveyor belt from the integral storage bag beneath the baby’s buggy seat. Hmm, maybe I hadn’t chosen the quickest check out queue after all.
A dozen or more items were placed on the belt to join the two that had been there for almost five minutes, but when he stopped unloading, I could see that further items remained in the storage bag beneath the buggy, and he now appeared to have declared all he was going to declare.
I debated what to do. Maybe it was a mistake on his part. Should I risk being labelled an interfering busy-body and point out that several items were about to remain unpaid for?
Would he think I was tacitly accusing him of shoplifting if I did so?
Was he shoplifting and should I wait until his transaction was completed and then alert the check-out operator when she began to deal with me? This felt like an uncomfortably sneaky option and I dismissed it.
Should I just turn a blind eye then?
Looking back, I think I was about to opt for the latter.
I studied the man once again, reflecting on the likelihood that a personable young chap like that would turn out to be a shop-lifter. But I did begin to wonder why he’d only had two items on the belt for several minutes, only retrieving some more once I’d begun to interact with the toddler – had he been planning a bigger haul but my sudden interest in his grizzling child had led him to believe that as I leaned forward, I might have seen the items still beneath the push-chair? Had this persuaded him to declare more, but still not yet all of his shopping?
As I continued to weigh up the situation the man may have felt my gaze on him, and decided to ‘gild the lily’ as it were. He suddenly launched into an oscar-winning pantomime of counting and recounting the tins on the belt, raising his eyes to the ceiling, ticking items off on his fingers and silently moving his lips as if trying to drag from the mists of his memory how many items he thought he’d selected from the shelves. He refrained, however, from checking the bag beneath the push-chair.
Perhaps this performance was for the benefit any adjacent security cameras, in case I had clocked his game, and decided to grass him up after he’d left the check-out. Aside from the momentary rush of irritation on my part that having obviously spotted my attention to him he was now taking me for a fool, I realised this was my opportunity to resolve my dilemma. My intervention could now be justified as genuine helpfulness in the face of his apparent quandary.
So I leaned over to him and said quietly, “I think you may have left some items beneath the push-chair.”
He didn’t look me in the eye, but gave an elaborate display of amazement before removing several more tins of beans and a big bag of apples from beneath the pushchair just as the cashier started to check through his items. He handed the bag of apples to the cashier and, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation at his young child said “I don’t want these, someone must have put them in my bag when I wasn’t looking.”
I knew where the apples were displayed, and I also knew there was no way the toddler could have reached them, let alone lift them, or store them beneath his own push-chair. Maybe the man had decided that if he wasn’t going to get them for nothing he didn’t really want them; or maybe he felt he needed to reinforce his image of a harassed young father who didn’t know what he was doing. Either way, in my own mind there was no longer any doubt about his intentions, or the manner in which I’d reacted.
I watched him walking away; a young, apparently respectable father who’d normally never attract a second glance. Even at that hour of the morning there must have been at least a dozen customers who’d catch the attention of security staff before this person would.
It takes all sorts to make a world – and some of them may not be particularly admirable.