Shopping in the time of coronavirus.

I don’t do shopping at supermarkets. I have three reasons. Number one: I hate people and how crowded supermarkets are. Number two: I hate the way supermarkets change up the layout just when you get used to it so you can’t find anything you’re looking for. Number three: I have fibromyalgia and walking around a supermarket inevitably gives me a pain flare. I don’t want to shop for an hour and then go home with all my new food, too tired to stand at the hob and cook.

I’ve been “clicking and collecting” my shopping for about a year now, and it’s made my life much easier. I only go into a supermarket now if I need one or two items, and then I’m usually in and out within twenty minutes. I don’t linger.

Coronavirus has changed that. I’ve been able to secure some click and collect slots and some home delivery slots, but now I have to go to the supermarket. I want to buy some food, some fresh food, to cook roast lamb for Easter Sunday. I can’t get a last-minute click and collect slot.

There’s nothing for it. I have to go in person.

I get in my car, drive to the store, and find a parking space. The car park is half-empty for a change, and I’m taken aback. People must really be self-isolating. This supermarket is always busy.

I get a trolley and I make my way to the back of the queue to enter the store – I end up in a corner of the car park I’ve never been to before, walking around three sides of the car park to get to the end of the queue. I’d hope it moves quickly, since standing still for too long can trigger pain, but the sun is shining, I’ve got three games on the go in Words With Friends and I haven’t been outside in days. For once, I really don’t mind queuing.

I’m in the queue behind a couple who are fucking about in the queue. It’s impossible to keep the socially distant two metres behind them, because they’re either hugging each other and pretending to walk like crabs, or ushering each other apart two metres. The boy, who is probably in his mid-twenties, holds the line up as he rolls a cigarette, before glancing around and lighting up.

Wafts of acrid tobacco smoke envelope me as he huffs them out of his thin, downturned mouth and he picks a shred of tobacco leaf from the wispy moustache adorning his upper lip. His girlfriend adjusts her bra straps and takes the rollie from him, taking her own, lung-crushing drag before exhaling her breath all over the queue behind her. I mutter ‘For fucks’ sake,’ as the smoke catches my breath and my lungs protest with a cough. She glances behind, sees my glare and stubs out the cigarette on the bin she’s standing next to.

The staff at the door wave in three more people and now I am standing by the entrance. I smile at the door monitor and thank her. She shrugs and waves me in.

I stop to get the self-service scanning machine, and am crowded by two people who have not bothered to read the signs regarding maintaining distance. In fact, inside the store, there are no signs directing you where to go. Which is fine, until all seven people who have just been allowed in head straight for the potatoes. We hover, moving away from each other but staying in range of the starchy vegetables, until everyone has managed to retrieve what they want.

The floor is marked out in increments of two metres, and people pause, assessing the movement of the fellow shoppers, before moving on. The supermarket is quiet, not deadly quiet, not silent, but that hushed quiet, funeral quiet, the quiet that a catastrophe brings.

The kind of quiet that’s weighty, treacly, numbing. People are whispering. It doesn’t seem appropriate to be joyful. The overhead speakers aren’t playing their usual ‘musak’ but flicker into life to announce, “Please observe social distancing, and remain two metres apart from your fellow shoppers.” The voice is clinical and grave, and it repeats every few minutes whilst I’m in the store. There is no other sound from overhead – no ‘bing-bongs’ from the service desk calling for a manager, no announcements for clean-up on aisle twelve. No requests for staff to go to dairy, or Mrs Petersen to go to customer services because they’ve found her child – again.

This is the first time I’ve left the house in days, and I feel more alone that I ever have since quarantine started. People don’t make eye contact. No-one is acknowledging other shoppers. It’s not safe.

I find – eventually – the legs of lamb, the garlic, the rosemary, the potatoes, the vegetables I am looking for. By the broccoli, I encounter a woman who is wearing a face mask and nitrile gloves. A month ago, I would have laughed at her, thought her ridiculous, but now, I think Should I be wearing a face mask? She’s the third person I’ve seen in one.

My shopping is complete, and I go to pay. Very few tills are open, keeping people the requisite two meters apart. Everywhere I go, there are increments marked out on the floor. I misstep and nearly run into a lady going the other way with her trolley. She freezes and then recoils, almost sliding onto a shelf to maintain the distance. I apologise and back away. She settles her feet back onto the floor and flees.

I must get a mask for the next time I go outside.

At the tills, I scan the barcode that finishes my shop, put my PIN into the card reader and wait for my receipt. When my transaction is completed, I push my trolley out into the car park – carefully following the taped down exit signs – and make my way back to my car. The queue hasn’t lessened whilst I’ve been inside.

I load up my car and retreat back to my home.

Back inside the safety of my home, I wash my hands for the requisite twenty seconds and unpack my shopping. Three weeks down. Nine more to go.

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