Part 7: #Two #Shopping #Embarrassment #Erotica
The supermarket this time was a new one, squatting like an unexploded pimple in the middle of miles of grassy farmland. From the surrounding hills, a hundred cows looked down on the cream and white building, but there seemed to be little chance of any passing trade. Until Jen got closer on her bike, and saw the highway hidden by a dip in the endless green vista; three lanes of traffic streaming right past the front gates of the place.
She followed a tiny road that joined the slipway between the main road and the vast black fields given over to parking. But when she got closer, she noticed that the asphalt was painted in some kind of camo pattern, a mixture of greens and browns, that might just make the place a little less ugly from one of the scenic viewpoints on the surrounding hills.
In any case, she let her bike putter to a stop and then headed into the store. She already knew what she was shopping for, as she’d been asked to write out a shopping list in her own handwriting, based on the electronic copy she’d been given. A good deal of this job was making herself look like a genuine customer, so she’d copied the list out in much the same style as her own lists; items arranged in two columns for chilled or frozen food and everything else, in tiny ballpoint capitals on the back of an envelope, and occasional items entered in pencil. She’d added a half dozen things Simon had asked for, as well, and a bottle of wine for movie night with Charlene and Lind at the weekend. Those things were less than half the price of the items she’d been directed to buy, so she knew the shopping agency would refund the whole bill without any questions.
First she wandered haphazardly around the store, picking off any items that she knew were on the list as she saw them. She’d been to other branches of this chain, but their policy seemed to be to keep each shop with a different layout, for whatever reasons the suits in management had settled on. Perhaps because they wanted the top man on site to feel like he was actually in control of something. Then, once she had a vague feel for the layout, she walked a long zig-zag up and down the aisles, picking up the missing items. She had a long list today, so she knew she would have to turn around a couple of times to pick up things she’d forgotten. But as she carefully crossed out each item with the pen from her pocket, she could see that she was making some progress.
There was a guy in a bright blue waistcoat arranging jars of preserve on one of the shelves, tall and apparently focused on his work. She expected this one might be a little slow, so she walked up beside him and carefully thumbed the button on a stopwatch as she came to a stop. Then she just waited, staring at the list in her hands and occasionally glancing up at the colleague.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
Jen thumbed the stopwatch in her pocket again. She couldn’t see the time on it, but the lap button would allow her to check later. She would have guessed about twenty seconds, which was pretty fast for a guy who was doing other work as well. He put down the two jars in his hands, carefully lining them up at the front of the shelf and turned towards her. Visibly giving her his full attention, check. Leaving the display tidy so it didn’t look like a work-in-progress, check. A clear, easy to understand voice, and a polite greeting, check. He seemed on his way to getting full marks. Jen glances at his name badge, which declared that Aldesh would be happy to help her. Not the name she would have expected to see, it sounded too exotic for the pale and gangly youth, but she was sure she’d be able to remember it.
“I was wondering if you could help me,” Jen mumbled, feeling her embarrassment grow. She was probably going to be blushing before the end of this encounter, and she hadn’t even done anything to be embarrassed of. But Aldesh wouldn’t know that, of course. He would be looking at her like she was just a little bit silly, shy to mention something that would seem like an honest mistake. “It’s kind of silly, I don’t want to bother you…”
“We’re here to help,” he cheerfully repeated the slogan, “Is there something on your list you can’t find?” He glanced down at the shopping list in her hands, but didn’t lean forward or attempt to read it. Another checkmark on the list in Jen’s mind. He was eager to help, rather than pushy.
“I… umm… I can’t read this one,” she said, doing a very convincing performance of a flustered shopper who knew this wasn’t likely to be on the staff training. In this case her confusion was deliberate, but she still felt an echo of the shame she would have experienced if she’d really run into this problem. She held out the list and continued: “I must have been writing it in a hurry when I was watching telly, it just looks like a squiggle to me. I thought maybe someone else might be able to make it out?”
“Sometimes we all need a second opinion. Someone else might see what you missed.” He took the list and peered at the item she was pointing at. It looked mostly like an incomprehensible scrawl, but there were a couple of letters recognisable. Something that could equally have been a ‘P’ or an ‘R’ at the beginning. “Hmm… could it be Piexcellence? The new instant pastry they’ve been advertising lately?”
“Oh, yes, that’s probably it,” Jen smiled. She wasn’t entirely sure what the squiggle on the shopping list was supposed to represent, but that sounded possible. “I’m amazed you could read that.”
“There’s a couple of letters you can make out.” he grinned. “And if you were watching television, it seems logical to assume it’s something that’s currently running commercials. And you’ve got canned apples underneath it, and brown sugar, which makes me think you were planning to make the apple pie they showed on the commercial. It does look very nice. Do you need any help finding it?”
“That would be great, thank you,” Jen beamed and nodded. “You think quick to have got that so quickly.”
Aldesh said something polite to acknowledge the compliment, and quickly led her down the aisle towards the product she needed. He stopped on the way to suggest that she might like to pick up her apples while they were passing, for which she nodded and thanked him again. He was able to go right to the packets bearing a logo that she remembered seeing in innumerable advertisements, and helpfully pointed out the variety which was intended for sweet pies. She couldn’t thank him enough, and he remembered to ask if there was anything else she needed before leaving.
“He’s well trained,” she whispered under her breath with a chuckle. She’d had to perform similar pieces of drama in many different branches of different supermarkets, and she could only hope that Aldesh was on a track to promotion with that attitude. It wasn’t rare to find staff who were sharp and on the ball, or those who were charmingly polite, or had an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s products, or who knew what was currently popular in order to make an educated guess. But finding all those qualities wrapped up in a single person was quite rare.
Then she looked down to the remaining items on her list, and blushed once again. When he was looking at her list, that nice young man had almost certainly noticed one of the other items on the list, written in carelessly with a pen that didn’t match the colour of most of the other items. She would leave that purchase until last, she thought, in an attempt to regain her composure.
Her shopping list simply said ‘KINKY SMUT’ in capitals, but she wasn’t likely to forget exactly what that meant. It was something she hadn’t expected them to direct her to buy, but she reasoned that it would be something they had to think about. A certain book had been quite popular lately, a parody of an even more famous title. And given that a lot of the potential readers might be embarrassed to purchase something so obviously risque, the supermarket wanted her to pick up a copy from the paperback section at the end of the stationary aisle. She would be expected to cover it with something else in her basket, and to look around furtively as if worried that someone she knew might have seen her pick it up. She would be assessing the staff on whether they commented on the purchase, or paid attention to it at the checkout.
Apparently, her instructions said, if she put a magazine on top of a potentially embarrassing item, the checkout operator was supposed to nonchalantly cover it again as quickly as possible, to ensure the customer’s comfort with their shopping. Jen found herself wondering if they’d done that for her before, and she just hadn’t noticed. She also wondered if that was unique to this shop, or something that happened in the wider world. It was amazing, the number of details you would never realise about someone else’s job. Was every job so nuanced? From the ones Jen had attempted, it certainly seemed to be so.
Eventually, with her basket piled high, she walked down to the books section. She paused, and told herself that she wasn’t actually purchasing gay porn. She was just doing her job, and there was nothing to be ashamed of. But that didn’t seem to help too much. Even if it was a job, she would still be taking that book off the shelf. She would still be sliding it into the side of her basket, and she’d still be aware of the staff, or the other customers who happened to be glancing in her direction. It was just as embarrassing to buy this, whatever her reasons.
When the rest of her shopping was finished, Jen stood at the little shelf of books. There weren’t that many to choose from, the supermarket wouldn’t set around much shelf space to books when they knew that most people wouldn’t be here looking for something to read. All they had were books that were in the news right now, that some shopper might be tempted to grab on impulse as they were passing.
She looked up at the books on the shelf. The one she wanted was right there, a dozen copies next to a plastic bookend bearing a potted summary of the story, such as it was. It was a very simple summary, and most of the sign was taken up by a warning that this product was not for sale to customers under the age of eighteen. She reached up for the spine, which displayed the name in a single discreet line of capitals. Maybe the shoppers around her wouldn’t even realise what she was picking up. But then she saw the front cover in her hand, and there could be no doubt about the content and intended readership of ‘Sixty-Nine Shades of Gay’ even if you looked past the title. She quickly pushed the book between some bulky purchase and the edge of her basket. It was only a second later that this meant the explicit cover was on display behind the wire basket; she really should have turned it the other way around. And taking it out again to turn it around would only draw everyone else’s attention to it, as well as making it clear that she was ashamed of her purchase on some level. It would be easier to just leave it, Jen reasoned. People weren’t in the habit of peering at someone else’s shopping in general, so if she didn’t touch the book nobody would even notice it.
Except that she would have to cover it in an attempt to hide her purchase, because that was exactly what she was supposed to be testing. So she glanced furtively around, probably getting the attention of anyone who hadn’t already noticed how vividly she was blushing, and then pulled the book out of the basket again. She turned it over in her hands, wondering if the back cover might be less conspicuous, before realising that she was clearly showing off two exquisite pieces of flesh-tone illustration to the people around her. Instead, she pulled out one of her other purchases, a super-plush bath towel, and looped it around the humiliating item.
She couldn’t help thinking that it would be obvious she was trying to hide something from the rectangular bulge in the towel. And she felt that her face might be just as red as the towel; a perfect match, maybe. She wondered if the mystery shopping agency had an option for these kind of jobs; if it might be possible to ask that she wasn’t assigned this kind of exercise in future. But as she walked towards the checkout, she knew that even if that option existed, she wouldn’t have used it. Her heart was racing as she got to the checkout, and she felt more alive than she had in days. She wouldn’t even have given up the imagined stares of people on an innocent shopping trip, if she was truly honest with herself.
She reached the checkout and quickly unloaded the various items from her basket onto the conveyor belt. She left the towel on top of the book, rather than find something else to cover it. Then she started the timer again, measuring queueing times. She knew that wouldn’t be a meaningful metric as the old gentleman in front of her spent several minutes digging through a battered coin purse trying to find exact change for his shopping; but it was one of the numbers she had to fill in on her report.
The young woman sitting on the checkout looked bored, and seemed to be staring into space as she slid one item after another past the barcode scanner. She certainly didn’t get a checkmark in the box for making eye contact, and the badge declaring that Cerise would be “Delighted to help YOU™” was hanging sideways on her rumpled shirt. When it came to the book, which Jen had decided to put around the middle of the shopping, she lifted the towel, saw the concealed item, and then slid both together across the scanner. There, at least, she got top marks.
“Forty-six seventy,” Cerise said, still staring off into space. Or maybe her gaze was focused on Aldesh’s ass as he carefully sorted packets of stir-fry sauce back into their right places on the shelf.
That wasn’t the price Jen had been expecting, but she tried not to let her surprise show. Most shoppers, she knew, didn’t know the total price of their basket when it came to the checkout. She glanced over the items, and realised it had to be the book. It had stayed hidden, but did that mean the scanner hadn’t seen it either?
“I think…” she started, already imagining the eyes of all the other shoppers on her as she held it up. She took a breath and tried again: “I think this might not have scanned?”
“Oh, it does,” the girl on the checkout answered, and finally turned her eyes towards the little screen in front of her. “The machine reads the barcode on the bottom. Oh!” and she reached over for the towel that had been covering the book. The machine bleeped once more.
“Fifty-three sixty-nine,” she said, and almost succeeded in concealing a little smirk. Jen was certain by now that everyone was watching as she handed over the money, and rushed to put everything in her bags.
It was an artistic book, she told herself as she strode back towards her bike. She’d heard people on the news saying that it presented a chilling parody of the patriarchal culture in book publishing. The irony in the book and the media frenzy around it were worthy of academic study in any of a dozen fields, but she knew that nobody would be thinking she was a sociologist or an artist. The people who were glancing over to see this in the top of her shopping bag must surely be thinking she was a rampant slut, desperate enough to seek solace in a book rather than the real thing. Or maybe looking for an explanation of the unknown in an effort to shake up a pedestrian sex life.
Jen smiled when that thought crossed her mind. She didn’t have much of a sex life, and rarely cared enough to try even casual encounters lately. But since one chance meeting with Eric, she knew that what she had could never be considered either boring, or unsatisfying. It was like she’d put the desperation of her college days behind her at last, and started a new page in her life. And that was when she realised that she’d been missing out on something that should have been obvious.
She’d looked at the day’s hash location, and realised that it was too far away to get to at any reasonable time. But that was because she was forgetting that it wasn’t just a single place determined by the formula. It wasn’t a random location like throwing a dart at a map. It was more like throwing a dart into a map book, hard enough that there should be a point to reach on every page. So if the place she’d originally determined was right on the far side of town, that meant it was entirely possible she was closer to the one on the next page over.
And that revelation made her think again about how she could have missed seeing Eric so many times. They’d both been to hashes before without meeting anyone else. Without meeting each other. So perhaps she’d only been looking at one page of the map book, checking if the point today was in a reasonable distance from home and not on private land. While at the same time, Eric looked at his own page. They might have been out on different days, when the point on one of those pages was accessible but the other wasn’t. Or they might even have reached their own points on the same day, never knowing that someone else was doing the same on the next page over. Maybe that was why her quests to meet Eric again had failed, meeting only when the imaginary dart landed right on the edge of one page.
She called up the maps on her phone. Of course, she didn’t have all her calculations with her. But she still had a point in her history, of the place that she’d looked at that morning. And it only took a minute’s calculation to work out the size of the pages in her analogy, and work out how far away she would need to look for the next hash over. When she pinched to zoom out the map on her screen, she could easily see that if Eric had been to the park where she first met him, there was a sizeable chance that this option would be closer to his home than the one she’d first considered.
Without another thought, she told the phone to give her directions. The shopping was hastily packed into her paniers, and she sped off down the main road. For what might just be a date with destiny.