It’s busy in the supermarket. Saturday afternoon and the aisles are bustling with shoppers.
I select a checkout queue. My son is with me and wants to load the shopping onto the moving belt. He’s at the stage where he wants to be involved in every part of every process. He insisted on steering the trolley along the aisles and only bumped into a few people.
He starts to unload. One large bottle of gin. A second large bottle of gin. A third large bottle of gin. A fourth, smaller, bottle of gin. Then he moves on to the other items. The potato waffles and coco pops.
We have to wait while the shopper in front is being served. My son finds his voice.
‘Are you going to drink all that tonight daddy?’ he says, unhelpfully.
I picked this checkout because there was only one shopper in front, an older woman who had a small number of items.
But it’s a rookie mistake as she has divided her shopping into three lots which are to be paid for separately. Also she has vouchers which she is trying to find at the bottom of her handbag.
I wait. I may be imagining it but I think there may be the slightest raising of an eyebrow when she notices my son handling the gin bottles.
My son is impatient to get to the front of the queue. This supermarket chain is giving away cards which are used to fill an album with every ten pounds spent.
It’s a brilliant wheeze, targeting children to get parents to spend more money. At one stroke my usual practise of trying to spend as little money as possible has been reversed with my son entreating me to pile more items into the trolley so he can get more of the valuable cards.
Some of the more kindly checkout assistants hand out more packs of cards than they are supposed to and my boy has worked out that if he is with me they are more likely to be sympathetic. While we wait he practises the cute, pleading look he will use when we get to the front.
Then, finally, it is our turn. The checkout worker says hello and begins to scan my shopping. She takes hold of the first bottle of gin and struggles to remove the security tag from the bottle. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.
It’s not even good gin. It’s not one of the sophisticated designer brands which line shelves these days. It’s neither coloured nor flavoured.
In fact it’s the store’s own brand. The writing on the plain label says ‘Basics’. It’s not a good look.
The attendant passes the first bottle to me and begins to work on the second. My discomfort grows. The noise of the security tag being removed seems to echo around the whole cavernous store and I imagine that everyone is looking at me.
I’m packing shopping into a bag which I brought with me. First one bottle, then another, and another. The assistant looks at me and smiles. It’s fine, it’s nobody else’s business and no-one is worried about the contents of my shopping trolley. I start to wonder if employees are trained, or at least instructed, not to comment on the range of items which they are scanning.
Then a thought invades my head. My overactive imagination begins to believe that she knows my wife is working today and that I’m looking after my young son on my own. I have a vision of police calling at my front door because concerns have been raised that a drunk man is in charge of a young child.
I come back to reality and chastise myself for my foolishness. I continue packing. I can feel the reddening at the back of my neck.
And then I crack. Of course I crack because that’s just the way I am.
I begin to talk to her.
‘I know this doesn’t look good but I’m not drinking these.’
She smiles at me.
‘No, I don’t drink at all actually, I gave up alcohol some years ago.’
She keeps smiling and, perhaps, looks a little surprised. I go on.
‘You see I’ve got a little apple tree in my front yard, it’s a crab apple tree. Usually I make jelly but I thought I’d try something different this year.’
She scans another item. I have a sense that everyone in the shop is listening to me. There’s a voice in my head telling me to stop.
‘So I thought I’d have a go at making flavoured liqueur this year. It’s for Christmas presents. I make hampers you see.’
She nods along. My son moves behind me.
‘My wee man and me picked the apples off it this morning. It was a bumper crop, we got two-hundred and thirty four apples. I’ve measured out how much gin I need for the weight of apples I have. That’s why I’ve got the three big bottles and then smaller one….that’s the exact amount of gin I need….I don’t actually drink.’
The checkout assistant’s smile remains fixed. She passes me the last item and then responds for the first time.
‘There was a woman in here the other day. She had lots of bottles in her trolley, she said the same thing.’
I laugh and nod along, although I’m not sure why.
Then she turns to my son and asks him if he’s collecting the hero cards. He says yes and gives her the look he’s been practising. She gives him a large handful of packs of cards. Many more than he’s entitled to.
And then we leave the store. My son is clutching his packs of cards and smiling. I’m clutching my four bottles of gin and am eager to get home.