We all know her.
We have seen her a thousand times in the rear-view mirror of our ageing lives.
Because of her, we drive more carefully, greet people more cordially and treat those who serve us with more consideration. She does not know it, but she influences the lives of the countless thousands who come into contact with her.
She has a life that is perfectly balanced between its perceived success as measured by the yardsticks of her upbringing. Any life that intersects with hers that does not contribute to its ascent is irrelevant, and to be ignored. She is what happens when someone simultaneously loses their sense of proportion, perspective and humour, and starts to believe the PR. (And, by the way, she is equally likely to be a ‘he’.)
We have all noticed her look right through us as if we are not even there, not even a fellow grazer on this planetary pasture we call home.
Last evening, she was in Waitrose in case you missed her. Dressed in her designer jeans and high-collared shirt, and lugging around a Gucci bag containing more bank cards than I thought had ever been printed, she was doing her weekend shopping. This was an activity that required her also to be shouting a constant stream of instructions down her mobile phone at, first, a child, then a friend and finally someone who appeared to be trying to deliver a sofa to her house. Her progress round the supermarket achieved a three metre total exclusion zone; if she was in the off-license, everyone else was by the dairy counter; when she moved there, we all moved off to the biscuits. By the time she got to the till, anyone in the shop would have been wholly aware of the priorities and annoyances of her life.
And up to that point, it was all fine. We, the customers and floor staff, had the ability to move gently out of her way, like windsurfers moving out of the pathway of an oil tanker butting its way down the Solent.
But things changed when she arrived at the till, where the sad-eyed check-out lady started passing her purchases under the scanner. Because, where the rest of us could move, she couldn’t. Where the rest of us could just chuckle at her awfulness, she had to sit there and absorb it. The pain was manifest on her brow.
‘Do you want a bag?’ she asked.
The woman shook her head impatiently, whilst shouting something close to abuse down to the phone to the delivery driver.
The check-out lady passed the last item through the scanner and then gave her the value.
‘That will be £125.50, Madam,’ she said, with only a tiny hint of irony.
Putting her head almost horizontally to her shoulder to keep the phone in place, the woman rifled through her cards before thumping one down in front of her.
‘I can’t get any sense out of you. What is your manager called?’ she bellowed down the phone, whilst stabbing her pin number into the console.
A little crowd of us exchanged rolled eyes, and sympathetic glances with the check-out lady. Then, with no immediate catalyst that I could later identify, I suddenly found myself in her eye line.
‘Please can you put your phone down,’ I said.
‘What? Who are you?’ She told the delivery driver to stay on the line.
‘This lady serving you is a human being. Please can you treat her like one.’ It shouldn’t have felt brave, but somehow it did.
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ she asked enigmatically. ‘And who the hell are you?’
‘A customer, like you,’ I replied. ‘Another human being.’
Unsure whether to fight or fly, her mind was made up by a small ripple of applause from the adjacent queues. She stuffed the last of her Ferrero Rochers into her jute bag-for-life and strode out of the shop without a rearward glance.
‘Thank you so much,’ said the check-out lady. ‘I could never have said that’.
I’ve worked whole years of my life without getting that much satisfaction.
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