So, I’m standing in the queue at the checkout; I joined the queue even though there was an automatic checkout machine vacant nearby. I stood there watching the checkout girl doing nothing while a customer packed and repacked small purchases into a plastic bag. I wasn’t in a hurry: one of the nice things about being here is that I can take my time getting to know the town and the way of life, the cost of a cup of tea (bloody £1.60!) and so on.

But there was this vacant computerised checkout terminal thing, just sitting there. And part of the fun of living in Africa for two years is the shock of adjusting back to queer British things when you come back. I moved.

I’ve used self-checkout before, in Richmond. I was struck back then by how a pleasant woman’s voice can become irritating very quickly when she insists on telling you, over and over again, to put your purchase into the bag. I was in such a hurry to put my two items (margerine and, erm, something else I cant remember — but it seemed important at the time) in the right place in a timely way once I scanned them that I just dumped them on the weighing shelf and not into a bag. I pressed the ‘Finish and pay’ button.

‘Please scan your fidelity card’, she said, or words to that effect.

I pressed the ‘Cut to the chase’ button.

‘Please insert cash or choose method of payment’.

I inserted some cash: a pound coin dropped into the slot and a five pence piece dropped down next to the weighing platform. I put down my gloves (it’s been snowing today!) and started to pick at it ineffectually: the coin was just too large to come out of the crack it had fallen into.

‘Please remove the last item from the bag’, said the till.

I looked at it blankly.

‘Please remove the last item from the bag’, she repeated in that gratingly superior voice of a luxury car safety system telling you to fasten your seatbelt.

‘Please remove…’
I picked up my gloves from the top of the margerine tub. “Those are my bloody gloves”, I told her.

Oh my god! I’m talking to a bloody computer! This is like Star Trek except that its Tesco. At the Acacia Supermarket in Tala there are two people per active checkout, one to enter the prices (which they either remember or make up on the spot) into the till and the other to put things in a bag for me so that I can have all the pleasure of taking them out and putting them into my rucksack when I leave. They smile and ask me how I am and whehter I have gone back to my country yet. Yes! I have, I’m here, doing one of your jobs myself and arguing with a computer which is doing the other.

‘Please insert cash or select means of payment’

Grrr! I finally managed to snatch the coin from the grip of the till and dropped it into the slot. I stared at the screen and the little digital display, looking for some indication of how much I’d already paid and how much balance was remaining. If this machine was working properly I shouldn’t have to do this, either that information should be in larger digits or I should be able to ask her:

“How much have I paid?”,

‘Please insert cash or choose means of payment’.

“Bloody fuckyah then”

I threw a few more coins into the slot, shoved my margerine and other item into a bag and hurried out into the snow.

Walking past a bakery a few minutes later I eyed a tasty looking wholemeal pasty in the window. I tooka second look. A beautiful young woman in a green uniform at the counter smiled at me.

“Can I help you?”, she asked, smiling again (and looking gorgeous) as I arrived at the counter.

“Hi”, I smiled back, “I saw a wholemeal pasty but didn’t check if it was vegetarian. Then I saw you smile and I thought I’d rather ask you”.

She smiled again (‘Yes!!’) , told me it was and sold me one. Not exactly a conversation, but there was a connection, at least. If she’d said “Can I help you?” again in the exact same tone of voice I’d have sprinted out of the shop and all the way home.

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