Shopping in the net

Anxiety and the card reader

(An edited version of this piece first appeared on

The other people in the queue are buying things like bread and milk and toiletries and I am the only adult with an armful of chocolate.

I’m also quite certain that I am the one making that smell. I hear someone over my shoulder sniff and I, too, sniff as a form of deception. I cast a glare at some random person behind me and I hope that it catches on and they become the prime suspect.

Naturally, because it’s a Wednesday morning, I am in a hoody and pyjama bottoms. My mother is constantly asking when my wife and I will give her some grandkids but I don’t quite have the heart to tell her that it probably isn’t a good idea. I have told her we might get a dog as practice but that will be a lie because it’ll mostly be for the cuddles and companionship. A baby just can’t give that same satisfaction.

The queue shuffles forward and I become increasingly worried that I haven’t cleaned my ears out. My brain chimes in helpfully: ‘The person behind you is definitely looking directly into your ear canal. There is nothing else on this earth that they want to see more than a stranger’s ear canal.’ I turn my head at a ninety-degree angle and my brain quietens down.

Other thoughts bleed in rapid succession: I’m hoping the chocolate in my arms doesn’t melt. (‘These are my children, mother.’) I try to focus in on the sounds of beeping and bagging. I look behind the counter at the vape liquids. Apparently they have watermelon flavour now. I wonder what chocolate watermelon would taste like. I notice the people in front and behind me are closing in like the walls in Indiana Jones. This is England, since when did people think it was appropriate to queue so uncouthly? I start to panic.

‘Can I help?’ An assistant behind the counter calls me up.

I dump the chocolate before him and he gives me a look of utter pity. ‘Good morning,’ I say, doing my best impression of cheerfulness.

Mortal enemy.

I pull my debit card from my pocket. Apparently I bought more than I realised because the whole tragic ordeal seems to take longer than usual. I spy the Mars bar and the Twix and Kinder bars all go through the scanner and I get that feeling of lust. You know that feeling when two people who find each other physically irresistible rip their clothes off in a fit of passion? Like that but instead it’s me and chocolate.

‘That’ll be twelve pounds and fifty-six pence, please,’ the man says.

I step up to the card reader and I tap the screen. It beeps unhappily. Oh, God.

‘Try again?’ The man cocks his head.

And I do try again. I tap the card against the machine over and over but still it beeps. It judges me with its beeps. It screams: ‘There shall be no cocoa-flavoured products for you, sir!’

I become acutely aware of the handful of people waiting for my transaction to end. ‘Why don’t you try swiping it?’ Someone suggests.

‘There’s money in my account,’ I say unprompted — and I hope I’m not lying. I couldn’t imagine a worse headline: ‘PYJAMA-WEARING MAN GOES INTO CHOCOLATE DEBT’.

Someone in the queue lets out a soft ‘tut’ and a sigh and sweat begins to form on my brow. And here it is, the pinnacle of nightmares: I am a mild inconvenience to four people. My heart thunders and my knees begin to weaken. My brain adds to the cacophony with, ‘And they know your ears are waxy.’

The machine still beeps angrily after I swipe the card and now I begin praying that someone, somehow, has spilled water in my lap. Out of sheer desperation I tap the card on the reader one more time and it chirps happily. A little cheer echoes through the shop.

I ran home and ate my chocolate.

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