The weekly trials and tribulations of the supermarket shop during Covid-19 - told from the perspective of a first-timer.
I eye the queue outside our local supermarket warily. I recognise a fair number of the faces by now. There is Apocalypse Woman, fully decked out in disposable gloves and high-tech face mask, keeping a mile away from everyone else. Which I respect - it's important to stay safe. But ironically, you have to watch her like a hawk. As soon as you enter the supermarket, she is the one reaching across you, her body scraping your torso, as she lunges for the last onion.
My wife normally does the weekly shop - and before I get jumped all over for being sexist, it's one thousand percent a mutual decision. I do other stuff like the laundry, picking up dog poo from the garden and sorting out our rubbish. My wife owns the kitchen as she is by far the better cook. She likes to make things from scratch - pies, soups, sauces, pasta bakes, 24 hour slow cooked extravaganzas. If it was left to me, we would be dining on chicken burgers and hot chips most days of the week.
However, ever since the dawn of level 4, I have been the one venturing out for food. My wife stays at home, keeping as safe as she can during the third trimester of pregnancy with our second little boy.
I survey the queue as we inch towards the entrance. There are a couple of Men With No Lists. here today. They're easy to spot. They have a panicked look in their eyes and a white-knuckle grip on the trolley in front of them. Why do they come here without a list? No one knows but they are one of the most frustrating breeds of shopper once you get through those sliding doors.
They are marginally better than the Men On Phones that were especially prominent during the first week of lockdown. This variant raced around the supermarket like insane people, their mobiles glued to their ears. They glared at the aisles helplessly and screeched high-pitched questions at the wives/girlfriends/partners on the other end of the line.
"What is the difference between crushed tinned tomatoes and whole ones?" they yelled. Absolutely nothing, I would think - warm in my smugness, as I clutched the extremely detailed list my wife had entrusted me with. They all look the same when you cook them down.
I seem to come across fewer Men On Phones these days. Perhaps, they have become more experienced as the weeks have dragged by and no longer need to confide in their partners every five seconds. Or maybe their loved ones have given up on them, and they are now the haggard-looking Men With No Lists? I will never find out. I don't speak to these men. Eye contact is never made. Our only objective is to get in and out as quickly as possible.
I make it through the fruit and veg section, wheeling away from Apocalypse Woman as I spot her keen blue eyes on the stack of loose apples beside me. Then, I turn into the snack and confectionary aisle (a high priority - I need something to keep me going during these exciting homebound times).
I come across an Endless Ditherer. They have lists but still can't decide what they want once they get here. The woman leisurely scans the row of Whittaker's chocolate for what feels like five hours, blocking my approach. I swoop in, tired of waiting, and grab a slab of Creamy Caramel. I know what I'm after. I'm a seasoned pro. I will have finished my shop before the Endless Ditherers have managed to choose between Jelly Tip and Berry & Biscuit.
I slam my trolley around the corner to the next aisle, pretending I'm Hayden Paddon in the New Zealand Rally Championships - and meet my ultimate supermarket nemesis. A Man With No List. He has parked his trolley in the middle of the aisle, while he bends over looking blankly at a row of identical pasta sauces. It is impossible to pass. I glare poison tipped knives at him but he is completely oblivious.
I reverse back out and try another route, only to come across another Man With No List trying to decide between two frozen beef pies, both as pallid looking as each other and guaranteed to taste exactly the same. He too has parked his trolley smack bang in the middle of the aisle. My blood boils and I can feel a migraine starting to bubble behind my eyebrows.
Finally, I drag myself to the checkout - smiling weakly at the fellow shoppers that actually understand what social distancing is. We keep a respectful distance, we're aware of others and move aside when we need to. I feel a burst of affection towards each and every one of them.
I somehow find myself with the same checkout assistant that I end up with every week - a young red headed guy. I pile food onto the conveyor belt. I race to get everything on before it starts falling off at the other end. I never succeed. Why are these belts so short, I wonder for the five millionth time that month. They are cruel and impossible tests of unpacking and repacking speed. I am bright red, droplets of sweat tracking down my cheeks by the end of it.
Last time I was here, I told the checkout guy that I was baking a cake for my wife's birthday.
"It'll probably be a disaster," he had told me, encouragingly. This week, I tell him with some satisfaction that my orange and almond creation was a resounding triumph. In return, he tells me that he has the world's best recipe for chocolate cake. I ask him what it is. He replies that he can't remember. I leave the shop mystified. Why did he bring it up if he wasn't going to share the recipe? I spend the rest of the day wondering what this legendary chocolate cake tastes like.
I haul hundreds of bags of shopping into the back of the ute and slump into the driver's seat, exhausted. I crack open a bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips and munch on them, a glazed look in my eyes. I feel like I've run a marathon.
I drive the 15 minutes home and dream of level 2 and beyond. I'm not going to lie. I despise supermarket shopping at the best of times, but particularly during these times of Covid-19 and social distancing. I can't wait until I can hand the reins back to my far more competent wife in the not too distant future. Dog poo never looked so good.
When I look at the faces leaving the supermarket, limply crawling into their cars, I know there are hundreds of others that feel precisely the same.
Author: Nick Bell - much loved and appreciated husband of OOBY editor, Jen Bell.