Niall Bourke is originally from Kilkenny but currently living in London where he teaches English Literature. He is currently finishing an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths university of London. He writes both poetry and prose and has been published in Southbank Poetry, Silver Apples, Three Drops From A Cauldron, Prole, Holdfast magazine and Roadside Fiction. He is currently working towards his first collection.
Unexpected Item In The Bagging Area
By Niall Bourke
“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” said the only working machine. Trevor re-scanned the bottle of Prosecco.
“Beep” went the machine and then he put it into the bag, beside the expensive salsa and the corn chips. He was a man who usually bought economy. But not tonight.
Lisa Hannigan would be ringing the bell of his flat in just over ten minutes. In Trevor’s mind she was naked and this upset him. Not because she looked bad naked in his mind. She did not look bad at all. In fact, for a sliver of time she looked as good as only imaginary naked people can, with no clear discerning features, just a blur of perfect and exquisite nakedness. But imaging her naked made him anxious.
For Trevor it was like the day he had arrived at work and looked in his lunchbox only to find his tomato sandwich was at home in his fridge, where he had left it. For the rest of the day he had been so hungry that he was unable to stop thinking about it. How he wanted that sandwich. But then he got worried. What if one of his flatmates ate it before he got back? What would he do then? Or what if, by the time he got home, the tomato had sogged into his bread and ruined it? After dreaming about its tomatoey goodness all day this would crush him. Maybe it was better if someone ate it after all. So he put it from his mind and, on arriving home, placed it straight in the bin without so much as even a desultory sniff. This is kind of how he saw Lisa Hannigan at this moment, like a large and naked tomato sandwich.
Behind Trevor a queue had formed and it was getting longer by the minute. A woman with a face a bit like a barn owl was pretending to wipe her glasses clean and glowering at Trevor’s back and a man a with an uncanny resemblance to a beagle was holding a box of cornflakes while shuffling his feet. A few places further back a vole-like chap was holding hands with his mousy daughter and muttering to his ostrichy wife.
“Beep” went the Prosecco for the third time. In Trevor’s haste to bag it up his squidgy hands had become even clumsier than usual and the salsa rolled out of the bag.
“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” said the machine.
Not now thought Trevor not now not now not now. You see, to some men there is simply nothing quite so beautiful as the knowledge that a moderately attractive office worker will be imminently ringing their doorbell. And nothing quite so painful as the fear of not being there to answer.
Confusion began to tickle Trevor with its long and confusing fingers. Why was this bottle so unexpected? It was a bottle of Prosecco, a green one with a stylish, white label. This was a small supermarket, with a wine section. This bottle should be the very thing a self-service machine in a small supermarket with a wine section should expect. Especially since he had now scanned it three times. It should be very expected indeed. Oh what a fool he had been to dislike the surly shop assistant who used to work here. How he would now welcome her gum chewing disinterest, oh how he would embrace her thinly veiled contempt for the job.
Clean clean went the owl.
Stare stare went the beagle.
Mutter mutter went the vole.
LisaHanniganLisaHanniganLisaHannigan burbled Trevor’s brain. LisaHannigan.
Marcus from HR said Lisa Hannigan was at least a 7. The Prosecco was Marcus’ idea. He said it was classy yet understated, just like Lisa Hannigan. Trevor began to wonder whether this was a crafty plan by Marcus to get Lisa Hannigan for himself. He wouldn’t have put it past him.
“Comeoncomeoncomeon,” said Trevor, before adding “Please.” He had been raised to be polite, even to recalcitant electronic equipment.
“What is he saying?” said Beagle Features.
“I’m not sure,” said Barn Owl Face, “something about cheese I think. I wish he’d hurry up.”
Beagle features groaned. “Cheese? As well? He’ll be there all bloody day.”
“I wish he’d stop talking to it and bloody buy something,” said the vole, not muttering any more.
Beep went the Prosecco again.
“Unexpected item,” said the machine.
“I know I know,” Trevor started to say but the machine ignored him and added “in the bagging area.”
Try as he might Trevor just could not fathom the depths of the bottle’s unexpectedness, although it was beginning to feel as if he had swum down halfway in an attempt to do so and was now fast running out of air. If it was a rift in the space-time continuum he would understand. But a bottle of Prosecco? In a supermarket? That had been scanned four times? In place of confusion’s fingers went now the pinchy digits of frustration in the face of perceived electronic injustice.
Pinch went the fingers. Pinch pinch pinch and he banged his forehead on the top of the machine.
“Look,” said Owl Face, “Look. What he is doing? He can’t do that can he?”
“Where’s his decency?” said Beagle Features, shaking his head in disgust.
Trevor was pretending not to hear them but he could not ignore their eyeballs devouring the back of his neck. Beneath his thinning hair his scalp went two shades redder for he knew what they were thinking. They saw him as a crook, as a thief. These were not just any old people, they were individuals. They were all individuals with places to be, with hopes and dreams, dreams that could not be realised whilst they were stuck in a queue. Who was this buffoon to take their dreams away from them? Did he think these were people who could afford to idle away their days in supermarket queues? Why should this thief steal away their lives seconds at a time? They worked hard. They paid their taxes. They didn’t deserve this. They most certainly did not deserve this. The hairs on their necks bristled and the queue became a tinderbox on a knife edge. And all the while Trevor’s watch ticked Lisa and tocked Hannigan and the pinchy digits of electronic injustice pinched on.
Trevor moved the corn chips to absolutely make sure there was enough room in the bag for the Prosecco and then he scanned the bottle again.
“Beep,” went the machine.
He placed the bottle into the bag and held his breathe.
The machine was silent.
And then it said “Unexpected item in the bagging area.”
Trevor’s anger frothed over like milk boiling out of a pan. Bubbling, white of rage rolled down him and puddled on the floor and he began to beat the machine with the packet of corn chips in swathing arcs.
“You cretinous mechanical moron!” he screamed, “It’s not a naked mole rat, it’s a bottle of wine! This is a supermarket! I’ve scanned it! Five times! How bloody unexpected can it be? Did Marcus put you up to this? Is that what’s going on?”
The machine blinked at him, pretending not to understand. Its silence enraged him even further and he began to thrash the machine with a renewed vigour. The packet of corn chips burst open due to the ferocity of the beating and triangular, starchy snacks went cartwheeling through the air. A spinning corn chip speared the owl faced woman on the earlobe and she began to tremor on the spot. Very quietly at first, like an electric toothbrush that has fallen into a sock drawer and accidentally switched itself on. But then she erupted.
“He’s assaulting that poor machine! And he’s swearing! He’s swearing and assaulting that machine, that innocent machine! Isn’t someone going to do something? There are children here you know, what about the children? Why won’t anyone think of the children?” She screamed.
Righteous and owlish indignation shot out of her like matches being flicked into field of dry grass and rained down on the rest of the shoppers who exploded one by one, careening around the supermarket like a cheap and unpredictable fireworks.
“Yes the children think of the children,” wailed the ostrichy woman, “Oh why won’t he think of the children!” and she covered her daughter’s mousy eyes.
“Oh my god man, have some self-respect,” barked Beagle Features, shamed into action by Owl Face’s outburst. His thin walls of stoicism came tumbling down. He bit chunks out of his box of cornflakes and began to spit out mouthfuls of cardboard. “Pull yourself together,” he said, “you’re embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing all of us.”
A teenager who was trying to buy a donut shot off into the bakery aisle and began to dismantle the shelving. The vole-like chap ran up and down the aisles with his hands on his head, dodging the corn chips careening through the air. “The horror, the horror,” he said, “oh the horror.”
A granddad with beady mole-eyes (who had only come in to buy some Belle-Vita biscuits for his cat) was carried along by the waves of mind-warping fury sweeping through the supermarket. Being toward the back of the queue he did not fully understand what was happening, but thought it was to do with an undetected rice-tin. This didn’t make much sense to him but it sounded sinister and he knew he didn’t like it. He had not fought in a world war for this – definitely not for this – and he began to beat his walking stick on the floor at the futility of it all. Unusually large tears began to roll out of his eyes. If you had not seen this first hand you would not think that a man with such small and moley eyes could produce such large tears. But he could.
But Trevor did not notice any of this because he was now encased in a hardening skin of gibbering insanity and was saying things that had no real meaning, like the barcode of an onion. “36220000440,” he said, his mind no longer his own and the granddad beat the floor harder. A librarian with a fully loaded basket had become unhinged by the slowness of the queue. She sat cross legged on the floor, immolating herself with the contents of her basket – custard, treacle, mayonnaise, pilchards, crème fraîche. She had only come in because of a hankering for carrot batons but had for some reason filled her basket with things she never usually bought. Things she didn’t even particularly like. What a terrible day to fill her basket with such slimy and pourable produce. What rotten luck.
“36220000440,” continued Trevor. The packet of corn chips was now completely empty but he was still thrashing the machine for all he was worth.
“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” said the machine.
This was too much for Trevor. He opened the salsa and began to flagellate himself with it. He applied it to his face like make-up. He filled his pockets with it. He threw it in the air like wet and gooey confetti. He knew that right now, at this very moment, Lisa Hannigan was ringing his buzzer. He saw her hastily manicured index finger pressing the button and heard the buzzing echoing through the empty depths of his flat. Or rather, he would have known these things if he had any mind left. But he had not. It had left him like students leaving a class after realising that a teacher they had previously thought was merely late was actually not going to turn up at all. Trevor was no longer human. He was simply a warbling barcode automaton, a salsa-smeared robot of despair.
“Unexpected item in the bagging area,” said the machine.
“36220000440,” said Trevor through a face-mask of salsa, chunks of pepper slicked through his hair like large flecks of green dandruff.
The crowd was now rabid. Queue-related hatreds had burst from their brains and were now flying around the shop like ghosts that had just escaped from an inter-dimensional portal. All the occasions that the shoppers had stood patiently in lines only to be gazumped came flooding back – the memories of times when, after waiting so patiently in line, their counter had closed and another one had opened. They recalled, aghast, how everyone behind them in the queue had run to the newly opened counter, pretending not to know of the heinous queue skipping of which they had just been party and they began to bay like coyotes, coyotes who wanted blood of those who could not queue, who would not queue, those who thought it O.K. to steal other people’s precious time.
And when Trevor said “36220000440” again but still did not manage to pay for his produce it was simply too much. The owl faced woman punched him, a hum-dinger, right on the ear, and down he went down like teenager’s zip. But the crowd could not be sated so easily, no more than you could save yourself from a starving lion by throwing it a leaf of lettuce.
They fell upon Trevor’s un-moving body with a fervour akin to five Irish peasants simultaneously discovering the same potato during the famine. They tore into him. Beagle Features stabbed him repeatedly with the keys of his cripplingly expensive house. The ostrichy woman skewered one of his eye balls with her stilettoes, shoes she wore for work – not because they were comfortable but because not to do so would have hurt her career prospects. The mole-eyed granddad pulled on Trevor’s left arm until it came off and then swung it around his head. The voleish chap, releasing years of pent up suffering at the hands of his overbearing wife, bit off Trevor’s nose. They ripped him into shreds. Children ransacked his body, digging into his abdomen with their tiny fingers and tearing out his organs. They squawked like baby vultures as they held his innards up to the fluorescent lights of the supermarket. You must never let someone steal your precious time, they seemed to say with each fresh assault, never, never, never.
Eventually, when bits of Trevor had been scattered cathartically all through the supermarket, the crowd’s murderous rampage began to abate. Blood-spattered shoppers gulped in the cool and ordered air that was now returning through automatic doors and began to forget what they had been doing. They picked themselves up, exchanging glances in much the same way as might a man and his neighbour’s wife on discovering each other in a German pornography emporium.
One by one, and without speaking, they began to leave. Men scuttled out the side exits into the plaza, keeping their eyes on the floor. Women pretended to put on their make-up before following suit. Parents grabbed their children, adjusting collars and wiping slimy entrails away from their face, before leaving through the front and going off about their business.
And all the while the machine sang on.
“Unexpected item,” it said, “unexpected item in the bagging area.”