By Becky Jones
We ventured together today for the first time since March, to Sainsbury’s. An inordinately stressful experience – I was left exhausted and wanting to weep.
COVID is a cruel and unusual enemy. We witness it at second hand – in news segments; in impossible-to-grasp statistics delivered by politicians and media who time and again have proved themselves untrustworthy; in social media threads without provenance. Not only is the threat invisible, a virus with a stealth shield, but its worst effects are blessedly concealed from public gaze by hospital walls. Yet the genuine seriousness of the threat is evidenced by unprecedented measures in force to protect us all and to help us protect each other.
The impact was forceful, of performing the mundane task of shopping, in exceptional circumstances – masked, distanced, silent.
The queue stretches across the car park; it’s largely silent. Customers wait patiently, absorbed in their own business, any intimacy in shared adversity suspended – at least for now. At the doors, we are encouraged to try an app to achieve our task without any human contact, and my husband goes off to do so. I don my mask.
Inside, the store appears deceptively normal; but clothing is subject to a one-way system. I browse, vaguely disoriented, faintly irritated both by the system and another customer who disregards it. My awareness is heightened of each item I touch: do I need to touch this? Yes. Did I sanitise? Yes. Is it suitable? No. Got to put it back. Is that allowed?
Anxiety rises. I notice the feel of my mask – the softness of the fabric as it moves with each breath. I can breathe just fine. I can. I just need some air. I notice my breathing quicken, and take a moment to slow it and be aware that I can, indeed, breathe.
In the food aisles, everything seems unfamiliar or impossible to find. Like a small creature faced by a huge threat, my field of vision contracts to focus on that which I’m looking directly at. I seek the attention of a member of staff, and she doesn’t hear me. Twice. Three times. My mask ensures my voice cannot be heard outside my head, like a sort of prosthetic madness. I realise that if I smile at other shoppers my expression is largely invisible, and notice that visually I skip over others wearing masks: they have become background, whilst those without are part of the foreground, interactable and human. I’m aware my husband will have finished his shopping, and feel I should hurry. But nothing is where I expect it to be, and I find myself making fruitless circuits of aisles, my back to the items I seek.
Damn mask, I can’t breathe. I slip a finger beneath the edge to allow some welcome air in. And realise in so doing I negate the benefit of wearing it at all. That hand has to touch the shopping, the trolley, the card, the phone, the list, the car… I feel breathless and defeated. A non-person in a mask, lost in a supermarket, alone among fearful strangers.
Adverts broadcast in the store are now about COVID. Help slow the spread. Charge a card so others can shop for you. Please be patient with our staff and customers at this time. I long for it to stop.
I long for all of it to stop.