Written by Jo Caulfield

Voices

Shopping and grieving

Jo Caulfield is sick to the back teeth of being asked inane questions by customer-facing staff and fairly sure Callum doesn’t want to hear about her smear test. Or her grief.

Are you Being Served cast shot
“Are you just shopping and chilling today?” said the young man in All Saints.

“Oh do fuck off,” is not an acceptable response so I mumbled something along the lines of, “Sort of.” I didn’t make eye contact and I moved away.

“Are you looking for something in particular?”

Christ he was there again. As usual when I’m in All Saints I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. It takes me a while to work out what is the neck and which are the armholes and whether the zips work or are just ‘detail’. I must have been holding a coat because my super-friendly assistant said: “That’s a lovely statement coat. Are you looking for a statement coat?”

What a bizarre thing to be looking for: a statement coat. I nearly laughed. Can you wear a statement coat with your statement hat? What if they’re saying different things?

Over-friendly customer service doesn’t do what retailers think it does. It makes us leave your shops. I left.

“Have you come for something nice in the area?” asked the receptionist as I checked into a Premier Inn. It was an odd question as this particular Premier Inn was between a Tesco Extra and a service station, just off some outer, outer ring road. There was nothing nice in the area.

What I should have said is, “Yes I’m hoping to go round the petrol pumps later. Are they Roman? I’ve heard they’re Roman.”

“So what are your plans for the rest of the day?” asked the lady at the M&S checkout.

I wanted to say, “None of your business,” but as usual I thought of something noncommittal and bland instead.

They always say this at the M&S food hall at train stations. I catch a lot of trains so it’s particularly annoying. Maybe we should embarrass them into stopping these interrogations.

“What are your plans for the rest of the day?” asks a man whose name badge informs me is called Callum.

My brain plays out a small scenario. “I’m having a smear test, Callum.”

I’d then go back to that same food hall another day. “Excuse me, is Callum working? Just I’ve got my smear results and he was interested.”

“I was remembering going shoplifting with my big sister. She got some cool eyeshadows; I only managed to nick what turned out to be a roll of surgical tape.”

I don’t mind having a real, genuine conversation. But these are not real, genuine conversations. Some consultants thought it would be a good idea to force retail staff to talk to us when really they should just pay them more, then they’ll be in a better mood and maybe start a conversation – naturally.

It also never occurred to them that it might not be appropriate. That a person may not want to chat, be that the person serving or the person being served.

“No, I’m not doing anything nice today. I’m going to scatter my sister’s ashes. I’m frightened. I’m frightened of how it will make me feel.”

That’s why you shouldn’t make your staff strike up inane conversations. You have taken away their natural human instincts. If a woman looks like she’s been crying and doesn’t make eye contact, maybe don’t ask if she’s having a good week.

Rather than make the world feel friendlier, you’ve made us all feel like customers. Customers that have to be spoken to.

“Would you like to join our database?”

“Um no. not really.”

“We just need your email, then we can tell you about offers.”

“Um, no thanks, if you don’t mind.”

“We get some great offers…”

Jesus. Stop talking to me! I feel vulnerable. I didn’t realise how bad I would feel. It’s five-and-a-half months since my sister died of cancer aged 57. I suppose you can’t know, until someone you love dies before their time. But I do know I want you to take your over-friendly, big smiley head away from me.

A young Spanish man at the Pret A Manger in King’s Cross was so lovely and made me feel like we had a genuine connection. We both rolled our eyes at the man in front who was being rude to the other barista. I love to bond over disliking someone. He said I looked tired. Which was true, I did look tired and it was just nice to have someone be genuine.

I travel a lot for work so maybe I have more of these interactions, but some days it just feels like a relentless assault course of insincere meaningless chat.

“You got a lot of plans for the weekend?”

“Just work…”

…And thinking about my dead sister. I don’t write that to be dramatic – that’s honestly what came into my head. Annie would have appreciated the black humour.

“If a woman looks like she’s been crying and doesn’t make eye contact, maybe don’t ask if she’s having a good week.”

How long before you can really grasp that someone is not here anymore? I went to boarding school when I was nine. Annie was already there, 200 yards up the hill in another building, five years ahead of me. I saw her every Sunday. I saw her more than I saw my mum. From my side it made her more than a sister. Maybe that’s why this feels so awful.

When the lady at Boots says, “Sorry to have kept you waiting,” I feel like some awful tyrant. I can’t have been waiting for more than three seconds. She’s probably having a bad day too. It’s easier for her to say it to everyone than to really engage and notice if people have actually been waiting in a queue.

There’s something very inhuman about this corporate ‘human touch’, it’s hard and brittle, more Nineteen Eighty-Four, Westworld and Stepford Wives than a friendly global village shop or whatever it is they think they’re creating.

The woman in Boots was about my age and if she hadn’t been ordered what to say I might have told her what I was thinking. I was remembering going shoplifting with my big sister. She got some cool eyeshadows; I only managed to nick what turned out to be a roll of surgical tape.

Shopping has become painful.

I wish Talking Heads weren’t on Tesco’s playlist. I bought More Songs about Buildings and Food because Annie liked them. She had Bad Company and Focus written on her plimsolls in biro when she was about 15. They don’t seem like her kind of bands now.

I remember when she had yellow hair with blue streaks.

She wrote a musical set in a supermarket where the cast of characters included Catwoman, Picasso, Mae West, Louis Jordan and Emma Peel. What a fabulous brain.

She would like where we have put her ashes. But she would have liked it to be in 30 years’ time.

Annie, I really want to tell you about ‘The Statement Coat’. It would make you laugh.

“How are you doing today?” asks the man in Costa Coffee in Milton Keynes.

Not great today. Sometimes I’m OK. But not today. I scattered my sister’s ashes yesterday.

If you’ve enjoyed this article you may like to donate to Macmillan Cancer. I have set up a fund in Annie Caulfield’s name. Just a pound or two would make a big difference: macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield

@Jo_Caulfield

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Written by Jo Caulfield

Standup comedian. Comedy writer. Crime fighter. Happy drunk.