It is lonesome at the check-out after eleven pm. There are rarely more than a handful of visitors sauntering the aisles at any one time and no more than two or three bodies lining up at the register at any given point. They are also in no particular hurry and want to have a friendly short long chat as I click through their few carefully chosen items. I’m fine with it all. Most of my visitors are the oldies, the local oldies, dressed in their fancy PJ's; they pretty much sneak in they are so quiet, cloaked in their colorful array of ‘neck to ankle’ dressing gowns. Slowly they saunter up and down the aisles, Ugg boots shuffling softly, stopping and starting to no particular rhythm, staring indefinitely at inconsequential items, sometimes lifting one off the shelf then carefully placing it back. They can’t sleep you see. Can’t sleep for the loneliness, it gets too much at times, so, they brave the dark and come and see me. “That’s when it hits you the most you know, at night time” they confide in a soft breathless voice barely audible, their mouths drooping sadly both ends, their bottom lip fighting a growing tremble. I tell them it is fantastic they come and visit me instead of sitting around at home feeling terrible all on their own “come and see me and we can all feel terrible together” I joke trying to make them laugh “ “besides, it’s not a crime to pop out to the supermarket just because it’s night time” my raised voice carries through the almost empty store but I hope my exuberance dismisses their worries “and, I wouldn’t have a job if you stopped coming, would I?” I add like a salesman selling ice to Eskimos “then I’d really be in trouble; no, I can’t do without you, you are very important to me, and I love seeing you, so no more feeling shameful for simply coming to the shops do you hear” their tiny sunken eyes flash a quick unpredictable sparkle and their thin shoulders lift with a sense of purpose, self worth; I know my sweet talk is lifting their spirits. The intermittent banging of trollies pushed by stackers in and out the storeroom doors and the persistent rasps of Stanley blades slicing through the thick double layered cardboard boxes all pleasant background noises to the serious conversations going on at the front desk.
Little Mei Lei told me very proudly some years ago now, she was eighty years old and was born in the month of July in the year of the rat; I have remembered to wish her a happy birthday every July 10th since. “No, I no tell my family I here at night” she grumps at me when I ask if her family know she comes here after dark “I born in year of wat, bery cleber, bery idipedent” she crosses her wrinkled brows and firmly stares away any doubts brewing in my mind whether she can or can’t be here at one a.m. on the night of her birthday “see pamily por birfday, go home, gone, I come here now.” I guess she's had an early evening nap but now all the family have left the familiar persistent feelings have returned and firmly lodged themselves right between her two heavily loaded pulmonary arteries; it is a long time between drinks with family, they have their lives that must be lived to. They are all like this the oldies in the supermarket on graveyard shift; mid-night warriors, ignoring the years ticked off the calendar, ignoring aching bones and restless nerves, to find distraction amongst cluttered supermarket aisles and talk to dodgy old check out chicks like myself. “How is Jack?” I know how much Mei loves her little Russel. “Bery good tank you” Mei responds so softly “I had take to Bet, uh, lus Wedsday, he awight now. Fix saw eaw” Mei points her finger to her lobe giving visual aide to her limited English. “Well, I’m glad he’s good now; I see by these items you’re spoiling him again” I smile approvingly, and feel glad to hear that despite Jack’s deafness he is still alive and doing well. Mei shrugs her skinny shoulders and looks up to hand me a tiny wrinkly smile “he lubs lamb sanks cook wif Chinese begetables and tofu you know" sparkles linger in her eyes and I overwhelmingly appreciate just how much simple often boring mundane things like cooking lamb shanks mean to people like Mei. “And what else does he love?” I see top of the range meats ready for clicking through the register and as she thinks how to answer, turns to check there is no one queueing up behind her “don’t worry, no one else is here” I lean towards her "keep talking". “Jack lubs lamb woast.” After five years on late shift I have noticed Mei’s visits have progressed from once a week to four nights a week. She told me once not long ago, she doesn’t bother with Saturday or Sunday evenings because ‘girls no so nice like you Jen.” Mei continues to practice her English for another ten minutes before going quiet giving me her silent permission to tally up her bill and let her pay. I guess one hour out in the middle of the night is enough for anyone, and I watch in awe as she scrounges the bottom of her bag for her car keys and heads towards the car park, unaccompanied. I can’t help but ask myself, will I be so brave when I reach that age? Or more pointedly, will I be so lonely that I to will need the supermarket at one am?
Bob shuffles through the automatic doors lifting his eighty-five years old arm half mast, best he can offer in way of a wave, but his small eyes dance as he serenades me in croaky crackling mid night voice “blue eyes, my baby’s got blue eyes.” He then bounces lightly on the spot for a second, throws me his predictable wink and completes the opening act to his visit with “see you in a minute gorgeous girl.” I laugh every time and never tire of this cheeky long retired used car sales man. One day I will find out just how many hearts this guy really has broken in his eighty-five years.’ I watch him whilst he totters around the store though, as he has a propensity to hit on unsuspecting ladies innocently minding their very own business. He caused a major scene a few months back when he would not take ‘no I do not want your phone number’ for an answer from poor distressed Glynis, who then shook all the way to my front desk demanding in tears I call the police. With negotiating skills as good as any top-ranking check out chick, I managed to convince Glynis Bob wouldn’t dare come near her again and I made him promise never to go near Glynis ever. Glynis isn’t in tonight but I always worry he may secretly be a repeat offender and try his luck on some other unsuspecting lady. He has told me many times he wants to remarry when he finds the right girl. “That’s fine Bob” I replied sternly ‘but please make sure you don’t get a tin of baked beans smacked across your head when you don’t respect the lady's wishes to leave her alone.” ‘I’m a great catch you know’ he asserts with little knock to his confidence “I’d be taking up my offer if I were you; this could be your last chance you know” underneath his shrunken paled blue eyes comes flashes of lightning. “Oh, I’ll let some better catch than me have that honor Bob” thanking him very much for the wonderful offer though. “Well, you're still first in line OK gorgeous” he winks at me again. “Oh, wait a minute, just how many girls have you got lined up Bob? Serious question" I laugh "stop messing with all those poor girls and make one an honest woman you hear me?” Besides, time is running out I wanted to add, but of course I didn’t. If only you could have a girl friend Bob eh, I genuinely wish. It surprises me how varied the desires are amongst the oldies, and even though they are all lonely at different points in their days or nights, some are happy being single and some hate it.
The calm happy mood is quickly turned on its head when Alberto swans in and disturbs the peace with his own serenade “Jenni, I just met a girl called Jeni” Alberto was a real opera singer in his ‘hey’ day and never leaves his home unless dressed in a deep violet Tuxedo and matching Italian leather shoes. Poor Bob’s jaw drops. Until now I have been able to keep Alberto a secret; his seductive Tenor voice would pull in girls half my sixty-three years. Bob slowly looks down to his wrinkled grey coat and scruffy dark brown runners then silently places the cash on the bench, picks up his items and heads off without waiting for his change. I run to the sliding door to block his exit and force a look deep into his eyes “and I don’t even get a goodbye?” I beg as I search for a glimmer of sparkle. Bob lets me give him a quick little hug then heads out with saying a word. In fairness to Alberto, he wasn’t trying to upset anyone, but I do wish he had timed his entrance just that few minutes later. I take these ‘crisis’ home on bad nights and know I will worry until I see Bob once again. I hope I will see Bob again, very soon.
I look up to the omnipotent one above and throw an earnest sincere request his way “hey lord, please, when its my turn to end up as lonely as these guys, should I be so lucky to live that long, could you at least make sure I am able to haunt the supermarket aisles at one a.m. to, and have a friendly Jen who will play along with my harmless attempts at feeling young, and help get me through the long solo nights.”