Photo by James Pearson-Howes
I began stealing when I was twenty-two. The first thing I stole was a chocolate muffin. I started eating it on my way round the supermarket and finished it before I got to the till. From then on, whenever I did my weekly food shop, I’d steal something: a luxury item like olives or cashew nuts or, on one occasion, a whole salmon. I called it my discount. Like my own loyalty card scheme. I didn’t steal because I was poor. I did it because it made me feel independent. After a couple of years, I got caught. It was embarrassing. And now I don’t steal anymore. Most people like to have something to fight against. A part of me believed I was rebelling against corporate homogeneity. Of course, I wasn’t. This short story is about choice and rebellion: internal, external, political, domestic. And another universal motivation: our stomachs. What I need to do is eat something small, something forgettable, like a plum. But I’m way too hungry for that. I have done this before. Gone in to Sainsbury’s literally starving. People say that. Literally starving. Gone in to Sainsbury’s quite hungry, so hungry that I am susceptible to grand hyperbole, and moments later found myself sitting on the edge of the pavement with a plastic spork eating a blueberry yoghurt. I know how that looks to the outside world. You see a man on a pavement eating a blueberry yoghurt with a plastic spork you think: oh God, that’s messed up, no-one should have to live like this. You want to buy me some soup. Once, I had a strawberry yoghurt and a banana and I alternated bites. Sat on a bench, one bite banana, not swallowing, then a sporkful of yoghurt. Jaw going like a concrete mixer. Eyes dead with hunger, unable to register my own reputation. So I need something small, something inconsequential. I don’t want to spoil the hunger. A hunger is something to be treasured. When I wake up and I am hungry, it’s the greatest feeling. Here’s this new day, here’s this endless opportunity. A choice of breakfast cereals allows each morning its distinction. I could wake up feeling humble with a Weetabix-Muesli mix and the next morning, forget about it, it’s a Coco Pops-Cheerios-Golden Graham’s triumvirate and, on that day, nothing is certain. The high wall of cereals in the supermarket. The full range of life decisions, represented. The Kellogg’s Family Assortment, ten individual-serving boxes, and no-one chooses Raisin Bran when there’s Froot Loops on the go. No shame in a fully grown man carrying Lucky Charms to the tills. He must stay with what he feels. Porridge contains trajectories: milk or water, sweet or salty, thick or runny, with raisins or blueberries or a chopped-up pear. I’ve got it. A chicken wing. A god-damned chicken wing. From the rotisserie, in a grease-proof bag. I see that the girl behind the counter is black and I am pleased. She’s in charge of the self-service salad, the cold meats and the chicken. “One chicken wing, please,” I say. “Just one?” she asks. And why would she know my particular needs? She wouldn’t. “Just one” I say. She picks it up with the tongs, drops it in the grease-proof bag. The bag has a strip of transparency down the front so you can see what you’re getting. She prints off a sticker-receipt and tapes the package shut. “Thanks,” I say casually, but I can feel my saliva glands going nuts. The tease of the sealed packet. My mouth like a car wash. I’m not going to the six items or less queue because it can be deceptive. I see it from distance. Or rather, I don’t see it, because it’s hardly even there. Till Eighteen’s moving like a mother fucking bullet train. I am running along the tills, clutching the single chicken wing to my chest, mouth like a fountain. I pull in at the till. The lady in front’s already bagging up. There’s a couple of tinned flageolet beans and a pack of lean steak mince still waiting to be scanned. Nothing needs to be weighed, which is a bonus. Sometimes, if you wait too long, you can come clean out the other side of hunger and feel like you don’t want to eat. You feel fine but you’re not. I hand the check-out girl the chicken wing, I don’t bother putting it on the conveyor belt. There’s a man behind me, his trolley stacked with tankers of mineral water and tinned food: tuna, sardines, baked beans, breakfast-in-a-can, peach slices, pineapple rings. He’s expecting the apocalypse. The chicken wing costs eighty-six pence. It’s nothing. I’ve got the exact change. I don’t need a bag. It’s already in a bag. I don’t need a receipt. There ain’t nothing coming back from where this thing’s going. And I’m skipping along past the tall windows gazing out at the car park. Hundreds of colours. Then, counting down the tills until I reach the exit. Thirteen, twelve. I see the Security Man in the distance by the door, watching me. Ten, nine. He thinks I’m a fruit loop. Eight, seven. He thinks I’m an addict. Six, five. He cannot understand happiness. Four, three. He steps out from behind his lectern. Two, one. He adopts the traffic police man’s stance for Stop. “Excuse me, sir, can I see your receipt?” Oh I see. A man sits on a pavement alternating between a yoghurt and a banana and this is what he gets. “I understand,” I say. “Can I see it please sir?” He has the most normal face. Pale skin, indistinct nose, the slightest overbite, visible pores between his eyebrows. “I left it at the till,” I say and I turn and start jogging back. I hear the security man running behind me. He thinks I’m going to make a break for it. With my chicken wing. I get back to the girl who looks scared as I approach. “Can I have my receipt please?” I feel the guard’s hand clamp on to my elbow. The girl looks down at the loose oranges on her weighing scales. She’s embarrassed for me. “I didn’t take my receipt. Can I have my receipt please?” She looks in the bin under the counter. The man with the stockpile of tins has stopped unpacking his trolley. He is looking at me like I’m dangerous. Like I might be the man to deliver Armageddon. The tips of the guard’s fingers are pressing my elbow bone. She’s still looking for the receipt. “Here,” she says, relieved. “Here it is,” I say. The guard leans past me and takes it from her. He looks from the receipt to my chicken, which I can feel, warming my thigh. “You got anything else?” he says. “No. I haven’t got anything else.” “Hold your arms out please.” Tills fifteen through twenty-one have stopped to enjoy my ritual humiliation. I hold my arms out straight, chicken wing in my right hand, cooling in the air, losing its looks by the minute: the mottled skin, the greyish tan. “Okay, sir.” “Okay. I can go now can I?” “My apologies. You can go.” He signals me toward the exit. “This is really bad,” I say. “You shouldn’t have been running,” he says. “I was running because I was excited.” He walks alongside me. Following me out. I’m a good decade younger than him. “I wasn’t to know that,” he says. “I was running because I was happy.” “I didn’t know why you were running.” Outside, I sit down on a bench next to the Queen’s Road. I’m not even that hungry any more. The chicken’s slippery in my hand. I turn the wing round to find the meatiest bit. I take a big bite and most of the skin comes off too, so I’m sat there with a flap of membrane over my chin like a beard. When I bought this chicken wing, I thought it was the right decision. I didn’t know what to buy and then – wham! – Newton’s apple – it was obvious: go to the rotisserie. But that clarity is gone now. Chewing through skin, lukewarm fat lining my mouth, I can’t imagine what to do with the rest of my day. I’m down to the bone, biting off any elusive meat-scraps. It’s completely automatic. I can’t think about anything. My stomach knows more than my mind. I feel my hunger returning. It’s like waking up. The destination of appetite. My body’s priorities: food before indignation. My stomach is William Wallace. I will live my life on my own terms. My stomach is Mel Gibson. To boycott Sainsbury’s would be the easy decision. I am literally starving. My stomach is the black civil rights movement. Back in to the supermarket. More confident than ever. I have got no reason to be ashamed. I did not steal anything. The security man is behind his lectern, watching CCTV, his shadowed face beneath the stiff blue cap. I pick up one of the baskets that are piled up next to him. I spend time in front of the gala melons, where he can see me, luxuriantly sniffing each one, weighing them up, shaking my head, disappointed. I toy with the ripe ‘n’ ready avocados; they are grenades in my hand. I look toward the security man. He is still not interested. Back at the cold meats, the black girl smiles as I approach. I have all this empathy for her. To go through your life and have people assume the worst. They expect you to become a hateful person, but you will not let it happen. “Hey, how are you?” I ask. “I’m good.” She looks at her digital watch. “Not long to go now.” Every day we awake limitless, unable to comprehend our own potential. It is now five past five. “What time do you finish?” I’m going off-script. “Still got a little while yet,” she says. She puts one hand in the front pocket of her blue and white striped apron. She is worried that I will be waiting for her in the loading bay when she finishes work. This is not her fault. She doesn’t know who I am. “So what can I get you?” she says. The sensation of choice, without the choice: herbed burgers, divided by greaseproof discs, pork loins, chops, fillets, sausages in sixes, chipolatas, beef rumps, brisket tied with string, rissoles, pastrami, sandwich ham with a smiley face running through it like the lettering in a stick of rock. I’m going to make a point. “What would you choose if you were me?” She laughs at this. “I don’t know,” she says. She’s wearing a kind-of sailor’s hat. “You do know,” I say. I’m getting a little strange. I’ve got nothing to hide. “It’s okay. Have a guess,” I say. She’s blinking at me. In the stretched reflection in the counter, I see that there’s a man standing behind me, waiting to get served. “I think chicken kebabs are nice,” she says. Chunks of chicken, skewered with red onion, yellow pepper and mushroom. “Maybe you’d like some of them?” “Okay. You saw that I just bought some chicken. But, if you were me, what would you go for?” “I don’t know,” she says. “Please. I think you do.” Her eyes flick to the man behind me. “I think… you’d like…” She gazes absently back and forth across the meat counter. She sounds unsure. “…Some lamb noisettes with apricot stuffing?” “Absolutely right,” I say, nodding. She is astonished by our synthesis. I imagine her leaving work and walking a different way home. She can achieve anything. “I’ll take a handful.” She puts a plastic bag over her hand and reaches in. The noisettes are right down at the front, by the glass. Her bare forearm like an eel in a tank. At the bakery, I put a granary loaf in my basket and I pick up a custard and raspberry jam Danish. In full view of the lady stacking pitta bread, I take a confident bite. There’s a CCTV camera on the ceiling above me, hidden behind a tinted glass dome. I walk back down through the vegetables and take another relaxed bite. I am utterly guiltless. I am buying four noisettes. In poker, when you’re upset and you are making poor decisions, they say that you’re on tilt. I put a globe artichoke and some unwashed spinach in my basket. There are crumbs from the Danish on my jumper. I ask a shelf-stacker in the toiletries aisle: “Where can I find some pressed apple and mango juice?” He walks me all the way to aisle sixteen. He is young, maybe sixteen, and quite good looking. As we make the journey, I take a large bite of the Danish. “Here you are,” he says. “Brilliant,” I say. I have maybe two bites of my Danish left. One of pastry, one of custard. I put the juice in my basket. I start making my way towards till eighteen. Even now, there’s hardly any queue. That girl’s a robot. She’s got an innate feel for where each barcode is positioned. And if a product’s not scanning, she knows when to give up and just type in the serial number. She doesn’t let pride affect her judgement. If it’s not scanning, then maybe there was a printing error. She does not blame herself. She knows when to take it on the chin and call up the supervisor for a price check. No shame in a price check. I stand behind a mother and son. The boy’s sat in the trolley’s baby seat, although he’s possibly too old, whatever that means. He’s facing backwards, looking at me with my Danish in one hand and my basket in the other. His mum’s bagging up and putting the bags back in the trolley. On the conveyor belt, there’s a four-pack of baked beans, air-sealed smoked haddock, own brand fish fingers, a twelve-pack of Um Bongo, two lemons, a set of ten triple-A batteries a six-pack of slim-line tonic cans, a dozen eggs, two packs – on offer – of butcher’s choice sausages, a couple of leeks, loose, a bag of washed Italian salad leaves, Mini-Wheats, Coco Pops and Special K. The till girl – her name is Alice – is speeding through the items on the conveyor belt, both hands in perfect synchronicity, letting each product slide down the incline toward the packing area. The boy’s bouncing his heels against the back of the trolley, making a clanging sound. I make eye contact with the boy as I take my penultimate bite of the Danish. Only custard remains: a little yellow hexagon. I look over at the Security Man. He is not at his lectern. I can feel the crumbs at the edge of my mouth. The beeping of Alice’s till matches my heartbeat. I lift the hexagon to my lips. The boy stops kicking his heels against the trolley. At this point, I could still be planning to pay for it. I could tell Alice: Hey Alice, one more thing, there’s a Danish in my stomach I haven’t paid for. I place the hexagon on my tongue. I saved the best bit for last. I’m chewing on it. My heart is running: sugar and danger. I will not stand for prejudice. Alice’s helping the mother to bag up. I wonder how difficult it would be to remain perpetually hungry, without actually starving. Never allowing myself to feel sated, always teasing, keeping my focus, a handful of cashews, half a sandwich. The boy is watching me. His mother is paying by card. I can see her pin number. 6643. This could be the start of my new career. Her leather shoulder bag is not zipped up. There’s a cash machine at the garage over the road. I could make a decision. I haven’t even unpacked my basket yet. It’s still in my hand. The conveyor belt is just rolling forward but with nothing on it. I start to unpack my stuff. I only have five items. “Hello there,” Alice says, sliding my food over the bar code reader. She’s a machine. “Hi,” I say. She’s already done. “Nine pounds and thirty-six pence please.” I have never stolen anything before. I give Alice a tenner. “Thanks,” she says. “Thanks,” I say, and as I speak I feel some crumbs fall from around my mouth. “Here’s your receipt.” I walk slowly along the tills: plastic bag in one hand, receipt in the other. In this distance, I see the security man by the exit. He is talking to another security man. Seventeen, sixteen. This other security man is black. They are not laughing. For weight distribution, I should have split my items into two bags. I feel slightly lopsided, a bit limpy, like the end of Usual Suspects. Fourteen, thirteen. They suspected I was a thief at first, and then they found out that I wasn’t smart enough to be a thief, I was just this dumb cripple, eating yoghurt on the pavement. I’m actually doing a bit of a limp now. It’s funny. Eleven, ten. I keep my left hand – the receipt hand – curled at a weird angle like I’m hiding something. They can’t possibly suspect me again. It’s double jeopardy. Eight, seven. They’re staring at nothing. They’re chatting away. Probably discussing the positioning of the CCTV cameras. Six, five. A man with a trolley pulls out in front of me. He is talking on his mobile. I’m leaving Sainsbury’s, he says. Four, three. I can see that the black security man has a classic black man’s face. My abstract idea of a black man’s face. The short, curly hair. The broad nose. Two, one. The man on the phone says, I’ve got everything. I limp toward the security men, swinging my shopping, crumbs on my jumper. They’re standing next to the exit. I shake out my leg as I pass them. I have become something new. I swap the shopping bag from my right to hand to my left. As I step out in to the sunshine, food in a bag, stomach aching, I overhear some of their conversation. It’s the black man speaking. “…nineteen-seventy-seven was the year that punk rock died…”.