Working in a Supermarket During Lockdown

by Lucy Parish

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I got the text asking me to come back to work almost straight after I had to leave my university accommodation.

My first shift was mere days after Boris Johnson’s lockdown speech (despite his apprehension to use the word lockdown) and I saw small changes quickly ricochet through the store that I’ve worked at now for almost four years.

I noted that the colossal neon green sign now looms menacingly over the line outside, which trails back further than the naked eye can see. Customers rattle their silver trolleys impatiently, keeping two meters away from the person ahead. I sigh.

A week passes, and flimsy PVC screens go up, forming a barrier between me and the customers. Hastily laminated signs appear on the staff room door letting us know face masks are available in the office if we need them. I don’t take one.

Now as I walk through the store, customers freeze when they see me, standing back to let me pass. It’s abnormal and I can’t help feeling as though I have the plague. I saw two people with gas masks on yesterday, actual gas masks. The flashbacks I got to that Doctor Who episode were rather jarring.

Customers can only buy three of one item per household, but I must admit, denying an old man his fourth Twix bar won’t be a high point of my life. Despite this, my hand hovers steadily over the security button each time someone tries to argue about how much they desperately need four two-litre water bottles rather than three.

It’s been two weeks now, and arrows have been stickered on the floor mapping out the safest route through the store. They’re adhered to for the most part. I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve been told to ‘keep safe’ and ‘thank you for what you’re doing’ as it was reaching the seventy thousand mark. I hear rumours about colleagues being coughed on, and xenophobic name-calling, and my mind boggles how the culprits have managed to get so far in life.

I keep seeing discarded gloves on the floor and in trolleys outside the store, and it’s proving very difficult to keep my cool.

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Four weeks have passed now, and we’re nearing the end of April. Easter has come and gone and the majority of the chocolate eggs have been reduced to 50p. The line outside is just as long. I miss hugs and talking in person with my nan.

If one more person asks when we’re getting more flour, I might have to quit.

At five and a half weeks, restrictions on items have lifted. Other things are changing too. It seems more people are paying with cash than ever before, with almost every person managing to make contact with my hand as they pass the money over. Someone actually licked their fingers to gain traction on a twenty-pound note before handing it to me yesterday, I couldn’t hide my disgust. The now scuffed arrows stickered on the floor are promptly ignored and are a laughing point when people arrive at my checkout. I don’t laugh with them.

Seeing the same people every week is slowly getting to me, leading me to the realisation that I’ve taken social interaction for granted my entire life.

During the sixth week, my mum offers to pick me up but I politely decline and walk home in the stifling heat. I pass a shirtless man wearing a face mask.

People are no longer moving out of the way when I get close, unless I tell them to. Occasionally I’m put on self-scan (with the machines that protest that there is nothing in the bagging area, when in fact there is), and it’s almost as if we’re not in lockdown. A man actually touched my shoulder as I was swiping my card to approve his alcohol today. I was rendered speechless.

The eighth week is here, or maybe the ninth, the weeks are starting to blur – or perhaps that happened a while ago. Lockdown is beginning to ease or so it seems. I dream about Prezzo, and TikTok.

I also stop social distancing, admitting a sort of defeat. I dart past people down aisles and sidestep trolleys, embracing this new normal.

No one talks about lockdown at work anymore, it’s just there, lurking.

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Lucy Parish is a first year Creative Writing student at Brunel University London. When she’s not working in a supermarket, she loves to read, write, and cuddle her dog.

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