The Queue

Although it is hard to say these days, I have an inkling that it is nearly morning. As if to prove my point, I see others around me rubbing their eyes, seemingly waking up as well. To relax my hunched shoulders, I lean with my body over my cart and yawn extravagantly, whilst making sure that the facemask is still in place. The woman in front of me is also stretching her scrawny limps; out of solidarity or unconscious synchrony, I am not sure. Sometimes such small uniform acts make me feel like we are part of this one big organism, a snake-like creature. Most times it feels like we are a bunch of ants, all alone together. There wouldn’t have been a queue if it weren’t for all of us, yet we are all here for ourselves of course. I look back at my other neighbour, who is parked behind me. With both elbows leaning on his cart he winks at me: ‘You were out cold, you were.’

I nod. I suppose I was. I even vaguely remember having a dream of sorts. Not very different from the reality I woke up to, which somehow always happens when I’m stuck in eerie repetition, although some things did occur that have no place in reality—at least not in mine. Something was flying over our heads, I think it might have been a toaster. Heavy waves of droning music were gushing from the speakers in all far-end-corners. It made me think about that day when we had just gotten here, all quite hopeful and united still, and we would sing; a wave of song carving its way through this chain of bodies, for hours on end at times. I sometimes think I can still make out the echoes and wonder if people ahead are still humming. My neighbour and I occasionally discuss starting another sing-along. To lift people’s spirits, you know. And our own, too, of course.

It must be around April by now. Prickly sunbeams sneaking glances past clouds, shining on blooming trees and high brick buildings. I have thin curtains at home, so my sleeping rhythm usually adapts to that of the sun—very pastoral. At least, I imagine it to be.

A quiet morning in April. I for once wouldn’t dread going to work and even though there’d be a chilly wind on the ferry and it would most-likely rain by the end of the day when heading homewards again, I’d feel oddly at peace. Even the biggest metropolis can issue tranquillity during springtime. When you can just  pop down to the shops because you forgot to buy onions -what a privilege!

I finger the metal key-chain that is dangling from my cart, and which, a long time ago, attached it to my neighbour’s. Peeking over my shoulder I find him softly singing along to this morning’s tunes, staring into his own empty cart. He must be around fifty, perhaps a little older (I always find it hard to tell around that age), with thinning grey hair he hides under a flat cap. It looks strangely adorable, maybe because it reminds me of my dad. I wonder how they are, my parents. We chat every now and then, of course, he always checks in, to see how I’m doing. My mum in the background both praising my persistence and worrying about my psychological well-being.  I tell them I’m fine, I’m amongst friends. As my world has grown considerably smaller, small enough to fit this hall, I guess there is some truth in that. My current neighbour has been very nice to me since I first got here. I suppose we have very little choice, given how much time we’re spending in such close proximity to one another, but there are other stories as well. Of fights breaking out, of people panicking, calling each other names, or worse. A woman collapsed once, nearly taking both her own shopping cart and that of her neighbour down with her, and was carried out by the police. We all felt strangely vulnerable yet rejuvenated; her weakness a direct appeal to our own strengths. Ambiguous, like the odd mixture of pride and pity we feel when someone is taken away because of potential symptoms. Their fruitless whimpers, whilst they’re being led past us; ‘It wasn’t a cough, I was just choking a little bit! I’m fine’.It’s embarrassing, how we grit our teeth, look away until it’s over and we’re left to ourselves again, then gradually pick up the usual order of things, though it takes a while to shake the feeling off. The songs help.

Statistically speaking, I have little chance of falling ill myself, especially here, but who knows. It might strike you anyways, out of nowhere. Although we are actually in a very stable state of quarantine, I suppose. At least, that’s what I tell my parents, that’s what my neighbour tells his daughters. We’re ok.

The other day someone ahead in the queue loudly lamented that this was like being in hell, to which my neighbour swiftly replied; ‘if you’re going through hell, just keep going’. We all had a right laugh. As per usual, my neighbour started it; his laughter catches on like a bug, it starts as a hiccup, as if he tries to contain himself, and then it comes roaring from underneath his facemask, echoing through the hall.

He has a bit of a cough too. He hides it remarkably well though. I don’t think anyone else had noticed, and even I wasn’t sure in the beginning. By now, I have heard it often enough to know it’s real, and not just my paranoia. It sounded alien, like a made-up sound. It is strange to see how coughs and sneezes have been obliterated from our usual bodily behaviour, how we’ve managed to suppress the impulse when it does arise. I’ve never been one for the whole mind-over-matter but it is astonishing to witness the sheer willpower we as people try and administer on our once most trivial habits.

As if he’s reading my mind, my neighbour leans over his cart and whispers; ‘Can we call it a day already?’

Since the very beginning he has been saying this to me to cheer me up. As always I reply: ‘There were once two prisoners…’ which makes him laugh, that bellowing, accidental laugh of his, even making the woman in front of me smile, although she doesn’t join in. She has that melancholic aura around her, that homesickness that tells you she has people waiting for her somewhere out there, desperately. That she is needed, that every minute she just stands here with us is a minute wasted. I mean, we are all here for a reason of course, but some reasons just weigh heavier than others. That is not a judgement, it’s just a fact. That’s why there are fights and breakdowns along the queue. That’s why me and my other neighbour get on so well despite everything. We can afford to. She cannot.

There were once two prisoners who were trying to escape, so they started digging a tunnel with two stolen spoons. They kept on digging and digging and digging and at some point there was only a few feet of dirt separating them from the outside world, which of course they couldn’t see, and then one of them said; ‘We’re never getting there. I’m tired, shall we just go back?’

It’s not a very funny joke, not really a joke at all, but it fits the moment, which adds to its charm. I wonder if we will still see each other if this is finally all over. Or if we will just leave the supermarket, happily glancing down at our overflowing carts and simply wave to one another. ‘Call it a day then?’ He’ll say. ‘You bet!’ I’ll respond, and we won’t laugh, but we’ll smile and if we could, we’d shake hands, perhaps even hug. I’ll tell people about it, about this man, how he helped me through hell. It’s so much easier to keep going if you have others to go with you, to crack jokes and sing songs along the way. If you’re not as needed elsewhere. Just missed.

I wonder what would happen if one of us would just throw his or her hands in the air, yell ‘that’s it!’ and leave. Their cart a blank space in our queue. Would others follow suit? It happened a lot in the beginning, but it became less frequent over time, and now I can’t imagine anyone giving up. It’d be so frustrating. All this waiting for nothing. No, we’d better persevere, for all we know today might just be the day. There were once two prisoners…

I let go of the cart for a second to bend down and touch my toes with my fingers, which I luckily still can do despite my recent lack of exercise. My neighbour whistles. ‘You a dancer or something?’

I simply smile. Who knows, maybe I could be. I’ve always been quite athletic, so why not? I’ll take some classes when it’s all blown over. It kind of feels like the world will start anew anyways, so might as well embrace that opportunity. Change my wardrobe, quit smoking, become a modern dancer.

When I reach up, I do a little pirouette, making him erupt in giggles. The giggle grows, becomes a laugh and then suddenly there it is. Coming out of nowhere, or, rather, escaping from the folds of that miraculous laugh, there’s a cough. A strange penetrating sound, only slightly muffled by the facemask. It frightens him as much as the ones around him, who unanimously turn their heads his way. He tries to swallow it whole, holds his hand to his mouth and attempts to smother it in the mask, but he can’t; the cough is too big, it’s already out there and it won’t budge. I stand there, frozen midway pirouette, whilst he is fighting for air; panic in those familiar brown eyes. I let my arms drop to my sides, I can hear the woman ahead of me gasp, I can hear someone behind her swear under his breath and yet I am focused on my neighbour, who is pounding his chest with his fist, in some futile final attempt at making it seem like he’s merely choking on air, like laughter finally overtook him. I want to believe it, but I know nobody else will.

‘You all right?’ I’ve said before I can help myself and he looks at me, disappointed. Of course he is; I am supposed to join in the pretence, I should laugh loudly to mask the gurgling sounds that are falling from his open mouth, his face red and his eyes bloodshot above the quivering mask; oh how his body has betrayed him. I want to say something encouraging, or at least something kind, but my mind’s gone blank. I only realise I have been backing away when I feel my cart-handle digging into my lower-back and I pull a face, my feet struggling for balance like I’m drunk.

‘Someone call the emergency number!’ A pompous male voice yells, to agreeing grumbles. The daily jingles on the radio are interrupted every now and again by a stoic voice – an army general, me and my neighbour envisioned – who tells us (no, commandsus) to call the emergency number if anyone is feeling unwell, even if it’s just a cough.

‘He’ll be ok.’ I weakly try to defend my neighbour against the guy behind him, who is already grabbing his phone and frantically looking up the number. ‘Surely there’s no need.’ But my voice sounds feeble and phony and I cannot bring myself to come closer to my neighbour, despite reaching out my arm as if to pat him on the back.

He tries to say something to the guy behind him, but the man just sends him a sort of supportive smile. ‘It’s going to be ok.’ He says deliberately. My neighbour has finally managed to subdue the coughs and is breathing loud and exasperated, his reddened face still filled with shock and pain. ‘I shouldn’t laugh so much,’ he says loudly, but nobody is listening; everyone is either looking at the man on the phone or else simply looking away. It’s been a while since this happened, but not long enough for us to forget.

‘It was only a laugh.’ My neighbour has turned to me now, realising there’s no one else who dares to meet his eyes. Even I struggle, but after a moment of hesitation I manage to face the terror that I can only sympathise with, as I have yet to experience it myself. ‘I know. It’s going to be ok.’ I can see my neighbour smile morosely once he understands. ‘So call it a day then?’

I cannot get myself to respond, just make a sort of gasping sound. He nods, bowing his head so he can wipe away the quiet tears. His crying is so soft compared to his laughter, but still undeniably his, like the most unlikely pair of fraternal twins.

‘I’m sorry.’ I whisper, when we can feel a ripple going through the queue, which tells us they have entered the store. ‘It’s going to be ok.’ I try to make myself believe this, more so than him. He just nods. ‘Can you grab me some apples perhaps? I am dying for an apple… Have even dreamed about them, isn’t that just silly? That’s what it’s come to. We dream reality and we endure dreams until one of them kicks us out.’

I nod and mumble something resembling an affirmation, whilst the two men in flabby white suits take hold of his shoulders. One prods a thermometer into his ear, whilst the other talks to him in a low but reassuring voice; to no avail, as my neighbour barely seems to notice them, he just stands there like a blasé sheep, his eyes darting across the place as if imprinting every detail of it onto his brain, and at last finding their way back to me. I wish I could properly answer him, but all I can do is swallow my own spit, as one of the men in suit gestures him to follow, wearily but not unkind, his eyes swiftly meeting mine whilst guiding my neighbour away from his cart. All our heads follow them, as my neighbour taps his temple to a few people, singing softly, whilst we keep standing on our spots, pitying him for having to leave but also, deep down, envying him for the exact same reason.

‘Shame.’ The man with the phone says, facing me over the abandoned cart of my neighbour. ‘Hate to do it, but got to, you know. My wife’s a doctor, I got my mother-in-law ill at home, can’t be too careful. It’s awful, it truly is… But got to take care of ourselves, don’t we? I just want to get some toilet-rolls, if you want to know the truth. Can you believe it… All this just so I can wipe my fucking arse.’

When I don’t answer, he nods aggressively to himself, and mumbles: ‘He’ll be ok.’

I turn my back to him, suddenly feeling overcome with an alarmingly strong urge to kick over my cart and make a run for it, following my neighbour and his companions outside. It washes over me like nausea and with gritted teeth I curl my fists around my cart’s handles and find the woman in front of me looking back at me. She smiles and then, so softly that I almost can’t distinguish it from the gloomy sounds of the speakers, she starts to sing. I suspect it is my sheer confusion and dread battering my will-power that jerks open my jaws, and my voice, scruffy and stunned, instantly joins in.

‘We’re on a road to nowhere

Come on inside

Taking that road to nowhere

We’ll take that ride

I’m feeling okay this morning

And you know

We’re on the road to paradise

Here we go, here we go.’