It seems every time I log into Twitter or Facebook, someone has posted another soundbite about what it means to be a writer. You know the sort of thing. They’re usually scrawled in a large calligraphic font, plastered all over a grainy JPEG of a writing desk, computer keyboard, ink quill or, for some not entirely clear reason, a mountain panorama. Many of these I often dismiss as trite, but one which I’ve frequently noticed, and which does stick out in my mind, reads as follows:
“Writers see the mundane in the magical, and the magical in the mundane.”
This one is memorable to me because, like the narrator in my latest Fiction Desk story about a supermarket checkout worker, when I did the same job part-time in my teenage years, all I managed to see was the mundane in the mundane.
My outlook began to change when I started using the cheque-signing pens and misappropriated receipt rolls to jot down my thoughts and observations. Some of these I drew upon, half a lifetime later, into my story. However, listed below are a few extra snippets, precisely how I scribbled them in my spidery handwriting, way back when:
- Why is there never a J-cloth on your till when you need one? Yoghurt, strawberry juice, and olive oil cannot be cleaned up using your sleeve.
- Why do customers stand bottles on their ends? Ten bottles falling over at once on a moving conveyer belt sounds like a herd of elephants. And when they fall over, what do the customers do? Stand them back up again!
- Customer at checkout: “Excuse me, are you open?” This question is asked when the cashier is either a) doing sweet nothing in a particularly quiet period, or b) elbow deep in a litter bin, cloth in hand, bucket nearby, lights off, broom between legs.
- Are plastic milk bottles made of some kind of strange, intergalactic plastic substance that actually makes the milk seep through? Why are milk bottles so milky on the outside?
- Sorry, I don’t know what had happened to the Greek cheese with purple grape pips. I can only assume it has been taken off the shelves (wisely, by the sound of it).
Despite being gratified to now notice what must have been my first ever use of the Oxford comma, I can’t in all honesty say that some of my first written attempts at making sense of the world were all that articulate. Yet it was, of sorts, a start. Whilst I also can’t admit this dreary environment and monotonous job became in any way magical, in some small way things did become less mundane.Several years later, the same supermarket is now opening a “local” branch in my home village. This was a contentious decision, and bitterly contested, centred mainly on the fact that there was no demand, or space, for it. Yet the numerous objections were to no avail. Now they’ve knocked down two old buildings, are constructing their own standardised affair, and will be launching shortly. Already in the high street is an award-winning grocer’s shop: vibrant, unique, and full of local character. I hope, as does the village, that the presence of this new retail giant won’t force it to go out of business. But it has made me wonder what happens to small retailers when, as so often happens, they are driven out. My Fiction Desk story is one such imagining.
Does it, as the intro notes to my story suggest, end with a flash of optimism, or a descent into Orwellian darkness? I can certainly say I had no dystopian imagery when I was writing it. But it’s interesting to note that 1984 is one of my favourite books, and that I would have read it for the first time not long before starting my supermarket job. So, could it have influenced me? I guess in my story, the main character uses, in his own way, a variety of doublethink to adjust to the new reality in which he finds himself. But, is it acceptance? Is it compromise? Those are, I think, questions best answered by the reader.
Personally, the following minutiae particularly intrigues me. Did I really not know until a few moments ago that the chestnut (as per the “spreading chestnut tree” in the closing lines of 1984), is actually a fruit? When I started work on my story, did I ever anticipate examining, more closely than perhaps prudent, the trays of papaya in the local supermarkets? And did I also imagine studying, surreptitiously and with said fruit at the forefront of my mind, the backs of motor vehicles? (This was, I hasten to point out, purely in the name of hypothetical research, and I never actually did what transpired in the story.)
What I do know is that there is no vocation, other than being a writer, which can personally inspire me to look at the world so askew. It’s not quite putting the magical in the mundane… but I surely owe some thanks to those incalculable hours I spent on checkout number eleven, all those years ago.
— Mike Scott Thomson
Read ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.