Snake queue

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The woman in the queue behind me, but one, is keen to talk. We are snaked around the aisles with our returns for exchange at customer services. All these people who have made mistakes with their purchases of late are in this punitive queue. As mine is a direct swap for an undamaged replica I try a floor assistant first.
‘I just want to swap this deflated item for an inflated one’ I say reasonably.
He shakes his bureaucratic head and mumbles about customer services, pointing a hard worn finger towards the front of the shop.
‘But there’s a ginormous queue and look, here’s the good one, here’s the damaged one, here’s my receipt’ no-one need know my eyes try to tell him. It can be our little secret. There’s a flash of an understanding look about his wearisome face. Maybe he just needs to be bribed I think as I slot onto the tail-end of the snake. The kids are out early from school today so queueing here will mean I forego taking something else off my list. I’m about to feel sorry for myself when the woman behind me but one pipes up.
‘This is going to take forever’ she says about the static snake. I look up at the two customer services staff, at their grouchy non-festive faces and their painstakingly slow movements as they ignore the length of the queue.

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I turn to the woman. She is looking frazzled and dazzled all at once.
‘I wouldn’t mind but I’m really up against it today. I’ve to collect the twins from Montessori and get all of us to the school for the nativity play’.
‘What time do you have to be at the school?’ I ask, not sure why, just joining in.
‘Quarter past eleven, but I have to get the others first. That’s if the car starts’ she says beaming at me. ‘It usually starts on the sixth try. It’s just back from the garage and it needs big work. They’ve fixed a couple of wires but it’s not as simple as that, apparently, it’s a much bigger job’.
‘Oh dear’.
‘And I wouldn’t mind but that’s come on top of a string of other things. The heating went kaput last week. My phone is broken, so if the car doesn’t work on the sixth try, I can’t call anyone. The TV is scrambled and my husband is trying to fix it. Mind you he managed to save his sports channels’ she says laughing.
‘And the in-laws are arriving from abroad on Monday for three days, I’ve nothing prepared for that’ she says continuing to smile. I’m dying to say something that might relieve her a little. Instead the more she talks, the less burdened I seem to feel. A symbiosis that I hadn’t been looking for. Or had I? Perhaps. Everyone is feeling the pressure at this time of year. But some a lot more than others. I think I’m feeling a smidgeon of guilt or something like it. It’s all throwing me off kilter.
‘And I wouldn’t mind, but I’m self-employed, I try to work from home in the mornings while the kids are in Montessori and school. To make the money to pay for all the things that are breaking’ she says, still smiling.
‘It wouldn’t pay for me to go out to work and have them minded. So if working from home doesn’t work, he’s going to have to get a better job’ she says, laughing.
‘Exactly’ I say laughing too, in useless solidarity. How can I help? If she wasn’t in such a rush I’d take her for a coffee. A complete stranger clearly in need of an ear. Instead I look at the woman directly behind me and she nods.
‘You should go in front of us’ I say, ‘if that’s any use to you’.
She is so grateful for this small gesture that, as she thanks us, her eyes glisten. She turns again when the dour customer services staff have done their job. She waves and thanks us again.
‘Merry Christmas’ she calls out, smiling still.
‘Merry Christmas’ I call back. I hope it all works out for you.

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My turn. The grumpy customer services guy asks if I left my deflated item in a hot room. Yes, I stored it in the hot press, or was it the sauna, I forget, wasn’t I supposed to? Silly me. There must be a new sort of staff-training about. Blame the customer. Always blame the customer. Especially if they’ve just travelled inconveniently to this hell-hole and queued for half an hour to exchange something that shouldn’t be damaged in the first place. The cheek. But I’m not going to bother getting bothered by this ignorance. My thoughts are still firmly with the smiling woman on the verge. My fingers crossed wishing hard that her car starts, that she makes it to the play, that her in-laws are kind to her, that all her broken essentials are mended and that her work is a success. Deo Volente.

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