She wears an immaculate shirt, her long neck hidden by a coloured foulard: natural green and warm blue splashed with red. Very French.
She is a young woman with almost beautiful features. Her sleeves are rolled up, uncovering her wrists, revealing a watch, a big one, with an ivory face, almost twice as old as she is: a man’s watch. She wears a solitaire on her right ring finger.
It is Sunday, a festive morning.
Her nails glimmer with little metallic flashes, as her hands skilfully scan the items and pack the groceries separately from the rest.
I queue a few counters away and keep looking at her, forgetting to look at my own cashier. I suddenly realise that I have made a mistake; but now, stuck here, I keep on staring at the young princess.
The woman in front of me grumbles, looking for attention; she tries to chat with me but I am the wrong person for that now. I ignore her, but I will not move to another counter, adding one mistake to another. Never move from one queue to another: at the tollbooth, at the traffic lights, least of all at the supermarket.
The queue in front of me, however, seems carved from basalt.
My cashier is noisy, chatty but with artificial movements which look like a TV replay.
The other cashier assists the customers with a professional smile and unparalleled speed. ‘Regina’ [translator’s note: the Italian word for queen, regina, is also a woman’s first name ], as her badge says, barely moves her head, never lowering her chin, as her queue moves on calmly and regularly. She is a queen whom nobody talks to, beautiful and austere, like in fairy tales.
She reminds me of the crowned profile on the English stamps which I used to collect as a child.
Eyes looking beyond people, beyond the shelves, beyond that throne which beggars with their different lives approach. A smile for everyone, privileges for nobody. It doesn’t matter if the customer is wearing flammable acrylic or an elegant woollen suit. The rude and the shy get the same smile.
Her light make-up makes her face look delicate, despite the cold light spilling down from the ceiling.
Her refined manner and her resolute movements rebel against the chair which she seems almost nailed to. This improbable stage does not suit her, yet she plays her part with dignity. From her proud gaze one can tell that she will not grow old in some little third-class theatre. She heroically resists, next to that black conveyer belt which relentlessly throws tons of plastic her way.
She will not stay here to rot, from season to season, fighting for the weekday shift, uselessly struggling against the swelling of her ankles. As soon as she overcomes this critical moment, she will rise up and go back to that world from which she was wrenched.
When her husband finds a job, she will finally be able to observe the holidays. Normal Sundays, made up of small things, relationships, loves. No more interest-free special offers. Enough of this living aquarium, a dull and opaque life with gaudy colours. She will escape from this island surrounded by barriers against shoplifting, sliding doors and artificial politeness.
‘Do you have our Clubcard?’. The cashier’s voice diverts me from my pondering.
My imagination races, drawing me into others’ lives. Sometimes it expands to visualise the feelings and emotions of the people I observe.
Today, imagination is not involved though. The reality is that I know Regina’s husband.
I know him very well because I am that man.
Translation by Stefano Bragato (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)