How to describe the smell, I don’t know. The natural tendency, to liken something to something else – but not easy to do here, because what comes out of the spray bottle, first in long tongues that lick the underside of my shopping shoes, and then falls in light showers on my keys, glasses case, wallet and credit cards, before raining more determinedly down on every item removed from the cloth and plastic shopping bags, has no known relations that preceded it. A smell sui generis, a smell all of its own, but a smell that from this time forward, will never be able to come free of a past. The smell of Covid-19. 

A spray that brings some after-Victory Park shopping centre peace-of-mind, that leaves tiny texts of food labelling imprinted on the ever-serving kitchen table. How easily the ingredients and instructions distance themselves from their original packaging. Words, that like us humans, are seemingly keen for a change of location, words that are lucky enough to land in new surroundings, whereas we who find form not in consonants and vowels, but in flesh and bones, have nowhere else to go, no such stimulation occasioned by a change of scenery.

But doesn’t going shopping qualify as something vaguely stimulating? It does after all, bring a change in scenery. A stepping outside of the home and into a zone of people, places, and parking attendants – not the regular attendants in their black trousers, black windbreakers and black caps with the yellow trim; the men from the DRC and the Congo, always so gracious, so grateful for the money placed in their cupped hands and wide smiles. What has become of them, of their families, of their livelihoods at this time, now that they have been replaced by broader men in blue labelled ‘Security’ who move authoritatively among the handful of mask-wearing green-bibbed ‘trolley attendants’, drifting around the parking area?

Yes, going to the shops is going out, but is it an outing? No, because an ‘outing’ would imply the potential for some exciting discovery, the possibility of new frontiers to be stepped into, a stepping that accordingly invites eagerness or curiosity. No, a trip to DischemPick ‘n Pay, and Woolworths does certainly not tick those boxes, does not, for me at least, crack open fizzles and hisses of possibility, discovery or curiosity. Instead, it releases a mood more like the deflated, defeated air that sighs from the last opening of the 2 litre Coke bottle, its contents flat, unappealing. 

A mood that rounds my shoulders into a heavy slump, a rounding that happens long before there is a valid reason, before my shoulders are pulled down by the weight of filled or partially filled shopping bags, pulled down by the weirdness of the energy that envelopes this already soulless supermarket. Shoulders that slump, despite being provided with structure by the crossbar of the trolley, a trolley just too big to accommodate my modest list. But, for some reason, the baskets banished from Pick ‘n Pay, leaving trolleys the only option. Trolleys that feel bigger still, when trying to keep them and you ‘socially-distanced’ from others. 

Movement among the aisles, a process of politeness, of “sorry” and “excuse me”, a sense of being in slow motion, of everything taking an eternity. Not only because of manoeuvring the Titanic trolley, but also, navigating the gap-toothed shelves. Lengthy pauses, greater pondering. 

How long can it take for the woman in the surgical mask and rubber gloves to decide which cottage cheese to deposit into the cavernous four-wheeler that’s blocking most of the dairy display? Is it that so many decisions are no longer hers to make, that one about whether it’s Full Fat, Low Fat, or Fat Free, and Plain or Chunky, becomes a decision of the utmost importance, because it is a decision that she can make? Can I grant her this time and space to be in this process without the wheels of my frustration rolling forward? Do I hover nearby, sufficiently distanced, or move to the next item on my list? An item that will take me and my Titanic to far-away aisles. Will it be quicker to wait, in the hope of her deciding sooner rather than later, or to set sail and return? What if it’s later, not sooner, what then the impact on my slumping shoulders and scratchy skin? Another possibility, to turn my attention to something further down on my list, but not so far away. 

A compromise. I reverse my trolley, swing its bow starboard. Just turned, and a new list item within my view, from the corner of my eye I catch a gloved hand unclasping. A turquoise and white tub released into the depths of her trolley, and she pulls away from the refrigerated berth. I swing port-ward, dock at the dairy corner. No searching or reviewing of options, but a direct aim and seize. Two tubs of Full Fat Chunky, and I’m good to go, but not before drawing an awkward line through “cottage cheese” on the sharp-edged 10 cm x 10 cm square of white of paper penned upon by Dearly Beloved. Awkward, because it’s hard to find enough surface space on the cylindrical trolley handle to draw a straight black line. The black ‘fine-liner’, like the surgical mask, that neighbours and fogs up my glasses, a new addition to my shopping accompaniments. 

The pen necessitated by unfortunate omissions, items overlooked in the to-ing and fro-ing, in the circumnavigating of trolleys and their indecisive captains. Necessary to avoid the “you didn’t buy dishwashing liquid” upon my return, and the discovery of its absence from the rollcall of items at the kitchen table. 

“Oh crap”. The one bloody item that demanded a trip to the shops in the first place! 

A pen required to avoid the singularly unhelpful question, that does not feel like a question at all, but a stinging bluebottle of criticism: “don’t you cross things off the list as you get them?”

So, the cottage cheese crossed off, I work my way through the remaining items repeatedly crossing channels with the dairy ditherer. The last port of call for my now slightly less sparse trolley. Not to secure a list item, but a discretionary stop for an essential nonessential item. My trolley parked, I begin my reconnoitre of the chocolate shelves, a recce that sees my mood veering between resentment and resignation. 

“How can the Lindt 70% cost R48.99? I’m not paying that, it’s just not right. Why is there only Fruit & Nut and not Wholenut? I hate Fruit & Nut – all those squishy raisins. Bournville Dark, how can it be called ‘dark’, it tastes nothing like dark chocolate. No wonder it’s on special. Oh, whatever, just take something, it’s better than not having any chocolate at all.”

I salvage the last slab of Aero and drop it into the trolley and move off, much to the relief of the man a few metres away. A man whom until now, I have been unaware of, a man without a trolley, a man most probably thinking “Good Lord, can’t she just make a decision!”

Thank goodness I’m done, well, at least with Pick ‘n Pay, and Dischem was done before that. Woolies still to come. Please let it be short and sharp. 

Home eventually. 3 pm, low blood sugar. Shopping and I sprayed, time for lunch. The welcome of my teeth around the soft baguette. A delicious soothing sensation until Beloved’s words land on my still sensitive skin: “shopping really isn’t good for your mood.”

I say nothing, my grumpiness too great, as I silently work Beloved’s assessment through the ‘compassionate questions’. Questions that I now pose in reverse order. 

Is it necessary, to have said the words? No.

Are the words kind? No.

Are the words true? Absolutely, yes. How much I dislike shopping, especially in the time and energy of Corona. How terribly it impacts on my mood. 

But, how many would give an arm and a leg to have the possibility of going shopping, of pushing a trolley, of placing even one or two items in its vast empty stomach, to be able to buy just one or two items for their own empty stomachs.

And in this moment, how can my mood not shift from grumpiness to gratitude? A gratitude, thickly coated like the digestive biscuits I’ve just bought, but not coated by the sweetness of their chocolate casing, a gratitude coated with sadness and grief for the suffering of those unseen, those without trolleys, those with empty stomachs.