Creative Corona: Day 6

Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Claire Zwaartman considers the supermarket, a site of last resort in our viral times. Claire is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing.  Her story “Ashes” won the 2018 RTE/Francis McManus Short Story Award.


I’ve always found supermarkets fascinating.  For me they are intimate spaces where I can get a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, which is, of course, where the real interest lies. I like to spy at the contents of people’s trolleys and imagine what their homes are like, what they’re going to have for dinner later. What they might watch on television after their sweet-and-sour chicken with ready-cooked rice. In this act of imagining, all my prejudices and assumptions are at work, based mostly on food choices.

Put that back, we’re having dinner soon a woman hisses to her son who’s trying to slip a jewel-coloured bag of sweets into a trolley filled with fresh fruit and vegetables. Poor kid, I think to myself. At the checkout I wait behind a thin woman hefting three boxes of wine and several large bottles of tonic water onto the conveyor belt. She also has a loaf of bread and a litre of milk, and in my imagination, I see her back at her empty house pouring a large glass of something in relief.

My husband likes to quote the statistic that we are only ever three days away from empty supermarket shelves. He picked up this alarming piece of trivia during a recent storm and has taken to intoning it ominously at the first sign of threat to the supply chain. He suggested we start a vegetable garden to prepare for disaster. Being too lazy and fatalistic, I dismissed the idea saying we would have new problems should we find ourselves in a post-supermarket world – protecting our patch from marauding neighbours.

If the apocalypse is coming some stunted kale isn’t going to save us. Crisis, like the contents of our baskets and trolleys, reveals our true natures; his with an innate aptitude for self-preservation, mine a laissez-faire approach fueled by absurdism.

Last week, I rang my aunt to see how she was coping with the new restrictions and general panic. Discussing possible food shortages she said, “Well, I think we could be in trouble. Sure, don’t all the pizzas come from Italy?” There was such a richness of confused thinking on display here that, for a moment, I was speechless. Yet, when we hung up I was left thinking. . . all these years and that’s what she’s been surviving on?

Supermarkets are where we betray our deepest fears, but then I think, didn’t they always? Food, that most urgent and primal of needs, must be got and in quantities. Cans of chickpeas and squat packages of conch-shaped pasta are the order of the day for pragmatic shoppers, yet there are still dreamers among us buying houseplants and dog beds and ingredients for elaborate cakes we will never make.

Someone passed me in the car park with a boxed lava lamp under his arm and I nearly cheered. Meanwhile, in the frozen section you’ll find my aunt loading up on Hawaiian pizza, and my husband in the centre aisle examining the garden tools.

Claire Zwaartman

TOMORROW: “A Question” – a poem by Graham Allen