Friday, 30 December 2016


He seemed bright, alert and attentive, the young man in front of me.

Part of my mind was less concerned with my reason for being in the supermarket or the information he was failing to give me, but with the voice and accent in which he was failing to give it to me. When I was young, a man of African or Caribbean appearance would be most likely to talk with a strong West Indian accent (which was hardly surprising, since he was highly likely to be from that part of the world).

These days, however, if his accent is foreign, it’s usually Nigerian (also unsurprising since he’s most likely to be from that great West African nation).

This young man spoke with a perfect English accent. Which was equally unsurprising, because he was clearly entirely English.

However, my passing thoughts on the extent of assimilation of the Caribbean community into mainstream British society, satisfying though they were in themselves, had to take second place to my more immediate supermarket needs. He was an employee, though his obvious intelligence led me to suspect on a temporary basis while preparing or pursuing a course of advanced study, but despite his intellectual abilities and the fact that we spoke the same language, at every level both literal and metaphorical, we were manifestly failing to communicate.

“You want pet supplies?” he checked with me.

“Yes. You know. Pet food. And such like.” 

I was slightly irritated at myself for the reticence to state why I was there – to buy some pooper scoopers. It was a pleasant day, full of light and unseasonably mild. It was an upmarket shop. Did I feel that any allusion, however peripheral, to excrement was out of place in those circumstances?

“Pet food?”

Was he being deliberately obtuse? I was beginning to lose patience.

“Yes. Pet food. Perhaps this branch doesn’t stock any?”

He smiled at me. With, I felt, a slight touch of incredulity. Was he making fun of me?

“What kind of pet food are you after?”

He seemed to be slowing his diction, as though I needed to be talked down to, as though I was slow in understanding and had to be patronised. By this stage I was beginning to get seriously irritated. He seemed such a pleasant young man but I could see no justification for this kind of behaviour.

“Any kind of pet food would do,” I replied with what I hoped was a sufficient level of brusque haughtiness. Or possibly haughty brusqueness. But I felt either would do.

He didn’t reply but merely looked at me with what struck me as little short of pity. It was bordering on the offensive.

But then, suddenly, a nasty thought came to me. With some dread, I turned slowly to look behind me. And my fears were confirmed. Stretching each way, as far as the eye could see were shelf after shelf of cat food, dog food, probably hamster and rabbit food, sanitary materials for cats or for dogs, leads, bowls, brushes, whatever you might desire in that line, including, inevitably, pooper scoopers.

Ah, the shame, the shame. The sheer embarrassment
“Ah,” I said, “I see.”

As a reply, it was, I must admit, inadequate. It lacked the verve and wit I like to convince myself I cultivate.

“I’m sorry,” I added, though I didn’t feel it improved my comment particularly.

“No problem,” he assured me, demonstrating that he was as polite as he’d seemed before his incredulity had got the better of him.

“I hadn’t noticed,” I continued, struggling to try to justify myself.

He nodded and smiled again. But he was already moving away to his left, reminding me that he had work to do. I’d wasted quite enough of his time.

In any case, I had no desire to prolong the conversation. I grabbed the packet of pooper scoopers and made for the tills as quickly as I could.

I treasure the lesson, though. Miscommunication can be painful. Even embarrassing. But it isn’t always the fault of the person you may at first think.

No comments: