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Keep Breathing, For Nothing Has Changed

Yesterday afternoon I went to Tesco, after spending the morning agonising over whether I could justify going when I needed but a few things. As I’m sure is true for many of you quivering anxious wrecks out there, every action during this lockdown is a well-thought out result of some careful justification, pros and cons, and copious deep breaths.

The queue to get in was insane, it stretched across a giant carpark and around Starbucks, almost onto the busy road behind. But the sun was shining cheerily in the bright blue sky so I didn’t mind the wait and basked in the glorious rays, smiling at everyone who passed. So many people didn’t see the queue and tried to walk straight in but staff were on hand to explain nicely that there was a line of people waiting. Once I made it inside I stayed my two metres from everyone and greeted people with smiles. During lockdown I have felt such a sense of community with everyone. Whenever I take a walk I say hello to everyone and everyone greets me with wide grins and pleasantries. I found myself at the egg and bakery aisle and quickly nipped down to grab some bread, keeping my distance from the other shoppers.

‘Excuse me,’ A gruff voice said behind me. I turned around to find a bald man of about fifty-five glaring at me. ‘This aisle is one way.’

I looked around me and sure enough there was no-one else walking my way. A few staff stood at the top of the aisle but had said nothing so I backed away with a smile, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I didn’t realise,’ I said cheerily.

‘Well how could you not realise? There are signs everywhere, don’t you have eyes?’ I stopped dead, and almost started to laugh, sure that the man must be joking because the accusatory tone he was using was so unnecessary. I looked around me and couldn’t see a single sign anywhere. The only thing I saw were a couple of arrows on the ground, but I don’t tend to stare at the ground as I walk so it was rather an easy thing to miss.

‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t do it on purpose, I just didn’t see,’ I stuttered, incredulous while his wife looked over her glasses at me and gestured towards the arrows on the ground.

‘Well, why can’t you follow the rules like everyone else,’ the man continued. There was silence all around except for the aggressive words coming from this man. I grew hot and started to shake before running away in tears while he continued his barrage of bizarre blathering. I ran past a blond member of staff who smiled sympathetically and shook her head at the man but did nothing to intervene.

I rounded the corner, dissolved into tears, and started hyperventilating next to the red velvet cakes. I was alone in a shop during a time that is pretty terrifying already, without the help of a rude, nasty stranger causing unnecessary drama. I was crying so much, I had no idea what to do. I considered abandoning my trolley and running out of the store, but as the man had kindly pointed out, there were rules to be followed. I felt trapped, failed to get the things I needed during my shop – something we’re only allocated weekly - and felt completely humiliated.

Once I was home and safe in the arms of my man I concluded that were my fiancé with me, the man probably wouldn’t have shouted at me in the middle of Tesco. But Kieren wasn’t with me because we’ve been instructed to shop solo, a rule this man had failed to adhere to, while he brazenly yelled at me for a small and innocent error. Many of us are making small mistakes as this is a brand new world we live in, nobody has done this before, we are all learning. Not once have I seen a member of staff shouting at customers because they mistakenly walked the wrong way. I doubt many people are purposefully evading the rules during this time.

The thing I found so painful about this experience was that this man’s immediate reaction was to think the worst of me. Even after I’d assured him calmly that I’d made an honest mistake, he shouted me down as though I had barged my way into Tesco, coughing in people’s faces as I went, and purposefully disregarding the rules, when in fact I haven’t left the house in days and have spent my life anxiously following all the rules and trying my absolute hardest to do the right thing, coronavirus or no conronavirus. He should be ashamed of himself, I’d be absolutely mortified were I to treat anyone like that.

I thought this time was bringing us all together and making us one and the same. During such a vital time of chaos for everyone we should be pulling together, not vilifying each other. Thankfully, most instances of human interaction I’ve witnessed have been kind and loving, and this has been the only scene of aggression I’ve witnessed. How unnecessary in these times, when each of us already has so much to contend with, to make more negativity, more problems, more tears. My way of dealing with these things is to overanalyse the situation and the people involved, to try and see the reactions of those who’s reactions appear excessive. My only conclusion is fear, something we are probably all experiencing to different degrees. To not forgive him is to say none of us is feeling scared, hopeless, helpless, anxious.

I came home yesterday and had to take myself to bed. Perhaps I overreacted, perhaps I am very sensitive, but at this time I think it’s fair for emotions to be higher than usual. The man in Tesco overreacted to his feelings of fear and I overreacted to mine. I felt unsafe in that shop, being verbally attacked at by a stranger, and to feel safe again, I needed my bed.

This isn’t the first time an altercation of this kind has happened to me with an older man. I’m conscious not to come across as an angry feminist with this point because one; I’m not an angry feminist, and two; this isn’t a post about feminism. So I really hope you can take this statement at face value, my dear reader. I find it fantastically ludicrous and downright cowardly that some (not all) middle aged men choose to pick on younger women this way. Particularly as these things have only ever happened to me as a result of a harmless and honest mistake. Is it a power thing? Or are they mad at me because of some kind of preconceived transgression they find me guilty of? It is not just me this has happened to, every female I know has a story like this one and I am incredulously speechless that people feel they can get away with intimidating someone smaller than them this way. I remember getting on a bus a few years ago during a particularly low period. I thought the fare was cheaper than the coins I had in my purse and I just said ‘sorry, my mistake, I thought it was a cheaper price, I’ll just walk’. To which the older man started shouting, and I mean full-blown yelling, at me in front of a busload of people. He was so angry, I still can’t believe it. His face was red and spittle was spraying from him mouth, landing on the plastic partition that separates the driver and the passengers. He wouldn’t leave it, he yelled and yelled until, again, I was brought to tears. When I attempted to get off the bus, he told me he was doing me a favour by letting me stay on and to sit down. I walked to the only spare seat, my face burning in humiliation with every pair of eyes on me. I sobbed all the way home and cried for the rest of the evening.

I wish the people perpetrating these behaviours could understand how frightening moments like these are. No-one knows what another person is dealing with. During that point in my life I was struggling to heal from a violent past trauma. People might deal with these situations in different ways. My best friend would have simply laughed at him and stood up for himself. My fiancé would have defended himself or walked away. I froze, I fled, I fell apart, because situations like this are all too familiar to me and echoes from the past emulate themselves through these unnecessary encounters. And infuriatingly, there is no justice. No retribution.

How cowardly. I bet neither of these altercations would have happened were I with Kieren.

I use writing to process things, so if you’ve made it this far, thanks for listening. I want to end this by saying, although my response to yesterday was deep hurt, today I know that this is a him problem and not a me problem. The majority of humans are kind and loving and assume the best. I can know that and still be sad. All we have to do is keep breathing, for nothing has changed.

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