I am a collector, not of stones or postcards, pottery or furniture. I am a collector if lists, specifically shopping lists that I find in supermarket trolleys. They really are fascinating ting, shopping lists. We all write them. Some are better at it than others. Some people don’t use them at all, but just need the act of writing things down to know what to buy. I have a friend who does that and she never gets it wrong. She doesn’t buy peas when she already has some. She doesn’t forget shampoo or moisturiser. I’ve checked, many times, and I’ve kept her lists.
But it’s more interesting when you find them, when you don’t know the person who wrote it. My favourite list is as follows:
Frozen potato croquettes
I like this one the most because it suggests something of the life behind it. This man (I can tell it’s a man by the handwriting – small, squiggly, like a doctor’s scrawl) seems so lonely to me. He lives alone, he eats alone, but he is sexually active. Where does he go out? There is something sordid, but so appealing about the man who wrote this list. I can imagine him, getting ready to hit the town in his dark two room flat. Is he a male escort? Or is he just a user of women? Perhaps he’s neither, a hopeful virgin who lives with his father and watches porn while treating himself to “A Vienetta”.
I don’t know this man, but in my head he has become many men.
The reason I am rambling on about this is that I, the collector of forgotten shopping lists, also leave my piece in supermarket trolleys. Every Thursday Morrison’s receives another of my offerings, and I know someone finds them there and keeps them.
There is a temptation sometimes to embellish my lists. It is a strange urge, but strong, because I strongly feel that someone, some One, is keeping my lists, saving them, building a picture of me in their mind and I want to impress them (shamefully), I want them to think of my life as rich and fulfilling (think it so and it may become true). The temptation is to lead them on, pretend I am buying supplies for parties, barbeques, family events, anything. When in reality my lists are not far removed from frozen potato croquettes and a Vienetta (minus the condoms). Anyway, I have never lied on a shopping list. It feels like to do so would be to damage the integrity of the action, because someone out there has the same passion as me, and to lie to that person would be an insult to us both.
I write my lists on scraps of old printer paper, torn into quarters like my mother used to. I leave them clamped between the main body of the trolley and the folded-up child’s seat. My life wedged between two bits of metal wire. That’s where I leave them so I know they will be found. Yesterday, Thursday, I found someone else’s list in the same place. It’s a pretty standard list: various vegetables, fruit, meat, some cleaning products. There is nothing extraordinary about the life behind this list. The handwriting is neat and large, all capital letters, in blue biro. The paper is the back of an envelope. The address on the front is partially torn away, but I can see this person lives near me, has the same postcode.
I exchanged that list for mine, clamped between the wires once I had done my shopping.
I long to meet this person, another collector of lives, of rationality, which is what lists are. The person who has my life in their home, who knows what I bought last week, who can name the items in my cupboards without ever entering my house. This person knows me better than anyone and we have never even met.
I would not disappoint you. I am exactly as you see me, because I did not lie to you once. You know my diet, you know when my period is, how rarely I shave my legs, how frequently I clean my bathroom and my kitchen. I know you have dandruff, that you have hard water in your taps, that you prefer brown bread and real sugar to sweetener. We are so compatible, and I love you, whoever you are.
It’s been six weeks since I found your first list. I know you three times over. Three lists, three variations, three angles on your life. You have mine too. I know you find them or you wouldn’t keep leaving yours. This is beautiful and subtle communication.