Sunday, 1 September 2013

This is a test

Recently I was in Boots at Kings Cross station, buying the usual items of bathroom tedium on my way home from work. A women appeared beside me (not by magic – I'm pretty sure she just walked there from a different part of the shop) to be served by the adjacent cashier.

She was buying a pregnancy test.

Just that. Just a test. Just laid down right there on the counter, all alone. Not a universally unflattering palette of eyeshadow, grabbed in haste, alongside it. Not some corn plasters and a blood-sugar monitor with which to bury it at the bottom of a wire basket. Just a pregnancy test. Imagine! She didn't even want a bag. 'Would you like a bag?' was what the assistant asked her. 'No thanks,' is exactly what she said in response.

It's a long time since I studied any critical theory. Probably it could never be long enough. But this episode made me think about Barthes' Mythologies and Saussure and signs and signifiers. Luckily I wasn't thinking these things out loud, because I am really over-sibilant.

Maybe I haven't done enough pregnancy tests in my life to reduce them simply to piss and plastic. Maybe I haven't witnessed enough other people buying them. Because when I saw this small box lying on the counter, I didn't think, 'Oh, the circle of life turns one more notch. Just another everyday, £7.99 incidence of life-changing potentiality. Nothing to see.'

Instead I thought that my fellow customer must surely have slept with her infertile partner's brother following an argument and now nothing would ever be the same again. Or that the one-night stand with her boss at the end of the staff orienteering/orientation day had not been packed away with the cagoules and the clipboards after all. Or that the night when that large flying vessel landed in her back garden and the hatch opened and that creature she could not comprehend took her inside and led her to do things she didn't entirely comprehend either, but on the other hand didn't not enjoy, really did happen after all, it wasn't just the late-night brie talking.

And when she got home, she would almost certainly hide it in the laundry basket because everyone knows that's a really flawless hiding place, or possibly throw the empty box in the bathroom bin, where her boyfriend might find it and wonder which one of the four female housemates it belonged to.

You say pregnancy test. I say soap opera.

I blame soap operas.

Because it wasn't just the test. She was buying the test in a train station. The theatre of melodrama. (Or maybe that's Old Trafford.) Where people run alongside moving carriages to tell another that they love them. Where the lovehorn hurdle barriers and feint their way around guards to beg someone not to leave. Trains pull out of platforms to reveal passengers still standing there, wondering what they haven't just done. Where businessmen decide not to take their regular service to the suburbs, but instead pick a platform, any platform, and step right onto a train to Berwick or St Austell. I mean, this literally happens all the time, doesn't it? I've seen it with these two eyes. Only on the telly, mind you, but still.

Back in Boots, the cashier swiped the woman's loyalty card and said 'Are you using your points?'

Initially, I thought she said, 'Are you proving a point?' which somehow seemed slightly prescriptive, even for a pharmacist.*