Shopping centres are a modern Mecca for people in pain. I’m not talking about hang-dog husbands, tethered with the groceries outside shoe shops. Nor toddler melt-downs, neatly timed to coincide with the lunchtime rush hour. All of human life is represented in the neon glare of the forecourts. But they hold a particular attraction for the lonely, the dispossessed, the depressed and the lost.
Take a look, next time you’re passing through. Who are the people wandering dazed through the racks? Sitting, for hours at a time on the benches, watching. It’s not just the merchandise that’s attractive. It’s the whole package. The piped music, soothing and sedating. The calming routine – opening and lock-up, cleaning and selling. Every day runs on a loop and there’s a safety and familiarity in seeing the same faces – especially if you don’t know the people behind them. You’re a part of something. You’re with others. You belong.
Within this city, different precincts appeal to different personalities. There’s the coffee shops, filled with suits and laptops. Marks and Spencer, bastion of the (discerning) matriarch. The teenagers, loitering in packs outside Topshop. Harried mums, dashing to the cashpoint.
Then there’s the supermarkets. In the past, I’ve spent hours upon hours in here, cataloguing the produce, measuring out the minutes, drinking in all the calories I wouldn’t eat. It’s a habit acquired from a lifetime obsessing about food. If all you think about is weight and you get a kick from self-control, then there’s no more delicious and vicarious torture than cruising the aisles, murmuring the mantra, ‘no..no..no’.
And though my patterns have shifted, some things remain the same. Standing at the checkout, I’m surrounded by reflections of my former self. Intense, bowed young women, pacing the lanes. Picking up lettuce and putting it down. Desperately scanning the shelves, searching the labels like fortune tellers reading tea-leaves. The furtive, sudden movements. Emaciated arms, hugging the empty basket. I look at them and I’m frozen, winded by their misery. I want to rush over, to gently pry their fingers from the handles. To lead them somewhere safe, somewhere quiet. To stop the voices, the lies. To comfort and to heal. To speak truth and life into misery and a slow, slow death.
But I don’t. Instead I come home, wan and weary. I make a cup of coffee. I pray. And I write this post.