I am not good at queuing. As a schoolchild, I came home for lunch so I didn’t take my turn for school dinners. My mother wasn’t keen on shopping and got me to do it from early on – I liked the responsibility, it made me feel like a big girl. You might have to wait your turn in any of the individual places I had to go to – grocer, butcher, greengrocer, baker – but as this rarely involved more than three or four people, hardly a queue. Schoolfriends queued for the Saturday matinees (both parents took me to the cinema), there were not many people in the doctors’ office and (dear dead days beyond recall) there was no queue in the post office.
Once I was working, I was impressed by how easily colleagues managed the canteens – I am not handy with a tray.
“Well, if you didn’t get it at school, you did at college” laughed one friend. My eyes opened rather wide – go to a fee paying school and queue for food ? And as for college – one more reason I was rather glad I didn’t go to university.
It’s my mother’s fault. She was, she said, “not disposed to hang about.” Not a queuer. If she couldn’t get something without a queue, she would either go elsewhere or do without. Briskly. Without apology. She must have queued during the war because everybody did and God knows, we queued through ration books and coupons and shortages for much of the fifties. But somewhere in there, she decided she was not going to queue if she didn’t absolutely have to and she passed that on to me.
Lining up to wait for a handbag or a pop star has never occurred to me. I queued for Breakfast at Tiffanys with Audrey Hepburn but outside the cinema, briefly in conversation with a lovely elderly couple (I was 17), they swept me in as with them – you can see, I have never forgotten them. (Long ago a journalist interviewing me said that she thought I remembered every kind thing and good turn that had ever been done to me – certainly, many of them.)
I remember newsreels and documentaries of people queuing under sovietism for shops in which the shelves were routinely bare but there might be a consignment of canned shark or some other delicacy. It came to me that you could grow all sorts of things but if you couldn’t find a way to distribute them, the great mass of people were in want – and queued for what they could get.
Of course people wait in markets
– but not for long because markets are organised to move – amass produce, bring it to the selling point, sell it and survive. I remember people briefly at standpipes, queuing for water, which left me ever afterward respectful of water as a resource. Friends in Africa restricted water and Jane Harper* inverts the model of extreme cold into extreme heat as the enemy in her thrillers – the Australian drought – and it’s frightening.
Nowadays we wait in the post office, the only happy progress being that now more and more outlets sell books of stamps so if you aren’t posting something, you can get round that. And we wait in supermarkets which are busily pushing us away from the casual human contact science has just discovered is valuable, towards machines that don’t always work but are cheaper. People like me queue in the supermarket from choice – we’d rather deal with a human.
But waiting wears you down. Last week I woke up with a knot in the middle of my stomach. The first day, I thought it might be indigestion – but when it persisted and I went bed with it and woke up with it, I recognised it for what it was. Anxiety.
Ginny came for supper and her mother is of an age with me. There was news to catch up on, some of it not very good, and then we couldn’t help but talk about the transitional trap in which we have been caught for the last three years. She said she was struck by how anxious it was making her mother and I sympathise. The wait is wearing.
*The Lost Man and The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus)