There was a scene in the supermarket – a man in his 60s accompanied by his son in his 30s had been checking out a trolley filled with shopping. Their polo shirts and shorts suggested they were holiday makers, as did the packs of barbecue meat they were buying. The older man had a pugnacious manner and spoke aggressively to the check out operator. The French was rapid and hard to follow. He repeated his words and placed a lettuce from his trolley back on the check out belt. The operator picked up a telephone and called for a supervisor. The woman following the two men in the queue sighed and shook her head.
Minutes passed. Our shopping was all on the belt; there were queues at every till; to have tried to have moved would have created another scene. The operator called for help again; this time someone appeared. More words. The supervisor keyed in numbers and told the operator to proceed. The lettuce was scanned and €2.15 appeared on the display. The pugnacious man objected, he had become bullying by this point. The operator shook her head and manually entered €1.55. The people behind in the queue watched as the man then took the lettuce and placed it into his trolley. The man’s son then stepped forward to pay their bill of a hundred euro or more with his credit card. The dispute and the delay caused to the line of shoppers was about 60 cent. The man was obviously used to getting his own way, regardless of the inconvenience he caused to others.
Lines from John McGahern’s “The Dark” perhaps shed light upon the thought processes of someone who would have a public argument over a couple of coins. McGahern’s character Mahoney is a widower with a family, he has become an abusive bully, expecting to get his own way, yet in a drunken moment shows that beneath the aggression, there is deep vulnerability.
Mahoney “suddenly jumped up, the face red and bloated, dramatic arm outstretched, to do a half-circle swing on the floor and shout, “I went to school too”.
“This is my life, and this kitchen in the townland of Cloone is my stage, and I am playing my life out here on”, and he stood, the eyes wild, as if grappling for his lines.
“And nobody sees me except a crowd of childer”, the voice trailed bitterly, and then burst out again.
“But it’s important, it’s important to me, it’s the only life I’ve got, it’s more important than anything else in the world to me. I went to school too”, and he started to sob drunkenly till he grew aware of the still eyes of the children watching him, when he began to shout again”.
Maybe the man fighting about the price of a lettuce was filled with a frustration and bitterness comparable to that felt by Mahoney; maybe it wasn’t about 60 cent, but was about years of feeling unjustly treated, about unfairness, about being done down. But maybe there are battlegrounds more worthwhile than green leaves that looked past their best.