Whether I arrived at work at 9am or 10am largely depended on the morning Sainsbury’s smoking run. Most mornings I’d be reminded of the bank job from The Young Ones where Neil complains about always ending up in the queue behind the man from the Penny Arcade. For me it was the lottery players and instead of millions of pennies it was millions of scratchcards.
I’d arrived running late already and was met by a larger than usual queue. This usually meant there was only one person behind the kiosk counter. I was in for a wait. I grabbed some chewing gum from the shelf nearby and joined the queue, taking out my phone to check how late I was going to be, and how the Tube trains were looking. After about ten mins I was nearing the front of the queue. Good, in a way, but also bad because I was now close enough to get wildly agitated about the people in front of me.
It always seemed to be someone who was buying dozens of lottery tickets (who looked a lot like Norman Lovett), but also had no idea how the process worked. Like they’d woken up, and thought “I’m going to play the lottery, 600 tickets across 19 sets of numbers. I can just turn up at the shop with the numbers written on my arm right?”
If not that it was scratchcards. They buy a scratch card, hand over their money. Simple enough right? No. They then scratch it on the counter, don’t win, and buy another one. And again. And a-fucking-gain. By the time they run out of coins and it’s my turn, I’m enraged.
“Fucking addicts,” I mutter, “Yes, 20 Marlboro Menthol please.”
I paid and raced out of the shop and onto the Tube.
It was while standing on the Tube, with my hands in my jacket pockets – in the usual way – that a strange thought occurred to me. I could feel my chewing gums in my jacket pocket – again, in the usual way. Because this is where I keep them. But I didn’t remember having them when I got to the front of the queue. I grabbed my receipt from my jeans pocket and my worst fears were realised. Whilst the total amount on the receipt might seem to a non-smoker like a reasonable amount for buying cigarettes, two bottles of wine, 6 packs of chewing gum, a nice steak, two of those posh chocolate things women love (you know the ones), a couple of magazine partworks and 7 lottery tickets – as a smoker I knew it was exactly the amount for a solitary, cash-sapping box of smokies.
I had picked up the chewing gums, and at some point shortly thereafter, while in the queue, or even before I joined the queue, muscle memory had caused me to put the gums in the pocket where I always put my gums. I’d done it on auto-pilot, without a second thought, mere feet from the security desk at the front of the store.
Muscle memory – it’s when, and don’t run screaming or vomiting, your arms and legs and things know stuff and do what they want even though your actual thinking brain hasn’t told them to and is totally unaware. The best example of this is passwords. You know when you just sort of type them out without thinking because your fingers just sort of remember what goes where. Basically, your fingers have their own brains and remember stuff, and knows stuff you don’t. All your limbs and muscles and organs have a mind of their own and can act independently of you, doing stuff you don’t want, or even trip you up or strangle you in your sleep. THINK ABOUT THAT!
Now that I’ve explained that using my science knowhow, I am beginning to doubt that it’s completely accurate. But it’s something like that. I think the password bit is spot on, not so much the finger-brains.
I might not have a PhD in muscle memory, but you know who else doesn’t. Silver Spoon. Yes, the sugar people.
Because “SS” make a sugar called Half-Spoon which I was forced to try recently due to shortages with that online grocery shopping I mentioned. The concept is simple, the sugar is twice as sugary, so you only need half-a-spoon for every spoon of normal, real British sugar you would have. And for the two spoonfuls of sugar that a normal, real British person would have in their tea or coffee, with this new stuff, you would only need one spoon.
The problem with this innovation … is muscle memory. I have been using this for two weeks, and 98% of the time, I have – by force of habit, or finger-brains – mindlessly put two spoonfuls of sugar in my coffee. When I don’t notice, this means I have a coffee made with the equivalent of four fucking sugars in. When I do notice, I have to scoop some of the sugar back out and into the bag, invariably with some of the coffee mixed in. So now I have a half-finished bag of half-spoon sugar that’s half-coffee. I may not have a PhD in Maths either, but even I know that’s too many halfs. And also I may not have a PhD in English, but even I know it’s meant to be halves.
On a more serious note, if you can imagine such a thing, I do have a genuine need to contact an expert on muscle memory. I moved into my new house two years ago. If I even remotely think about going up or down the stairs in low light I will break my neck. I misjudge the stairs, and the number of stairs every time. I have been going up and down these stairs for two years, many times daily. My house is mainly stairs, with a couple of small rooms attached. I had no stairs in my old place, for sixteen years. Why have my muscles not worked out how many stairs there are. It baffles me, I have dropped and smashed stuff because of this, and very nearly broke my wrist tumbling down the stairs. If anyone knows how to make my foot-brains remember please get in touch.
Anyway, back to the past. Thanks to muscle memory, I had accidentally pocketed a multi-pack of chewing gum. I was a thief. The honest Nectar point vigilante of the London Riots was a criminal.
“Will the defendant please rise. Mr Wrigley – the court has reason to believe you are using a false name, possibly for crude innuendo reasons and to cause a titter in the court. We have grounds to believe that you have also caused us to inadvertently use the word “titter” during these proceedings, for similar nefarious reasons. This court rejects your defence that you stole these minty chewy bullion by mistake, and rather asserts that you planned this from the moment you left your home in Tooting. We further find it likely that this is not the first time and that in fact your regular frustration that J Sainsbury (Tooting) Ltd never has “the ones you like” is because on a daily basis you were emptying the shelf of black mint Airwaves into your rucksack. We have taken testimony from the police officers who searched you when you were found conspiring to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a plush mouse, and also from Alexis Conran, “from off of The Real Hustle” who confirms he met you in an airport security queue in Berlin and taught you several undetectable sleight of hand theft techniques. It is the conclusion of this court that you robbed J Sainsbury blind every day with the exception of days when jolie laide Polish checkout girl Ilona wasn’t working, because to cite witness testimony from a colleague “He pure loves Ilona,” And continues “So he does.” To deliver our verdict, could the court please ask the AV contractors to wheel in the projector and play the opening scene from Superman: The Movie.”
The Phantom Zone beckoned as I arrived at work, wriggled – sorry riddled, with guilt. I was a cold-blooded gum-thief. This wasn’t just gum in my pocket; it was “dirty gum”. (you know like dirty money sort of thing, I don’t mean like gum that had been on the ground and in other people’s mouths and stuff.) What was I to do. I couldn’t just go back there and tell the security guard. “Oh hi, I robbed you silly this morning you fucking buffoon, and ran rings around your shoddy security, just wanted to make amends.” Besides it would be too late, they were doubtless checking CCTV already, after a stocktake found discrepancies in the Airwaves stock. They’d be poring over the footage trying to identify the culprit, and then when they see me getting to the front of the queue they’ve got my card details and my name and address. Shit, that would mean I wouldn’t even be able to do the Mr Wrigley/titter gag in court. On the plus side whichever detectives from Tooting CID were assigned the case would have to sit through watching the lottery and scratchcard cunts ahead of me in the queue, so this would delay them a fair bit.
By the evening I’d be in the Metro. If I was lucky the subject of a Raoul Moat-style manhunt, with – fingers-crossed – my favourite alcoholic Gazza making an appearance. But more likely they’d be onto me by lunchtime, turning up at work asking if they knew the whereabouts of an oddball often seen in a Polish girls t-shirt. My regular banter with the work security guys might buy me some time. They might faff around a bit like that time I turned up for work having forgotten my pass and they wouldn’t let me in even they’ve known me for ten years.
One way or another justice was coming, and…. OK OK I think I’ve painted a picture here, I was definitely getting no work done while I was working all this through in my overactive head.
Things were getting desperate, I was actually shitting myself every time the lift doors opened in the office. It was while in the canteen downstairs buying actual chewing gum (I couldn’t bring myself to open the ill-gotten multi-pack) that I happened upon an idea.
I would return to Sainsbury’s that evening after work (I know you’re thinking “ALAN DON’T DO IT, YOU’VE GOT YOUR WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF YOU, DON’T TURN YOURSELF IN, RUN ALAN RUN, GO TO MONACO, ARGENTINA, GO BACK TO BIRMINGHAM EVEN” but bear with). I would calmly walk in, and saunter past the gum shelf, palming the packet back out of my jacket pocket. I might hold it aloft and shout “Just buying this gum I just picked up, right now. Fresh gum, straight off the shelf.” although maybe that was getting a bit too hammy. I’d join the queue. I’d patiently wait. It was Wednesday, the place would be infested by last-minute lotto junkies. It was this or high-security prison where the only queue would be in the showers, for my arse…
I’d get to the front, “Good evening shopkeeper, just this gum. No no, no cigarettes, I bought those this morning, I don’t know if anyone remembers but I was actually here this morning, buying only cigarettes, but forgot to buy gum, so here I am” – this bit is genius because it’s 100% true. I did forget to buy gum. I didn’t forget to take gum, but I did forget to buy it.
I was close to pulling this off. Soon this weight would be lifted off my shoulders. Hang on, that wasn’t weight, there was a pensioner leaning on me for balance while he reached into the fridge cabinet for a prawn cocktail sandwich.
OK, only one thing left. Maybe, just maybe, when they scanned the gum, it would trigger an alarm in their systems. I don’t know what kind of microchips they maybe place on these things for security.
But all good, it scanned fine, I paid – using a different card, for some paranoid reason. Finally, I had my gum and I had a fucking receipt to show I paid for it. I also had a receipt from the canteen to show I bought gum this morning.
“But Your Honour, why would I buy gum legitimately at work if I stole a pack, at gunpoint, from J Sainsbury? Also, can I just ask the court where the bit about the gun came from, because I definitely didn’t have a gun when I took the chewing gum… Ah I see what you’ve done, you’ve made me admit it. That was clever. I should have seen that coming, OK take me away…”
PS – I’ll end with an enlightening insight into how my blog-writing process works. Yesterday this popped up on my Facebook “On This Day”, reminding me of the day I thieved from Sainsbury’s. I decided to write it up. Several anecdote connections and tangents, and 5000 words later, here we are. If nothing else, I’ve shown my unerring ability to spin verbosity out of brevity.