GORDON COLLINS
‘War Ina Babylon’ 

 

THE SUPERMARKET had emailed me a voucher for a fifty percent reduction on a new cook-in sauce in their “Persian Nights” range; “Fiery Harissa”, I think it was. I took it in and I was staring at the other sauces on the shelf, trying to decide between “Aromatic Keralan”, which I had tried before and enjoyed, and the new sauce. I don’t quite know what happened next. I was excited to see the new sauce and then, almost instantly, I knew it would not be sufficiently different to interest me. I don’t know what came over me. I knocked all the jars off the shelf – one by one. I ran down the aisle and kicked out at the pasta, bursting packets which spread all over the floor. I shouted “Jars” and I rocked the condiment section until it almost toppled. Products I had previously favoured I now destroyed. Mothers guided children to the safety of the seasonal goods. I cried out like an animal. It was as if someone else had taken over me. Security chased me to the deli and then along by the milk and back down to the checkouts. I tried to take the bargain-bucket with me. I ripped it off its stand but it was tied to the bottom with a cord. I fell. They came to me. I got up and ran around by the wines but one of the security guards blocked me there. Another one took my arm lightly and said, “Please come with us, sir.” I tried to run again but his grip tightened just enough to stop me.
    I went with him to a corner of the supermarket by the shelf with the pasties, pork pies and the like. There was a door there I hadn’t seen before. They took me through to the manager’s office and I sat, staring at my hands, not knowing what to think. I caught my breath and tried to think about what I would say to them.
    The manager came in with a glass of water which he gave to me. “How are you feeling now?” 
    “Better, thanks.” I drank the sparkling water. “Look, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what happened. It was suddenly too much. I couldn’t decide. I…”
    “It’s OK. Take your time.” He sat down at his desk opposite me. There were box files on the shelves and a computer with a till attached to it. There was a picture of him next to a market stall in some hot country. The phone rang. He pressed a button and it went quiet. There were some packets of wafers on his desk. It might have been a new range because I didn’t recognise the distinctive illustration of a hat on them.
    “I’m really sorry,” I said again. “I can pay for all the damage.” 
    “That’s quite alright.”
    He didn’t seem disapproving or even unfriendly but I couldn’t help myself apologising again. 
    “It’s OK. It actually happens quite frequently,” he said.
    “Does it?” I asked.
    “Perhaps three times a year,” he said and he even smiled at me. “I wonder if I might see your loyalty card.”
    I handed it to him and he scanned it into his computer. He turned the screen to face me. It had lists of all my purchases with summaries of each visit and a heat-map which showed which areas of the supermarket I shopped in most.
    “You are visiting some key zones – the deli counter, specialist ingredients and the world food section.” He brought up another graphic which displayed my visits to the meat and fish counters. “You know your way around the unpackaged goods, I see.”
    “I like to try new things,” I said.
    “Of course. That’s right,” he said. He brought up another screen. “You try our recipe cards too?”
    “Yes. The more exotic ones anyway.”
    “You bought all the ingredients for hake with a young broccoli foam. How did that turn out?” 
    “Yes, very well, actually. Yes, that was a good one. Thank you.”
    “You used the pomegranate. Most customers left that out.”
    “Really? No it needed the pomegranate. I thought that was perfect. A key note.”
    “Yes, key note. Good,” he said. He turned the screen back to face himself and did some typing and clicking. “I won’t be a minute,” he said. He still had my loyalty card in the machine.
    “OK. So can you tell me a bit about what happened in there,” he asked when he had finished. 
    “I’m not sure, really. I was looking at the curry sauces and I wanted to try the, erm, the new sauce but I… I don’t know really. It just all seemed so wrong suddenly and I couldn’t stop myself.” 
    “You weren’t happy with the new sauce?”
    “No no. I’m sure it’s delicious.” 
    “It’s OK. You can tell me.”
    “It was just that I wouldn’t have been happy with any new sauce. I mean it just seemed that it wouldn’t be sufficiently different to the other sauces.”    
    “Right. That’s something we need to think about. Thank you.”
    “I mean I like the curry sauces. It was just that...” but I couldn’t finish the sentence because, at that time, I really didn’t understand what was wrong. “I’m so sorry,” I said again.
    “Please, there’s no need to apologise. Like I said, we understand,” and then he smiled. “I wonder if you would care to come with me. I have something to show you.”
    He led me out of his office and past an exit out to the street and for a moment I felt like running out of there and never coming back. But I followed him up the stairs and to another door with a card reader by it. He swiped my loyalty card and the door opened to reveal another floor to the supermarket which I had never seen before.
    “You may shop in here, now,” he said, handing back my loyalty card and smiling at me. The lighting was significantly dimmer than downstairs; it was spotlights and not strip lights.
    The floor space must have been slightly smaller than the downstairs supermarket but it felt bigger because it was more open. It wasn’t organised like a normal supermarket; there wasn’t a vegetable section and a meat section and the food wasn’t arranged in aisles anyway. Instead the food was displayed alongside books, kitchen utensils and ornaments. It was all together so that a specially designed peeler was displayed next to artichokes, some different flavoured vinegars, a shellfish I didn’t recognise, some books on The Enlightenment and some thin slices of venison. There was a tall abstract painting next to a tank of eels. A shopper fed them some junipers and then scanned the barcode on the tank with his scan gun.
    The manager pulled a trolley over to me. The trolley had two book holders and a small hot plate on it. It had sections for crushable, non-crushable and fresh items and there was a screen with a scanning gun, some electrodes and a pair of headphones attached to it. “Go ahead,” he said, directing me to a shelf he saw I was interested in. I scanned the label by a small green fruit which was like a gooseberry but firmer. I looked to the manager and he nodded to me. I peeled off the label and bit into it. The sourness was almost unbearable but instantly replaced by the sweetest juiciest nectar. On the shelf next to the fruit was a book with the title “Enhanced Natural Consciousness.”
    The manager left me and I wandered around. A group was crowding around a blindfolded pregnant woman who wore headphones. They were feeding her and laughing. I stopped by a shelf that had a jug of water, sunglasses, a child’s picture book and some strips of dried meat with a purple dip next to them. Next to some mangos were a selection of vinegars and preserved squid – a combination of flavours I had never even considered. Two women were reading from the same book while chewing slowly on cakes of butterscotch and bacon. There was a shelf which was divided into a grid, like an old typesetter’s drawer, with various nuts along the top row, varieties of ground pepper on the leftmost column and the corresponding nuts and peppers mixed in the middle of the grid. On a nearby table some shoppers were comparing the effects of different fish roes on raw aubergine.
    Over the next few weeks I spent all my time on level two of the supermarket. I would spend my mornings exploring a new flavour: frying things on the trolley’s hotplate or using its electrodes to uncover Ph, salinity and other basic chemical analyses. The screen would also suggest relevant books and I found I spent more time reading than eating. In the afternoons I would gather with the others by the tables under the “Five Tree” – an apple tree with four other fruits grafted onto it. There I found new directions for my studies, led as much by the taste of a pear as by a newly discovered book or my discussions with a fellow second-floorer. I learnt as much about aesthetic theories, advanced farming techniques and computational chemistry as I did about spice blends or grilling techniques. I learnt the algebra of food: how to add, subtract or multiply flavours. A music professor, who had been forced into early retirement, showed me how Mozart is oranges as surely as Schumann is peppercorns. I came to see that the flavour spectrum had analogues in the colour and sound spectra as well as in the “spectrum of ideas” which was much discussed among the second-floorers. I learnt how to taste anxiety in garlic, remorse in cinnamon and pity in prunes.
    There was no “basics” range. There were no checkouts or celebrity chef endorsements. There were no “bogofs” or “meals for one”. The idea was that food was to be enjoyed communally. Food should be a catalyst for discussion and not taken home and eaten in privacy. Food was the very best agent of community for the material we ingested was the very thing we all had in common. I met farmers, chefs and chemists and debated with them the flavours of a certain dish and the ideas that it implied. Even the shelf stackers had a serviceable education in philosophy, aesthetics, food science and agricultural theory. I found there an understanding between the shoppers. Friendships easily took root. Love affairs effervesced like fruit sodas.
    But there was one man, Alex, who questioned our “truths” of seasonality and freshness. He would sit on the sofas, eating raisins and writing erratically in his notebook. I was told he was one of the original second-floorers but that now the manager was getting annoyed at some of his behaviour: shouting at customers or throwing food. I sometimes saw him clumsily knocking items off displays. Once I saw him injecting himself with a vibrant green liquid which he had put together from liquidised seaweed and yoghurt. He generally kept away from us, skulking in the grain sections of the supermarket. He had reverted to eating simple grains or baby-food: mushed up carrots and potatoes, slowly spooning it into his mouth and swilling it around for hours until all the flavour must have gone. But sometimes he would come to other sections and cook something carelessly and not clear up after himself. One day we came in and he had taken all the pears and wouldn’t share them with us. He muttered about flavour being an illusion and waved us away. Some people said that he was an alcoholic or a drug abuser but I never saw him at those shelves.
    His behaviour got worse over the weeks I was there. He would swap ingredients – taking grapes from one shelf and swapping them with grapes from another or pouring syrup all over the salads. It doesn’t sound like much but we had become so sensitive that the discord in flavour he created was like an assault on our palates. He shouted that he was disgusted by food, by the tyranny of sugar and the stupidity of pork. He went around topless, raging at anyone who got in his way. One day we came in and all the fish from the tank were flapping on the floor half-gutted or crushed. The manager was talking to Alex who had fish guts spread down his front, smiling to himself.
    When he was calmer, I went to talk to him on my own. He was mostly incoherent but I got the idea that he had lost any faith in food as a redemptive force. I think he stopped eating altogether.
    He thought that it was just decaying vegetation, dead animals, de-nourished soils and peasants’ tears. I listened to him for over an hour. I gave him a simple porridge which he pushed away. He called me a syrupy fool and accused me of being an unseasonal cake-head. I brought him plain breads and unripe apples which he threw back at me. 
    “But you must eat,” I said to him. “We must eat.”
    Later that day a group of us were under the Five Tree. Alex came over, his arms raised, berries oozing out of his fists ranting about flavours and repeatedly shouting the word “burnt”. Then he knocked over a display. He ran about, undressing and shouting obscenities. He grabbed a haunch of venison and was threatening some customers who had tried to catch him. Security quickly came upstairs and took him off. The manager apologised to everyone and it was all cleaned up in a few minutes.
    “He’s going to level three,” someone told me. “There’s a level three? What’s on it?”
    “Who knows?”
    I asked the manager about it when he came on his daily rounds. “It’s difficult to describe,” he said, “It’s more abstract than here. There’s very little sustenance.”
    “Can I have a look?”
    “Best to stay down here. I think there’s still a lot for you here,” he said, putting his arm on my shoulder.
    “I’d really like to have a look.” I persisted.
    “I think it’s best if you stay here for a while longer,” he said.