“He’s here,” says our girl on the inside. “We’re on it,” we put the phone down, get out of the van and walk quickly across the car park, pick up a trolley and make our way through the automatic doors. Our girl nods to us from her seat at one of the tills. “I’ll push the trolley,” I say. “No, I’ll push.” We squabble for a bit and then decide we’ll both push. “Come on,” I say. “Concentrate.”
We track him from a distance. For a while he is looking at tins of soup and you can just tell that he isn’t interested in soup at all. “Look at his hair,” we say to each other. “Look, he’s got his satchel.” He is at the other end of the aisle, picking up bacon and putting it back. Writing words on frosted-up boxes in the freezer section. This is all just stalling. And then he is in the biscuit aisle and he is doing his thing. Without looking around to even check whether there are any supermarket employees around, he puts his hand into his satchel.
Before this we have already debated how he is able to perform this trick. “It is some kind of magic, he has learned how to hypnotise people en masse so that they do not notice.” “No,” I say. “I don’t think that’s it.” My theory is that he has convinced himself that what he does is so completely normal and thus he does it as naturally as anyone else would buy a pint of milk. It is all in his mind. He has allowed himself to relax and to perform the switch with a blank and blameless poise that he does not even notice.
From his bag he takes three packets of biscuits and places them on the shelf. With his other hand he takes some other biscuits from the shelf and slips them into his satchel. And then he is away as if he were never even there at all.
As soon as he is gone we are at the shelf. I take out the notebook and write down the names of the biscuits he has left this time. They are not biscuits we have ever heard of. They are not biscuits which the supermarket usually stocks. They never are. This is the point of the scam. The beautiful point or perhaps the beautiful pointlessness of it. Again, we have discussed this. We believe that he is part of a some organisation, some movement, which hopes to introduce obscure brands of biscuits to the shelves of large supermarkets. “What do we do?” “Lets buy the biscuits.” “What about tracking him, finding out where he lives?” “Next time.”
We take one of the packets of biscuits to the check out, choosing the till next to the one at which our girl is working. We are not buying anything else. The check out girl scans the biscuits and then gets confused. “We don’t stock these,” she says holding them up so that we can see. “How much are they?” I manage to keep a straight face. She looks at me like I’m stupid. “We just found them on the shelf.” She calls a manager over to the till.
Our girl is watching all of this with interest. She has told us previously that, “they’re beginning to notice. The managers can’t work it out, these biscuits appearing from out of nowhere. There were some Australian biscuits the other week. We don’t stock any Australian biscuits.”
The manager apologises to us and explains that we cannot buy the biscuits. “Why not?” I ask. “We don’t stock them. We don’t have a price. You can’t buy something that doesn’t have a price.” To us, they are priceless. I offer a pound and the manager sighs. This is all highly irregular. We can see him glancing around, at the check out staff, at us, at the biscuits, like he expects someone to jump out at any moment and explain the joke. He thinks long enough for us to notice grey hairs.
Eventually he concedes defeat and we buy the biscuits. This is the third time we have managed to buy some of his switched biscuits. We never open the packet. We treat them like souvenirs. Collector’s items. Our connection to the biscuit underground. “Next time, we track him home,” we agree.
Next time. Same again. Just as he does, we have our performance practiced to within an inch of perfection. Again we follow him undetected. We watch him, noticing like no one else does as he makes the switch, sure that part of his act is that he is so completely unaware as to not know whether anyone notices or not. We are giddy with his genius. When he leaves, shoplifting supermarket biscuits with him, we leave too. In the van we drive slowly, following him as he walks on the pavement, his hair, his satchel, his disinterested air of complete indifference to the world around him.
Of course, we know this is all a facade. When he gets home he will whip off his disguise and dial up another agent of the underground network and log the successful mission. He will open envelopes receive that day, stuffed full of biscuits from other countries, other time zones. He will pack up his English biscuits and send them across to other agents so that they can smuggle them onto the shelves of other supermarkets in other countries where such things are not normally stocked. We will offer to help. He will test our resolve and our commitment with a short and daring test. We are ready master, we are ready to join the network. We will become his proteges, he will teach us to do what he does. We will be in. It is what we have always wanted.
Meanwhile, we follow him to a part of town where the pavement breaks up and houses sulk under clouds. He reaches his house and opens the door without need of a key or a knock. The door closes. We sit in the van for a moment, listening to our own breath, our own heartbeats. “Wait a moment.” “Now?” “Not yet.” “Now.” We get out of the van and stroll casual-as-you-can to his front door. Knock twice.
He comes to the door and for the first time looks at us. He has never seen us before.
His look is more confrontational than we expected. More defensive. There is no vacant indifference on his face. “What do you want?” he asks. We feel like we are standing too close, we feel uncomfortable on our feet, there are more of us but we feel outnumbered. We press ahead. “Here,” I show him the biscuits. “We, we bought… I mean, we…” The moment we are waiting for and I find my tongue tied in knots. I stop and just look at him.
“Are you from the supermarket?” We trip over ourselves to say no and once he has heard this he turns and goes back into the house, leaving all the doors open like an invite with no warmth. We nudge each other and one of us goes first, following him into the house. He is in the kitchen, lighting a cigarette on the hob.
“We’ve noticed you before,” I say now, now that his back is to us. “We started collecting your biscuits, the ones you leave behind,” I tell him. “Not all of them, I add hurriedly. “We leave some of them. It confuses the supermarket. You’re really getting to them. They can’t cope with it.” I hope that I am getting across how impressed we are with his scheme.
He turns around, looks at us. “What do you want?” His words are less fierce than before, now he just sounds irritated. We look around the walls of the unfamiliar house, trying to locate ourselves.
“We want to help. We want in. We want to join the network.” We say all this, all in a rush, deciding that now we are here we have to.
“Boys,” he says. And then he coughs, hacking and long. The air smells stale and flat. “You’ve got the wrong man. Network?” He looks straight at us, through us, into us. “I don’t know what you’ve been smoking…” he laughs long and hard and hacks some more coughs straight from his lungs. “But if you’ve got any more…”
We say nothing. This is not us. This is not what we have worked for. We stand stock still. We do not know what to do next.
“Cat got your tongue?” We do not want to be here, we do not want to ask any more questions and we do not want anyone to ask any more questions of us. We want to go home with our tails between our legs. “Network? Bleedin’ network. Listen, you’ve got the wrong fella. I’m just an old man with too much time on his hands and I like to cause a bit of mischief.” We look at his hands and then we look at his face again and for the first time we notice how old he actually is.
“Come on with you,” he stands up. “Leave me in peace. You can come round next time I want a good laugh.” He is smiling now, ushering us towards the door. The worst has passed and the ordeal has ended peacefully. There will be further low points, later on when we rake over the evidence that the scheme we have invested our time in was nothing more than an old man’s mischief.
“Go on.” He pushes us gently into the street. He closes the door firmly. Once we are outside everything seems clearer. We have to think hard about what just happened.
Keep trying boys.
“What did you say?” we ask each other, but neither of us has spoken. We turn to look but the door is shut. We look at each other. We go back to the van thinking, keep trying boys.