18 MARCH 2006, Page 68

Sunday worship

Jeremy Clarke

I’ve given up shoplifting for Lent and feel ever so noble about it. I’m not stealing with the zeal of a convert. It was about time. I was becoming so accustomed to half-inching stuff that the excitement had entirely gone. Now I get more of a thrill from walking out of a shop with everything paid for, and a valid receipt to prove it than I formerly did walking out with my pockets stuffed with loot. I used to scoff, but now I can see that law-abiding respectability is a worthwhile high in itself. And because I no longer see myself as a petty thief, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in my interpersonal relationships. I’m a better person. What the next step will be, after the thrill of paying for everything at the checkout has worn off, I couldn’t say. Drugs, I suppose.

My self-promise to not-steal faced a stiffish test last Sunday. Most Sunday mornings, along with thousands of others, I worship at a huge superstore that sells anything and everything at knock-down prices. It’s the sort of place where you pick something off the shelf, a screwdriver set, say, costing 99 pence. You show it to your companion and say, with a mixture of indignation and jubilation, ‘How can anyone make and sell this for that?’ A mental image of sweaty-faced Asian children, too small to see over the workbench, labouring their innocence away in a dingy sweat shop, is conjured up in both your minds.

Fortunately, it’s a rhetorical question. Almost everything defies explanation these days. The issues are either too complicated or are part of some elaborate but undefined confidence trick. And in any case wasn’t our own economic lift-off powered by child labour? Well, now it’s their turn. Sorry, guys. You toss the screw-driver set in your shopping basket. Or, if you really want to be cynical about it, you steal it.

The store is built to look like a fairy-tale castle, and, just like a fairy-tale castle, it stands at the end of a wooded valley. I’ve heard people say that we’re all middle class now. But you’ve only got to shop here on a Sunday morning to realise what nonsense that is. Superstores specialising in end-of-line goods and seconds are few and far between round here, and on Sunday morning the place is packed with old, prematurely aged, clinically obese, ill, illclothed, disabled, careworn, self-consciously poor people and their children.

Last Sunday you could hardly move in the store and the queues for the checkouts were longer even than usual. The queues are agonisingly slow at the best of times because nothing is marked with a barcode. For every item presented, the pensioner manning our checkout typed a three-figure code and entered the price written on a non-peelable price tag. Often he had to refer to a sheaf of papers for the right code.

I stood in a crowd of perhaps 600 shoppers queuing in 15 lines. My line, naturally, turned out to be the slowest-moving. For the first quarter of an hour, we didn’t move forward an inch. Only a strip of tape between moveable posts separated my queue from the exit, which was presided over by a lone security man in a blue army jumper who looked neither fit nor vigilant. So many people were entering and exiting, many of them cheekily ducking under the tape, that pandemonium reigned, and to walk out without paying would have been the simplest thing in the world.

In my basket were four paperback books (The Impact of Global Warming on Texas; Locomotive Boiler Explosions; Truncheons: Their Romance and Reality; and The Polecat Ferret Recovery Plan). Also a windscreen-wiper blade (£1.29), a six-amp battery charger (£4.49), a three-pack of shorts (£2.99), and some shampoo. We were 600 peasants clutching our tat and standing in line waiting to pay.

Our attention was fixed on the checkout man, the modern equivalent of the cotton mill hand, willing him to speed up. He looked far too old for the job. Moreover, he was new and learning on the job. His silver head was bowed in obsequy and intense concentration. The man should have been at home indoors by the fire with his family. Half an hour passed. The other queues were shuffling forward but not fast enough to warrant transferring. What was it that kept us all standing there? It was ridiculous! Why didn’t we all just walk out with our stuff? I suggested as much to the lady with the pushchair immediately in front. All she had in her basket was a colouring book and some self-adhesive plastic coat hooks. It was an idea that hadn’t occurred to her in her life. The initial thrill was immediately dampened by the thought of possible sanctions. ‘Knowing my luck, I’d get caught,’ she whispered. The queue moved forward a whole yard. We exchanged glances that said life really isn’t so bad after all and we shuffled up.