Howard Jacobson: King Lear went mad for less than this hell


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"Anything else?" How many more otiosities am I to be subjected to? Only yesterday I was in an airport queueing to buy a newspaper. All that was necessary was for me to hand over the money.

But, no – they had to scan the paper's barcode, offer me a free bottle of mineral water if I bought a slab of chocolate the size of a house, then ask to see my boarding card. My boarding card! For a £1 newspaper! And now the man selling me a baguette wants me to tell him what's missing from my life.

The person before me in the queue has just enquired what sort of flour the bread roll she is interested in is made of. Satisfied after a long inquisition, she proffers a credit card.

Life is slipping through our fingers but the little that is left we waste proffering credit cards. How many people alive today remember when the simplest transaction didn't take an hour?

The baguette man punches little coloured squares on his computer screen, much like the apps which the simple-minded buy as presents for their smartphones.

A square to sign himself in with, a square to identify the purchase, a square relating to the manner of payment, a square, for all I know, describing the country of origin of the flour.

My mind goes back to the local grocer who kept a pencil behind his ear and added up the bill on the greaseproof paper with which he wrapped cheese. In the time the assistant spends tapping the sale of a single bread roll on to his computer screen, our grocer would have served every family on the street enough provisions to last the winter.

Anything else? I don't say happiness, prosperity and a long life, but, failing those, a baguette.

He reaches for a white surgical glove. I decide against prostate jokes. And I don't mention that our grocer used to pull wax out of his ear while serving us and no one ever took ill. The glove being the wrong size, he struggles to get it on, struggles to get it off, then goes searching under the counter for one that peradventure fits. By the time he's found it, he has forgotten what I asked for.

"A baguette."

"Anything else?"

I have just been rereading King Lear to cheer myself up. Lear's "wits begin to turn" because his daughters throw him out. Big deal. He should try buying a baguette. I hand over the right money. "That's a pound 60," he says. I tell him I know. I tell him that if he looked at what I'm handing him he'd see it was a pound 60. "Have a nice day," he says.

I don't say, "What's left of it."

At the department store, I am sent to the back of a queue having walked to the front of it by accident. All right, there are no accidents. I have pushed in, pretending not to know how the system works – an unnecessary pretence as I don't know how the system works – and have failed to get away with it. "Hey, buddy," someone says, "do you think your time is more precious than other people's?"

"No," I say, "but it's certainly too precious to be spent arguing whether it is or not."

Under his breath he says, "Fuck you, arsehole."

"Come not between the dragon and his wrath," I tell him under mine.

The assistant I am directed to, who has spent 25 minutes trying to fit a small jigsaw puzzle into an even smaller plastic bag, asks me if I'm well. We have never clapped eyes on each other before, there are 1,000 people waiting to buy jigsaw puzzles for children they don't love and who don't want jigsaw puzzles – they want apps – and she's asking me if I'm well.

"I am having a nervous breakdown," I tell her. She smiles. She wants to know if I have a reward card. I shake my head. If I had a reward card, I would have produced it. She asks if I would like a reward card. "To do what with," I would like to ask. "Slowly sever my wrists?"

What irks is that she doesn't see I am not a reward card kind of guy. Shop assistants should be trained in what to look for before engaging in promiscuous reward card talk with customers. See that oaf who carries his loose change around in a coin tray, he will have reward cards for every store in London stuffed inside his cardigan. Whereas he who has authority in his countenance awaits his reward from a higher power than Boots or John Lewis.

Before putting my purchase in a bag too small for it, she congratulates me on my choice.

"Of wife?" No, of floppy-eared toy. She wonders if it's for a grandchild. "No," I say, "it's for myself." I bulge my eyes to suggest I might do such things to flopsy mopsy when I get it home...

She wonders, notwithstanding, if I want a gift receipt, a voucher with 5 per cent off perfume, gift wrapping. I say yes to everything, hoping that will speed things along – I've known marriages over in less time – but she has gone back into her screen. Tap, tap, tap. "Can I have your postcode?" she asks.

Postcode! O, let me not be mad, sweet heaven. But it's too late for that.

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