Yesterday morning, just after eleven, I suddenly realized that I now been sinning for at least seventy years. I had already emptied the contents of my supermarket trolley into a shopping bag, but I continued to stand there, observing with more than a little fascination the purchases made by the amply proportioned lady fumbling in her purse at the next cash desk. What, I was asking myself, was she planning to do with that packet of ten greasy hamburgers? Did she really need four cartons of cream? And was that starchy white bread a sensible choice? Fortunately, perhaps, my musings were interrupted by my better half, who tapped me on the arm and reminded me that we had only three minutes more to go on the parking lot.
Certain of my ideas about sin, you must understand, were impressed upon me those seven decades ago by my mother. According to her, there was nothing wrong with the Ten Commandments, but they were a matter for Sunday School. What really mattered the rest of the week were the rules of genteel behaviour, and one cardinal commandment in that class was that poking and prying were simply not done. Curiosity, I was told, killed the cat (though I was not told how or why). And surely I did not wish to grow up to be a Nosey Parker?
By and large I grew up respecting that principle. By and large, that is. When no-one was looking, my small brother and I did on sunny days peer through a hole in the fence to observe Mrs Harris, who on such days was prone to display most of her figure as she lay on a mattress in the garden, clad in rather fewer garments than the neighbourhood considered respectable. What intrigued the two of us was her skinniness. What on earth could she possibly eat? In our house the meat and two veg. regimen prevailed, supplemented between times by bread and cheese, which was sufficient to ensure and maintain an ample figure. Mrs Harris, my brother and I argued, must do things differently; we finally concluded, after observing her prodding around in the garden, that she simply ate worms.
The case of Mrs H. seems to have seeded in me a lifelong curiosity as to how other people fed themselves. At the time there was little possibility of finding out; on Mondays the man from the Co-op would call to take the week’s order, and on Thursdays an errand boy delivered it in a closed cardboard box. The coming of the supermarket in the fifties and sixties changed all that. Here was the totality of human gastronomical practice, exposed to view in all its wisdom and foolishness, a rich temptation for me to engage in my cardinal sin. Not that I was greatly tempted to interfere, you understand, merely to stare and wonder.
I wondered when I beheld a thin fellow, who seemed not to have eaten a sound meal for a month, taking home a dozen bottles of diet soda, and I wondered again when a stout acquaintance, who to my knowledge kept no pets, checked out with eight tins of dog food and a jar of curry powder. Yet still I kept my mouth shut; what concern was it of mine if others had odd dietary habits? For that matter, some of their practices in other fields were also on show and appeared to be no less peculiar; I think of one entirely bald gentleman who presented at the supermarket cash desk with three bottles of shampoo, a hairnet and a bottle of vitamin pills…….well, there was that tale in the tabloids about Vitamin D and hair growth, wasn’t there?
There were occasional brief moments when the persons involved actually reacted, staring sharply back at me. Possibly they imagined that I envied them their purchases, or that I was intent on diverting the latter into my own trolley when no-one was looking my way. Hardly likely; what had caught my eye was in all probability a vast plastic bag of jelly-babies with chocolate booties or (on a trip to Sweden) a consignment of surströmming (most kindly described as rotten fish), or a portion of ready-to-serve kimchee which appears to comprise a mixture of cabbage and long-expired shrimps. I have tended to look rather more sympathetically on people who purchase generous amounts of chocolate, being somewhat partial to it myself, but I have been tempted to whisper to them that they should not give it to their parrots, which are said to drop dead after consuming it. In cats, too, chocolate appears to be even more lethal than is curiosity. However, I keep my mouth firmly shut when I see these things; I am not my brother’s keeper – merely a Nosey Parker.
Who, in any case, was this Parker fellow? Actually, nobody seems to know.
The etymologists point to one Matthew Parker, an Elizabethan archbishop who set up an unpopular inquiry into certain unwholesome habits of his clergy, but I can’t claim to be following his ecclesiastical lead. I suspect that the figure of Nosey Parker is no older than the Edwardian cartoon series in which he featured, a little less than a century ago.
Whatever the history, I am apparently incurable. The only thing that might stop me now is the threatened collapse of high street shopping as the internet takes over; maybe, one day, we shall buy even our sausages and jelly-babies online and there will be no more supermarket trolleys to attract my roving eye. On that day, somewhere in the blue beyond, my mother will no doubt nod approvingly.