The other day I bought some stuff in a shop in a Danish town called Odense, and I chose a particular checkout because there was only one person in the queue. Unbeknownst to me, I would spend a total of eight minutes waiting for the shop assistant to find out the price of a plate for the person in front of me, so, in hindsight, my choice was a bad one. I didn’t really mind though because the shop assistant’s name was ‘Xander Storm’ and this pleased me.
This incident reminded me of something that happened to me when I was a wee girl of 17, and was in Edinburgh for the very first time trying to buy a pen. I don’t know about anyone else, but my overall relationship with writing materials has not been a good one. In the 26 years I have been on this earth, I must have spent over £50 on pencils, but I have never yet managed to finish one, i.e. sharpen it down until nothing is left. I’ve never even been close; I just lose them instead. Similarly, I have owned what has seemed like thousands of pens, but very few of these have run out; they either dry out or I lose them, meaning I somehow manage to buy about 30 pens a year. So anyway, here I was again, trying to buy a pen.
I had my eye on one of those pens that we used to use in school; the outer casing was red and it said ‘berol handwriter’ on it, but the pen itself was black. I took it to the counter to pay, and that is when the trouble began.
First of all, when I took the pen to the cashier, she looked like she’d never seen a pen before in her life. She looked at me, looked at the pen and frowned, and looked at me again.
“Where did you get this from?” She asked.
“It was in a pot over there.” I said, pointing to a clear plastic pot on a shelf full of pens, clearly labelled with ‘£1.29.’
“Right.” She frowned again and tried to scan it, but there was no barcode.
There was a 20 second pause before anything else happened.
“I think it’s £1.29…I think…” I said doubtfully, even though I knew for certain it was £1.29. Back then I was terribly timid a lot of the time and had trouble asserting myself.
“Let me just have a look.” The lady walked out from behind the desk and went over to the clear plastic container of pens.
“£1.29.” She said.
“£1.29.” I added, for no reason at all. The lady completely ignored me and shouted for another assistant.
“Susan?” I don’t actually remember her name- I just made it up. Susan walked slowly over, and when she saw the pen, she froze mid-walk.
“What’s that?” She said, apparently not knowing what a pen was either. You would think that I was trying to buy a Yeti or something.
“I didn’t know we sold these.” The first cashier said. “Do you know how to put them through?”
“I don’t know.” Susan shrugged. “How much are they?”
“£1.29.” She replied.
“£1.29.” I echoed, again, for no reason at all other than to have some kind of input in the conversation.
Susan and the first lady were utterly mystified, and both looked at the pen as if it was about to explode taking the whole universe with it. Susan went to the phone; she picked up the receiver, dialled a number and waited a few moments.
“Gary?” She said. I don’t remember his name either; it’s all LIES. “Gary, could you come down here please?”
30 seconds passed.
“I’m sorry about this.” Said Susan. I smiled. One minute passed, and Gary arrived. He was wearing a shirt and a tie, so I took him to be the manager of this shop.
“What’s the problem?” He asked the two girls. They explained about the pen not being on their system, and, despite my nervous bleats of:
“It’s £1.29” and “I could just get another pen…” He insisted on finding a way for me to buy that one. After about a minute and a half of him typing away on the computer keyboard and discussing with the girls what he could see on the monitor, and fruitlessly trying to put other black berol handwriter pens through the till, he shrugged, and looked as baffled as they were. The expressions of sheer worry and confusion on their faces would have been very funny, had I not been so eager to turn back time and choose a different pen.
He then told me to wait, and picked up the phone again. I don’t remember exactly what he said on the phone, but I quickly ascertained that he was on the phone to head office, as he was describing what the pen looked like, then he said:
“Okay, I’ll hold.” And after a couple of minutes where we could all hear music coming from the phone, he was engaged in another conversation which lasted several minutes, and I realised that he was on the phone to the company that made the pens.
In the end, it had taken three people 15 minutes to work out how to sell me this pen, which they, strangely, offered me for just 89 pence, and not the £1.29 that was advertised. It was the most baffling thing to ever happen to me in a shop; I still to this day don’t understand why they couldn’t have just taken my money and worked it out later. Perhaps they needed a barcode to open the till. In any case, I found it more amusing than annoying because it was quite refreshing in a way to be given such excellent customer service!
Later that day I went to the site of the battle of Bannockburn where I bought a better pen, which I used for the next two years, forgetting about the first one. After two years I lost it and I was so upset about it that I went back to Bannockburn specifically to buy another one. However, any time spent learning about the misfortunes and weaknesses of King Edward II is certainly not wasted, but that’s another story.
Sometimes I truly believe the fable in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that all pens secretly long to return to their home planet and will escape Earth by any means possible. Perhaps this container of pens simply showed up one day in the shop hoping to somehow get noticed and shot into space one by one, and that was the reason why no one in the shop seemed to understand their existence. I have no idea where the pen is now, but I'm hoping that it's somewhere like this: