Five Other People Are Looking At This Item
By Jane Hyphen
The Crock-Pot C60 slow cooker in black, was £89.99, reduced to £34.99, save £55.00.
As I deliberated upon this item, the £50 Curry’s gift card burning a hole in my pocket and the gloomy, post Christmas desolation longing to be lit by something new and exciting, a message popped up on the screen like an irritating fly. ‘Hot item! Five other people are looking at this item right now.’
I always hate it when they say that; five other people are looking at this item, so what? What’s that got to do with me? It’s my decision to make the purchase and nothing to do with what other people happen to be buying. But just as I was having that thought, another, unexpected message popped up on the screen. ‘Would you like to meet them?’
Now I found myself pushing back on the wheels of my office chair so that I was a safer distance from the computer screen. My hand quite automatically went up to cover my mouth since I began to feel uneasy, affronted even. I was in the solitary safety zone of my little, cluttered study which, by the way, is not in the style of those clever people who get interviewed on Channel Four News with their carefully selected, intellectual books, clearly visible on a shelf behind them. My study is a graveyard of broken printers, an old cabinet coated in insect frass with a couple of books, Does God Ever Speak Through Cats by David Evans, The Idiot’s Guide to Smoking Food, Life in a Jungle by Bruce Grobbelaar, a dusty Dracaena, oh and an electric scalp massager.
The question was accompanied by three red boxes, click yes, no or close. Now I was very tempted to just click close, go and browse the coffee machines instead since these slow cookers appeared to have an element of risk attached to them. However deep down I knew that £50 was only ever going to afford me a pod machine, the taste of which is on a par with the Nescafe just-add-water sachets. Furthermore I was feeling a little bit lonely and, being off work, I had an excess of energy which was being released in spurts of dangerous spontaneity. I’d already eaten vegetable moussaka in the bath that evening and now I clicked yes and looked away. Instantly I had the sense of being observed.
‘Hello’, said a male voice, deep, suburban and hollow in the centre.
Slowly, I turned my head towards the computer screen and a bald man stared back at me, his face was very close to the camera and was tilted forward so that his glistening forehead was a few inches closer than his chin and he had the distorted look of an extraterrestrial lifeform. ‘Hello,’ I said nervously.
‘You must be, must be a person who’s interested in the slow cooker like me,’ he laughed. ‘I’m a person like that too, I’m Ben.’
I nodded. ‘I’m err…this is weird. I don’t usually do this. To be honest, I’ve never been asked the question about meeting other people who are browsing the same item.’
‘I think it’s a new thing, you know, a new fangled way to connect people with similar interests online.’
‘Oh,’ I huffed, ‘amazing. I can’t keep up. I’m not even on any dating apps yet.’
‘This isn’t dating,’ Ben said very sternly. ‘Think of it as collective personal shopping, a sort of focus group on domestic appliances of interest to you. After all, it’s one hell of a coincidence that you and I are looking at the very same thing, at the very same time, on the very same website upon a wet, windy evening. It’s almost like me appearing in your dream isn’t it erm…..what did you say your name was again?’
‘Erm,’ I coughed. ‘Christina.’
‘So what er,’ Ben leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hands, ‘what is it that attracts you to the Crock Pot C60 slow cooker? If you don’t mind me asking. I presume you don’t since you clicked on yes.’
‘Well, I have a voucher and I thought it would save me time, you know, I could chuck some ingredients in, set the timer and hey presto…’
‘Oh don’t say that, don’t say that,’ Ben interrupted.
‘I’m sorry what?’
‘Hey presto, don’t say that. Sorry but that’s my pet hate, people who say, hey presto. Come on Christina, you’re better than that.’
I shook my head continuously for several seconds, my voice shrank to a squeak as I responded, ‘Sorry, it just seemed like the perfect phrase for what the gadget does. It says on the blurb that it’s simply a case of putting in your prepared ingredients, herbs, spices for flavour and it will be ready just as you get home, saving you time and fuss.’
‘Mmm, mmmm, you see, for me it’s about keeping my main oven clean and containing the smell of some of the more unusual things I like to cook within the closed system of a slow cooker.’ Ben grinned and gazed unblinkingly into my eyes. ‘I noticed, sorry, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I noticed a moment ago that you’ve got a copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Smoking Food.’
‘Yes,’ I turned around to look at the book on my shelf. I’m not sure why since I was fully aware that it had sat there gathering dust for several years.
‘Yes and I just want to say, Christina, that I find that very fascinating since my passion is living off the land, sourcing my food from outside of the supermarket. I don’t want to line the pockets of the likes of Tesco’s. Food prices are going through the roof and if I can take a few crab apples off my neighbour’s tree, dig a couple of potatoes out of the rector’s vegetable garden or scrape a squirrel off the B466 with my ice scraper then I’ll do so.’
I was beginning not to like this. Ben was full screen and there didn’t appear to be an option to close him or anything that resembled a little cross or even a minimiser symbol. ‘That’s good,’ I said.
‘What are you doing there Christina? Fidgeting with your controls. Let go of your mouse now, don’t be like that, we’re not finished talking about the slow cooker yet.’
‘Oh,’ I smiled. ‘Is that what you want it for,’ my voice was shaky now, ‘to cook….roadkill.’
‘Yes. Not only roadkill. I work in a hospital you see, I’ve been there for thirty five years. Ha,’ he grinned and rubbed his chin. ‘You probably think I’m a doctor don’t you. Come on Christina, you think I’m a doctor…do you think I’m a doctor?’
‘I don’t know, I’m sure.’ I shrugged.
‘I’m a porter,’ he said quite angrily. ‘Yes I’m a hospital porter Christina. I move the people, I transport the bits and pieces. I access the chimneys and empty the kidney dishes and in my spare time I am a creative chef with no holds barred.’
‘Oh, that’s nice,’ I said clutching my mouse, frantically shaking it left and right, clicking around randomly at the bottom of the screen. I was just about to hit a control, alt, delete or failing that unplugging the computer or failing that going into the garage and flicking the trip switches, then something happened. An arrow appeared on the screen and now I so desperately wanted to get rid of Ben I clicked it and his head shrunk to a black dot and he disappeared.
I sat back and breathed a huge sigh of relief. What the heck was that, I thought to myself, never again, never again. It took a few seconds to get my composure back, then I left my study and went to the kitchen to turn on the kettle. It was just as the kettle was boiling that I kept hearing a shrill voice elsewhere in the house. It wasn’t my cat Misty because I could see her very clearly, perched like a loaf of bread underneath the Christmas tree staring at a spot, halfway down the stairs where a spirit lurked. I dismissed it as tinnitus and returned to my desk, looking forward to the comfort of my hot drink.
As I approached my study, I very clearly heard the same voice calling, ‘Hello there, you hoo!’
To my horror there was a woman’s face on my screen in the place of Ben. She had frizzy burgundy hair and glasses and she was ducking her head as if trying to get a better look at me. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Sorry, I thought I’d shut down.’
‘Oh don’t you want to talk to me,’ she said sadly. ‘I’m Una. We’re both looking at the slow cooker aren’t we. I’ve had a terrible Christmas and I really really want to lose weight. I thought if I get this slow cooker I won’t have to think about it, I’ll just throw in some chickpeas, a few tomatoes and a stock cube. It saves on your energy too and your washing up. I’ve already bought a mop today but I thought if I just get this, I’m done spending. What about you?’
Now I wasn’t having this unwelcome digital intrusion. Without looking at her I unplugged the computer, turned off the light and left the room. I went downstairs, desperate for the reliable, old fashioned simplicity of the television. Midsomer Murders was on, Misty’s favourite and it was death by crop circle episode, Chief Inspector Barnaby is not convinced, he never is.
Our peace was interrupted by the sound of my phone pinging. I picked it up, expecting my sister who often calls around nine pm but instead it was a facetime request from somebody called Ben. I don’t know anyone called Ben so I rejected it but a message quickly followed. ‘Hi Christine, we didn’t get to finish our conversation about slow cookers earlier. I’d love to share a recipe with you for smoked mole with capers. I think we have a lot in common. Ring you later, Ben x.’
Horrified, I threw the phone, wrung my hands together then got up and closed the gap in the curtains. ‘Everything’s so joined up, Misty. Why didn’t I think before I clicked yes. I’m not even on facebook!’
She stared at me with her calm green eyes and blinked.