We used to love a queue – but that was before the pandemic

Zoe Williams
Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

I wandered like a zombie into a social media argument about Kellyanne Conway, adviser to Donald Trump. I think I was looking for some outrage in public discourse I knew nothing about, to take my mind off the outrages I knew too much about. “People will wait in line for an hour for a Georgetown cupcake,” she said, “so I think they can probably wait in line to do something as consequential as … cast their ballot.” Her case didn’t look especially strong – taking the most indulgent and absurd thing that the time-rich, regular-rich person might sometimes do, and trying to extrapolate a voting system from it. 

But I couldn’t keep my eyes on the bigger picture; all I could think about was the queueing. This is our life now. When I dream about chance encounters with lost friends, they happen outside the Co-op. On the great scroll of things we’re not really allowed to complain about, queueing is at the top. It’s a trivial inconvenience, in the grand scheme of the disaster. And it’s part of our national story, the one thing we are still supposed to be good at, after “sound governance” and “stiff upper lips” didn’t pan out so well. 

So OK, deport me: I hate it. It was worse at the start of physical distancing, when all the unknowability of the outside world seemed to distill into these completely random shopping experiences: would it be an hour? Would it be five minutes? Would you ever move again? I stood for 20 minutes in the underground car park of a Waitrose, watching a queue that was so still it was like an oil painting by an artist who (for a lot of totes legitimate and understandable reasons) vehemently hated the middle classes. I got so close, so close, to the inside of a butcher’s, when the person ahead of me decided he would like one of each animal, whole, boned and rolled, and also he would like to learn how to tie a butcher’s knot. I waited outside a Tesco, where we were patrolled by an attendant to check we were standing far enough apart. I felt like he should go full sergeant major and try to get us to stand up straight while he was at it. “Just leave the guy alone,” said Mr Z. 

“I’m not doing anything to him! I’m just thinking things about small amounts of power and what they do to a person.” 

“You know, of everything anyone has ever thought, that is the most obvious.” 

What were we doing in a queue together? That’s crazy. That is like making your spouse take a blood test or a speed-awareness course, just because you have to. I can’t remember. I always thought he loathed the enterprise even more than I did, but then he said he didn’t hate queueing, he only hated it with me, because he found the air of delinquent restiveness very stressful. “My delinquent restiveness?” I said, astonished, because, from where I was standing – squarely on my line of black and yellow tape – if anyone was going to rush the doors screaming, “I am not a number, I am a free man” (or its lockdown variant, “I am a free I am not MAN a NUMBER”), it would definitely be him. 

I got into an argument outside Sainsbury’s with someone who disputed the accuracy of the two-metre mark which, in the absence of a tape measure – and if we hadn’t been let in that minute – would have definitely resulted in me lying down on the ground, going: “Is this, or is this not, 22cm longer than me?” I found a hack, which is that people very rarely queue outside the mini-supermarkets attached to garages, and for a while that is the only place I went, and all we ate was Ginsters pasties and string cheese. The queue outside the fish and chip shop looked like party central, since a lot of us already knew each other from dog walking. But it was like turning up single to a swingers’ party. We were hollow and speechless without our dogs. Maybe we had never been talking in the first place; maybe it was just the dogs that were talking? I shuffled away shyly, saying: “Next time, I’ll definitely bring Romeo.” But I was thinking: “The only way that queue would have been worse is if my dog had been in it. I guess that’s the end of fish and chips.” 

There was never any reason for this to change, and yet, slowly, subtly, it did. If you make your calculations finely enough now, you can arrive at a shop without any queue, and glide around feeling magnificent, as if you have paid for a VIP fast-track at Legoland. So it is better, but it is also worse, because the resignation that had set in has now evaporated, and the dismay when you arrive to find a line is as fresh as it was in March. It is probably something the mindfulness racket could solve – what is a queue, after all, but a pocket of me-time, weightless, devoid of any duty but to exist and move along when instructed? It should be possible to enjoy it. But I would rather live on string cheese. 

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist