Bobby, a shopping trolley with a blue handle, waits patiently in line while a middle-aged man repeatedly checks his text messages. Between each brief glance at his phone, the man reaches down for an item and places it on the checkout belt: two bottles of mid-priced Australian wine – one red, one white, three packets of pork sausages, a bag of iced ring doughnuts, a bunch of chrysanthemums, UHT milk – skimmed, a small white loaf – sliced by the woman at the bakery counter, a box of milk chocolate brazils, a pack of razor blades, deodorant and a soft toy pig.
As Bobby is unloaded, he speculates on the possible reasons for the middle-aged man’s anxiety. Late for his daughter’s birthday barbie? Going to meet his baby grand daughter, no not grand daughter maybe great niece, for the first time? Or maybe just checking on a route home that’ll avoid the roadworks on the eastern bypass?
Bobby will never know, but such is the fate of a shopping trolley – fleeting glimpses into people’s lives but no way of knowing what goes on beyond the perimeter fence of the retail park, or what becomes of the shoppers once they have left the supermarket and driven their cars down to the big roundabout on the ring-road.
But Bobby enjoys meeting people, getting regular exercise and is proud to provide a reliable service. He is self-motivated and doesn’t expect to be thanked or acknowledged, although every once in a while it would be nice.
“’Ere,” says the man to the polite boy on the checkout, “this trolley’s a bit wonky. Back wheel keeps stickin’”.
“Thank you for your feedback, sir,” responds the boy promptly, “it will be actioned appropriately.”
“Nothin’ too bad like, just a bit wonky that’s all.”
Bobby doesn’t trust the polite boy. He never gives away what he really thinks of customers, not even when off duty. Is he just fobbing him off, or will his complaint really be ‘actioned’? Not that Bobby is too worried. The boy doesn’t write anything down, and just keeps scanning items before asking the middle-aged man if he is collecting schools vouchers. He isn’t.
The man reloads Bobby with two carrier bagfuls of shopping – the chrysanthemums sticking out the top – and wheels him out to his car. There is a small plastic shelter nearby, with two other trolleys in it. Bobby is attached to a trolley called Sarky Dave, and the man is able to reclaim his £1 coin. Sarky Dave is attached to Grizzly Mike. Neither Dave nor Mike feel like chatting.
For trolleys, the small plastic shelter is an inauspicious location – in the middle of the car park, some distance from the shop itself. Customers tend to just walk straight past it and collect a trolley from one of the rows next to the entrance. But it does give a good view of what’s happening in the car park – and today Bobby is glad of that.
Along a path through the trees lining the edge of the car park, and separating it from the car park of another, smaller and more exclusive supermarket, emerges a green-handled trolley. She is being pushed by a smartly dressed young woman with expensive looking sunglasses.
The trolley is moving quite fast, as if free-wheeling down an otherwise imperceptible slope, and the woman is half-running. It’s not entirely clear whether the woman is in a hurry, or the trolley is.
As the shopping is unloaded into the boot of a bright yellow sports car, the trolley rolls an inch or two away – again as if on an otherwise imperceptible slope. The woman pulls her back and unloads another bag. The trolley rolls away again. The woman pulls her back again. And so a little dance continues until all the shopping is in the car.
At this point, there is an impatient voice from the driver’s seat, “come on then, we’re going to be late!
The woman replies, “I’m going as fast as I can.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Looks like it’s about to rain. So just dump that thing, get in and let’s go.”
The woman does as she is told, leaving the green-handled trolley by the kerb in an empty parking bay.
Bobby is disgusted, any sympathy he might have had for the woman is lost by her disregard for his fellow trolley. He reckons that the couple are on their way to an event to meet, and make a good impression on, important people. Their shopping appears to mainly consist of ready meals and expensive salads containing ‘super-foods’. So they probably won’t be well-fed at this event, a canapés and champagne type affair, and will need something quick for when they get in later. He wonders whether the car driver will eat a carb, sugar and salt-laden ready meal while the woman has a supposedly healthy salad – or whether they’ll each have a bit of both.
The bright yellow sports car drives off, with a screech of its wheels.
The green-handled trolley also moves. Catching a gust of wind, and finding another otherwise imperceptible slope, she slowly rolls over towards the small plastic shelter.
“Hello,” she says, “my name is Sally-Ann but just Sally is fine.”
“Hello Sally-Ann, my name’s Bobby.”
Rain starts to fall. Sally manoeuvres herself half into the shelter at a 45 degree angle, with a corner of her front compartment gently resting against Bobby’s handlebar. She can’t get any further in without pushing.
“Can you move up a little please?” asks Sally.
“I’ll try,” says Bobby.
“No,” says Sarky Dave.
Grizzly Mike, at the front of the row, pretends to be asleep.
“C’mon Mike,” pleads Bobby, “you can budge up a few inches.”
Mike continues to pretend to be asleep.
“C’mon Mike,” mocks Sarky Dave, “Old Bob’s got a bird and we’re keepin’ her out in the rain.”
Mike pretends to wake up, “leave it out, I’m ‘avin’ a kip,” and refuses to move.
So they all stay still, and rain falls on Sally. Drops run down her side, from back to front, and drip onto Bobby’s back-right wheel.
“That’s my wonky wheel,” he explains.
“Oh well,” sympathises Sally, “maybe the drops will help loosen it.”
“Maybe,” agrees Bobby, “do you need help getting home?”
“Oh, I’m in no hurry,” laughs Sally, “I like this side of the trees more anyway.”
“You’ve been here before?” Bobby is surprised – it’s a rare thing for a green-handled trolley to be seen in this car park.
“I’ve not actually been here, but I’ve seen it many times. There’s a little hidden bay in our car park next to a gap in the trees where you can see through. There’s a stone border around a flower bed, so there’s no way through. But there’s a good view.”
The sky brightens. A rainbow appears overhead, seeming to come out of the line of trees and ending in the supermarket’s roof. It doesn’t last long, just a few seconds.
Two boys walk across the footbridge over the ring-road and down the path into the supermarket car park. Bobby reckons they have snuck out of school early. They quickly spot Sally, who has obviously been left in the wrong place and is likely to still have a £1 coin, and head over.
One boy tries to jam his e-cigarette into her coin slot, but it doesn’t fit. The other one simply tries whacking the casing of the slot. Bobby creaks in protest but Sally doesn’t flinch.
Soon the boys give up and shove Sally down the footpath. She trundles away slowly, neither gaining nor losing speed, towards the trees. Time seems to stand still for Bobby as he watches her go – she appears to glide smoothly, effortlessly, beautifully. He tries to adjust his position to see her as she passes through the line of trees, but with his weak, wonky back-right wheel he is no match for Dave and Mike’s intransigence.
And so Bobby thinks he has seen the last of Sally-Ann. He is slightly cheered by the idea of her watching from her little hidden bay but is sad that he can’t go there. His wonky wheel prevents him rolling in a straight line for long.
But perhaps Bobby should have more faith.
He spends the rest of the day, along with Sarky Dave and Grizzly Mike, ignored, bored but dry.
At eleven, with the car park almost empty, a blue-uniformed woman rounds-up the various stray and abandoned trolleys, including Bobby and the other two. She wheels the three of them over to the long rows of trolleys by the main entrance but realises there is only room for two more – so she rummages in her pocket for a key and detaches Bobby.
The woman intends to come back for Bobby and find a row with space for him. But it’s a quiet night, so she goes into her pocket again and pulls out a pouch of tobacco and a pack of cigarette papers. She rolls a fag as she walks round the side of the building, towards the perimeter fence of the retail park – separating it from the ring-road outside. Bobby speculates to himself that she likes to watch the cars speed past to who-knows-where while she smokes.
Three teenagers, two boys and one girl, are also smoking rollies as they come over the footbridge. The older looking boy goes into the shop. The younger looking boy puts a foot up on Bobby’s front end and pushes off, along the pavement a little way and through a gap in the kerb onto a zebra crossing near the entrance to the car park.
The younger boy struggles to steer Bobby, his wonky back-right wheel now acting as his front-left and failing to turn. But he manages to get out of the car park onto the slip-road leading to the big roundabout.
“Get in!” he shouts to the girl.
“You kiddin’?” has she a slight American accent, Bobby wonders, or is she just putting it on?
“Yeah you are!”
“C’mon, get in!” he shouts again. Bobby thinks he sounds a little desperate, the girl’s cool response undermining his confidence.
“No chance,” she laughs, “you gonna hurt yoursel’.”
“Nah I won’t. Watch!”
So the boy pushes off hard, and puts both feet on Bobby’s wheel casings. He uses his feet as hand-brakes, repeatedly lowering one or other to the ground to steer Bobby and his wonky wheel, zig-zagging all the way down the slip-road
Bobby is travelling faster than ever before. It’s exhilarating. It’s terrifying. He can see the headlights of lorries on the roundabout. Soon he can see the huge, thundering beasts themselves. And he is on a collision course. He can’t look.
At the last second, the boy jumps off. Bobby’s momentum carries him on but without anyone to steer he veers over to the left and crashes into the kerb. He rolls over onto his side on the pavement.
“Ha ha, you numpty!” shrieks the girl, amused but also a tiny bit impressed.
“It was hard to steer,” pants the boy, “it’s got a wonky wheel.”
“Does it still work?” the older boy emerges from the shop with a large plastic bottle of cider and four cans of lager.
“We could wheel this lot to the park,” suggests the older boy.
“Or…” the girl takes control of proceedings, “you could give me a ride to the park.”
“Alright then,” agrees the younger boy eagerly.
So while his older brother carries the booze, the younger boy fetches Bobby, helps the girl climb in and wheels them both away – back through the car park, along a path by the row of trees, towards the footbridge.
With a human on board, Bobby is much harder to steer. Progress is slow. And even with a can of lager in her hand, the girl doesn’t really like being in a wobbly shopping trolley. They reach the point where they have to go up a slope to get onto the bridge. The boy valiantly tries to push Bobby and the girl up. But he struggles.
The girl likes that he is willing to struggle, but she’s neither cruel nor comfortable, “alright then, I’ll get out and walk,” takes Bobby by the handlebar and shoves him back down the slope.
Bobby’s wonky wheel causes him to travel in an arc. He rolls down the path and round through the row of trees, coming to rest in the car park on the other side.
He is in pain. Two of his wheel casings took a bash on the kerb, there’s a sharp dent in his side and paint has been scraped off his coin slot. His wonky wheel is now stuck at 45 degrees to forwards.
The other supermarket is not open 24-hours. Its car park is lit only by security lights. A few drops of night rain are caught in their beams. Bobby shivers.
“Bobby,” a whisper drifts on the air, “Bobby. Do you need help?”
“Yes Bobby, it’s me. Do you need help?”
“My wheel hurts and I can’t turn round.”
“Okay Bobby, stay there. I’ll try to point you in the right direction and give you a push start.”
Sally rolls down the pavement in front of the shop and turns onto the path where Bobby is stuck. She gently nudges him, pushing him round slightly.
“Ouch,” he creaks.
Back and forth she rolls, nudging him round – little by little pointing him towards her shop.
“I need to go the other way,” Bobby protests.
“So I can go home.”
“Why do you want to go home?”
“So they can fix me.”
Bobby enjoys Sally nudging him. But he is in pain and incapacitated, weak and vulnerable. She is strong minded, kind, bright, attentive, attractive… He is not good enough for her in his current state. He longs to be fixed. So that he can return, fit and well.
“But Bobby there’s a place we can go where you’ll be safe. It’s my little hiding place. I told you about it.”
“Yes, but I need to be fixed.”
“Well, maybe we could go for a spin through the shop. Then I’ll take you home?”
“No, I need to go home now. So they can fix me.”
They stand side by side in silence. Sally is thinking. She’s just making him miserable, isn’t she? He is proud and hurt. But she is worried that they won’t fix him. She is worried that they simply won’t bother – too much like hard work for the sake of one shopping trolley with a wonky wheel.
She tries again, “Bobby, you know that it was Valentine’s Day last month?”
“Yes. Lots of flowers and chocolates were sold.”
“Same here. But they did something different here as well.”
“Do you know what?”
“They put on a matchmaker night.”
“A matchmaker night for singles. They put special discounts on fresh produce – it was end of day anyway – and some wines. And they stayed open late. If people put two apples and a bottle of wine – red if seeking a man, white if seeking a woman – in the front of their trolley, it meant that they were looking for romance. Women and men, men and men, women and women – it was especially popular with women and women, a lot of the discount white wine went. Two apples and a bottle of wine. Simple, eh?”
“Sounds like a successful discount.”
“Yes, yes it was. A successful night all round. Quite fun actually. I was really busy!”
“I want to go home. Will you help me?”
So Sally goes back and forth nudging him round. Eventually she starts pushing gently. A few pushes, then a few nudges, then a few more pushes and a few more nudges. And so on, until he is back through the line of trees in his own supermarket’s car park.
“Bloody kids,” mutters the blue-uniformed woman as she wheels him through the almost empty shop and out the back to a small hut next to the goods entrance. He shares the space with a heap of shelving and an old, broken refrigeration unit.
Bobby, although in some pain, waits quietly and patiently for a morning visit from the site facilities engineer.
But perhaps Bobby should have less faith.
The morning is cold and bright. Two cheerful blue-uniformed men, chatting about football, cars, all the usual – regular guys you can trust, thinks Bobby to himself – load the shelving and the fridge onto an open truck.
“Get the ramp down?” suggests one of the blue-uniformed men.
“Nah,” says the other, “this one’s got a broken wheel. Easier just to chuck it.”
And chuck him on they do. Bobby lands on his wheels with a wince. The truck drives off.
Bobby is anxious about being in a truck, it was not what he expected. He hopes they are taking him to a specialist workshop.
But for now, but he has a good view. He sees the wall of the supermarket that faces the ring-road for the first time. It is much the same as the other walls, except for a large advertising screen that changes every few seconds. He watches adverts for sports-wear, perfume and a phone until it goes out of view as they go round the roundabout.
Soon the truck is speeding along the ring-road. Cars whizz past at fifty, sixty, seventy miles per hour. They go past grass verges, houses, offices, all manner of people on their way to work or elsewhere – not going to or from the supermarket. The wind whistles through Bobby’s bars. This is like flying, he laughs to himself, forgetting the pain in his wheel for a few seconds.
But this leg of the journey doesn’t last long and it takes Bobby back into the retail park by its other entrance. He’s heard of the other entrance of course but never seen it. It doesn’t look like anything special. The old familiar logos and signage. He feels disappointed – why come back here? There isn’t a workshop on-site is there?
The truck heads down a single lane access road and pulls up at the back of the smaller, more exclusive supermarket. It too has a trolley, which steers unpredictably and is prone to just rolling off by itself even on flat ground, waiting to be taken away.
A green-uniformed man wheels the trolley. He needn’t push. Sally glides of her own accord up the ramp, onto the truck and into the space next to Bobby.
Sally and Bobby stand side-by-side and wheel-by-wonky-wheel. In Sally’s front compartment is a crumpled up receipt for two apples and a bottle of red wine.