Are you alright there ?

“Are you alright there ?” asks the girl with the green hair behind the till.

I set down the books I’m buying on the counter: “Overcoming Anxiety”, “Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World”, and “Man’s Search For Meaning”. Oh, and Robin Hobb’s “Ship Of Magic”. Three parts self help, one part pure escapism.

Her question isn’t literal. I know that. It is a very British way of wrapping up “hello” and “can I take some form of payment for those books you’re holding ?”. It doesn’t need a response. Certainly not an honest response; that would be a clear violation of social etiquette. You don’t really tell someone whether you’re alright. Particularly someone  you’ve never met.

But the books… It’s so obvious. It seems too absurd to be asked that question, lay down those books, and not say anything. And she has green hair. I had already decided, in a distracted moment in the queue, that nobody who had green hair could be a bad person.

“Evidently not…” I offer apologetically. “As you can see by my choice of books”.

It hangs there uncomfortably between us. As soon as I say it I feel awful. She clearly now feels desperately awkward. There had been nothing in the Waterstone’s customer service training that covered this terrain. Nothing, frankly, in much of our usual social intercourse amongst strangers that covered it. I was in clear violation of all of the unspoken rules and I knew it and regretted it.

“Well I hope the books help…” she starts. A pause. “I suffer a little with anxiety too so I know what it’s like…”

She leaves it hanging there. What had started as a straightforward transaction – small pieces of paper handed over for larger, bound ones – had turned into a mental health confessional. A tiny, strange connection.

“Books help most things, don’t they ?” I offer back.

“Yeah” she agrees. “And it’s good you’ve got the Robin Hobb. Bit of self help and then a big story to get lost in”. We are silent for a moment as she scans the books and I pay. “Hope they help” she says again, putting the books into a bag, folding my receipt, and handing them both back to me.

“Thanks” I say. Not just for the books but for forgiving my intrusion, for acknowledging my admission, for showing some empathy, some vulnerability, and for liking Robin Hobbs. I didn’t say those bits. My ingrained social etiquette is back in control.

I hope she knew that was what I meant anyway. At the very least I hope I didn’t mess up her day. Our briefest moment of recognition was pretty much the highlight of mine.

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