I had a very strange and mildly disturbing experience this summer, the kind I’d normally write about.
Except this time, I didn’t.
I was embarrassed and I was worried no one would believe me. Being accused of something I didn’t do is one of my worst nightmares—and it’s exactly what happened that day.
I want to begin by saying I didn’t do anything wrong.
Seriously. You have to trust me on that. Or if you have no reason to trust me, just put yourself in my shoes. You’ll see, it’s easy.
As a matter of fact, my story started out mundanely enough.
My brother was visiting for a few days and after a typical oh-so-French twenty-minute debate over what we should make for dinner, we had decided on steamed mussels. My mom had an appointment, so I went shopping alone and my brother stayed home with Mark.
I walked to the big Carrefour inside Beaulieu’s shopping mall, the only supermarket with a fresh seafood selection. It was pretty quiet on a hot Wednesday afternoon in the dead of August.
I bought fresh mussels, green beans, onions, cheese, yogurt and a couple of other common items I forgot now. The point is, it was your typical quick grocery shopping trip. I didn’t buy a lot of food—after all, I was hauling it home—and the total was €19.82.
I went straight to self-checkout terminals. I’m morally against them—do we really want more job losses and a terrifying future without human interactions?—but hey, COVID. Also, I feed these pesky one- and two-cent coins into the machine to get rid of all the change in my wallet.
Never used self-checkouts before? At Carrefour, there are two rows of four terminals with a supervisor helping customers who may or may not scan barcodes successfully. I had to call her several times because the terminal kept on freezing on me.
After two minutes of “PUT YOUR ITEM IN THE BAG,” I paid and left—and by leaving, I mean I turned around, took two steps towards the exit gates and walked through.
I stopped and turned around again, waiting for instructions from the self-checkout supervisor. Exit gates beep often enough for absolutely no reason. Most of the time, as long as you stop, someone in charge takes a look—is the shopper walking out with a large, expensive item?—and you’re waved through. It was summer, I was wearing shorts and a cropped top. I definitely wasn’t hiding a big screen TV.
The supervisor glanced at me and looked elsewhere. I know that look, it’s the “I’m not paid enough to care” look.
Not her problem. On the other hand, the security guard—aka “loss prevention agent”—standing right past the exit gates look suddenly perked up and put his phone away.
“What do you have in this bag?”
“Food I just bought.”
“Show me your receipt.”
“But… there are no receipts,” I replied, surprised.
This summer, downtown supermarkets had stopped automatically handing out receipts because of COVID. I had assumed this Carrefour wasn’t any different and the machine hadn’t spit out paper anyway.
“What? Of course, not! Which self-checkout did you use?”
“Number two. See? No receipt!” I said, pointing to the terminal no one had used after me.
He didn’t seem to care. “Give me your groceries. I need to check with the cash office. See, this is what happens when you don’t take your receipt.”
I was mildly annoyed but I didn’t argue—years of living a polite life in Canada, the fact it’s not comfortable to argue with a facemask on, or maybe I’ve never been one of these “get me a manager” kind of person. Besides, it was my fault, I suppose, even though I was pretty sure the terminal hadn’t printed out a receipt.
“I bought seafood,” I simply explained. “It has to stay cold so I’d better rush home. If you could be quick…”
“Yeah, right,” he sneered. Clearly not a seafood fan or maybe it was the lamest excuse he had ever heard. “Stay here.”
So he left with my pink reusable bag and I stood there like an idiot, watching other shoppers leaving with their purchases and without a single beep. I thought it would take a couple of minutes to find out what had triggered the sensor—do food items even have anti-theft tags?—or access the terminal to review the purchase from a central computer.
It took a good ten minutes for him to come back—and he wasn’t alone this time. Four guys stood around me. I’m not exactly a tiny, helpless woman but the intimidation tactic worked—I was scared.
“Come with us.”
Of course, I did. I’m a fucking idiot.
But why wouldn’t have come with them? Or turn the question around—where else would I have gone? They had my groceries after all. Besides, this supermarket is in a mall, it’s not like you can make a dash for the street.
And also, I had no reason to run away.
I was sandwiched between the four guys who led me to a door right in front of the customer service desk, fifty metres from the self-checkout terminals.
I had never noticed that door before, it was kind of camouflaged.
At this stage, you’re probably thinking I’m an idiot for going with them. I can only tell you it happened pretty fast, it’s not like I was offered an explanation or another option. Besides, whatever was going on, I felt pretty safe in the supermarket and again, I was acting in good faith.
I thought I would be handed out my groceries, maybe with a final lecture on “take your receipt next time.”
One of the guys opened the door with a key and we all stepped into a long and narrow hallway. One of them disappeared into it and the three other ones—…
Well, I’d like to type they pushed me into the room on the left because that’s how it felt, but it would be an exaggeration. For the sake of accuracy, I have to say none of them touched me. They didn’t exactly push me, they marched me into the room as if it was the next logical step.
It happened fast, too fast for me to react.
But at the last second, I stopped in the doorway and surveyed the room.
It looked like a prison cell with one coat of blue paint over concrete and a metal bench bolted to the wall. Carrefour’s carefully designed shopper’s paradise was just metres away but this was another world.
“Get in there and stay in there.”
“Absolutely not,” I replied, stepping out.
“You can’t leave.”
“Just doing it right now.”
And this is when, somehow, it got even more fucked up.
To be continued…