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Passing the time

I was standing in a queue at a supermarket, the kind of queue that makes you regret that you didn't go somewhere else for your loo roll and a tin of cat food, when I caught the eye of a woman behind me and smiled. There followed a discussion on the lines of how frustrating supermarket queues are, what a waste of time and how we could be getting on with something more interesting. My new-found acquaintance cited a couple of examples like cleaning out the cupboard under the stairs or taking the dog for a walk. I refrained from giving any examples of my own for fear they might sound a trifle odd.

Then she asked if I had seen the Queen Mum on the telly the night before. (Why do people insist on calling her the Queen "Mum" as though she had spent a lifetime scrubbing floors and administering to the kids. As if we would fall for that stuff.) My heart sank. A good part of my life has involved dodging conversations of this sort because I always know, instinctively, where they are going to lead. I become irritated and as a result sarcastic and withering and thus put out of humour for the rest of the day. Anyway, I admitted, impartially, that I had not seen the Queen Mother on the box the previous night and hoped it would be left at that.

A short pause and then the woman said "She is such a gracious lady, don't you think?". I confess my reaction was a cowardly one. I turned my heard to look out of the window commenting at the same time that so far we had escaped the rain promised to us by the met office. But my friend of the queue persisted. "Don't you think she is a gracious lady?" I told her that the word "gracious" as applied to the Queen Mother was used by the media with such sickening regularity that it was hardly surprising if a large number of people came to believe it, adding that it mattered not a dog's turd to me whether she was gracious or not.

What would we do without her?

There was a shocked silence—it shocked even me. To show little respect for the Queen Mother's graciousness was one thing but to have mentioned her in the same breath as a dog's turd was sacrilege. The woman struggled for words. I fervently hoped she would be unable to find any until I had reached the till, paid for my purchases and made a quick exit. And that's how it turned out, but not before she had dumped her shopping crossly on the counter, declaring "I don't know where we would all be without the Royal Family." Such is the power of indoctrination.

We can come inextricably close to those people we meet in a doctor's waiting room, on a train, at the bus stop, and it seems to me that, unfailingly, an assumption is made that our opinion will be identical to their own. Under such circumstances I have listened to people who wish to bring back the death penalty, believe immigrants should be forced to return to their country of origin, and desire benefits to be withdrawn from the shiftless unemployed. Any dissent on my part has often been met with a flinch, indignation, even downright anger and nobody has ever said, "How interesting. I would never have thought of that before."

Meanwhile, to console me, I have devised my own little scenario and I am still waiting for it to happen. It is this. I am sitting on a train and the man sitting opposite me is engrossed in his newspaper. Suddenly he lowers the paper, leans towards me and asks "Tell me, has it ever occurred to you that the wages system could be abolished?"

"You mean to be replaced with socialism?" I enquire in a daze of happiness. The stranger nods, "Precisely." And we continue our journey in absolute accord, talking, talking about the new possibilities for human existence. No, I don't hear any orchestras striking up or choirs singing. I wouldn't take it that far. Even I recognise the need to be realistic.

HEATHER BALL