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Just a quick post on something rather extraordinary wrapped up in the guise of something very ordinary, namely paying for my Saturday paper at a till in W H Smith.

The thing is, I’ve always been quite a chatty and outgoing person, but interacting with people behind the tills in shops always used to be a bit fraught. Inevitably they’d mumble the amount and you’d have to say: “How much? You haven’t pressed the button that makes it come up on the screen facing me”, or start asking if I wanted to take advantage of their latest offer. But I must have missed loads of attempts to pass the time of day while looking at my PIN pad.

I used to think it amazing that one of my hearing friends, friendly soul that she is, chatted away to everyone she met, and bless her, I used to get quite impatient sometimes. As far as I was concerned, buying something wasn’t really about chatting, just getting the job done. Polite yes, but no need to go any further. Similarly, I grew up not using buses – my parents being of a generation for whom the car represented independence – and was absolutely astonished many years ago when the Bear rebuked  me for rudeness on a bus. Not being one of those people who puts their feet on the seats, or takes up spaces reserved for wheelchairs and buggies, I was rather taken aback, but he said that I ought to thank the driver. With people exiting the bus having their backs to me, I’d never heard anybody do it, and it just hadn’t occurred to me that that was what people did.

In the same way it just didn’t really occur to me that you passed the time of day with shop staff until I went up north and people in Yorkshire or Newcastle chatted to me during the transaction. Sometimes I got it and could reply in kind, other times it must just have passed me by, but on occasion it added to the fraught-ness of the situation, and I kept interaction to the minimum. On one occasion I used a self-service till – and if you’re like me something always goes wrong – you’ve apparently bagged something you shouldn’t have when you haven’t, or something. A member of staff approached me and started to say something in a very heavy foreign accent that was indecipherable and frowning somewhat, which predisposed me to worry. He repeated it and I still couldn’t understand. Having visions of a malfunction, or worse, having set off an alarm, I knew it wouldn’t work asking him to repeat it again as we would both get more stressed, and clearly asking him what the issue was was only going to release another stream of incomprehensible lip-shapes, with the queue behind me stacking up. I took control and diverted him into giving me a yes/no answer and asked: “Have I pressed the wrong button? Am I doing something wrong with the till?” “No.” He reached over and grabbed a flower bag. All he’d wanted was to offer me a bag for the flowers I was buying. Oh, if only he’d taken a bag first and proffered it to me, then I would have understood straight away. The only reason he was frowning, probably, was his efforts to express himself correctly in English.

(On the other hand, when in Paris folks asked me if I’d like my shopping wrapped as a gift, and I didn’t respond straight away, they rarely twigged it was because I was deaf. They usually put it down to being English, and switched languages accordingly!)

So there’s a bit of a not totally happy history there. Generally speaking, however, I now chat away very happily to all and sundry, even when putting in my PIN. The Bear smiles to himself as I discuss that favourite British topic, the weather, with the lady behind the till. My horizons have expanded.

Today, however, being slightly distracted, wondering where the Bear had got to, and concentrating on fishing out the exact money so I wouldn’t end up with several bus fares’ worth of change weighing down my handbag, I obviously didn’t quite catch what the man at the till was saying – then a lightbulb visibly went on over his head.

“Are you lipreading?” he asked. Isn’t that lovely? Realising that I hadn’t heard properly, and not booming out “ARE YOU DEAF?” in front of the whole shop, or starting to fingerspell C-A-N-I-H-E-L-P-Y-O-U, or exaggerating his mouth movements. Just slightly more carefully, he apologised, and repeated what he’d just asked me.

The funny thing was, in an instinctive reaction, the first answer was very nearly “No”. Not in denial – I still lipread – but more of an acknowledgement that my mind had been slightly elsewhere and not giving attention to what I was hearing. Two extraordinary things wrapped up in one small transaction. Next time I go to Paris I’m going to reply straight away – and in French!