THERE’S a queue of about twenty people snaking around the shop. They are all waiting for the self-service checkouts. ‘Insert cash or press “Pay with Card”.’ ‘Unexpected item in bagging area.’ ‘Notes are dispensed below the scanner.’ A creepy chorus of the same voice grows louder the closer I get to the machines. Feeling surprisingly irritated, I abandon this queue and opt for the real-person checkout instead.
‘Do y’need a hand to pack?’ the assistant asks, I shake my head and she scans the items. While I’m rummaging for my purse, she continues her conversation with the assistant at the next till.
‘Oh I know how you feel, Happiness,’ she is saying. ‘Tell me about it.’
I look over at the other lady. She has tired brown eyes and lets out a long weary-filled sigh. I glance at her nametag and (yes, I heard that right) her name is Happiness. It’s almost ironic as, today at least, she looks positively UN-happy.
‘We’re just too tired, love,’ my assistant tells me, handing over my change. ‘Been working too hard.’ Happiness nods. ‘Receipt okay in the bag?’
On the bus, I find that ‘Happiness’ is still floating around my head. It’s an unusual name, but a lovely one. No hidden meanings, it gets straight to the point. It’s almost fairytale-like, like a wish her parents whispered over her when she was sleeping: ‘May happiness follow you all the days of your life.’ I wonder, though, if she finds her name difficult to live up to. I’m sure that she, like everyone else, has bad days – days where she wishes she hadn’t got out of bed, or when people have said words that cast clouds over her eyes; days when the idea of ‘happiness’ couldn’t seem further away. And yet, there it is: it’s her name and a part of who she is.
The bus rumbles along the motorway. My ears pop as someone shuts a window. I’m remembering one night when I helped to choose a name. My mum was pregnant with my little brother, and my sister and I were sitting with her on the sofa, legs dangling off the end. Luke, Christopher, Ben. We spoke out all the names we liked best. We were trying to imagine a little boy in our house called one of them. Lewis, Matthew, Tom. I wanted to call him Mowgli, mostly because I was just three-and-a-half and I thought it would be hilarious. It wasn’t until he was born, though, that my Mum knew his real name. She looked at him and she knew he wasn’t a Michael or a Winnie the Pooh (another of my suggestions). He was Evan. Nothing else would fit.
Beneath the hum of the engine, I catch muffled sounds: a murmur of conversation, the rustle as someone opens a crisp packet. I’m trying to imagine a world without names. It is a cold world: impersonal. I wonder if when people stop thinking about each other in terms of their names, they stop thinking about them as individuals. I read a story once where this happened; it was by a lady who had lived through a World War II concentration camp. She described how the camp’s prisoners were stripped bare – stripped not only of their hair and clothes, but also of their names. Names were replaced with numbers, and in the process identities were lost.
As the bus slows down at my stop, I hop off and start walking towards home. I’m remembering how Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favourite writers, thought that ‘Naming’ was an act connected to loving. Giving someone, or something, a name shows that you think they’re worth something – worth your notice, worth your time, worth your love.
Our names, I think, are more than simply a collection of symbols and sounds. They have meaning. They are chosen. They are gifts.
By Melissa Reid (columnist 11/12)