What do sausages and civil society have in common? A lot, I reckon, if the following story is anything to go by. Set in a butcher’s shop, this telling tale has a cast of three: Mal, Muir and me…
It’s a Sunday morning, and I’m out shopping for food with my omnivorous offspring, Angus and Eliza. Having gathered groceries from the supermarket, we go hunting fresh meat, tiptoeing across town in the Magna-Carter. The trail ends, unsurprisingly, at the door of our pet butcher, Mal.
I park on the street where the kids can see into the shop. Handing them two super-sized apples, I utter those famous last words: ‘Won’t be long.’
Mal himself is behind the counter.
‘Now I know why I pay my staff extra on Sundays,’ he says, as I pass him a tray of lasagne ($11.95), two packs of dog’s mince ($19.60) and a carton of eggs ($5.20). ‘It’s bloody hard work.’
I glance around at the crush of customers and grin. ‘Looks like it,’ I reply, trying to remember what’s next on my unwritten list.
Mal pauses in the totting up, which buys me more time. ‘Usually I’m such a neat freak,’ he confesses, ‘but it’s been go go go all morning. I wouldn’t normally leave this tray of chops here – I’d have to put it straight back where it belongs. It’s just been that kind of day.’
As he fiddles with the register, I wave at my curious kids, who are watching me intently over their hot-air balloons. A fellow customer almost waves back, out of instinct. Almost.
‘Get you anything else?’
‘Bacon,’ I say smoothly, as if I’d known all along. ‘A pack of your smoked stuff [$4.90]. Oh, and about 300 grams of your ham [$5.25].’
As Mal weighs it out, I notice a sign behind the glass advertising a freebie: one peri-peri chicken burger per customer. An award-winning peri-peri chicken burger, at that.
‘Not happy being National Sausage King?’ I ask him, in jest. ‘You gotta be Burger Baron as well? Talk about greedy.’
He looks a little sheepish and slows down on the ham.
‘Just trying to stay on top,’ he says. ‘Actually, the awards were only the other week. Talk about nervous. There I was taking selfies from under the table and up on stage. Almost dropped my phone, not to mention the trophy. Very happy, though.’
‘Keep this up you’ll need a new shelf for your silverware,’ I joke, looking at the full one above his head.
‘Funny you should say that,’ he replies. ‘I’ve been thinking about making room on the wall over there…’
‘It must make marketing easier,’ I add, perceptively. ‘All these prizes.’
‘Well, that’s it. It’s so competitive these days.’
The only competition I can see is for first place in the queue at the counter. Short-sighted, that’s me.
‘Get you anything else?’
I ask for a dozen beef sausages.
‘Thick or thin,’ Mal wants to know.
And this is where Prof. Muir comes in – figuratively, of course, as befits his theoretical status. ‘Thin,’ the Prof. hisses. ‘Go with the thin.’
So I do. And while Mal is out the back securing the snags, Muir states his case.
‘You wanna live in a civil society? Of course you do. Well, here’s the thing: it’s not your relationships with friends and relatives that matter so much. Nope, it’s the interactions you have with your acquaintances that really count.’
‘Okay…’ I mumble, thinking back to the journal article in which I’d first encountered this idea.
The Prof. snorts, and charges on.
‘It’s not okay, you ninny, unless you work on the “thin trust” you share with others. By that I mean the relationships you have with virtual strangers. Forget the “thick” stuff – the bonds you form with those you know and love. They’ll tend to be civil anyway. Always go with the thin. Got it?’
‘I think so. Try to empathise with the people you meet, and society will be all the better for it.’
‘Something like that,’ Muir says, disappearing into thin air – yes, thin air – as Mal returns.
‘That the lot?’ he asks, weighing the sausages ($8.40).
I respond with my customary closing rejoinder. ‘Yeah, I’d better stop there.’
‘That comes to sixty-one,’ he says, bagging me my free peri-peri chicken burger while I’m fishing for the cash.
‘Thanks, Mal,’ I say, taking the bag from him. It’s the closest we come to shaking hands, our exchange having come to an end.
‘Enjoy,’ he says. ‘Now, who was next?’
Back in the car, the kids have given up on their apples. ‘That took a long time,’ Angus points out.
‘It did, didn’t it,’ I say, rather proudly.
I sit for a moment and ponder the thick and the thin. Thing is, I think I believe all that stuff. Why? Probably because, for me, ‘thick’ relationships have always been a bit thin on the ground. Connecting with strangers – that, I muse, is more my cup of tea. After all, it’s only when we face the unfamiliar that our moral mettle is truly tested.
Sixty-one dollars? I reach into the bag for my receipt and, closing my ears to the chorus of protests from behind, I do the sums.
They don’t add up.
What price a civil society? Oh, about six dollars.
Cheap at half the price, I tell myself as I drive away. Mal and me, we’re as thin as thieves, and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way, even if it leads to a miscalculation or two. Our future might just depend on it.
Halfway home, I remember my free peri-peri chicken burger, which puts the icing on the cake. I’m hungry too. Saving civilisation – or even simply shopping – sure gives a bloke an appetite.