Because I am an anally retentive sort of a person, and because I fancy it makes the checkout operator's job that little bit easier, I like to group my groceries on the conveyor belt. Bananas with the broccoli and beetroot. Toilet paper with the toothpaste and tampons. You get the idea. Anyway, last Sunday I had a new category. Gummy eyeballs with the spider webs and pumpkin.

"Stocking up, eh?" commented the woman serving me. "Halloween's huge around this area, isn't it," she said. And then, sotto voce, "You know, I hear they come all the way from South Auckland for the trick or treating. Whole carloads of them," she sniffed.

"So?" I said it quite boldly, and it was not what she was expecting. She had wanted my indignation, that we might quiver together in shared outrage. Instead we finished our transaction in an awkward silence.

Afterwards, loading my purchases into my car, I thought about her oddly-misplaced snobbery, about her thinly-veiled racism, about what else I could have said. As I was lifting out my last bag, I saw, languishing in the back of the trolley, a round of brie. A round of brie I hadn't paid for, that sub-consciously I knew I had deliberately left in the trolley.


You see, I make a habit of checking my supermarket receipt, and more often than not find I have been overcharged, two boxes of teabags rung up when I only bought one, that kind of thing. And because sometimes I don't have time to return to the store to have the error rectified, and because I know how dishonorably supermarkets can behave towards small suppliers, and because it irks me to pay more than I owe, occasionally I take matters into my own hands.

Accidentally omitting to pay for some small thing of similar value the next time I do my shopping. Slipping my stolen cheese in with the yogurt, milk and butter, it occurred to me that, had the checkout operator witnessed my small act of thievery, she would quite probably, and perhaps rightly, judged me as harshly as I had her.

That's the funny thing about a moral compass, isn't it? We all assume due north is set at the same point. But one person's idea of sexual depravity is merely another's love life. One man's "perfect titties", another's "objectifying comment". My husband would never cheat at a game of cards, in fact I have seen him get hot under the collar playing snakes and ladders with our 8-year-old daughter when she tries to count out an extra square or two, and yet I have also seen him happily pocket the extra $10 change the gas station attendant has mistakenly handed him.

We have a friend who I know to be unfailingly loyal and big-hearted, and who I also know to be a kind of self-styled outlaw. Banned from his local supermarket for lunching on saveloys as he wandered the aisles, we are always eager to hear his latest exploits.

Recently he told us of a bottle of weed killer he'd, er, placed by a gap in the fence of the plant centre. In the dead of the night he returned on his bike and pilfered it. It's immoral, said his wife, half-horrified, half-proud. What about the drunken runner you did from that restaurant, he pointed out. But, she said, that was fun.

We are all guilty of occasionally mislaying our moral compass. In the end, like the late, great Helen Kelly said, surely it comes down to kindness. Perhaps the best we can ever hope for is that kind intent underlays most of our own actions, and guides those of the people we encounter.

Following on

Last week I wrote about the paradox of fretting over my children's screen time when I am addicted to my phone. June, 78, doesn't own one. "Lives are soon over and all you will be able to remember is your phone. How sad. I suppose they will be able to put it in the coffin with you." Rodney had a solution. "Come 5pm, slip the sim card out of your smartphone and stick it in a $15 dumbphone. Anyone can ring or text you and they probably won't. Next day at 9am put the sim card back in your smartphone. You will have to reset the date and time, a small price to pay for having freed up hours and hours for doing something useful."