This is a tribute. Whatever damage to our health this black COVID comedy has visited upon us, its most permanent effect has been the demise of our traditional way of shopping. Although our physical wellbeing will return, we are witnessing the final decline of the Mall, the Department Store, the High Street retailer.
So, a little piece from Christmas past, and maybe an expression of sorrow for things lost; things we’ll miss in the online society of years to come…
She is in her fifties, piped into the store’s idea of what a woman should wear in her thirties if she were a size 12. She is not a size twelve.
Plastic smile. “Would’y’like to include-a-message?”
“Oh! Sorry. No thanks.”
The boxed perfume and cologne upon which I have just expended next month’s rent lies before me on the counter. As enemies go it is already vanquished – its acetate window a little clouded, a little wrinkled, its cardboard colours brash. Defiant, but defeated. It is nothing like the resplendent offering that I selected from the brightly-lit glass case. A cell-phone begins to play something Bieber. The woman stifles it at the third chord.
“Yeah? Did he? Oh, right, and he….”
A miracle happens. Cell tucked against shoulder, bright paper from somewhere.
“Silver or gold?”
My perfume gift is interred in a whirl of glitzy paper.
“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!” The woman tells the ‘phone. “No, not tonight. I’m goin’ t’ Freddy’s. I said.”
Ribbon shoots from somewhere far beneath, not one but two strips. She holds them up for my approval, her face a mirror of enquiry. I am being asked to select a colour. The ‘phone is squawking angrily.
I point at red.
“Its no good him prattin’ on. I said last night I wasn’t goin’.” From furious to obsequious. “Yes, madam?”
She has a customer enquiry further along the counter. I expect her to move away but no, the miracle is still happening. My gift is wrapped neatly in silver, a red ribbon is flying around it.
“Those are really more for the older man, I think. Hav’y’thought of Hugo Boss?” And to the ‘phone: “Well he knows where he can put it, doesn’ee?”
Ribbon in a tight binding, scissors from treasure-house below, their point stripping through the loose ends, reducing them to tight curls. Gum, glitter. To the new customer: “He’ll really go for that one, I should think. What about the cologne?”
To me: “Seventy-Nine pounds, dear. Cash or card?”
I never hear the end of the conversation. I am dispatched, processed, a satisfied customer. My gift cradled in my respectful grasp, my work of art, my Lichtenstein in silver created by the hand (well, one hand) of an anonymous woman whose work should surely be exhibited somewhere more prominent than my humble Christmas tree.
At home I contemplate the bottle of single malt that I shall gift to Uncle Bill with naked fear. They stretch out before me – the paper, the scissors that will never cut it in a straight line, the sellotape which has no distinguishable end; the instruments that are the true hell of Christmas. Grimly, but with determination, I down a third gin and fit the scissors around my fingers.
My wife comes in from work at six o’clock. “The neighbours are complaining,” she says, “about you shouting again.” She sees the broken glass and the splash of gin on the wall. “Have you been throwing things?”
“It was an accident.” I tell her. “Me, shouting? No, must have been number fifty-eight.”
“What on earth is that?” She has spotted Uncle Bill’s wrapped bottle of single malt. “It looks like a traffic accident.”
I come clean. What else can I do? At least in my long-sleeved jumper she cannot see the scars where I finally turned the scissors on myself.
“Well you do your best and it is the season of good will!” My wife says charitably. “I hope you haven’t bought me perfume again.”
Today, when the thoroughfare should be brimming with supplicants to the Great God of Consumerism, scarcely a foot is heard to fall. Brightly lit windows flicker code to each other across empty streets – gone the street markets; still-born the Santa Claus parades, the rattling strings of coloured lights that echo in a rain-rich wind.
Not once have I ventured out to make my contribution to those echoes. My Christmas is already shopped – day after day parcels to be gifted trickle to my door, from Amazon, from Etsy people, from emporia I have only seen on my monitor and whose threshold I shall never need to cross.
One hellish prospect remains, however: the paper, the sellotape, the scissors that won’t cut straight sit waiting and I know my skills have not improved! If I was briefly the acquaintance of a lady, a true artist, and if she should remember how she wrapped some perfume for me once? If she should by any chance be reading this, and be in need of some libation, maybe a mince pie or two as reward for a small service, I can assure her of a welcome at my door…