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In Good Company: Whizzing Crowds

Amid the hassle and the fun of Christmas shopping Enid Blackburn stopped off in a cafe for a bite to eat.

....As I plunged the knife into the soft pie pastry, we both watched the rich brown mess gurgle forth. My mouth watered in anticipation and I was glad I hadn’t chosen the potato pie.

‘I wish I’d known you were having that, I could have warned you,’ was her opening gambit....

You can easily calculate the number of Christmas shopping days left by observing the speed of the crowds.

As Christmas Eve draws nearer they move that extra spurt faster. Last weekend the Piazza looked like a clip from an old Keystone Cop movie; with everyone whizzing frantically along in top gear, dads buried in parcels and mums waving sweaty scraps of torn paper. All pondering on the seasonal poser ‘What shall we buy?’

One is never too old or too young to join in the Christmas parade, and we all have our own technique for getting rid of the pounds.

There are the ‘I’ve got a little list’ types who have been studying the market since last August and know exactly what they want, where it is stocked and the most competitive prices. Like the invincible who sat opposite me in a snack bar the other lunchtime.

As I plunged the knife into the soft pie pastry, we both watched the rich brown mess gurgle forth. My mouth watered in anticipation and I was glad I hadn’t chosen the potato pie.

‘I wish I’d known you were having that, I could have warned you,’ was her opening gambit.

‘You should have ordered the meat and potato – it’s proper meat.’ I tucked in bravely to the tasty improper morsels, cunningly disguised as steak. ‘I re-member when my husband and I had that,’ she continued. I noted the empty seat next to her and hoped she wasn’t a widow, ‘neither of us could eat it.’

My face was so contorted with pie I found it difficult to look sympathetic, but I obligingly left three peas, which I trust would redeem me.

She was too busy studying the contents of my bag to notice. Doing a perfect impression of Nicholas Parson’s ‘Sale of the Century’ swagger, she then proceeded to give me a run down on what I could have bought if I had any sense. She finally let me go when I promised to buy the rest of my shopping from a nearby supermarket – where she worked on the check-out.

Although I have spent countless hours and bus fares on shopping trips, more often than not I return empty handed. I have this unfortunate handicap which interferes with my plans – I am an avid listener, particularly when I am not being addressed. Tuning-in to others can be quite educational, the public at play on Saturday afternoons are fascinating to observe.

There are the indecisive buyers who always shop in twos and never purchase anything without benefit of counsel. ‘Yes – I think she’d like that – go on I’ll take it – no wait a minute.’ She consults second opinion. ‘What do you think Elsie, would Marjorie prefer it in blue?’

While sales assistant breathes out aggressively, Elsie can only see Marjorie in pink and when this is sadly extinct they sweep out in a huff.

Next door two customers buried deep in Family Trees stand blocking the store entrance. ‘Our Tom has three now, you know,’ boasts one, ignoring the heavy breathers waiting to get in. ‘Our Phyllis is having another,’ says her mate and they’re off, tracing the genes back to the tasty subject of their own confinements.

Some shoppers like to preface a purchase with a short quiz: ‘Now if our Janet is four that means our Frances must be six – which makes our Joseph two-years-old – so how old is our Fred’s youngest?’

One of the most difficult impositions is refusing an unacceptable offering, especially when the kindly sales assistant has gone to great trouble to help you decide. How does one make a polite refusal and tell her you really fancy the gift across the road?

This is why I always keep mobile in the book-shops. But on Saturday from my position behind a large atlas I saw an elderly gentleman make a remarkable exit. He was up to his moustache in books of all dimensions – all kindly proffered from every corner of the department by the friendly best-seller. Surely he dare not leave empty-handed – but he did! ‘Well thank you so much for your help,’ he beamed benevolently, as if someone had just presented him with a ‘long-service’ medal. ‘You’ve given me plenty to think about.’ He raised his trilby and made a dignified exit. I can only imagine the flabbergasted expression of the salesgirl, as you couldn’t see her for books.

If you intend buying a new outfit, trying on is more frustrating than ever in some stores. There is a bizarre rule that you must try more than one outfit – but not more than three – and only one person allowed in a cubicle. I had to parade my new suit past two grinning schoolboys, one embarrassed husband and several other intrigued glances in order to achieve my daughter’s opinion. When shorties like me trail back and forth, with supposedly mid-calf outfits scraping the dust, their opinions are not for public airing, I might add.

‘Come ‘ere,’ shouted a cockney voice as I walked long the Piazza. He threw some black velvet over a hastily erected table and commenced his patter. Placing a gold plastic bracelet on the plush and patting it affectionately he beckoned us forward. ‘Nar this aint gold ladies,’ he said for the benefit of the blind. ‘No – I’m being honest and I’m gonna treat you.’ We surged forward. ‘I’m not going to arsk you for £2.50,’ we stepped back two paces. ‘I’m only arskin’ one pound.’ He dipped into his case. ‘Nar look at this,’ he said to a passer-by who blew her nose and walked on in disgust. He draped a chain around the bracelet and turned his attention to me. ‘Nar fer the two of ‘em’ he lowered his voice ‘and I’ll even throw in this.’

I couldn’t wait to see what else he had to offer – and neither could he. His mate who was standing on a nearby wall let out a shout and in the flash of a patrol car – they were gone.

But there is a spirit of goodwill – here and there. ‘Can we give you a lift, love?’ I saw a burly navvy and his mate ask a slim longhaired blonde in a duffle coat, who was struggling to haul a pushchair up a flight of steps. ‘No thanks,’ was the gruff reply, and we all realised she was a man!

Discipline has necessarily to be mixed with generosity. Sometimes we have to say ‘No’ like the fatherly voice I heard outside a sweet shop. ‘No, son, you cannot expect to have something every time we go in there.’ I only hope his dog got the message.

This is the season when my generosity has a rash habit of exceeding my purse. I have a disconcerting habit of promising too much. As if some fantastic Santa Claus will fall from the skies and grant all my wishes. But without a little fantasy wouldn’t life be too phlegmatic?

I felt sorry for an ageing grandad who was tempted by a shoe display. ‘There’s a lovely pair here for me love – only £9.99,’ he said to his wife. ‘Nay, what’s point i’ buying them at your age?’ she growled pushing him outside. ‘Tha’ll nivver get thi wear out of ‘em.’

Present giving is one way of expressing our love for each other – and after all it beats ski-ing down mount Everest in the nude with a carnation stuck up your nose.

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