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. She 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 disappears, is interred, in a whirl of glitzy paper.
“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!” She 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 Picasso 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 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 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 the 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.”