Waiting outside Lush, Christmas 2004
In the eighties and nineties, beauty shops were safe little outlets with rows of quietly submissive plastic bottles and the occasional poster about endangered rainforests. In the future world of the 21st century they’re nightmare dens of horrific consumer destruction, full of neon-coloured weaponry and wide-eyed, well-scrubbed customers who inexplicably smell faintly of mildew and horseradish. I make my excuses to my girlfriend, who doesn’t, I fear, quite understand why I’m not entranced by the possibilities of arroz rojo bubble bath, and go stand outside.
The streets are heaving with people. It’s not even that close to Christmas, but they’re out in force, bags in hand and fixed, their faces painted with determined hate; the love and understanding that supposedly defines this season is nowhere to be seen. They’re dressed for action in stiletto boots, patterned miniskirts, full-on gothic armour and handbags that bulge with the kind of money that – if they only knew - would give their bank managers permanent psychological tics of the kind that only chronic alcoholism can mask. Contradictory logos flash everywhere, not just on clothes, but in strides and poses: Virgin, Porn Star, Bookworm, Beckham, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.
Amongst the throng walks a town crier, looking absolutely and completely out of place. He’s probably been hired by the town to promote our Quaint Tourist Attraction Status, but isn’t actually doing anything beyond walking up and down the street with a bell in his hand. He isn’t even ringing it; just staring sadly at the people coming towards him. Maybe he’s a real town crier, I think, who somehow found himself thrown into an errant wormhole and emerged, shaken and bleeding, into the Christmas shopping period 2004. Not that I can see him bleeding, but perhaps there’s a graze or two under his jacket – or it could just be his pride and sense of moral security that lay battered. Two thirteen year old girls, dressed in t-shirts that say “fcuk me sideways”, are fluttering their eyelashes at him playfully. “I really like older men,” one confides to the other.
I turn, and notice that I am not the only boyfriend waiting for his partner to emerge from the perfumed hellhole behind me. All the others are braving the stench but outside it’s just me and this man, shoulder-length ginger hair, acne, scraggly, unshaven face, a sweatshirt that reads “UK Unix User Group Annual Linux Technical Conference 2003: Edinburgh”. For a moment I don’t know what to do. Is this me? Are we a pair? Do we go together? Does this man have a girlfriend inside the shop, or is this how he washes himself, by standing outside beauty shops and letting the soap fumes permeate his clothing?
I decide to slowly walk away from him, not least because I find his smile unnerving, and immediately get caught up in the tide of people. I’m tossed this way and that, backwards and forwards, spinning through human vortices and whirling inexorably towards retail oblivion. Boots, half price! Shoes, pink and beautiful! Everyone wants a stapler for Christmas! The song of the year is Thunderbirds Are Go by Busted, and every child wants to own a copy! Celebrate Jesus at the record and CD fair! Sale! Sale! Buy! Buy! Credit! Interest! Money! Cash! Death!
Spin! The colours are disorientating, and the shop windows all seem to want something from me; I can’t take the pressure of being this needed, this personally wanted by so many quality retail establishments! They need me! They want my custom! They want me to join them! So many Christmas vacancies do they have! So much love! Hugs and kisses and excellent deals on quality merchandise! Can you resist deals such as these? Join us! Join us! Join us! I want to scream out “YES!”, empty my polluted lungs with consumer joy, but the people around me are sealing me up in their ambition to buy, paralysing me, squeezing me with their handbags, I don’t want to buy pink shoes, I think, I’ve already got a stapler, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe …
“Were you alright out here?” my girlfriend asks, giving me a brief hug. I nod, and we walk on.
Benjamin is caught up in that Christmas magic.