Sunday, 21 December 2008

'Twas the fight before Christmas

For hundreds of years, philosophers, artists and various religious bods have wondered about Hell. What does the underworld look like? That seventh circle of Hades - is it just like the other six but with the AC dialled down a bit? In short, what is everyone's worst nightmare and what would it be like to experience it first hand?

I can now confidently answer their questions. For I have visited Sainsbury's supermarket on the last Sunday before Christmas.

It is 6.30pm as I write this. We left the supermarket over three hours ago. The shaking hands have only just subsided. And as for the involuntary swearing, here's hoping that goes soon, or else the office could be more than a little interesting tomorrow morning.

"We'll go to Sainsbury's," we thought, "they have Selfscan so we can pick up our scanner at the entry, beep-beep our way round and glide effortlessly through the express check-out." So we headed off to this orange-and-white temple to retailing.

We were encouraged by the sight of men in hi-viz jackets, shepherding the onslaught of shoppers' cars around the car park using those flashy light-sticks you normally see at landing strips. We actually found a space quickly enough as a result. "This might work out OK," we thought. "Just need to pick up a Selfscan handset at the entry and we're away," we thought.

Unfortunately the Salvation Army band wasn't there this year. (By the way, have you ever seen a thin guy playing a tuba? No, me neither. Does the instrument choose the player, or the other way round?) This time we had the local Round Table, which was basically a group of Solihull accountants called Jeff dressed as Santa with Wham's 'Last Christmas' playing in the background.

Enjoy that image, if you will.

There was a sign. I've slightly amended the text, but essentially this is what it said:
Selfscan is out of order - on possibly our busiest weekend of the year . We apologise for being really quite crap at this sort of thing. But you're here now, so what are you going to do, suckers?
That was actually a highpoint, compared to what followed.

Consider the standard supermarket trolley. It's not overly-endowed with controls, because it doesn't need to be. Just walk and push, walk and push. Unfortunately, for the denizens of the supermarket today - many of whom I suspect only get out this once per year - these simple instructions would have been like explaining particle physics to your cat.

As we went up and down the aisles, we would meet the same people coming the other way. Like a Halley's Comet of stupidity, you get to experience their dimness on a regular basis. And, keeping the astronomical theme, they're normally accompanied by satellite snotty kids, encircling them and generally getting under my wheels.

We were just picking up a few items for the Christmas holiday period. But for others, clearly the whole idea of the shops being shut for two days was enough to bring on fevered hysteria. Shelves were being cleared. The fruit and veg section was like open warfare.

"Apples and bananas, stat!" came the order from Katie.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Heard it once on ER, don't know what it means."

I now know why supermarkets have the beer and wine aisles towards the end of your route. It's because by the time you get there, you probably need a snifter. I made the annual purchase of a bottle of port - which will no doubt be followed in August next year, with the annual shaking of a three-quarters-full bottle followed by the annual asking of the question: "Does port go off?"

Along with her will to live, Katie's sense of humour had clearly gone west. Approaching the Paxo display, I cheerily asked her, in a voice that could be heard in Norwich: "Do you want stuffing?"

I got a look.

We got to the checkout to find the local Sea Scouts helping out with bag-packing in exchange for donations. (How come their tents don't sink?) However by this time we were in no mood to deal with adolescents in blue serge. A quid in their collection tin meant we were free to do it ourselves - I'm not sure that's how it's meant to happen but it worked for us.

We emerged, blinking in the December sunlight. The accountants had moved onto 'In Dulce Jubilo' and we found ourselves encountering the same mouthbreathing trolley-pushers as beforehand, only this time behind the wheels of motorised transport.

Seriously, people, how are you not all mangled beyond all recognition?

As the song goes: "I wish it could be Christmas every day." But I'm not so sure. I think we'd all have expired from nervous exhaustion by the second week in January.

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