Our eyes meet across the room. I recognise his expression – a mixture of despair and apprehension. His mouth opens to form a silent word. “Help.” I smile weakly in reply, knowing his pain but powerless to assist. Then he’s gone. Disappeared behind a rail of pink fluffy dressing gowns.
My wife and I are out shopping, and we’re not on the annual shopping expedition for me. That’s a straightforward retail experience.
“That would like nice on you”
“Would it? Grand so”
No, this time we’re in the women’s department. There’s a danger we could be here all day.
First on the list is Tights. My wife asks a nearby staff member for directions. The woman – wearing a black-and-white blouse, almost identical to the Dunnes uniform – is patient, but firm. “I’m sorry, I don’t work here” As we pass, I can hear her murmur to her friend “That’s the fifth time. I’m never wearing this top again.”
In Tights, I bump into the broken man. We exchange glances that say:“Must be half time in the match by now.” He’s recovered some of his confidence and even points out a pair of white tights for his woman.
“How about these?” he asks. She puts them back and takes a black pair.
“I’ve put on a bit of weight. Darker colours are more slimming” she explains to him. He freezes, sensing a trap.
We move on towards the tops. I’ll be expected to have an opinion here. For a speedy exit, it better be the right one. It’s important to read the non-verbal signals in order to give the appropriate response. If she utters an appreciative ‘ooh‘ before holding the top up to herself, while looking in the mirror, she likes it and I will too. If she lifts it up and hmms, she’s unsure. I’ll give a non-commital shrug and hope she reaches her own decision. Quickly.
This won’t work at the Changing Rooms though. These are trickier to negotiate. Men’s changing rooms seem to have no rules. Women flit around, in an out of cubicles like a bordello. Female fitting rooms are different. For a start it’s a no-go area for men. But I can’t just disappear off to safety. There’s a limit of four items and I have to mind the other seven she’s got picked out, so I’m loitering outside, draped in clothes. Thoughts race through my mind. How do I stand around without looking awkward? Hands in pockets? No, that looks impatient. Wish I’d brought the paper. Let’s just look around in a non-specific way. The changing room assistants catch me eavesdropping on their conversation. Look away. Ok now I’m staring at the panty section. Why don’t they put a telly in this place? Ok, here’s the onesies. I’ll look at the patterns on them. What would a one year-old know about aliens?
“Colm, what do you think?” she’s out of the changing room.
“That’s a nice top. You should get it.” I say, decisively.
“Colm that’s my own top, I’m talking about the jeans”
My brain is slow to change gear. I hesitate for a second.
“You don’t like them” she says.
“No they’re grand”.
Grand. The inadequacy of the word hangs in the air. I can hear a faint exhalation from other women waiting nearby. Men. Are. Useless.
She disappears to try something else on. I resolve to be ready the next time. I’ll add value with my answer. The curtains open and I am off. “That’s nice. Really goes with your eyes” There’s silence. I go on, undeterred. “You could wear it with leggings.” I’m on a roll now. “It’s real scruffy-chic, Sunday brunch kind of vibe”
In my mind’s eye, I’m being hoisted to the podium, ready to receive the gold medal for Man at the Olympics. Then I see the others exchange glances that say. “Gay Best Friend”
Several changes later, we’re at the till. Success. The atmosphere among other customers is becoming fractious. Families are getting sick of each other’s company. A mother of two queues to pay. Her little girl is wailing in her buggy. The child is expressing her displeasure about the non-delivery of a bag of Taytos. I know how she feels. Nearby the seven year-old son is up to no good in the ‘smalls’ section.
“Where is he now? Honestly I don’t know what’s got into him today. Sean! Get away from that bra”
I know how he feels too. As an Irish male, there’s a good chance Sean will hear this line many times throughout his life. Giggling, he places the minimiser back on the rack.
The end is in sight for me, though. I’ve relaxed a little but fate has one little surprise in store. “Colm, I’ve to get something in Boots, can you pay for these?”
True to form, it happens. Whenever I’m buying something out of my comfort zone, a technical error will occur at the till.
“There’s no tag on these knickers – TERESA can I get a price on these lace wans.”
I’ll pay anything – just get me out of here.