In Praise of Useful Things?


I’m shopping in that vague way where you can’t actually remember what you want to buy. And all that’s keeping you is the £2.90 bus fare which you now wish you’d spent on a Kindle Single or a bar of Green and Black’s chocolate to be eaten, slowly, while reading the paper or someone’s blog post. So when it begins, a slender rain the colour of gravel, I’m almost relieved. Good. I’ll buy an umbrella. But where from? My history with umbrellas is patchy. Over the years I’ve left them on buses, trains, in libraries, restaurants and once, painfully, on top of some pointy railings where we both became impaled, inside-out, during a storm in Skegness. I’ve had so many I can never remember what the current one looks like, occasionally taking pot luck leaving a party or after church. So my job description for an umbrella is considerable. It must be memorable, strong, easy to operate, easy to carry, small and very, very cheap.

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I flump along a bit, watching smart women with pert bottoms and wishing I’d worn something pretty and kept up running. The shop signs march past in neon – Specsavers, MacDonalds, Primark – and I suddenly remember that my last umbrella was from Primark, was very cheap and lasted two years. It was also (revoltingly) memorable – black with pink dogs on. I left it on top of a towel dispenser at Kingston Eye Hospital. So, despite the fact that the shop is heaving and even the security guard is queuing to get out, I squeeze past a tattoo covered youth and a woman in a headscarf, and slide in.

The umbrella stand, which used to be conveniently near the door is now, according to a polite East European, upstairs. I notice that the queue for the till snakes round the shop in triplicate and the escalator is threaded with bag-laden hordes all miserably resigned to their fate – getting out dead or alive, whichever is quicker. It strikes me that I used to love shopping. The chance to get a few hours to myself, try on some clothes and twirl about in a changing room – preferably a low lit one – always seemed a treat. I’ve never been stylish but I’ve always kept an eye on trends and usually succumb just as they’re going out of fashion. But in the last couple of years, what with work and family and the fact that life’s too short for personal grooming, I haven’t really bothered much (as those who know me can attest, I’m sure).

I arrive at the top of the escalator, fling myself off, grab an umbrella – black, compact, £3 – and hurl myself onto the downward one. A gaggle of teenage girls parts and reforms with no conversational break as I plunge between them, round the corner and into the queue.

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“Oh my gawd! No-o-o-o!” I can hear them shrieking behind me as the line inches along and we shuffle forward like convicts, buckling under the weight of multiple purchases. I look down at my umbrella, trying, and failing, to feel smug. I have done this too. The woman in front of me can hardly move. Her pile of clothes so engulfs her that she doesn’t actually appear to have a head. Behind me are a mother and daughter, both similarly submerged, arguing over who is paying for which part of the daughter’s holiday wardrobe. I feel sick. How has it come to this? That we buy a whole wardrobe for a holiday, just because we can. That we spend our lives replacing the stuff whole industries exist to get rid of. You have to queue to donate to some charity shops near us.

When I finally get to a till (number 92 please! Or something like that…), I hold up my mini umbrella like a talisman, and smile. The pretty Filipino girl smiles back,

“That, ees all?”

“Yep,” I say, “Because it’s raining.”

She tilts her head, trying to see through the window, which is too far away, a wedge of sky just visible between a mirror and a rack of tartan trousers. She shrugs and her pigtails bounce, “Ees good reason to buy umbrella!”

Feeling affirmed, I give her the £3 and she asks if I’d like a bag.  I shake my head.

“I’m going to use it,” I say, ridiculously proud.

She nods, then says something I don’t understand. She hands me my change.

“It means,” she says, “Happiness found inside.” She taps her chest energetically, “Not, um, not, in a lot of theengs!”

“It’s true!” I reply, “So true.” I am glad we agree on this. I smile again, “Bye then!”

When I get to the door, I look back. She’s serving someone else but she looks over as I reach the exit. I want to unfurl the umbrella with a flourish, in defiant praise of useful things, and wave it at her. But I don’t. Not because she might not see me, or even because the security guard is eyeing me with rancour, but because I’ve spent too long in the shop.

It’s stopped raining.

Buses0006 Pedestrianised and busy Kingston Shopping Centre Route 71