Quite a few people have written in to ask when there will be more blogs. For the moment, there isn’t anything new, but as the weather is freezing, I thought I’d re-post the rather strange story by Flann O’ Neill of his escapades in Tesco’s during a very hot summer, a couple of years ago. For those outside the UK, Tesco’s is the most successful supermarket in the UK – a bit like Wal-Mart in the US.
I don’t know if you’re aware that there’s a rather nice café in Russell Square. It’s in the garden of the square itself and is a great place to hang out when the weather is unbelievably hot, as it has been these past few weeks. Last week, I was sitting outside the café under the welcome shade of the huge plane trees, finishing off an amazing book called The Maimed by a writer called Herman Ungar. If you ever see a copy, buy it; you won’t be disappointed. I might add that it’s not for the faint-hearted and those of you with a bit of a nervous disposition should probably pass it over (now where have I read that before?). As a little taster, I’d like to quote from Stefan Zweig who, after reading the book said, “wonderful and horrible, captivating and repulsive. Unforgettable, although one would be glad to forget it”.
Anyway, it was late afternoon and after two large cups of black coffee, supplemented by a few drams of slivovitz from my hip flask, I turned the last page of The Maimed with some regret. I don’t know about you, but when I’m coming to the end of a great book, I get these sort of pangs of loss. Not horrible, I must add – a sort of wistfulness might be a better description. Well, after finishing the book, I thought it was high time that I got down to Tesco’s to buy something for dinner. Shamus was expecting me back and I was running a little late. I left the square and made my way to the British Museum intending to take the back doubles leading to Covent Garden where there’s a Tesco Metro store. From there it’s a short walk to Shamus’ apartment, just on the other side of Waterloo Bridge.
I turned into Museum Street and was waiting at the pedestrian crossing, when a remarkable looking old lady joined me. I say old, but how old is anyone’s guess. Certainly in her seventies or eighties, perhaps even older. She was very tall, wore a long flowing blue and white flowered dress and a huge, wide-brimmed straw hat and carried herself in a most regal manner. I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention if she hadn’t been pulling an enormous shopping basket on wheels, which was nearly as big as she was. Attached to the back of this basket was some sort of large gadget with a digital display, which flashed on and off and gave an occasional bleep. Well, the traffic stopped to allow us to cross and to my surprise she set off at such a speed that she’d reached the other side before I’d got halfway across. Now, I’m a pretty quick walker, but she was incredible! As she turned into Coptic Street, I became intrigued and quickened my pace with the intention of following her for a while.
I needed to take really long strides to keep her in sight. As I followed her over New Oxford Street, down towards Shaftsbury Avenue and then across to Neal Street, I could feel myself sweating profusely. All my clothes were sticking to me and I was
getting short of breath. With the sun beating down relentlessly, I wondered how long I’d be able to keep up the pace. Although I was becoming more and more distressed as I stumbled and half ran after her, I remember being a little cheered by the fact that we were at least taking the same route I would have travelled to get to Tesco’s. And I couldn’t help being fascinated by the way this woman walked. She had very long legs and moved with such purpose that she kept disappearing from sight. It was all I could do to keep up. Her gait seemed, at times, almost military and I started to wonder if this person was a man.
I cast my mind back to when I had first gazed upon her face outside the British Museum. Did I remember a rather dark shadowy chin? It was difficult to say. Although her dress was long, the bottom part was flapping wildly and revealed her legs as she sped along the street. If I could get a bit closer, I’d be able to see if they were hairy. I tried to catch her up, but it was no use. Short of running, I’d never get any nearer as she whizzed up Neal Street and past Covent Garden underground station. I saw her turn smartly into Floral Street and disappear. As she was still travelling the exact route I would have taken to reach Tesco’s, I thought I’d make one last effort even though I was almost completely exhausted. I staggered round the corner into Floral Street and had only gone a few paces when I nearly bumped into her.
She was gazing at the men’s suits in the window of Paul Smith, looking very calm and collected and smoking a foul smelling cigarette, which was inserted into a very long holder. I stood there puffing and panting with sweat running down all over me and tried to think of something to say. Eventually, I blurted out some unintelligible remark about the heat. It must have sounded like gibberish, because she only gave me a cursory glance, then turned her attention back to the suits. In an act of desperation, I collapsed to the ground beside her and pretended to faint. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, but opened them again when she did a smart about turn and flew off down Floral Street dragging the enormous shopping basket behind her. With some difficulty, I got to my feet and set off once again in pursuit. I was annoyed with myself, because I hadn’t been able to get a very good look at her face and more importantly, to see whether she had hairy legs. My annoyance turned to joy when, after scuttling down the narrow alleyway that joins Floral Street with Garrick Street, she hurtled across the road and disappeared into the Tesco Metro store. Although I was feeling dreadful, it was comforting to think that I would now be able to cool down in the air conditioned building and have the opportunity of observing my quarry at close quarters. With an internal sigh of relief, I picked up a basket at the entrance and walked into the store.
The coolness of the air-conditioned store put me in a better frame of mind; such a difference from the unbearable heat outside. There was no sign of the woman, so with basket in hand, I went to seek her out. I was walking down the aisle where all the ready meals, sausages and yoghurts are on display, wondering where she was, when I had a flash of inspiration. If you were going to fill up a huge shopping basket on wheels, you’d put all the heavy stuff at the bottom so the thing wouldn’t topple over. Heavy things would include bottles of wine or spirits. Sure enough, I found her at the chilled wine section stuffing her basket with bottles of champagne. It was rather strange to watch and I sidled up closer to get a better look. The basket was so tall, that you couldn’t put something in at the top and place it on the bottom; nobody has arms that long. Well, she had this device, which was a piece of rectangular wood with a broom handle nailed in the centre. It was a bit like an upside down bird table. She put two bottles on the piece of wood, one each side of the broom handle, then, with remarkable dexterity and no little élan, she lifted the whole thing up and slid it to the bottom of the basket. I think she took six, or maybe even eight bottles. Then, with device in one hand and the other pulling the shopping basket, she elegantly made her way to the spirits section.
I now had the opportunity of examining her more closely. She was a very striking figure with a quite aristocratic looking face. She could have been a duchess, or maybe Stephen Fry’s mother. Actually, I don’t think she had any royal blood; she looked far too intelligent. But although unusually tall, rather too tall perhaps, she was extremely thin, emaciated almost and it was difficult to imagine how she was able wear the huge pearl necklaces, heavy rings on each finger and the multitude of bracelets, without actually falling over. I stepped a bit closer and pretended to examine a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey while glancing at her whenever the opportunity arose. She was wearing a lot of makeup, perhaps too much, and I didn’t see any evidence of the five o’clock shadow I was looking for. The smell of lavender that I’d detected while standing some distance from her now became overpowering. It was sickly and pungent and in Stefan Zweig’s words, “captivating but repulsive”.
While she was loading bottles of gin into the basket, I took the opportunity of pretending to look at the shelves nearest the floor in order to get a better view of her legs. Her dress came down almost to her ankles and although I spotted a few dark hairs through a slit, which extended down from the knees, I was unable to observe anything that would prove conclusive. It was then I heard her speak. As a member of staff was passing by, she addressed the young man in a very deep husky voice with clipped syllables. “I say, excuse me, is there any more Tanqueray gin?” The assistant said something to the effect that he didn’t think there was, but he’d check and report back, upon which she turned back to the shelves and continued loading her basket with bottles of Gordon’s gin, De Kuyper cherry brandy, Glenmorangie malt whisky and Tesco’s own brand vodka. By now, the basket was about three quarters full and must have been extremely heavy. Not that she seemed to notice. After popping in a small bottle of angostura bitters, almost as an afterthought, she grabbed hold of the handle and whisked her bulging basket of booty off to the chilled food section at high speed. I watched with amazement as she quickly filled up her basket, almost to the brim, with several packets of sausages, meat pies and a huge assortment of soft cheeses. I say amazement, because it was impossible to reconcile the huge amount of very fattening food with this tall, extremely thin woman who, in some ways, resembled a walking skeleton.
It was while she was topping off her load with Green and Black’s organic dark chocolate that the commotion started. We were near the checkout tills where I observed three or four members of staff wrestling with a man wearing a rather shabby coat and an even shabbier hat. Punches were thrown and eventually, he was brought to the ground with all these men sitting on top of him. He was shouting and swearing and some of the customers were remonstrating with the staff and protesting loudly at the brutal treatment being meted out. The place was in complete uproar, with more staff arriving by the minute. I thought it a good opportunity to strike up conversation with this strange woman and turned to her intending to make some remark or other about the fracas. However, she was bent over and was fiddling with the gadget attached to the back of the basket. I saw some flashing lights and heard bleeping sounds emanating from the device. She then stood up straight and ignoring the checkout tills, made her way swiftly to the exit, guiding the basket expertly through the throng of customers and staff. I followed her as far as the doughnut cabinet. By this time, the police were arriving with sirens blaring. I saw her stop at the threshold of the exit door and move the basket delicately to one side to allow the half a dozen or so officers of the law to rush into the store. She then coolly adjusted the brim of her hat and with gadget bleeping, exited the store and disappeared down Bedford Street.
At this point, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I needed some shopping and although I couldn’t be sure, I had thought that the man lying prostrate with several members of staff sitting on him looked a little like Shamus. I decided to stick around and watch the proceedings with the other customers before buying something for dinner. It would have been good to follow the woman and continue the adventure, but I decided against it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a glimpse of the man, because the police hauled him out of the store in a horizontal position and he was completely surrounded as he made his ignominious exit. I have to say that, as I completed my own shopping and made my way to the checkout, I became rather concerned. After all, the man did look a little like Shamus. Was it, could it have been him?