So once again this year, I decided to try and engender some Christmas spirit, and also bond with step-daughters #1 & 2 by taking them Christmas Shopping at the Trafford Centre.
Agnes has nothing but hatred & disdain for these horrible shopping centres. A monument to consumerism, the Trafford Centre is a vast shopping complex on two levels, with a massive eatery in the middle. Fountains fire water jets high into the air, Christmas lights bathe all the shoppers in a happy glow as they elbow their way past each other. A brass band plays Christmas carols to those who walk by, and every single shop has Christmas music playing gently to soothe the souls of those who queue endlessly, to be served by sullen shop assistants who are fed up with Christmas and all the shenanegans of working until 11 every night for the four weeks prior to the two day celebration. (long sentence award here plz)
The bonding began in typical style, with both girls rushing in from school, excited at the prospect of a shopping trip. As we left a relieved Agnes and went to the car, then the antagonism began in earnest.
"I'm sitting in the front."
"No. I'm sitting in the front on the way there. You can sit there on the way back."
Of course, there is no need to annotate which daughter said what to whom, because it's entirely interchangeable. It doesn't matter.
Imagine the scene...
5pm (rush hour)
Heading into central Manchester
Pouring down with rain
Dank, dark and cold night
I could hardly see anything through the spray of the vehicles on the road. White vans screaming down the outside lane at 90mph with visibility down to a few yards. Terrified drivers sitting in any lane at stupidly low speeds. Lorries throwing up half an ocean in their wake. Brake lights on and off, last second lane-changing, me not overly familiar with the route, and two bored girls.
I'll mention it again, because it is worth mentioning. Such noisy, talentless crap. Endless repetition of the same words "vummanizer... vummanizer... I'm a vummanizer, you're a vummanizer...." It was like those French lessons all so distant now... Je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes... I remarked that her voice sounded like it was coming through a bucket-full of tights.
"She lost her voice," remarked #1 avidly. "She had a drug problem, lost her voice, and now she's making a comeback."
Perhaps she shouldn't have bothered, I thought, as I narrowly avoided being tossed into the side of a lorry by a nutter in a Mercedes who shot past me, only to slam his brakes on and cut across three lanes of rush hour traffic to dive down a slip road.
The radio got turned up, the girls started bouncing in their seats, and I rested my arm against the window and held my head as I continued to dodge the traffic. Christ, I was getting old. Music too loud, can't understand the youth of today... Did I sound familiar?
We hit a traffic jam with only 3 miles to the centre. I moved over into the left hand lane, as I knew I'd be pulling off soon. #1 looked at me with concern and suggested I moved out again to skip the traffic and pull in later, a tactic already being employed by half of Manchester, hence the reason we were stuck in this queue. I glared at the passing traffic and wished them all a thousand painful deaths. #1 tutted and went back to writing her letter in the dark*.
After about ten minutes of not moving, the girls got bored.
"Are we there yet?"
"My back's hurting"
"I need the loo"
"Can I have that cushion for my back?"
"No! I'm using it as a pillow"
"But my back is really hurting!!"
"You can have it on the way back"
"When we get there, can we have something to eat first?"
I like order. The Trafford Centre is like a big long stick. John Lewis (my intended parking place) is at one end of it, and my plan was to walk up to the top on the ground floor, and back along the top, hitting all the shops we needed with military precision. There would be no time for dawdling. I knew what I wanted, and then I was getting out. Already I thought of Agnes, sat back at home, ordering everything online, and enjoying a cigarette without condemnation. Next year, I vowed. Next year.
And now The Plan was in danger of collapse. The food halls are half way up the stick. My mind went awhirl as I tried to figure out how to get to the food halls, feed the girls, do the shopping, and get back to the car without having to double back on myself and waste footsteps. I know, I know. You pity Agnes don't you?
And then, there was just one more worry.... I wanted to buy Agnes something nice. To wear under her clothes you understand. Things that step-daughters most definitely shouldn't see. Cautiously, and with great hindsight-enabled stupidity, I opened my mouth.
"Will you two be OK on your own if... well... you know... if I have to pop off for a bit?"
#1 looked up at me suspiciously. She can be terribly intelligent when the mood takes her. #2 dragged herself from her daydream, pulled her thumb out of her mouth and managed a "hmmm?"
"I need to pop off and get a few bits. Will you be OK in Boots or something?"
I caught a glance out of the corner of my eye of #1 turning this over in her mind. The penny dropped.
"Are you going to Ann Summers?"
I blanched. "Maybe. I'd like to get your mum something nice, and I might want to go into La Senza too (much more upmarket lingerie for the discerning woman)"
"What are you going to get her?" asked #1 innocently, yet veiled with impish maliciousness.
I, as usual when faced with #1's cockiness, momentarily froze. And like all of nature's victims, one second of hesitation is all it takes to prompt the attack.
A giggle came from the back seat. "Is it handcuffs?".
#1 guffawed. "Nah.. they've already got some of them." and then to me "Is it some sexy underwear?"
My face must have gone white, my hands felt slippery on the steering wheel. I wanted to vanish. I wanted to go home. I wanted Agnes to face this, not me.
"I'm thinking about getting her a nice nightie," I replied, surprising myself at the swiftness of my reply as well as the disarmingly un-interesting words. #1 immediately became bored. Thwarted, she returned to her letter, but #2 persisted in the back.
"I can help you choose it you know. I know what she likes!"
"No. It's OK thanks. I'll just bumble around on my own. Besides, I don't want you two in there poking fun at me, I'll be embarrassed enough as it is. It's just not right having you there while I buy night things for your mum."
#1 looked up, a gleam returning to her eye. "We won't poke fun at you. We'll just be there to help."
"Mum had a really nice nightie that she really loved," continued #2 from the back. "It had Eeyore on it."
I could imagine Agnes' face opening an Eeyore nightie. I remained resolute in the face of adversity.
"It's OK. Thank you. I'll be fine."
Eventually the traffic began to move, and five minutes later, we parked up.
After we'd had something to eat, which was an amusing experience whereby #2 went healthy with a Subway and #1 went unhealthy with a MacD's. After finishing her healthy option, #2 asked for a lone chip from #1's pile which was met with a venomous "NO!". I asked #2 if she wanted me to get a portion of chips and she said, Yes please! Sometimes the smallest things can make one feel good. The look on her face as I returned with the chips was worth the queue and the clueless service. I still refuse to call chips "fries", which utterly confuses most MacDonalds workers. I remember at school once, a group of us went down to MacD's and spent ten minutes going round asking the staff what the time was, counting up the amount of furrowed eyebrows or grunted responses. Quite a shocking revalation that was. Made me study a bit harder for my O'levels... But, I digress...
We hit the shops.
So. Without regailing you with a detailed account of the ensuing fun, here are the high points.
In Shop A:
#2 pointing at an item and saying "oooh. That's nice".
#1 responding in a voice loud enough for the shop to hear... "What?! Charlie can't afford that! It's X thousand pounds!"
In Shop B:
Me, browsing quietly and struggling to locate the Right Thing: "Can either of you two help me with this?"
#1, ignoring me "come and look at these boots I'm getting for Christmas"
#2, ignoring me "come and look at these shoes I like"
Me, repeating the question, in a sterner manner.
#1 and #2 shrugging their shoulder in unison: "Sorry, nope."
In Shop C:
I locate what I'm looking for, but lose the children. OMFG, I just lost the kids! Crap. I'm dead. For a second, I wonder whether Agnes will greet me with relief if I turn up back at the house without them, then I dismiss the fantasy and settle on the reality that I will, in fact, be dead. As a doornail.
#1 comes flouncing over with something in her hand. "Look at this! Isn't it lovely". #2 isn't far behind.
Stressed now, I come up with a Plan.
"Look. Here's some money. Why don't you go to Shop D and get your mum something nice. Look for something for her. Yep, For her.
#1 frowns as if this is something she will need to concentrate hard on. She nods, confident of her task, and the pair of them skip out of the store.
The shop assistant smiles gently as I pay for my goods. "They seem lovely girls. Do they get on?" I consider the truth, then realise that I'm holding up the queue, and that no-one ever wants to hear the truth.
"Yep,"I lie. I nod, smile, pay for my stuff and leave her mumbling about her sister with whom she constantly argues.
Outside of Shop C, I realise that I cannot see shop D. My fevered brain works overtime. I was sure it was close by. I look up and down the sea of heads. Crap. I lost them again. I look over the balcony. Nope. No sign of shop D. Shop E, however, is next door to C, so I figure that they'll finish in D then come back to C by the time I'm finished in E. Still with me? OK. Re-read from "Yep".
I dash inside, believing like some sort of SETI fanatic, that this shop won't be busy. It's rammed to the gills. I snatch what I want, and rush to the counter. God is smiling on me as the queue all but evaporates and I move to the empty assistant station. He smiles at me.
I clear my throat, fumbling for my mobile phone in my pocket and pulling out a pack of cigarettes which I rest on the counter. "I don't suppose you know where Shop D is do you?" I enquire.
He merely glares at the cigs and points to the warning on the packet which shows a mouth cancer victim in all its horrible glory. "That's 'orrible, that is." he states.
I wait. I look into his glassy eyes. There is no sign of movement.
"I said... Do you know where Shop D is please?"
He furrows his brow. Jesus, I think. How hard can this be to figure out? It can't be that far away.
"Sorry mate, dunno. Is this a Christmas present?"
I nod absently. He's asking because he's going to give me a gift receipt. Agnes can take it back if it's wrong, but more pressingly, if I don't find the girls, none of this will matter, because I'll be dead.
"Lucky you." he states, and my mind stops dead. The words don't compute. What the f*ck is he on about? I look up at him and he is sadly picking the price tag off.
"What do you mean?" I enquire patiently.
"No-one's gonna get me nuthin' this year" he replies.
I consider telling him that if he doesn't shut up, he won't need to worry about it because my murder of him will be inconsequential to what happens to me when Agnes finds out that I have LOST HER CHILDREN. Life will be meaningless without testicles.
#1 saunters up to me as I leave the shop. They found Shop D without me, bought what they needed, then came back to find me. Good girls. I should never have doubted them. the panic subsides, but my head throbs.
After this, the visits to shop F, G and H, things go relatively smoothly. Even the visit to Ann Summers goes without a hitch as the girls are too engrossed in getting their respective boyfriends something nice to notice what I'm up to.
#2 was in the front on the way home*, which meant Rock FM, which was infinitely preferable to that commercial sh*t they play on Radio1. Although, having said that, even this so called "independant" radio station was pretty commercial.
I use teh internets.
* Another story...