Since the initial publication of the post below a few months ago, it has been revised a little, and yesterday I read out the new version at Tall Tales, an excellent night of stories and music hosted, curated, birthed by Dr Robert Hudson.
Marbury – a constant spiritual and intellectual inspiration to me – suggested I post the updated version. It would be, he said, like the Director's Cut. So here it is:
Shopping Centre Soulmates or In Which I Realise That No Ideas Are Truly Original
In this country, with our general reticence and limited enthusiasm for strangers, we’re not renowned for our customer service. If I am served in a shop by someone who doesn’t so much as acknowledge me, so busy are they telling a colleague about an out-of-order ex or some aspect of the holiday-leave structure that’s an affront to their civil liberties, I am seething but unsurprised. Yet when someone does offer me true, Uncle Sam-style, teeth-and-talent-show salesmanship, it seems so contrived, so commission-chasing, that I have to beat a terrified retreat to the furthest corner of the shop, and hide from anyone who might ask me if I need any help at all.
But I have astonishing news: on a Saturday afternoon in the shops of Bromley – the Bromley just south of London, the Milan of northern Kent – I recently discovered you can experience delightful customer service from an unexpected corner of the population. The youth. The Saturday girls, the college-holiday boys, the McJobbers, the saving-to-go-travellers. Those who, biologically and culturally, should be the most surly and the least giving of any kind of a shit become, on a Bromley Saturday, sincere, sunny, flawlessly nice. The Pollyannas of sales, working in the Pleasantville of retail. Like robots who have developed genuine thoughts and feelings. Almost like....wait… yes, like humans.
No one could blame a 19-year-old Starbucks Saturday girl for having an attitude problem. A sunny disposition is hard to maintain when a hard eight hours’ milk-frothing has laid waste to your eyeliner and tireless table-scrubbing has chipped away at your black nail varnish. Also people treat Starbucks really badly. Customers! Why not just crumble your muffin directly onto the carpet. Why persist in the charade that you are actually trying to get it into your mouth. Plus, if you take away the risk of actually eating any of it, it is far less fattening.
But in the Bromley branch of Starbucks, the Saturday girl who served me recently was a willowy 5ft9inches of enthusiasm and best intentions – stoically reiterating a pink-cheeked apology that the dishwasher wasn't working so all the drinks would be served in paper cups and was that OK. Presumably she thought that someone who’d been pushed to the brink by the queuing system in nearby Argos could flip out at the prospect of being denied their coffee in a massive china bucket you need two hands to lift. Perhaps she feared they would run amok, smashing the heavy glass jars that adorn the counter, showering unsuspecting pensioners nursing tall hot chocolates with a shrapnel of hazelnut biscotti and suburban bitterness.
But even in that eventuality, I felt sure Miss Starbucks would have smiled on.
In Marks & Spencer nearby, later the same day, my friend and I spent quite some time with a friendly, funny boy-cashier, all frayed festival wristbands and a fringe made for sulking behind – except… he was not sulking at all. He was patient and good-humoured and actually claimed to be enjoying our lengthy investigation into whether the top my friend wanted to buy her mum had been mislabelled. You see, the label said it was a 12, but it looked more like a 14, but when we held it up against a 14 it was much shorter, but it was still wider than a normal 12, and there were no other 12s to compare. There was a 10 but the 10 looked like it would pinch a bit around the…
There is a slim chance, of course, that Mr Marks & Spencer’s eagerness to please was on account of the fact my friend looks like Cameron Diaz’s sister. The one who lives in Orpington. But I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
It wasn’t just those two employees, though. There was the beaming young man cheerfully refunding rogue purchases in Gap. There was the girl with the highly diplomatic advice in the changing rooms of Uniqlo. I have seen them, my friends. I have seen the service-industry Salvation Army of Bromley.
As my friend and I wandered back to the train station at the end of the day, we reflected on the youth we had met and their uniform good character. We wondered whether they all hung out together after their shops closed, like a really well-mannered casting of Skins.
We wondered if Young Mr Marks & Spencer and Miss Starbucks knew each other. And then we talked about what an adorable, late-adolescent romantic couple they would make. What joy their kindness could bring to each other, as well as a lot of orphanages in less developed countries of the world when they inevitably went on a do-gooding gap-year excursion together after a year or so of dating.
But what if these two individuals were totally unaware of each other? Working away on their separate floors of the Glades shopping centre, Bromley, perhaps one directly over the other, a gilded thread of romantic potential running through the floor and the ceiling, connecting the pair of them in a way they could not yet understand but sometimes felt. A quivering sensation they merely put down to the building work happening in Debenhams next door.
Perhaps they already passed each other on the shopping-centre escalators every Saturday, one going up, one going down, him with his head hidden in Kerrang! magazine, hers buried in a copy of The Belljar or The Girl Who Played With The Hornet’s Tattoo.
Perhaps, of a lunchtime, he would walk into Pret while she had her back to him, picking up cutlery to go with her soup. She would spin round to leave just as he’d turn away towards the sandwiches, debating whether to have prawn and avocado or Posh Ploughman’s.
As I thought about this, I felt the sun come out a little bit in my wintery, single-and-30-something soul. If I could find a way to bring these two marvellous young people together, it could somehow thaw my icy heart and a spiritual summer would come. I may continue to be alone with my king-sized duvet and costume-drama boxsets, but I would live vicariously through this young couple, in a way that I hoped would be less weird than it sounds. I would bask in their youthful glow of contentment, at least until one of them decided they wanted to ‘do India’ alone for six months, sending the other into a cider-bingeing emotional breakdown soundtracked by emo ballads.
But how to light the spark between the two of them? I thought about it for the whole train journey home from Bromley.
Well, I don’t like to brag, but I do have a GCSE in drama. I felt sure I could fashion some kind of uniform and pose as the head of facilities at the shopping centre in which they both worked. I could enter their respective shops with the borrowed authority of a false moustache, requesting their presence at a vital health and safety briefing at which they would be the only two attendees. Then, under the pretence of showing them a fire escape, I would somehow trap them outside or on a roof space overnight, requiring them to cuddle up together for warmth, if not survival.
It would obviously tarnish the achievement somewhat if one of them died from hypothermia during my attempts at matchmaking.
Or, in a ruse that shows little concern for my own personal safety, I could initiate a compulsory fire-extinguisher training session for two in an outdoor car park. As I started a controlled fire in a metal waste-paper bin, the flames would ignite in other, clumsily metaphorical places.
Or perhaps, if I took on an accomplice, one of us could distract Mr Marks & Spencer with another mislabelled item of women’s clothing, while the other of us eased his mobile phone out of his pocket, or slipped his name tag off his shirt, and then abandoned it on a table in Starbucks, knowing that there was a sweet-natured girl working there whose devotion to duty would lead her to track down its rightful owner.
I was delighted with my plans. I would create love’s young dream. Then I would create an Oscar-winning screenplay based on the escapade. The Academy would love the shot of the lovers working one above the other, with the golden thread that ran between them.
The train was just pulling back into my home station when I realised I had essentially reinvented one of the subplots of the film Amelie.
What, I wondered, would be the market for Bromelie, a romantic comedy about a single women in a south London arrondissement who deflects attention from her own loneliness by doing good turns for strangers.
If you need me, I’ll be sitting over there in the corner, working on my pitch.