Here is a snippet from The Drought by Steven Scaffardi. We pick up the story in Chapter 20 (Shop Horror) where our unlucky-in-love hero Dan has agreed to go shopping with good friend Kelly to help her pick out a present for her boyfriend Paul.
By Sunday morning, I was already starting to regret agreeing to meet Kelly. The previous day I had played 14 hours straight on a new football management game I had bought the previous week. It had taken me two hours just to get through pre-season as I had taken time to carefully organise my scouting strategy and had shrewdly delved into the transfer market. As a result, I had picked up a couple of real gems in Brazil and Argentina and was sitting second in the league after 22 games. At one point, I pretended to hold a news conference in my living room to discuss my upcoming top of the table clash against Manchester United.
The thought had occurred to me to text Kelly and tell her that I was not feeling very well, but I didn’t want to let her down. Manchester United and the Premier League crown would have to wait for a few hours.
I made my way to Oxford Circus via the Northern and Victoria Lines. The tubes were packed with tourists and couples heading into the hub of London’s shopping capital. I got off the Tube and the crowd dragged me up the escalators to street level. My phone beeped the second I stepped outside the tube entrance with a text from Kelly: Meet me in Top Shop xx. I groaned inside. Top Shop on Oxford Street has to be as close to hell on earth for men as you can possibly get.
There should be warning signs for men at the entrance to let them know what they are about to let themselves in for. I took a deep breath and entered, scanning the place for the impossible task of finding Kelly. I made the plunge and started weaving in and out of the hundreds of women who had dragged their boyfriends or husbands out to go shopping.
All the men have that same pathetic look of defeat on their faces as they trail behind their women around like shadows, carrying their bags, and holding up items of clothes so the women can inspect them more closely. We all share a common bond, a common misery. We could be in the pub with our mates watching the football, which is what Sundays were created for. Shopping is not a sport, and we are never going to think of it that way.
Even the layouts of these shops are designed to trip us up, like some sort of assault course which has been put together specifically for women. While the gaps in between the rails of clothes are big enough for the female physique to glide in and out of, we are left to clumsily follow, knocking clothes off rails with great frequency. Then we have the questions.
What do I look like in this?
“You look nice” is the wrong answer. “You look good” is the wrong answer. “You look okay” is definitely the wrong answer. You might as well get Roy Walker to follow you around and every time you answer this question he can jump in with “It’s good, but it’s not right.” If she wanted us to respond with “amazing” or “fantastic” then she should hold up a Brazilian football shirt signed by Pelé and his 1970 World Cup winning team-mates. This is the only item of clothing we will ever get excited about.
Which one do you prefer?
Hmm, let me think. I don’t care! Just pick that one, pick any of them! This question is designed to catch you out. On the outside it might look like a simple 50/50 question, but despite the flip-of-a-coin odds, you will never get this question right. Whichever one you choose will be met by the same response: “Really? I prefer this one.” If you have already made up your mind, don’t ask us.
Do you think these shoes will go with this dress?
Let’s get one thing straight here. Most guys will own a maximum of three pairs of shoes at any one time. So how does that make us even remotely qualified to choose which pair of shoes – out of the dozens upon dozens of pairs you have made us look at already – will look good with your dress?
Even when she eventually decides she likes something, the torture doesn’t end. Now they have to try everything on. Whose bright idea was it to put the changing rooms bang in the middle of the lingerie department? Groups of men are forced to awkwardly stand around, trying their best not to look like pervs. The problem is, the more you try to look like you are not hanging around sniffing women’s underwear, the more paranoid you become that everyone thinks that is exactly what you are doing. It doesn’t help that the queue for the ladies changing rooms is normally a mile long. Don’t be surprised either if after hanging around in the underwear section for 15 minutes trying not to look like a nonce, your girlfriend suddenly returns having not even tried the clothes on.
I like it but I don’t really need it.
Why the hell did you queue up if you were never going to buy it? Of course, you can’t say that. So you put up with the other pointless questions, which you neither have the answers to, nor really care about. Questions like “Do you think I can pull this off?” or “does this match my skin tone?”
With Stacey I used to just smile and nod, safe in the knowledge shops have to close at some point and I might make it home before dark if I’m lucky.
Some guys try to come up with a different strategy, but I can tell you for a fact that nothing you try will make the experience of shopping with your girlfriend any less painful. For example, the worst thing you can do is say that you are going off to the men’s section. You may think this will kill a bit of time, but after you have scanned everything you wanted to see in five minutes flat, you will return to the women’s section only to find that your girlfriend is nowhere in sight. Now the hunt begins, and if history tells us anything, we know that it will be a good 20 minutes at least before you manage to locate her. There is an old campfire horror tale about a guy who has been wandering around Top Shop for the last five months after letting his girlfriend out of his sight.
I really didn’t want to start hunting for Kelly so I pulled my mobile out to call her. “Dan, over here!” I heard her call out and turned round to see her standing about 10 yards away, a big grin on her face. “I have been following you around for ages.”
“Please, get me out of here,” I begged her.
“Come on,” and she took me by the arm and led me out of my misery.
We strolled along Oxford Street, her arm linked under mine. “Your face was a picture when I found you,” Kelly giggled. “It looked as though you might spontaneously combust if you had stayed there any longer.”
“You are not far wrong,” I said. “These places should come with a warning sign, or at least a designated area for all boyfriends and husbands, like a bar in the basement or something.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked with a smile.
“They should have special men-only members clubs in all female retail outlets. They would make a killing. Men would be queuing round the block to sign up. We’d gladly pay a yearly membership fee.”
“So what would be in this members club?”
“They could stock it out with table football, big screen TV’s, pool tables, Space Invader arcade machines. Free counselling sessions should be offered to all the men who have suffered identical shopping scenarios, so we could sit together and commiserate as we relive our horror stories while the women shopped until their hearts content.”
Kelly burst out laughing. “I can’t believe how much you hate shopping.”
“It’s not that I hate shopping, I just don’t understand the way a girl shops. It takes you guys about seven hours to finally decide to buy the first thing you saw at the start of the day.”
“Oh really?” Kelly said, raising her eyebrows at me. “Seeing as you think you can find the perfect present in record time, let’s put it to the test today.”
“Challenge accepted,” I said. “I just need one or two details. What is Paul into?”
“Let me see,” she pondered. “He loves his sport, and is really into boxing. Rocky is his favourite film of all time.”
“This is going to be too easy,” I said. “Come on, follow me.” I directed us away from Oxford Street down Argyll Street. A quick left on to Great Marlborough Street, and then we took a right to cut through on to Carnaby Street.
“Where are we going?” Kelly asked.
“Patience, we are nearly there,” and we arrived at a small shop on the corner of Carnaby Street and Beak Street called King of the Jungle. This place prided itself on having Original Gifts for the Lion in Your Life.
“What is this place?” Kelly asked as we walked in.
“Are you kidding me? This is probably the best shop in the whole of London,” I told her. It was the type of shop you wouldn’t find on any high street, yet it was full of little hidden gems. One side was full of football memorabilia, with framed photographs signed by some of the best players in the world, past and present. Next to that was a selection of gadgets and boys’ toys, like icy beer mugs, remote controlled cars, and an alarm clock with a small pole dancer figurine that would wake you up every morning with your very own lap dance. The back wall featured a selection of T-shirts with witty slogans.
But what I was looking for was in the film memorabilia section. Here you could find talking Tony Montana toys, a Goodfellas poster signed by the complete cast, and framed film cells from The Godfather. I resisted the temptation to start playing with the Al Pacino Scarface doll, and picked up a black luxury bathrobe with gold trim.
“A dressing gown?” Kelly asked with a bewildered look on her face as if I had gone crazy. “You brought me to this place to buy a dressing gown?”
“Yes, but not just any dressing gown,” I said and turned the robe around to reveal the Italian Stallion motif and logo on the back. “This is Rocky Balboa’s dressing gown.”
She looked it up and down. “Are you sure he will like it?”
“Trust me, he will love it” I reassured her. “If he doesn’t then I promise I will go shopping with you every weekend for the next six months. If Stacey had bought me this when we were together, we probably would have never broken up.”
I handed her the robe and she took one more look, before she turned to me smiling, and said, “I’ll get it! But it will be on your head if he dumps me for buying him a dressing gown for his birthday.”
Kelly paid for the robe and had to practically drag me away from the gadgets in the corner. We made our way back up to Oxford Circus to get the Tube home.
“Why don’t you come to Paul’s birthday party next week?” Kelly asked as we got back on the Victoria Line and sat down. “You can bring your friends with you.”
“Yeah, why not? I could do with a good night out.”
“Thanks for helping me with this, Dan,” Kelly said and kissed me on the cheek. “You’ve gone all red,” she teased.