At the weekend, we found ourselves between a rock and a hard place, retail wise. We needed some stuff for our impending staycation – or our laethanta here-a – as some clever people have described this pandemic-induced mass Irish holiday.
We needed a few bits – that’s what we told ourselves anyway. The kids were not happy. Unless it involves buying ingredients for baked goods, they despise any form of shopping, and this aversion has only become more pronounced during lockdown. We eventually got them into the car by promising ice-cream, even though it was raining. Off we went for a gawk at the new giant sports shop. If there was a queue, well obviously we were going straight home.
And that’s how it starts. That’s how quickly “normality” creeps back in. Only two days earlier, I was talking to a friend about how I felt Christmas this year was going to be different. We’ve spent months separated from the people we love the most. We’ve lost people and been prevented from grieving them properly, so the grief has pooled, waiting to be processed.
This Christmas, I told my friend, will be about get-togethers. Hugging parties. Home-made tokens of affection
We’ve lost jobs or we know people who have, and we’re staring down the barrel of a “pandession”. The spending frenzy in November and December for gifts destined to be returned come January will seem even more unjustifiable now.
This Christmas, I told my friend, will be about get-togethers. Hugging parties. Home-made tokens of affection. It will be about “presence, not presents” and using that phrase won’t feel trite or corny the way it might have done in Christmasses past.
That’s what I said, but it’s not what I was thinking two days later as we drove to the giant sports shop, the list on the notes app on my phone growing longer with every passing kilometre.
My friends have a pandemic puppy called Penny. Her mum, Pixie, had been abandoned, thrown from a car window at the beginning of lockdown. Luckily for Pixie, my friends were driving past at that moment and they rescued the frightened animal from whatever fate awaited her in the middle of the country road.
Pixie was pregnant, and my friends took her in. Four puppies later they were entranced. We watched the pandemic pups grow on weekly Zoom calls. My friends gave the other pups away to good homes, but Penny remained with them, lying on her back for endless tickles and tummy rubs. Even through a screen, you could see that in that moment, for a pup called Penny, nothing else mattered.
The itch to get back out there is like that. It’s a little retail tummy rub, that begins with a tiny yen for some new T-shirts, not even for yourself but you’ve noticed the smaller people have sprouted up in the past four months. It’s all right for you, with the same swimsuit borrowed from your mother years ago, but you don’t want them to look dowdy on the beach at Lahinch. They’ll need spare swimmers, maybe new goggles?
The basketball isn’t bouncing the way it used to, a bouncier one is called for. Their shorts are too short and they don’t have any leggings without holes or stains of unknown origin. Tap-tap-tap on the phone, and the list grows longer. If there’s a queue, no question, we are going straight back home.
“Look, Decathlon!” (The rock.) Even the child with the strongest retail aversion was excited as the boxy blue building appeared on the other side of the motorway. It triggered a memory from a holiday in France where, on the way back to the ferry, we spent a few happy hours buying great-value sports gear in an exact copy of this blue building.
“Look, Ikea!” (The hard place.) Memories of meatballs and coat-hooks in the shape of dog bottoms danced in our heads.
We were standing in the wind and rain as a queue – longer than any queue I've ever stood in – snaked around the corner and doubled back on itself
We checked the queue for the blue place first. Huge. Then we drove around to the blue and yellow place for a look at that queue. Massive.
We drove around the roundabout again, and we were going home like we planned but then suddenly we weren’t. We were parking. We were getting out of the car. We were standing in the wind and rain as a queue – longer than any queue I’ve ever stood in – snaked around the corner and doubled back on itself.
People leaving with bags of stuff had huge smiles on their faces. “There’ll be nothing left for them,” one said, sounding pleased and glancing in our general direction. And still we queued.
Forty-five minutes later we were inside. I looked at jodhpurs in the horsey section. I looked at climbing gear in the hiking section. I tried to look at the list on my phone but the battery had gone dead. The shelves seemed sparse. We couldn’t find a basketball. Still, we filled a couple of baskets as mild panic filled me. It felt mindless. I couldn’t wait to get back to the car.
I still believe Christmas is going to be different. But making it different will have to be a conscious, deliberate act and not something we leave to chance. I thought we’d never go back to “normal”. But after my weekend shopping experience I’m not so sure.
But I know one thing: if we don’t want everything good to go out the window, we’ll have to be extra vigilant when the tummy ticklers descend.