Max thumped his steering wheel. “Come on.” In the distance, the traffic lights changed from red to amber to green but the line of cars barely moved. They were backed up as far as he could see, in front and behind, a procession of lights snaking through the dark.
On his passenger seat was a flyer. Join us at Abbey Down’s hyperstore Christmas opening and put the YOU into Yule, the SHOP into shopping and the BUY into buying.
“And the EFF into off,” Max shouted at the cars.
At the bottom of the card, it said: Exchange this invitation for a complimentary serving of biscuits and champagne. Max had drawn a circle around those words.
Half an hour later, he was only four cars from the front. “Move,” he shouted when the lights turned green. Too slowly for Max’s liking, the first car, then the second and then the third passed through. The lights turned amber and Max stamped on his accelerator and shot forwards just as they turned red.
The car in front stopped and Max swerved onto the other side of the road. It seemed as if the headlights of the oncoming lorry were sitting on his bonnet. He pulled his steering wheel hard to the right and heard a blasting horn and shrieking brakes. He squeezed his eyes shut and hoped for the best.
When he opened them the lorry was gone and he was in a single-track lane. He slowed the car and came to a stop, looking in his mirror to see if anyone had followed. No-one had. He took a deep breath.
“Oops,” he said and laughed. “That was close.”
He thought about turning around but the lane was dark and narrow, and he couldn’t be bothered. He followed the twisting, hedge-lined road until, at last, he came to a junction. There were no signposts so he turned left and came to a fork in the road. He turned left again and followed the road down a steep hill to a roundabout. The hedges fell away and he saw an oasis of bright light in the blackness. It was the back of Abbey Down’s hyperstore. Max could even see the entrance to the car park.
“Ha. Put the CHAMP into champagne!” he crowed.
He crossed the roundabout and turned into the car park where marshals guided the arriving cars to empty parking bays. Max was shown to a bay a long way from the store. “Isn’t there anywhere closer?” he called.
The marshal, caught in Max’s headlights, grinned. “You should have stayed at home, mate.” In the artificial light, his teeth looked shiny and brown as if he were wearing a toffee-coated gum-shield.
Max nodded. “Thanks for your help.” The marshal laughed and walked away. “Idiot,” Max said.
He got out of his car and walked towards the hyperstore’s glass entrance with the letters AD’s hovering twenty feet above the ground. He found the pedestrian walkway and joined the crowd of people shuffling through the great glass doors. It was bright and very, very busy. He was greeted by a woman wearing an elf costume. There was something wrong with her face but he couldn’t work out what.
“Where’s the free champagne?”
She laughed and pointed at a counter of free servings. Not that there was much left: a few shortbread biscuits on a paper plate and some plastic thimbles half-filled with sparkling wine. Max took two of each and looked around.
It was a crush. He squeezed through to the drinks section, craning his neck to see the clarets and burgundies; the great wines, the not-so-great wines and the marked down bargain buys. Put the HANG into hangover, a sign read.
“What a rubbish slogan,” he said to a man pushing past. The man looked at him in confusion and moved on.
Max checked his watch: eight-thirty. He would go soon. He’d only come for the free booze and there wasn’t much of that. He let the plastic thimbles fall onto the floor. The tips of his fingers felt large and painful and anything he touched seemed too small for them.
He left the drinks section and threaded his way through the crowd, past the women’s clothes, into the men’s sock emporium and then through to the children’s outerwear department.
“Coming through,” he muttered. Where had those glass doors gone?
He found an alcove off to the right in which an upright bicycle with a stiff leather saddle and a heavy iron frame was on display. It was made by a company called Pluck & Cruiskeen. A sign said, Put the SAD into the Saddle.
Max stopped to catch his breath. He looked at his watch: it was now almost nine-forty-five. How had that happened? A salesman with a weeping sore on his lip appeared on Max’s shoulder and said, “Isn’t it just perfect? The bicycle? Very sturdy in an impact. No crumple zones on a Pluck & Cruiskeen.”
Max studied the bicycle. “Which way is the exit?” he said. But the salesman had gone.
The store was filling up with more and more people. Max felt hemmed in; a tiny ant in an ever-expanding colony. It was exhausting. In soft furnishings he found a sofa and sat down. His feet ached and his head was hot and the earlier wine had left his mouth sticky and arid. He sat back and let the people flow around him, their voices picking away at his mind.
“There’s no space.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Does anyone know how to get out of here? Please. Anybody? Anybody?”
Max jumped up. Who had said that? But the shifting mass of shoppers moved on and whoever had cried out was swept away.
He set off again, head down, watching his feet: left-right, left-right, left-right. They began to move faster and he realised that he was running, pushing past shoppers and ignoring their startled, frightened faces. He ran until he came to an untidy, shuddering halt in front of a mirror in the shoe department. He stood, breathing deeply, and saw there was blood on his shirt and his jacket was torn.
“You ought to watch where you’re going,” a sad-faced woman said. She was holding her son’s hand.
Max sat down on a stool and stared at the floor. His head ached and something had happened to his jaw. He couldn’t move it. He looked at his watch: the glass was broken.
“I want to go home,” he said. But nothing came out.
He got up and walked, stiff-legged, away from the shoes, and was carried off by the tide of people moving relentlessly onwards, rotating around the store in an endless, repetitive cycle through the different departments.
In the drinks section a man looked at him and said, “What a rubbish slogan.” Max turned away and hurried on. What did he care about slogans? He was lost. Lost and tired and thirsty. He heard himself shout, “Does anyone know how to get out of here? Please. Anybody? Anybody?”
And then by chance, or fate, or plain cruelty, he was washed up by the free servings counter. The wine and biscuits were all gone; only plates of crumbs and empty used plastic thimbles lying on their sides were left. He turned and there, just a few metres away, were the giant glass entrance doors. A sign said, Don’t Say Goodbye, Say Great Buy. He limped to the threshold, pressed his head against the glass and opened the doors.
“Jesus God,” he said.
A woman in an elf costume took his arm and guided him back inside. She had something stuck in her teeth that moved. Max tried to talk but he couldn’t. His face was all smashed up.
“Oh dear,” she said, laughing. “You are a mess. Still, you should see the other driver.”
Outside the air crackled with electricity and the sky had a reddish hue as if distant fires burned beyond the horizon. The car park had gone. It had all gone. Max heard an announcer calling the Christmas draw. Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s time to put the HELL into hello, the SLAY into sleigh bells and the MANGE into the manger.
The elf gave Max a little push and the crowd took him.
Artwork: Pexels / Louis.