The last time I entered one of Mr Wills' emporia, it was a pleasant, light-filled domain, staffed by cool-looking surfer dude types. For some reason though, Mr Wills has since decided to "upgrade" his shops so that they now sport dingy striped wallpaper in the company colours of mucky pink and dull navy, heavy dark, oversized furniture and a load of skanky looking, moth eaten rugs which litter the floor. Admirably, the company seems to be following an eco policy which has seen them cut down on electricity to the point that you practically need a guide dog to get you safely round the store; it's so flipping dark in there.
The only problem is that there is no room for a guide dog. There isn't much room for the customers really, what with all the furniture and the aisles being taken up with racks of
Okay, so the place now looks like a cross between a boarding school library, a Gentlemen’s club and a crack den. Fantastic. We fight our way in, past a vapid blonde whose task appears to be to stand in the doorway going "hiiiiiyaaa" to anyone who comes near. Music thumps painfully. We squeeze round a gigantic dining table which looks as though it's made of solid mahogany but could be fashioned from balsa wood with a bit of brown paint sloshed over it - it's too dark to tell. The table is hardly visible under the weight of cable knit jumpers and checked shirts piled upon it. Almost immediately, I trip over an old trunk which is lying open on the floor, overflowing with knickers. The TD falls on them with cries of glee. I cry aloud as well once I see the price tag. She selects one astonishingly unattractive pair - sort of grey with minuscule pink dots on them which look like a pair of baggy old Y-fronts that could have been worn by my granddad. Except for the pink dots, that is. She declares that she "just has" to have them. I look askance at her because I am seriously wondering if she is trying to wind me up. Apparently not.
We move on to a rack of tops, shirts and jackets, inconveniently placed in the middle of the aisle. TD is in need of a coat and selects a tweedy jacket from the rail. “That’s nice,” I offer meekly, hoping to make up for my earlier transgression of going head first into the knicker hamper. She looks at me sternly. “It’s disgusting,” she announces baldly. “And it’s three hundred quid.” All at once, I am drenched in a cold sweat. We move hastily on, past serried ranks of folded trackies and hoodies, incongruously arranged amongst old wooden tennis rackets and faux leather bound books. At the end of the store are two tiny changing rooms. A huge crowd has amassed by the entrance to them, blocking the only passage round the other end of the mega dining table. At first, I think that either there is some special event going on or perhaps a parent has collapsed under the weight of their wallet and has had to be resuscitated. But no. The crowd is made up of two parts: those waiting in vain to get into the changing rooms and those standing around admiring the ones who have come out of the changing rooms to show off their chosen gear.
This is how it goes: - surly teenage girl emerges from changing room, attired in what look to me like my gardening clothes. Her parents are standing nearby. Mother looks anxious, father has a light sheen of sweat upon his top lip. Every so often, his hand sneaks convulsively to his pocket and he caresses his credit cards with a trembling hand. As the girl emerges, they make neutral sounds of approval – any extremes of emotion are “like sooooo embarrassing” after all. Teenager ignores them completely and, instead, turns to face a full length mirror. She slouches one hip forward and looks hard at herself. She dips her head to one side. She has already parted her hair over one ear so that it hangs over her face and requires pushing back every three to five seconds. She lifts a hand to her head and pushes her fingers into her mane. She makes a special shimmying action with her hand which simultaneously mucks up her barnet and pushes it off her face. As she with draws her hand, her hair falls over her face once more and the whole vignette is repeated. Over and over again. “Do you like it?” asks her mum meekly. “Dunno,” comes the weary sigh. She goes back into the changing room, ignoring the ravening hordes waiting to take her place and eventually emerges with an armful of J Wills’ finest which she dumps into her father’s arms. Father blenches and heads for the till which is staffed by a girl wearing jodphurs and a quilted jacket in British Racing Green and who looks as though she should be out on the moors beating for the shoot. Except that she is Chinese.
We queue up behind the aforementioned parents and wait as father hands over his credit card whilst clutching onto the mahogany counter for support. They receive a massive carrier bag full of stuff and daughter finally offers dad a tiny smile and a brief “thanks, Dad.” Dad looks as though he might cry or faint, or both.
We escape with the single pair of knickers. Somehow, the parsimony fairy was smiling upon me that day and the final bill was nine quid. As we leave, the vapid blonde comes to for a moment and emits a high pitched “byeeeee! See you soon!”
Over my dead wallet, love.