The Joys of Modern Life: 63. The Sales

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THE FIRST frost and snow of winter are upon us and, as if drawn by some mysterious force, otherwise sane, ordinary females are getting up at 5am to queue for hours in the cold and dark.

The sales have begun. Before Christmas!

As mere amateur bargain-hunters have always suspected, there is a black art to sales shopping. Cunning sales-veterans, determined to avoid the horrid changing- room queue, do their trying-on weeks in advance. They pick out everything and make notes.

Once the doors are flung open, they'll push, elbow, and lock coat-hangers with one another to reach their object of desire. This Darwinian struggle, naturally, is carried out in a terribly polite way, as everybody pretends that everybody else is being ``so pushy''.

Their treasures clutched to their bosom, their cheerfulness is barely disguised, despite the weight of armfuls of plates, dishes, sheets and towels.

The only shadow is the sight of bargains being picked out by fellow shoppers that suddenly look intensely desirable. But to lose one's place in the queue? And then to find the item sold out? It's an agony of indecision - and an interminable one, as the queue goes on for ever.

At this point an iconically British, `we're all in this together' spirit develops. Packets of mints appear and total strangers chat about their bargains and whether the sales are better value/better attended than last year.

People rarely do their sale shopping alone; it's mostly done in a threesome of mother and daughters. This kind of foraging represents the Definitive Female Bonding Experience. The mother-and-daughters parties bicker about skirt lengths and bathrobe colours, but what shines through is a sense of unshakeable warmth, support and mutual understanding.

The same is true, incidentally, of the men: they stand outside, holding bags and bonding in their own `What are we doing here?' way.

Who said the family spirit is on the wane? Forget the old films you've seen 400 times on Boxing Day: the thing that really brings people together is shopping.