'Two items or less on my left, three items or more on my right,' yelled the jolly woman at the front of the cordoned-off area as she ushered customers along the ropes. Their green Marks & Spencer bags crumpled and stuffed in their armpits, they waited patiently in the long queues to return the presents they had been forced to grin at appreciatively a few days before.

Downstairs at the purveyors of knickers and prawn sandwiches to the nation, at London's Marble Arch, shoppers were barging past each other, tugging jumpers off their hangers and leafing through containers of stretch-satin cropped tops in search of the ultimate bargain. Meanwhile, upstairs, they were quietly filing along the gangways. Queuing as in a bank, they waited their turn at each cubicle to return the oversized nightdresses and painfully small skirts they had unwrapped on Christmas Day.

'I just wouldn't wear this,' said Mrs Fay, from Bournemouth, as she held up a dark brown slip her mother had given her. 'It's not my colour and anyway I much prefer this.' She smiled as she flicked the elastic on a raunchier black number that would just cover her buttocks. Her husband was also smiling.

Mrs Williams, from Northampton, was returning two sweatshirts her mother had given her husband. 'They are totally unsuitable and he's got loads already,' she muttered, as she rattled around in her green plastic bags for her receipts. She was not exchanging the sweatshirts but collecting some vouchers. 'Then I'm going to check out the sale and have a wander.' She said nothing about replacing her husband's presents.

Most customers were returning things they had wanted but for which their loved ones had either over-estimated or under-estimated the size. 'My husband was obviously wildly optimistic,' said Mrs Boxer, from Hertfordshire. 'The bra was absolutely huge and the body far too small. I don't know who he thinks he's married to.' She was exchanging for the correct sizes. Hidden under a thick winter coat, Mrs Garnett, also from Hertfordshire, obviously appears thinner than she is, because all her presents were too small, including the stockings and the inevitable nightdress. Sabrina, from Italy, had the same problem. She stood in the queue next to her tanned boyfriend, who was laden down with the returns, and complained that this year no one had got it right. 'Jackets, trousers and jumpers - they are all too small,' she puffed, as she kicked one of the bags on a space further. 'It's a nightmare, I hate queuing, why didn't they get it right in the first place?'

Louise Murray, 17, from Middlesex, has an identity problem. She was returning all her presents. 'People buy me frills and I'm just not a frills person,' she said as she arrived at the back of the queue, with armloads of green plastic bags. Smoothing her hair back in her Alice band, she muttered: 'They're all in the wrong size anyway, so I'm changing everything.' Just behind her was Terry Jackson, from Sidcup, dressed in a turquoise shellsuit. He was returning a couple of jumpers and a tracksuit. 'We've already got them goods indoors, haven't we?' he said with a big grin.

Some were cagier about their reasons for being in the queue. 'I can't tell you my name,' whispered a woman in a huge headscarf, returning a diary. 'My husband's mother gave it him and she would be livid to find out we were returning it. It's just not something he would want or use.' Mrs Kermar, from London, had an armpit full of soup plates and a fistful of receipts. 'I have no idea which is which,' she said as she held up the queue behind. 'I have so many things to return that I keep losing the receipts.'

There were, however, plenty who had only themselves to blame for spending up to half an hour in this queue. Richard Boardman, from Leeds, had made a mistake while sale shopping yesterday and was back trying to rectify it. Armed with carrier bags full of trousers, shirts, skirts, cardigans, knickers and jumpers, he admitted: 'I got overexcited. There were bargains everywhere and I just couldn't help myself. I bought them all at once and it wasn't until I got home that I realised that half of them didn't fit.' He was going back to get some more vouchers, then start all over again.

Throughout the morning the queue continued to grow, and the woman directing it continued to be jolly. With her loud, enthusiastic voice, Beryl Romaine had been hired to keep everyone in order. Ushering the shoppers to the left or right, she will be on duty for a week, helping all those who did not get quite what they wanted for Christmas.

'I lost my voice yesterday, and that's hard because I'm a gospel singer,' she laughed. 'There were thousands of them and there will be thousands more today. It's just warming up. Yesterday they were backed up to the lingerie department.' But Beryl seemed to be bearing up well. 'I don't mind that much,' she smiled. 'I'm off to Florida next week.'

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