As I stood there, I was reminded of the man of no fixed abode who, several years back, aged 68, made it into the local paper charged with shoplifting. He’d failed to steal a bottle of champagne and a hat to the value of £75. In court, the magistrate had inquired as to the brand of champagne. On being told that it was Pol Roger, he jocularly commended the tramp on his refined taste, and said that it inclined him towards leniency. That gay tramp came to mind now, two days before Christmas, as I stood in front of the champagne section in the French hypermarket, tempted by the special festive offer of 25 per cent off a magnum of Nicolas Feuillatte Grand Reserve, a mid-range champagne that I prefer over some of the dearer ones, a saving of €11 per item. I baulked at the idea of shoplifting, but there are times when the only possible response to being skint is an extravagant gesture, and I slid the two remaining magnums into my basket.
At the till I paid with my poor debit card, worn out and maimed by its extra-curricular cold-weather service as an extempore ice scraper, crossing my fingers after entering my pin number. And it wasn’t until I stowed the shopping in the boot of the car that a vague notion occurred to me that I must have paid full price instead of the special-offer price.
I found the receipt. And it was thus. Fuming, I returned with it to the woman who had checked me out, easily recognisable by her spaghetti western peasant-extra face, and showed it to her. I had nothing to worry about, she said, directing me to the customer-service desk, where a languid and rather sullen teenage girl stood inside a sort of redoubt, besieged on three sides by shoppers flapping till receipts at her to attract her attention. I joined them and after about 20 minutes, she singled out my face — from idle curiosity, presumably, or the fascination of the horrible — and nodded brusquely. I smoothed out my till receipt on the counter, pointed to the itemised champagne magnums and managed to explain that I had bought them on the understanding that they were 25 per cent off. Before she could even begin to address my complaint, she said, I must bring the items in question to the counter.
So I flogged back outside to the car park and returned with the magnums, lined them up on the counter, and waited. As I stood there, once again at the rear of the queue, the paradox of applying so much determination to claw back €22 on items epitomising conspicuous consumption, extravagant generosity and festive celebration was not lost on me. Or that I was a penniless penitent peasant vying for the attention and absolution of a disinterested teenage priestess still experimenting with mascara.
However, I think that the pair of mid-range champagne magnums, not to mention the big-nosed foreign twat standing beside them, represented for her an infinitesimally small margin of interest above the usual refunds, transactions and idiotic questions with which she had to deal all day, every day, and I was favoured out of turn with another brusque nod. She carried a magnum to a telephone and dialled. Eventually, the phone was answered and a five-minute dialogue ensued. Then she replaced the receiver and rummaged among a pile of papers and brochures until she found the Christmas ‘special offers’ leaflet. This she brought to the counter and together we tried to match what I had bought to a photograph of a champagne bottle listed as being reduced in price. It wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. ‘Which display did you buy it from?’ she said. I pointed to a shelf in the booze section. It was less than five yards from where we were standing, but she wasn’t allowed out of her enclosure to take a closer look.
More sullen than ever, she resorted to the phone again and had another protracted conversation. This one strayed far and wide from the subject of a possible refund, I think, and her interlocutor on this occasion was a comedian, because most unexpectedly she laughed, in spite of herself, and after that she laughed at everything the other person said, exposing the lovely, light-hearted, skittish child underneath. When she finally returned to the counter it was with a lighter step and an impish smile, which I reciprocated with my Gary Glitter Taken Aback impression.
It was yet another half an hour before a manager was summoned and the refund put back on my poor old card. Day had turned to night. ‘Joyeux Noël,’ I said as she gave me back my card. ‘Également,’ she said.