I quite enjoy Christmas shopping in many ways but I have come to lose patience with the process of traipsing the length of some endless High Street in the seasonal freezing drizzle, only to find that the coffee and tea emporium at the far end and up the hill has run out of something as basic as Oolong tea. For this reason I am a great fan of that endangered species the department store. Long may it survive, though I fear the worst.
On this particular Christmas spree I was doing rather well in such a store, a household name. I had successfully acquired presents for most of my friends and even for each of my sister’s ever increasing brood, having visited many different departments: men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, gifts, toys and electronics, where I spent an outrageous sum on one of the latest playstation games. I had left my already bulky purchases in the cloakroom on the ground floor and was now in the top floor restaurant and coffee shop, enjoying tea and scones, which I felt I had deserved. I was pleased with my progress. If the electronic shoot-em-up was absurdly pricey at least it would show my teenage nephew that I wasn’t entirely the ancient fuddy-duddy he thought I was.
My only remaining problem was my sister herself. I had decided that perhaps a pressure cooker might be very welcome, considering how much time she spent cooking, but I didn’t know where the kitchenware department was, having never had the occasion to buy such stuff.
I paid, left a small tip and asked the rather pretty young waitress where the kitchenware department was and she told me, as I rather expected, that it was in the basement. I don’t much like looking things up on those confusing store guides; you feel rather a fool as you stand there gawping, being buffeted by impatient shoppers, When I got to the lifts, of which there were only two, I saw there was quite a queue. I could have squeezed into the first but confined, crowded spaces make me nervous, so I waited for the other one and travelled down with only one other person , a woman, who had, judging by the number of her bags, finished her shopping. She got out on the ground floor and I continued towards the basement, thankfully alone. To my surprise there was an intermediate floor which the lift passed without stopping; I assumed it must be a mezzanine of some kind.
I walked out of the lift but then stopped. I was surrounded by white walls in which the only variation was the lift behind me. I appeared to be shut in a small room, little more than a cupboard, but after a moment of panic I realised there was a blind opening or short passage to my right, hard to see as it was the same blank white as the walls. I walked through and found myself in a large, long, brilliantly lit space full of display cabinets of some kind.
I started my search for a pressure cooker. The layout was very different from other departments; the cabinets were all of glass and wood, of many different sizes and shapes but fundamentally of the same design; they reminded me of museum glass cabinets, especially as they were set out with wide spaces between them, as if to cater for crowds of people. However there were no crowds now; in fact I could see no-one, neither customer nor sales staff. This suited me fine; I could do without the importunate attentions of sales staff or the irritation of other shoppers.
I was looking for a modern, electric pressure cooker and was half-aware that I was in the wrong area, as the glass cases seemed to contain cutlery. I guessed that electrical items were probably at the far end but kept an eye open in case. I became increasingly aware that I was walking past some unusual items and stopped to look at a spoon, shaped like a delicately curved ladle but over a yard long. The handle tapered to a very thin edge at the end, so thin it looked positively sharp. I saw there were many smaller versions of the ladle, a set I supposed, all sharing this odd design. I was intrigued and decided to examine one more closely. I didn’t know how to open the cases but it turned out to be simple enough; the top, also glass in a wooden frame, simply lifted up and remained open, supported by a sprung lever. I picked up a much smaller version of the ladle; the extreme back edge of the handle was not just tapered but sharp. I ran a finger over it very gently indeed and it threatened to separate the skin. I experimented with holding it and found that there was no danger of cutting yourself if you used it in a normal way as the edge curved away from the hand; only if you turned it upside down and pressed it into your palm would there be any chance of injury – but why on earth would anyone make spoons with one sharp edge? All of the cutlery was beautifully designed, never ornate, with lines and curves that were both functional and elegant but there was an extraordinary range of size and many whose purpose I didn’t recognise.
I had to move on and find my pressure cooker, though I began to have doubts I was in the right place. The cabinets and wide spaces continued to the end of the department. I passed a large section of crockery, again very elegant but in an unusually wide range of sizes, from the minute to the giant. I stopped to examine a cabinet that contained what must have been serving dishes and bowls. Many of them had double raised rims which produced a little channel all the way round the outside; again I couldn’t quite fathom their purpose; one raised rim I could understand but a double one? I didn’t stop to pick any up.
I came on to pots and pans but nothing electrical. Again there was a huge range of size and some very odd shapes but at least they looked very practical as cookware, mainly of stainless or soft steel with good flat bases that would work well on any stove I thought.
I arrived at the far end without discovering a single electrical item or anything that looked much like a pressure cooker, even the old-fashioned sort for use on the hob-- and there was noone to ask. This was becoming a little irritating. I wandered about for a bit in case I had missed a whole section but I found only one or two smaller cabinets that were sub-sections of the others, napkin holders, salt sellers and stuff. There was nobody about. I remembered seeing a large cooking pot that I thought might do as a pressure cooker and went back to find it. I got it out. It was large and heavy but it definitely had a screw lid with a seal and what looked like a steam escape valve. Although it wasn’t really what I was after it was impressive and unusual and I decided at least to find out how much it was; none of the items down here had price tags, which was both odd and annoying. I would have to take the thing up to the ground floor, find out its price and decide there if it would do for my sister. Finding my way back to the lifts was trickier than it ought to have been. The little passage to the alcove was concealed, its blind entrance at an acute angle to the wall so that it wasn’t visible until you were right on top of it. To add to my difficulty it turned out not to be right at the other end of the floor and there were other little alcoves, I discovered, just entrances into a blind space with no exit at all. When I eventually found the right one I had a shock: I could see no call button for the lift; the frame around the lift door had no controls on it, just an up arrow that wasn’t lit. I searched all over the alcove in case it was tucked away somewhere but I didn’t really expect to find it anywhere but on the door panel, where it definitely wasn’t. I waited, and listened, for several minutes; there was no sound or sign of lift movement. I was both angry and a little perturbed; I had seen no sign of stairs anywhere. I had seen a door right at the far end with a notice on it, which I had glanced at and I seemed to remember it saying the usual “Staff Only. No unauthorised entry!” However I was in no mood to hold back and staff was exactly what I now needed and had a right to expect.
Still clutching the heavy metal cooking pot, I set off through the blind entrance and headed at some pace towards the far end of the floor, not pausing to look at ant#y of the curious items on display. I did pause at the door and looked at the notice. Actually it didn’t say what I thought; there was no mention of staff; it read “NO AUTHORISED ENTRY!” It seemed to me extraordinary that a department store with a nationwide reputation should make such an error and even worse make no attempt to put it right. I fully expected the door to be locked but I gave it a firm push anyway, there was a little click and it swung gently open. I don’t know what I expected; possibly staff toilets and dressing-rooms, but the first thing I noticed was the change in the light. It was considerably brighter, not that the odd kitchenware area had been dimly lit , but also remarkably clear and natural, like daylight. Then I saw the paintings: large oil paintings of figures, very well executed, on the four walls of the room I was in. Opposite me was a study of a young man, sitting upright on a bed amidst drapery which prevented his being totally naked. From some invisible window or other aperture high up to the right from the artist’s viewpoint a beam of light illuminated the upper torso, shoulders and neck in voluptuous detail; the skin texture glowed golden and the contours of the musculature were delineated with sensual relish. The effect was so extreme that the highlighted portion of his anatomy seemed to have an existence independent of the rest. I tore my gaze away to take in the other 3 paintings. On the right hand wall there was a nude, a woman seated at her dressing table mirror putting up her hair, a classic pose, but the angle of the mirror had been used to draw attention to her breasts, abdomen and upper thighs in brilliant reflection. I turned to the other two: one was a nude male athlete throwing a javelin, the other a girl or very young woman, propped up on one elbow on a dishevelled bed. Again, in each case, a particular part of the body and its charms had been highlighted to an almost indecent degree. As a whole the paintings were more than competent, skilfully executed and designed, but this almost pornographic focus was not only disturbing and robbed them of balance and unity.
All thought of finding stairs or a member of staff to show me the way out had been forgotten. Once I had finished examining the paintings (I was by no means immune to their appeal, whatever my feelings about their artistic merit) I walked through the narrow opening opposite the door and found myself in another little room hung with paintings. I realised that the space had been turned into a gallery by the erection of party walls. What I couldn’t understand was the source of the light, which was ideal for displaying the pictures, even, cool but strong enough to reveal every detail.
In all there were four rooms and about twenty canvases, all large oils and each shamelessly celebrating some part of the human form. On the far side of the fourth room there was an ordinary white door with a handle, which opened quite normally for me.
I found myself in a smaller version of the kitchenware department, a longish room full of glass display cabinets but there the resemblance ended. Each cabinet displayed a single object only. I walked up to the first one to try to work out exactly what I was seeing. In the cabinet was a sculpture of the chest, shoulder and neck of the boy in the first painting; I say a sculpture but it didn’t look as if it was made of any inanimate material. Like the painted version it glowed with life and allure but in three entirely convincing dimensions. I walked round the cabinet to check where the illusion ended; the natural curves continued round the sides but the merged into a flat fibrous surface where the back would have been. I had no idea what this material was or whether it was the same as what appeared to be living human tissue in the front. I wandered about inspecting the contents of different cabinets, each corresponding to one of the paintings as far as I could remember. I must admit I lingered by some, admiring and wondering. It was during one of these periods I heard a polite cough behind me, whirled round and found myself facing a serious-looking, tall, almost cadaverous figure in what looked like an expensive blazer and flannels.
“I was just looking,” I stammered foolishly.
“That’s quite all right, sir. I didn’t mean to intrude. You are welcome to handle the items if you so wish.”
“The cabinets open very easily from the top. May I carry that pot for you sir?? The objects are not heavy but really require two hands to lift them out.” I handed the pot over, opened the cabinet I was by and very gingerly made to lift the sculpture out. When my fingers came into contact with it I gave a little cry and instantly let go. The skin surface was not only realistically pliable but warm; it felt alive, and responsive to my touch, though this may have been my imagination. I glanced round at the assistant, if that’s what he was, and he nodded and smiled encouragingly. I nerved myself to try again and successfully lifted the whole thing out. The dark, fibrous material on the back was also warm, though not quite flesh temperature, but rough to the touch; it appeared to merge into skin seamlessly, as if every molecule was transformed at the fuzzy border. The rest was a deeply disturbing but beautiful miracle; I was holding a wonderfully proportioned torso and shoulders that looked and felt alive and perfect.
“Please feel free to examine others, as many as you wish,” said the sales assistant. I did as he suggested and found the miracle repeated every time. I asked him, after a while, if he could tell me anything about the materials, the manufacturing process or the artist responsible, if there was one.
“I’m afraid all I can tell you, sir, is that they are very durable. I can guarantee that they will last you. As for their production I have no idea but I’m sure it would be a closely guarded secret.. Please feel free to continue to peruse the artefacts. If you decide you wish to purchase one, I can handle all details of the sale down here – but there’s no pressure whatsoever to buy of course.” At this point I remembered my need to find a way out – and my anger.
“I came in here looking for the way out, quite by accident. I couldn’t find a way to summon the lift, couldn’t see any directions to an exit and you are the only member of staff I have come across. It’s really not good enough.”
“I’m really most dreadfully sorry, sir. I’m afraid there’s only me down here, the floor manager. I think you may have been taken to the freight elevator station somehow; the lifts here are a bit of a law unto themselves. I’d be glad to show you to the stairs of course.”
I thanked him, looked at the piece I was carrying, hesitated and said:
“I suppose they are very expensive – I imagine they must be.”
“This one, sir, if I remember rightly, is only ….”
And he named a sum I found surprisingly modest and well within my means; I have paid more for a painting. I couldn’t resist. I knew exactly which one I wanted.
The whole transaction was flawlessly handled and the item neatly packed in a box with a handle. The floor manager asked me if I wanted the cooking pot as well and I explained I was looking for something that would work as a pressure cooker.
“Ah electrical and other modern items like that are on the mezzanine floor, sir. I can show you how to get there. Follow me. I’ll return this.” So saying he put down the pot, led me through the little gallery, out through another blind entrance, down a short, shabby corridor, unlocked a heavy door at the end and there was a flight of bare concrete stairs in front of us.
“The mezzanine is through the first door you come to, on your right on the third landing, sir. I’ll accompany you if you wish.”
I said I could manage and thanked him.
“I do hope that your purchase provides you with every satisfaction,” he said and gave a curious little half bow. The stairs were surprisingly long. I didn’t count them but I was out of breath by the time I arrived at the third landing. There was the door all right. I pushed through and it closed silently behind me. I looked around and almost immediately saw a notice that said “Electricals” pointing off to my left. As I went I realised that I couldn’t really see the door I had just come through; there might have been a faint outline but not one I would ever have noticed if I hadn’t known it was there.
I quickly found a whole range of pressure cookers and chose a pretty up-market one for my sister, went up to the ground floor to collect my other packages and returned home well satisfied with my Xmas shopping. I was of course also looking forward to unpacking and admiring my “sculpture” at home, though I did feel a little shamefaced at my self-indulgence.
My presents that christmas went down well, I felt, though I might have momentarily detected an expression of slight disappointment on my sister’s face. Maybe she was hoping for something less domestic.
So I am left the possessor of this disturbing, utterly beautiful and outrageously seductive, half-living object. I have to admit that I have not felt able to put it on display for all to see but keep it in a cupboard when I have visitors. I have been many times to the same department store but have found no trace of the lower ground floor. What I and that unusual floor manager called the mezzanine is just the basement and not a very deep one at that.