I head off sub-shopping on my bike. (Sub-shopping involves telling your conscious mind you are going out for a bike ride, and you might just stop off at a shop if you happen to pass: that way you’re not too disappointed when they have nothing at all to sell you except bad dry Brazilian biscuits and nylon undergarments). I pass the non-smelly dump (pleasing to me, disappointing to the mangy hungry dogs that slink away as I approach). The path is so narrow that the stiff grasses tickle my spokes, playing harp melodies. I splash through some mud and almost stall, heaving the pedals manically round so I won’t have to stop and put a foot down into three-inch bog. Nearly there now- not that I’m heading anywhere in particular of course... I get superstitious about setting my heart on things.
Aishalton is the shopping capital of the Deep South. We have four shops which are clearly distinguishable from homes (as long as you know where to look-and look hard!). Their stock overlaps on a very few staples: jam (always guava or pineapple), tomato paste, tinned ‘sausages’ (the EU regulations would burst into flames at the merest pong of them as you open the can) and baking powder. Otherwise they specialise: one in hardware, one in cleanliness, one in luxury goods (coke and oreos, and we even saw apples once but they’d all gone by the time it was our turn), and one in cheapness, playing cards and brightly coloured, terrifyingly shiny-fabricked brassieres.
First I find myself at Fortnum and Mason’s. First impressions are so important in attracting a certain kind of customer. Not only is the veranda floor tiled, it’s so clean you could eat your dinner off it. You enter the emporium and are immediately met by a clean glass counter with stationery, hair scrunchies and Pink Lady lip gloss. The shelves are tidy, but not exactly embarrassed with overstock at this stage of the rainy season. I come away with just two sachets of FlavorAid (violently coloured chemical drink flavouring which nevertheless masks the smoky odour of fireside-boiled drinking water).
Next stop is Morrison’s. It is neighbourly and proclaims its wares on cheery posters, but the “more reasons more reasons more reasons” leave me dissatisfied and wondering whether ever to come back in just the same way Morrison’s does: less reasons less reasons less reasons. Less food too. Still, she does stock “cook in me and I’ll feed you all week” pans, pins, pens, barbed wire, bolts and blowtorches. AND her guava jam is fractionally in the lead (I saw seeds in it once). She stocks chicken, potatoes and onions, but doesn’t have any of them this week. I nearly buy tinned mixed vegetables but I’m just not quite that desperate yet. Next!
Our third emporium has two strong Lidl resemblances: the eclectic ad-hoc stock, and the harassed and miserable looking staff. Also like Lidl, they have the best value and widest (!) range as long as you don’t insist on something in particular. It looks like an Aladdin’s cave of nylon, plastic and tins. The staff often disappear into the dark rear of the shop. Sometimes they come back. The beer is out there. There is often a crowd of drunk men by lunchtime. I buy coke (which in England I never drink but outside is a must somehow), a different brand of EU-scandalising pseudo-sausage (not a halal chicken Vienna!), some perceptibly firm potatoes, and garlic in some improbably professional-looking packaging. B and I will marvel over that for a while when I get home, speculating on its carbon footprint, which I’m sure will be nothing to almost any item we would buy at Sainsbury’s. That’s one thing about shopping here: no refrigeration means no transported perishables. We generate a standard (Lidl-size) bag of rubbish here in the time we would fill a dustbin at home.
Last stop is perhaps the most mysterious of all. Let us call it The Old Curiosity Shop. I suspect the tins of unidentifiable fish of being Dickensian anyway. In Georgetown, we realised with a profound shock that this is where China sends the stuff it doesn’t want. The unnamed tinned fish here looks familiar. Perhaps it is fried dace from China. Curiouser and curiouser, perhaps it is the very cans of fried dace we turned our noses up at in the Gobi desert. That would larn us! The red bra dangling in front of my nose gleams reproachfully. The umbrellas are fetching, and the Chery Chempagne drink positively delicious. But my enquiries for eggs, beef, chicken and onions are all met with the kind of sullen incredulity appropriate to trying to buy such items in a lingerie store. They do in fact usually sell the above, but it’s hard to believe from the flat finality with which my queries are rebuffed. Still, B got even shorter shrift last time- when he asked if there was any beef, they replied “Not in YOUR size!” I’ll leave it to you to deduce the error from context. I am an English teacher, after all...
Time to go home. After two hours of touring, we have enough for a strange, stodgy, protein-free meal. A successful shopping trip.