The seventh circle of (shopping) hell

Oxford Circus on a Friday night is, one imagines, akin to being in the seventh circle of Hell. Just making it out of the tube station is a fight for survival, but once you hit the main concourse that’s when the struggle really begins. As you navigate the constant stream of dazed shoppers and excited tourists you find yourself sympathising for salmon in their battle to make it upstream. Everyone seems to be going in the opposite direction to you. In this no man’s land they are your enemies, yet when you scan their hostile faces you see your own plight reflected back at you as if in a mirror. Your bags become lead in your hands, your feet heavier still.

When the need to escape this throng of lemmings becomes overwhelming you duck into a department store, but after wandering amongst the over-painted perfume ladies their cloying scents make you heady and nauseous. You are losing focus and you know it. Panic bubbles furiously in the cauldron of your stomach. Beads of sweat nudge down your temples like a landslide. “Can I help you, Madam?” says a perfume lady. ‘Yes,’ you want to scream, ‘please help me! I’ve no idea what I’m doing here and I want so desperately to go home! And, while you’re at it, can you tell me why it’s so interminably hot in here?’ But of course you don’t say that. You just give her a strained smile, and beat as hasty a retreat to the exit as you can whilst maintaining the shred of dignity you still have left.

Gasping in the air outside the shop you scan the pavement for a break in the plasma flow of fellow humankind. When that break comes you run as fast as your heavy feet will carry you back to the tube, eschewing the advances of the Evening Standard seller as he tries to thrust a paper into your clammy hands. And within minutes you are cocooned in the carriage of the tube train, speeding away from the place that has tormented you, empty-handed but immeasurably relieved.

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