I've been invited to an adults-only Christmas Eve Dinner at V---'s in Brighton. When I last heard, there will be anything up to eleven of us, depending on who can actually come on the night. Dress is to be classy but comfortable. It'll be a very pleasant evening.
I offered to cook something and bring it along, but V--- wouldn't have it. However, she said, could I bring some nice champagne instead? Indeed I could.
Not wanting to get caught out by looking for champagne too close to the day, I decided to see what the main supermarkets were offering, and buy whatever appealed. The first step was to visit MoneySavingExpert.com and find out what they had to say about cheap champagne for Christmas and the New Year - see http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-champagne-sparkling-wine. From that webpage I made a shortlist of what to look out for in the supermarkets within easy reach of my home:
Veuve Clicquot on offer at £27, formerly sold at £37.
André Carpentier for £13, was £26.
Moët and Chandon for £25, was £33.
Heidsieck Blue Top for £15, was £30.
Pierre Darcys for £10, was £24.
Comte be Brismard for £10, was £13.
Veuve Monsigny for £10, was also presumably £13.
None of these stores was exactly on my doorstep, and the cost of a round trip in Fiona would have to be factored in - anything up to £3, depending on whether it was a one-store dash, or a try-them-all crawl. ASDA was not quite the closest - Lidl was - but parking at ASDA would be free, and that store had the longest list of bargains on my shortlist. So 'logically' ASDA needed to be my first port of call. If they didn't have anything I fancied, then I would go next to Aldi, then Sainsbury's, and then Lidl. Tesco wasn't a store I enjoyed visiting, and so it came last.
Actually, I disliked ASDA even more than Tesco. But I decided to set aside prejudices and past bad impressions, and make for ASDA first.
I set off mid-afternoon, but it was dull, and the light had almost gone when I reached ASDA. The first space I parked in seemed vulnerable to careless drivers who didn't pay attention to where they were going, so I moved Fiona into another space where she might be shielded from a crash. The store itself was unchanged from my last visit. It didn't help that I was unfamiliar with the layout, but a sense of oppression and exhaustion set in almost at once. I think I was reacting to the customers. These were people of a kind you never saw in Waitrose. They looked untidy, unstylish, tired, harrassed, and they made me feel the same. Thank goodness I'd come at a time when they weren't very busy. When ASDA is seething, it's unbearable.
Well, I found the drinks section, and, after a search, the champagnes. Let me say at once that I know precious little about champagne. Of course I was aware of the big names. But not Pierre Darcy, for instance. The labelling on the bottle put me off. It looked cheap and nasty. Same for the Heidsieck Blue Top, although a man in an tatty fur-trimmed jacket grabbed four Blue Tops in his big hands and popped them into his trolley. He was surely mouthing 'bloody good bargain, yeah' as he did so. He didn't look as if he had a well-paid job, but nevertheless he had chucked £60 worth of booze into his trolley, just like that. £60 worth! Phew. It amazes me how important booze is to so many people, and what people consider to be 'priority expenditure'.
I was still hesitating. No, the 'bargains' looked way too tacky. I had no confidence that the fluid within would be exceptional. Predictably, I played for safety and reached up for one of the yellow boxes containing Veuve Clicquot. This would cost me £30. It wasn't much of a bargain - my list told me that if I bought Veueve Clicquot at Sainsbury's instead, it would cost me only £27. But it was now dark outside, and the late-afternoon traffic was building up, and Sainsbury's was a few miles away. Did I really want to blow £2 worth of diesel getting there? Or any of the other stores? I did not.
I took my champagne to the till. There was a potential problem. The box had a bar code that scanned, but the bottle itself should have had a tag to cut off. In my local Waitrose we'd have a good chuckle over this, they would apologise to me for the hold-up, while somebody checked to see whether a tag should have been present. Meanwhile the other customers would simply wait good-naturedly. The queue at my till in ASDA didn't look nearly so easy-going. However, it was all right. I escaped before things turned ugly.
So ASDA got my cash. I don't think they'll get any more though, not for some time.
I really do think there's something very wrong with the atmosphere in ASDA. It isn't the staff (they are friendly and helpful), it isn't the green colour scheme (the lime green they use suggests freshness; and besides Waitrose also uses a green colour scheme), and it isn't the layout (you can get used to that). There is something going on - perhaps a subliminal background drone? - that numbs your brain. One woman nearly barged into me with her trolley. She stopped just in time. 'Sorry, love, I've switched off,' she said. So it wasn't just me. The atmosphere affected other customers too.
Mind you, although the muscled thugs I've seen at ASDA in the past weren't there, a lot of the customers do have a cross, over-assertive look about them that develops from difficult working conditions, low income, poor housing, and unhappy kids. If you're chronically living under stress, you take stress everywhere you go, and spread it about. I might be picking up on that.
And perhaps I feel out of place because I am not stuck in a dead-end job with a family to feed, and facing yet another expensive Christmas that can't be afforded. If I were, maybe champagne would seem much more important. When there is nothing much to celebrate, perhaps popping a few corks is a great consolation.