The End of the Arndale
It was the last year that January sales were a real thing. We were braving the shopping centre. There was a feeling of unease right from the get-go, right from when we were going in. Well. No. Before that. People were leaving as we went in and those people leaving looked fraught beyond the usual. Faces verging on unhappy.
The first thing was the smell of burning plastic. The second was the pale haze that we noticed thickening in the air as we milled and pushed our way around. Not smoke, not quite, but something like smoke. We didn’t know what it was and neither did anybody else. People were just standing and sniffing or wincing and blocking up the thoroughfares.
The third thing was the lost little boy. We saw him standing there near a railing, with his hands up near his face. We thought at first that he was crying but we weren’t sure. Then we saw that he was crying, definitely. Or maybe he just started then at that very moment. His mouth opened and the sound came out. He was wearing a tiny parka and had his forefingers pressed against the tops of his cheeks for some reason. In amongst the sobs he was calling for his mother. Then he started walking very fast. We went after him, saying hey, shouting hey, wait there, we’ll find your mother. There was a crowd of us all chasing him. We lost sight of him sometimes but his voice was high and loud and easy to follow. Then he was caught up in some kind of fortuitous pincer, as a group of us approached him from the opposite direction. So we got him and once we got him we kept him there, saying don’t worry we’ll find your parents. Just don’t move around in case they’re coming here to find you.
One of us went to get a shop assistant but by the time the shop assistant came back there was a man there holding the little boy’s hand and the man was telling us all don’t worry, he’s OK, it’s OK, I’m his dad, he’s always running off. The man was shaking his head as he said these things. He seemed embarrassed. We didn’t know if he was the boy’s father or not but it would have been wrong to assume that he wasn’t and anyway, the boy had stopped crying, so we let them go.
The fourth thing was the second lost, crying child. Then we saw another and then a fourth. A fifth. It was as if there was one outside every shop, on every corner, one at the top of every jammed escalator. Their parents were all shopping we thought, or what else could they be doing?
Eventually the jammed escalators started squealing but there was nobody with the sufficient know-how around to turn them off. That burning plastic smell got stronger and stronger and the air more and more opaque. Everybody was of a mind to just get out by this point but so many people together in one place – it’s difficult to do much of anything. So it took most of us too long.