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Saturday, 18 May 2019


Available for freelance writing commissions on a variety of subjects including family history, nostalgic Belfast and its famous people, shops, shoppers & shopping, the golden age of Hollywood (esp westerns) and humorous pieces on life's weird and wonderful. Op-eds, columns, non-fiction book reviews too. & @JoeCushnan

It is hard to believe that Princess Diana left us over twenty years ago. She was loved, admired and respected by many people, but she was also criticized and ridiculed by others, and she has become an everlasting cash machine like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as book after book of unseen photographs and unheard gossip are published and conspiracy theories trickle out into the public domain. In Royal Family history and amongst us commoners, she will never be forgotten, whatever side opinions take. Instead of this piece of writing being morbid, I would like to share a true story that happened on the day of Diana’s funeral. I will get to it shortly but first some background to my understanding of the human condition.

I was in retail management for a long, long time, longer than some criminals get for major crimes and the general public never let me down with their weird and wonderful ways. I cut my shop-keeping teeth with an after school job at the Mace supermarket on the Glen Road, Belfast in the days when customers could come in and ask for two ounces of cheese, a couple of rashers and ‘two of them thin wee sausages, son’. I was not yet a teenager but I was let loose on the bacon slicer. Health and safety was far into the future. I remember wearing out my fingernails removing stubborn sticky price labels off tins of Master McGrath dog food, a sign that working in shops is not all laughs and excitement. My first full-time retail job was with Stewarts on the Newtownards Road and then at their hypermarket partnership with Penney’s out near Dunmurry. (Gloria Hunniford was a customer. I was in love with her!) I was learning the retail ropes and slowly realizing that the customer is far from being always right. 

British Home Stores, Belfast was my next career move and probably the best fun I can remember in more than thirty-five years in and around shops. We encountered more than our fair share of characters and chancers, especially where ladies’ hats were concerned. Sales surged on Fridays, as did refunds on Mondays. “It wasn’t suitable, and that make-up on the inside rim was there when I got it home.” Yeah, we thought, let’s see the wedding photos. I moved around the UK with BHS, then on to Makro and Asda. I went from being a greenhorn to a grizzled veteran in what seemed like the blink of an eye. I was in an industry that could be defined as the university of life. We experienced just about every human specimen and temperament possible, mostly good people, to borrow marketing parlance, legal, decent, honest and truthful. But at the other end of the spectrum, the blockheads and ignoramuses who tried it on to get some goodwill cash or freebies.

I could tell you the stories of the young woman who complained that parts of a tree were in her curry ready meal and describe her ‘redner’ when I pointed out it was some bay leaves; or the guy with a slurring voice who claimed that a bottle of bleach had jumped off the shelf and attacked him, ruining his leather jacket; or the man who was horrified to find glass in his tinned salmon only to feel rather silly when I pointed out it was rock salt; or the eejit in the chin-to-boot thick overcoat on a sweltering day who couldn’t for the life of him explain why he had pockets full of unpaid for food and drink; or the gentleman (me, always polite) who demanded that each individual item be wrapped in a separate carrier bag; or the jack-the-lad who said he found a piece in metal in his bread and wanted an apology, some gift vouchers…… and a set of garden furniture. Oh, the public. What a carry on! And, no, yer man didn’t get his patio refurnished. But regarding Princess Diana, this true story is a peach. I have stretched it a bit for entertainment purposes but at its core, it happened.

It is not often I can remember the exact dates of customer complaints but Saturday, 6 September 1997 stands out because it was the day of Diana’s funeral and a quite bizarre incident occurred.  In order to give everybody a chance to watch the funeral on TV, most shops closed on that morning.  Later, at two o’clock, we reopened and within ten minutes, I was called to see a customer. As I got closer, I noticed red mist around her head, cheeks a-flush, hands on hips and a trace of steam coming out of her ears.  As a sharp personality analyser, I detected she was annoyed about something.  (Now bear in mind the sadness of the day.)  

"I am furious,” she began.  “I have just driven my new car into your car park and I drove over a McDonald’s milkshake carton, causing the contents to splash out all over my new tyres.  What are you going to do about it?”  

I stood staring at her like a rabbit locking onto the full beams of a juggernaut, my face frozen, and wondering if I had just heard what I thought I heard.  

She looked at me and said, with menace, not unlike Bette Davis in that Baby Jane film, “Well?” 

My head was searching for the number of a psychiatrist or a hit man.  Eventually my mouth uttered an apology and an offer of a free car wash.  She demanded the full wax and polish and I thought but didn’t say, “Yeah, first the car and then you, baby.”  

I agreed to her demands and she stomped out of the shop. (This is where I really stretch the tale.)  As it was raining, I was doubly cheesed off but I went out in my big mac to retrieve the milkshake carton that had caused the mcflurry.  The woman who had made an unhappy meal of it had gone.  It had been a burger of a day.

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