Dear Mrs Womble

I write with the unenviable purpose of complaining about the appalling service I received at your establishment, the EasySave Megamart, on Thursday last. I make no apologies for the bluntness of my opening remark. I speak as I find, as Mrs Mountjoy of the Rotary Club knitting circle found out to her dismay last week. Oh yes, I have no doubt that after those stern words I had with her beside the white elephant stall at the mayor's garden party, she'll think twice in future before using a crochet hook to publically lance her neck boil. "Ada," I said to her. "Ada, there's a time and a place for experimental surgery, and it is not during the Bramley Scout Pack's annual Whitsun picnic."

I expect my use of the word 'appalling' brought you up pretty sharp, didn't it? Yes well, I'm not likely to apologise for that, either. I choose my words carefully, as my regular correspondents will fall over themselves to tell you. I recently wrote to Mr Brandreth from the leisure centre and had occasion to resort to the word 'shocking', a course of action that I did not take lightly. Similarly, in a recent missive to the borough council on the subject of the dog do outside the library, I thought long and hard about 'disgusting' and my decision to underline the word 'disgraceful' was something I agonized over for several days. And some time ago, in a forthright communication to the BBC, I felt it proper to include two 'franklys' and a 'well really' so don't go thinking that I am the kind of person who is prepared to mince words just for the sake of someone's feelings.

But you're leading me astray. Returning to the point, to wit the disgraceful levels of service I received last Thursday. Now, I know what you're going to say, so do yourself a favour and hold your wind, because I'm about to run rings around you. I know your establishment operates exclusively on the self-service principle, and whilst I may not be entirely comfortable with rifling through cucumbers and bagging my own sprouts, I appreciate that I cannot stand in the way of progress. I still remember rationing, when surviving on a handful of runner beans was all part of the war effort, and if the man next door offered my mother a nibble of his plumbs she'd close her eyes, think of England and be grateful for small mercies.

It's like I said to Mrs Burkenshaw in the post office the other day. "Listen Kitty," I said. "If these people want to dispense with the troublesome inconvenience of employees and replace them with machines, who am I to argue? If the alternative is to have my crusty loaf manhandled by some red-faced teenager with greasy hair, impetigo and acne like the flock wallpaper in the Star of Bengal, repeatedly passing it over the bar code reader like she's trying to plane it down one slice at a time, then let's take a leap into the future, that's what I say." ...Although I might wish that your automated tills could sound a little less 'up themselves'. Sometimes popping in for a few knick-knacks and a savoury pastry is a little like being interrogated by a cross between a surly car park attendant and something out of Flash Gordon, and if this is the shape of things to come then I think it was a black day indeed when they came up with the Speak and Spell.

No, I'm fully aware that self-service means that if I'm not happy, then I've got no one to blame but myself. That's as may be, but it's no excuse for letting standards slip, and the day we allow these incidents to pass without comment is the day we may as well all pack up and go and live on the continent.

So, it was last Thursday - the 14th, unless I'm mistaken, and I don't think I am, because it was the very same day, ten years earlier, that I first had the pleasure of a Rogan Josh. Didn't do much for me, to be honest. Anyway, this Thursday I called in to purchase a family sized tin of pineapple chunks, on the occasion of an impending visitation from my niece. Now there's a difficult girl to cater for. I've never known anyone demonstrate such an aversion to pickled eggs, and the speed with which she can turn her nose up at a cocktail sausage beggars belief.

Now, I don't normally buy pineapple chunks for myself. Ever since the late lamented Mr Womble passed over to that great potting shed in the sky, I've rarely found a use for the things. I've got nothing against them, you understand. There's a little corner of Acacia Avenue where pineapple chunks will invariably find a cordial welcome, it's just that they rarely form part of my entertainment inventory. Nevertheless, I always ensure that I have some to hand whenever my niece is due to call, but on this occasion - due to your company's irritating habit of regularly rearranging your store as if it's some blasted Chinese puzzle - I couldn't locate them. In a less progressive establishment I would, of course, have turned to some friendly assistant who would track them down for me. The EazySave Megamart being noticeably devoid of friendly assistants, I had little option but to adhere to the self-service principal and direct my enquiry to myself.

Well, I was quite unprepared for the response I got. I hope I'm no shrinking violet. A woman of the world, in fact. Put it this way, I've seen things that would make your toes curl, but it still took my breath away when I politely tapped myself on the shoulder, asked myself where the tinned pineapple was and gave myself a mouthful of abuse in reply.

Yes well, many people may have let such insolence pass. Many might turn the other cheek, mark it down to experience and never speak of it again, but frankly I'm not that soft. I simply will not tolerate being spoken to in that manner - certainly not by myself. I placed a firm hand on my shoulder and with an 'Excuse me!' that wouldn't have been out of place in the seedier quarters of downtown Marrakesh, I demand that I direct myself to the family sized tins of pineapple chunks in syrup forthwith. It surely cannot be beyond the bounds of civility, I recall myself reasoning at the time, to gracefully acquiesce to such a politely spoken request. But no, apparently that's not the way I do things. In response, I rounded on myself quite angrily with what to the best of my ability I can only describe as a snarl. I was so surprised by my own behaviour that I involuntarily took two paces back from myself.

Well you don't expect to encounter this sort of conduct in your local grocery store, do you? Certainly not in the frozen food section anyway, which is where this altercation took place. You would expect the wreaths of freezing fog rolling off the turkey fillets to cool any unnecessarily hot temperaments, and the glassy eyeballs of so many gormless haddock gawping out at you from behind their frosted windows are hardly calculated to inflame the blood.

It's really not on. I know that these days it's all supersonic travel, microwave comestibles and nuclear oven chips, but I'll have you know that good old fashioned manners have not been given the heave-ho down at the better end of Acacia Avenue. Oh, I realise that anyone walking down the high street with their eyes even half open might be fooled into thinking that the traditional 'how do you do?' and friendly wave has been entirely superseded by a vacant stare and a series of hand gestures complicated enough to fool all but the most cunning of Bletchley Park boffins. I understand that what passes for polite conversation in some quarters nowadays is enough to make the hairs on Mrs Gladstone's cockapoo stand up. And I speak as someone who was more than happy to lend her weight in the soup kitchens on Greatorex Street back when MacMillian was telling us that we'd never had it so good. You got used to colourful language when you were up to your elbows in oxtail, I can tell you. All the same, I don't think it's too much to expect a touch of common courtesy while I'm out buying my provisions, which is why I am moved to put Parker to parchment now.

And by the way, don't go fooling yourself into thinking that this is not a matter of some considerable importance. My niece is a very busy young lady - and she has connections, oh yes. She once shared a taxi with a woman that did the wigs on Carry on Columbus - so think on, you're dealing with the jet set here. She may not be able to visit me very often, but when she does, by God you had better hope there are pineapple chunks on the menu, because I won't be held responsible for the repercussions.

Anyway, I haven't finished telling you about my awful ordeal, because the story doesn't end there. I found myself jabbing myself repeatedly in the chest. "Just who do you think you're talking to?" I asked myself. "You come swanning in here, all high and mighty, and think you have a God-given right to speak to yourself like dirt, with all this self-important pompous talk about blinking pineapple chunks!" At this point I tried to interrupt myself, but I wouldn't let myself get a work in edgeways, and rolled on with my rant. "I will not allow myself to be spoken to by myself like that. And kindly have the decency to look myself in the eye when I speak to myself." And with a final tap on the breastbone I suggested that if it was pineapple chunks I was after, I'd be better off if I went and looked for them myself, instead of bothering myself with my own rude and ignorant demands.

Well really. That's no way to be talking to the runner up in the East Sussex Women's Guild charity bake-off 1968. Little did I know when that title was thrust upon me that my fondant fancies, which received special mention in the Pidloe Examiner, would fail to earn me the respect of the retail staff of my local supermarket. Well I wasn't going to hang around after that, pineapple chunks or no pineapple chunks, so gathering up whatever shreds of dignity I had left, I marched on out of there, resolving never to darken your etcetera.

Unfortunately, what I hadn't realised was that I had my half-filled basket with me and was technically shoplifting. Now, this is where it gets complicated. Being a fine upstanding pillar of the community - it was me that shopped Mrs Albumen to the RSPCA for feeding her moggy on own-brand cat meat and offcuts of flaky pastry - I naturally attempted to perform a citizen's arrest. Well that was doomed to failure. Picture the scene: I've just grievously insulted myself, I'm bereft of pineapple chunks, I'm expecting my niece to phone to say she's on her way at any moment, and to top it all the new brassiere I'm wearing is riding up something chronic, so by now I'm feeling that this is not the best of all possible worlds. Do you imagine I'm going to take kindly to being citizen's arrested? No I am not. If you think I'm going to come quietly when I still got eight pounds of sprouts at home that need blanching, then you've got another think coming.

I made a break for it, high tailing it across the car park and through the alleyway between the butcher's and the new shop that's just opened selling scented candles and bits of twig painted silver. Unfortunately, I'm just as tenacious as I am stubborn, so I gave chase, rugby tackled myself to the ground and gave myself what they would describe at the rougher end of Maybourne Terrace as 'a damn good kicking'.

I hope you don't think that this is an acceptable way for your customers to behave towards themselves. An innocent query followed by an understandable mistake should not result in ear bashing, a headlong flight and an untidy scuffle in full view of a shop full of hippies buying new-age whatnots and tape recordings of whale songs. I think an apology would be appropriate, at the very least, and possibly compensation in the form of a selection of wholemeal vouchers and tinned fruit. Not pineapple chunks though since, as it turned out, my niece once again had to cancel her visit, and I already have a cupboard full of the things left over from previously aborted stopovers. It's a pity, of course, as she had been intending to stay until Sunday, and I was planning to introduce her to Mrs Edmonton, who's always boring the undergarments off everyone about how well her son is doing in Perth.

Still, it can't be helped, and I'm sure she'll make in next time. And it does give me another free weekend to catch up on my correspondence. In the meantime I can look forward to receiving your heartfelt apologies, and whatever items you intend to send in reparation.

My very best wishes

Edna Womble

Mrs Edna Womble

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