“Sorry about the wait,” she said.
I looked around. Was she talking to me? It appeared that she was.
“No worries,” I said, even though I’m not Australian and had not in fact been waiting for any amount of time at all. In fact, I had simply strolled unhindered to the counter of the well-known sandwich and coffee shop with the French name, chicken and jalapeno wrap in hand, to be greeted almost instantaneously by the apologetic assistant.
This was my first visit to the new St David’s Shopping Centre that opened last week in Cardiff City Centre. I’m not noted for my love of shopping so was somewhat surprised by how keen I was to suss the place out. I parked the old banger in the new car park, which affords the childish and idiotic a splendid opportunity to make screech noises as you wind your vehicle up the endless, helter-skelter in reverse style ramp. Once parked I resolved to go investigate the centre – immediately amending this plan as I looked at my watch and heard the familiar gurgles from beneath my jumper.
It was lunchtime.
I smiled back. Sincere or otherwise, I like smiles. Smiles are good. Smiles are better than scowls – perhaps due to their comparative infrequency when in such establishments.
“Have you tried this one before?” she asked, taking the wrap and scanning its barcode. What was going on here?
“Um,” I said, somewhat thrown by this wanton attack of friendliness. Giving it a bit more thought I added, “No.”
“Oh, this one’s great. Really good combination of flavours. I love it.”
Was she related to Greg Wallace, I wondered.
“Excellent. I’ll look forward to eating it,” I replied, ashamed at my lack of creativity in the face of such bonhomie. Frankly, my brain is programmed for disgruntled, silent anger; accustomed to Muttley like grumblings at poor customer service and general rudeness. It was unprepared and found wanting by a shop assistant with such a cheery disposition.
I took my wrap and left.
St David’s is one shiny new shopping centre. A behemoth of glass and stone and designer labels it’s an enormous site that joins the old St David’s shopping centre with The Hayes and, frankly has altered the appearance of Cardiff so markedly that as I entered the imperiously named Grand Arcade I felt as though I were suddenly a stranger in my home city. I had visions of myself talking to my kids, paraphrasing my own grandparents with comments like:
“I remember when this area was all car park and run down bakeries and travel agents.”
Of course, being the new kid on the block there was a definite feeling of the place striving to make a good impression. Among older, established residents, I suppose it feels the need to make friends quickly. Which is, I think, the reason behind the disconcerting levels of good manners. Walking through the Grand Arcade, noting the designer names and global brands, trying to ignore the melting of my mouth’s roof from hot jalapeno, I couldn’t help be somewhat impressed by the effort the place was making to be liked. Orange clad marketeers drifted about like Oompa Loompa’s on Red Bull, eagerly trying to ascertain the shoppers opinions. People with little name tags wandered around, smiling at nothing in particular while cleaners prowled the undercover streets, seizing upon litter with predatory poise. As I dared step into an electrical store that shall remain nameless (sounds like a traditional Indian dish – but that’s the only clue I’m giving) I was seized upon by a young chap who had clearly been on the same smiling course as the sandwich shop assistant. Declaring himself a camera specialist, and thereby distancing himself from the stereotype, he positively enthused over his subject and began engaging in unpatronising conversation that seemed, on face value, to suggest that a) he knew what he was talking about and b) he was interested in what I was looking for. I’m sure it disappointed him no end to discover that all I was actually looking for was a glass of water to abate the raging fire in my gob.
I’m sure the gloss will wear off St David’s, maybe the politeness too. Human nature seems to expect that to happen. And, as Christmas approaches any mass arena of retail has the potential to descend to a lower circle of Hell, bringing out the insane and barbarous in all – which will surely test the new found spirit of helpfulness to the max. But, you know what – for a site that, when all’s said and done is nothing more than bricks and mortar (and glass) to be able to proudly boast that it weighs as much as 208 blue whales – then for now, I’m prepared to accept it as one of us.