Tommy Who?

It was a particularly stifling, hot and humid day on the Mediterranean island of Malta. It was the middle of summer and I was in the beautiful and historic capital, Valletta. The oppressive heat, combined with the high humidity of around seventy-five percent, meant that anywhere with air-conditioned relief was a particularly attractive proposition. The heat from the blazing hot sun was so intense that you could feel your skin burning if you stood in it for even just a few minutes. Shelter was a godsend, if you could find it, and shade was at a premium. For those reasons, along with the “Up to 70% Off” sale sign and my inherited and irresistible Maltese frugal gene, I made the decision to wander into the exclusive, high fashion and notoriously expensive menswear shop; a place that a fashion-challenged person like me would not normally venture into.
I had just finished my usual “flat white” at the funky Piadina Café. The Piadina is a hole-in-the-wall type of place in Saint Lucia Street that is small in size but big on smiles and interesting company. I start most Maltese days at the Piadina with a coffee and a copy of the Times of Malta. The clientele is an eclectic mix of tourists, business professionals, artisans, musicians and other people who work locally and who often seem to be in the mood to chat. I have taught Giada, the Italian proprietor and chief deliverer of smiles, what Australians mean when they ask for a “flat white”: a cappuccino without the froth, although “froth” did take some time to translate, as I recall. She in turn, has instructed the subsidiary deliverers of smiles, the pretty Maltese waitresses, Maria and Ritienne and the exotic Haitian via Italy, Sarah, in the method of the flat white. Giada has nicknamed my beverage preference a “cafe Australiano”; very cute.
The vagaries of international coffee terms are interesting, to say the least. There are so many different types of coffees and people around the world certainly take their coffee seriously. Sometimes it can get a little ridiculous, as lampooned in jokes about café orders like “half decaf double shot grande non-fat soy latte with cinnamon sprinkles”. I did a search on types of coffees. There were many different types of coffees that I had not even heard of before; some great sounding names, and some that are nothing short of bizarre. For example, there is the macchiato, the black tie, green eye, red tux, café bon bon, café Medici, café Zorro, ca phe sua da and doppio, just to mention a few. Then there are the coffees famous for the locality they originated from: Café Americano, Turkish coffee, Vienna coffee, Irish coffee, Greek frappe, café Cubano etc. I particularly like the sound of an eggnog latte: steamed milk, eggnog, espresso and a pinch of nutmeg, although I have never tried one. That’s one for the bucket list. I can’t help but wonder, what with all these different types of coffees, whether regulars in cafes only ever order the same one type of coffee, day in and day out, their entire lives? I think that I will make a point of occasionally ordering different types of coffees from now on; life is short. Or should that be, life is like a short black?
Anyway, back to the heat and Valletta.
I was walking along Republic Street towards the bus station, looking forward to getting back to my air-conditioned apartment for respite during the hottest part of the day. While walking along the hot footpath, a cool waft of air-conditioned bliss emanating from the adjacent, exclusive menswear shop enveloped me and stopped me in my tracks. At first, I thought I might linger in the shade of the doorway for just a minute or two and revive my flagging sensibilities before moving on. It was then that I noticed a big red banner proclaiming “Up To 70% Off Sale”. This was too good for the child of Maltese WWII refugees to ignore. Seeking out discounts is imprinted in my DNA, as is never paying the full price for anything, and I think the word “bargain” appears on my birth certificate, somewhere. My frugal, imprinting parents have a lot to answer for.
I apprehensively walked into the richly appointed and impressively decorated store, trying to look as casual as I could, as if I had entered this shop so many times before that I was exceedingly familiar with the place to the point of being so blasé, that I did not even notice the sale items. I took a cursory glance at the full priced “new arrivals” section, then, with a facial expression that said something like, “Oh, look. What do we have here? How interesting”, I stopped at the first display table of discounted merchandise. As I feigned interest in the loud coloured shirts before me, I did have a somewhat intimidating consciousness that I was about to feel very much out of place. It was at this moment that I realised I was wearing a particularly baggy pair of ill-fitting shorts that were about a size and a half too large for me, since I had recently lost weight due to a heat-induced month of appetite deficiency. Also, I could not help thinking that my shorts, flapping around my skinny legs and sagging down over my groin as they did, were probably not quite as pristine and fresh as they could have been. I was also wearing a very generous sized singlet top that probably did not cover rather enough of my chest and sides as it should have done. My cheap looking rubber flip-flops rounded out the cost-effective ensemble.
Within the first thirty-five seconds or so of entering the store, an extremely beautiful shop assistant, in her mid-twenties, spotted me and approached from the back of the premises. She seemed to hurry quickly off the mark from a distance at first, then slowed down suddenly and slowly changed her facial expression from one resembling wild-eyed enthusiasm to one more like surprise, as she got closer and saw me more clearly. I couldn’t help but notice that her original hearty, broad smile had seemingly morphed into a narrower, slightly forced-looking grin by the time I and my rustic outfit had come into clear view.
The store assistant was gorgeous. A real life, modern goddess. I remember thinking that this was no good for a man in my condition. She had the clearest, shiny, young complexion I had ever seen, deep blue eyes and a very pretty face to go along with a simply perfect figure. She was immaculately dressed in what I would assume to be the most contemporary of cool clothes.
I noticed her eyes casually straying down to my shorts. I instinctively pulled them up over my waist with a quick and sly hand manoeuvre… and they immediately fell back down to my groin.
“Can I… help you…at all, sir?
“Oh, just browsing, thanks. I saw the 70% off sale sign and thought I might take a look.”
She smirked, knowingly. I winced in discomfort and immediately regretted making the comment about the sale
I couldn’t help thinking that the shop assistant was one of the beautiful people of this world who coast carefree through life, the type of woman who has a beautiful life to match her beautiful looks, the type who never has to struggle with anything because people are always there to do anything for her, give her anything she wants. A woman who has expensive tastes in everything, including men. I thought to myself that if she had deigned to have chosen one boyfriend, he is probably a super wealthy, male model, athletic type with a powerful physique who hosts lavish parties with a plethora of beautiful bikini models on his yacht. Naturally, he would dress himself from stores like this one. She most likely worked at this expensive and exclusive store just for a bit of a laugh, to counter the boredom, or to meet rich, good looking and well-dressed men. I thought that she probably couldn’t wait to finish work and tell all her friends about “this funny guy who walked into the shop today”.
The beautiful one turned away and went back to the back of the store with a cursory “let me know if you need any help”. Leaving me more than a little awestruck and even more uncomfortable. I remember having a strong feeling that I did need help, but didn’t exactly know why. I started to rummage through the first table of merchandise. The shirts were heavily reduced, but each one still cost more than I have ever paid for a single shirt in my entire life. In fact, the cost of one shirt would cover the cost of several of mine, back home. They were obviously of very high quality. The fabric and style oozed excellence but they were in such striking colours and patterns that I could never see myself wearing one in public. Strange thoughts passed through my brain: “Maybe if I wore this type of shirt, I too would be invited to a bikini party on a yacht? Maybe I would look younger? Or, would I look less like “lamb” and more like “dressed mutton”, as the saying goes? Should I be wearing this type of stuff? Would young women find me attractive if I wore shirts like these? What was I wearing back in my twenties?” I decided that I had better not think too much.
Then, there were the pants. They looked like they were designed and made for male models. Do ordinary men like me actually wear that type of thing? In those colours? And pay that much? How tall, and how long would your legs have to be, to look anything but comical in trousers like those?
I walked past a stand of men’s shoulder bags that were made of a luxuriously soft leather. I think one of them cost more than my entire set of international luggage.
I moved towards the back of the shop. The assistant slowly moved away. I moved closer, in her direction. She moved further away, in the opposite direction. It was like there had to be a mandatory minimum distance between us. I took a couple of steps, she took a couple of steps. I was beginning to see the funny side of the situation. I challenged myself to surreptitiously sidle up and see if I could manage to stand next to her for a few seconds, but she was just too good for me. It was as if she anticipated my every move. She was probably accustomed to men making advances towards her and had subsequently built up an instinctive, sixth sense around personal space in order to avoid being approached. By this stage, I could not get the smile from my face and I was trying to summon up the courage to ask her if she had any clothes in the store that I could buy without having to mortgage my flat. I did not know if the beautiful one would appreciate a facetious sense of humour, so I decided against asking.
Finally, I moved to a display table that was covered with small items like socks, ties, belts, handkerchiefs and other less expensive merchandise that was heavily discounted. I found a very nice pair of cotton socks that I liked. They had the exclusive shop brand logo embroidered onto the upper outside of each sock. They were still expensive, for socks, but I could not resist the bargain. I took the socks up to the store cash register counter, where the beautiful one had now taken refuge; considering how I was dressed, she probably thought that it was the safest place in the shop to be.
“I’ll take these please. They are a real bargain, compared to the original price, aren’t they?”
“Yes. We have good sales, sometimes. Would you like to register as a VIP shopper? All you have to do is spend 250 Euros in the store and we will notify you of all the sales and special offers. I’ll give you a form to fill out.”
I thought for a moment, then smiled at her, mischievously.
“Can you tell me how much more I would need to spend, after buying the socks?”
She chuckled quietly to herself as she packed my socks into the glossy, store-brand bag. She did have a sense of humour, after all. I paid for the socks and received my change. We exchanged smiles and I left the store.
I arrived back at my flat after the bus ride home and proudly took my exclusive brand socks out of the glitzy bag that was emblazoned with the name of the world famous retailer. I looked inside the bag. The receipt was on the very bottom, but it seems that the beautiful one must have omitted to include the VIP customer application form, when she packed my socks and receipt.
Must have been the shorts I was wearing.



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