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A ceremony at the turning of the year

The days are short, cold and damp, but there is a place of special warmth this time of year that comes as a blessed relief after the hectic round of the festival of giving.

It is a time of contemplative peace, and yet it also a period of jolly cameraderie, an experience that unites the highest in the land with the lowest, in a fine old tradition that confirms all men are brothers, and all women are size 14s. A time of shared joyful anticipation, a knowing that we are spending time making new friends, comparing notes and enjoying the warm welcome of a very special place that is deep in all of our hearts.

Yes, the returns queue in Marks & Spencer is a wonderful way to make new friends, stimulate the economy and, as we shall see, disrupt the fabric of time itself.

The queue in our local branch was still under 3/4 of a mile long by the time I joined it at 6.30 in the morning with a bag stuffed full of xmas presents from aged relatives. There were the traditional shirts designed for a very much smaller man (who suffers from some visual or aesthetic abnormalities) some knitted items its best not to dwell on and a luxury pork pie no-one liked the look of.

Naturally, starting with a comparison of such items the queue gets talking.

The first shopper it got talking to explained that the return of the presents was a simple economic necessity. By taking the presents back, and then rebuying them at the sale price, she was able to get the extra stuff free. This had major benefits for both the service sector and the manufacturing sector, and of course her own domestic situation. She would spend the extra M&S credit on drink, she explained.

The second had an entirely different view. The economy could care for itself, she said. Her motivation was ecological. She would buy an outfit, wear it and return the whole thing the next day for a full refund, and buy a clean one. This eliminated the threat posed to the environment by harsh detergents. The only drawback was the fact that she had to leave the labels on everything she wore, and they tended to chafe, especially the underwear.

The third was more romantic. She had met her husband in the returns queue a year ago, a fine strapping figure returning a rugby shirt. Romance had blossomed over a bottle of red wine and prawn sandwich from the food hall. But now, sadly like him, the romance had faded. The little grey figure beside her, clutching pathetically at a crumpled carrier bag of miscellaneous belongings? Yes, he hadn't washed well, and she was bringing him back...

The fourth had a different idea. She was a shy and nervous person, she explained and hand embarked on a course of assertiveness training. She started by a tremulous trip to a shop to make a small purchase. Stage 2, which she was now on, was returning it. Next, she told me, she would be returning something to a shop she hadn't bought it from.

This sounded admirable. Were there any more stages?

Yes, she informed me. Advanced level assertiveness training starts with putting the arm on a scrapyard in the East End of London (and kicking the dog) and then graduates to demanding protection from a nightclub in Soho. She had high hopes of becoming a vicious warlord and gathering together a ragged army of mercenaries in the coming year, and seeing if she couldn't jolly well take over a small country.

And then I spoke to another, snappily dressed in some kind of silver suit. He had travelled to this place and time from a far distant future to bring back some cardigans.

Buying presents in the sales is for profligates he explained. Buy in a previous century, and the prices are so small to be irrelevant. I dimly recalled a shirt I had bought while still at school. It had cost less than a pound I was sure -- but what about the collar, like a spaniel's ears, and the pattern Nobody would wear such a thing these days...

He smiled wisely, and explained that fashions are changed every year to try and prevent his scam -- but to no avail, as fashion is cyclic, and things always come back in.

I shuddered at the imminent prospect of flares, and realised he was telling the truth.

At last things slipped into place. Why they keep mucking about with the design of the currency to try and prevent time travellers spending their cash, not to mention bringing back stuff they hadn't bought yet. And why Marks and Spencer always give you credit tokens instead of easily dated money.

And of course, it answered the great question that has beset science writers for generations. If time travel is possible, why haven't we seen time travellers, eh? Well, why? The answer is now clear. We have - and they are all in the queue in front of us at Marks and Spencer.

Your humble scribe is off to buy a small estate in Herfordshire with a post dated cheque.

(c) Richard Mitchell 2002

Richard Mitchell