Ilina Walmsley was a snob. And that meant that even the most basic supermarket shopping could only be done at Waitrose. She felt that neither Sainsbury’s nor Morrisons were quite “top drawer”, while she would no more consider shopping at Tesco than she would dine at KFC. As for Asda, with its smug patting-pockets ads, well, one didn’t want to bump into one’s gardener while doing the weekly shop, did one?
However, when her financier husband was made redundant and her weekly allowance was severely reduced, Ilina’s Waitrose run had to be hobbled. At first she made an effort to buy only the “essential Waitrose” range but she found that squatting down to scour the bottom shelf for the supermarket’s own brand was humiliating, particularly when she was caught by her snooty gastronomic friend Tilly Lincoln picking up a pack of “essential” spaghetti rather than opting for her usual fresh organic pasta.
It was Ilina’s Polish cleaning lady, Nadzia (now, like the gardener, with her hours severely reduced), who suggested she shop at the “poor man’s supermarket” Zaak. Ilina had never heard of it, but then she had only recently been made aware of those other cut-price “supers”, Lidl, Aldi and Netto. But Nadzia was persuasive: “They do very good Polish sausage.”
Ilina considered her first visit to the store, which was buried away on an out-of-town industrial estate, a moderate triumph. She had slunk anonymously into the fly-blown car park in her daughter’s fifth-hand Peugeot 106, her head covered with a Russian shawl and minus her usual make-up and jewellery.
Inside, the ceiling was low, there were cheap tiles on the floor and walls, and the silence was palpable. It was more Presbyterian kirk than retail cathedral and as bemusing to Ilina as the London tube system would be to a Mongolian yak herder (or to Ilina, come to think of it). There was no order in the display at all. Instead of being greeted by a bustling fruit and vegetable section, for example, she was faced with a blockhouse of plastic-covered boxes containing cheap soft drinks. Cheek by jowl was a tower of pickled gherkins followed by, as Nadzia had predicted, racks of sausage, including salamis that looked like bazookas.
It was while she was dithering by the temporary pallets of slashed-price Greek food abutting the stark racks of velour leisure suits that she spotted a dressed-down Alexandra Eggerton filling her shopping trolley with European cereals and Continental yoghurts. Alexandra was married to Steve, a freelance IT consultant, who Ilina realised must also be suffering in the recession.
Soon Ilina was a regular at Zaak, buying groceries that no gastronome would be able to source and remembering to take her Waitrose “bag for life”, as she didn’t want to be caught with a bright-orange and shocking-pink Zaak bag. And she managed to avoid Alexandra Eggerton and anybody else she might know by shopping on Sunday afternoon, when the only other shoppers seemed to be broke singles searching for a bargain.
Some weeks later, the Walmsleys and the Eggertons were invited to supper at the Lincolns’. It was a tradition at these friendly soirées to take a little something for “afters”, and Ilina plumped for a lump of Picos Blue, a pungent Spanish blue cheese wrapped in maple leaves that was on special offer in Zaak but would have fooled any gourmand into thinking it was from the deli counter in Waitrose. Tilly Lincoln was delighted and added it to her already overendowed cheeseboard.
The party went swimmingly, even if Tilly did overegg the fact that her fresh Waitrose pasta was better than any she had tasted in Italy. She continued waxing lyrical about Waitrose, especially the brilliance of its of its cheese counter.
That was when Ilina, hoping to avoid prevent any probing into her purchase of the Picos Blue, asked Tilly if she had any digestive biscuits to accompany it. “Oh, I don’t think we do,” said Tilly. “Actually, I think we have, darling,” piped up Tilly’s husband James.
And he got up, opened the cupboard and said to no one in particular, “Here they are – I hope you don’t mind if I serve them in their packet?” And the packet, as Ilina and Alexandra noted smugly, was an all too familiar bright orange and shocking pink.