So it turns out Dante was wrong. There are not nine circles of hell; there are ten, and the one he missed is right here in London. A short trip along the North Circular (which could be in contention for the host of the eleventh circle during rush hour), out near sports mecca, Wembley Stadium, sits an enormous Ikea store; a vast blue warehouse, with those four yellow letters as high as a house climbing its side. Visiting any Ikea store should not be undertaken lightly. Such a trip requires the same level of preparation and dedication to the cause as a hike up Everest. You need to be fit, healthy, well-fed and single-minded in your quest. You stick to the mental list of things you needed when you entered, or divert from it at your peril.I mounted a tandem-assault on the budget homewares haven with an Accidental uni friend, with whom I exchanged shopping lists in order to keep each other on the straight and narrow; and prevent either of us ending up with a whole load of stuff we had neither need or desire for, but merely an awe-struck admiration for its sheer cheapness. After a recent house move my friend had a list far longer than I, although as I was in the market for a chest of drawers (obviously which I would purchase in flat-packed form) I anticipated a similar spend and need for vast unweildy trolleys. Steeling ourselves with an enormous pub lunch, the pair of us parked her little car in the middle of a mysterious large puddle in a cavernous multi-storey car park and descended to the land of plastic blue and yellow bags and tiny pencils.
Before long our trolley was filling with cutlery sorting drawers, plant pots, wicker baskets, pillow-cases and devices for arranging cupboards more tidily. We navigated our metal vehicle cautiously around whining children, and bickering couples; "Just lie on this bed and tell me if you like it!". The hoardes were out in force this Sunday, and dying to get their redecorating supplies bought by closing time at 5pm. By the time we reached the self-service warehouse, winding through the more traditionally shop-like sections (and their labyrinthine piles of rugs and displays of CD racks), it was carnage. Rows blazed, babies screamed, those who were awaiting a particularly heavy or special (or at least as special as anything can get at Ikea, where you're guaranteed that whatever you buy your neighbours will all have one too) item had set up camp in the final collection zone, picnic-ing on Swedish treats from the food shop cunningly placed the other side of the tills.
As we finally extracted ourselves, and our, by now, two groaning trolleys from this refugee camp of DIY-ers, we munched on Daim bars and Swedish sweeties to restore our much-diminished blood sugar levels, and packed an astounding amount of peculiarly named items into the Accidental pal's wee car. (We're still trying to work out what a "Bumerang" was...and why we bought two.) Driving back into London we passed the picture of misery at a Wembley bus-stop - a couple, no-longer even able to look at each other, clutching their blue plastic bags bulging uncomfortably with pine and plastic, awaiting a non-existent bus home. We felt deeply smug as we whizzed past, warm and cosy with our heavy load borne by automotive power rather than our own shoulders, on our way home. We had survived the experience, and also had lots of lovely new toys to play with at home. And once I'd ploughed through the 49 step assembly process, which called for most of my tool-kit and 2 days of screwing and banging (no crude jokes please!), I was surprisingly happy with my new chest of drawers. I was even staggered to note I did not get halfway through its construction and notice I'd been given the wrong materials, or was short of 3 crucial screws.
But I think it will be a long time before I'm brave enough to face Ikea again. The Accidental friend returned within days to buy a sofa-bed with her boyfriend. The trip, late on a Friday evening, took forever and was a nightmare. Returning home, and attempting to construct the thing at night they discovered the bed section was broken. And so it remains. I asked what they were going to do with their half-built furniture; "They can come and bring me the new bit, and take away the old one - I'm NOT going back to that place again!" was the response. Wise words, friend, wise words.