home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add


As I arrive back down in the foyer, I'm panting slightly. Which is not surprising, since I've just run about a half-marathon along endless corridors, trying to get out of this place. I descend the final flight of stairs (couldn't risk the lifts in case the Finnish brigade suddenly turned up), then pause to catch my breath. I straighten my skirt, transfer my briefcase from one sweaty hand to the other, and begin to walk calmly across the foyer towards the door, as though I've come out of an utterly ordinary, utterly unspectacular meeting.

I don't look right and I don't look left. I don't think about the fact that I've just completely shredded any chances I had of becoming a top City banker. All I can think about is getting to that glass door and getting outside before anyone can

'Rebecca!' comes a voice behind my head, and I freeze. Shit. They've got me.

'Halla!' I gulp, turning round. 'Haill Oh. Hell Hello.'

It's Luke Brandon.

It's Luke Brandon, standing right in front of me, looking down at me with that strange stare he always seems to have.

'This isn't the sort of place I would have expected to meet you', he says. 'You re not after a City job, are you'.

And why shouldn't I be? Doesn't he think I'm clever enough?

'Actually,' I say haughtily, 'I'm thinking of a change of career. Maybe into foreign banking. Or futures broking.'

'Really?' he says. 'That's a shame.'

A shame? What does that mean? Why is it a shame As I look up at him, his dark eyes meet mine, and I feel a little flicker, deep inside me. Out of nowhere, Clare's words pop into my head. Luke Brandon was asking me if you had a boyfriend.

'What' I clear my throat. 'What are you doing here, anyway?'

'Oh, I recruit from here quite often,' he says. 'They're very efficient. Soulless, but efficient.' He shrugs, then looks at my shiny briefcase. 'Have they fixed you up with anything yet?'

'I've I've got a number of options open to me,' I say. 'I'm just considering my next move.' Which to be honest, is straight out the door.

'I see,' he says, and pauses. 'Did you take the day off to come here?'

'Yes,' I say. 'Of course I did.'

What does he think? That I just sloped off for a couple of hours and said I was at a press conference?

Actually, that's not a bad idea. I might try that next time.

'So what are you up to now?' he asks.

Don't say 'nothing'. Never say 'nothing'.

'Well, I've got some bits and pieces to do,' I say. 'Calls to make, people to see. That kind of thing.'

'Ah,' he says, nodding. 'Yes. Well. Don't let me you.' He looks around the foyer. 'And I hope it works out for you, job-wise.'

'Thanks,' I say, giving him a businesslike smile. And then he's gone, walking off towards the doors, and I'm left holding my clunky briefcase, feeling just a bit disappointed. I wait until he's disappeared, then wander slowly over to the doors myself and go out onto the street. And then I stop. To tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure what to do next. I'd kind of planned to spend the day ringing everyone up and telling them about my fab new job as a futures broker. Instead of which Well, anyway. Let's not think about that.

But I can't stand still on the pavement outside William Green all day. People will start thinking I'm a piece of installation art or something. So eventually I begin walking along the street, figuring I'll arrive at a tube soon enough and then I can decide what to do. I come to a corner and I'm just waiting for the traffic to stop, when a taxi pulls up beside me.

'I know you're a very busy woman, with a lot to do,' comes Luke Brandon's voice, and my head jerks up in shock. There he is, leaning out of the taxi window, his dark eyes crinkled up in a little smile. 'But if you had the odd half-hour to spare you wouldn't be interested in doing a little shopping, would you?'

This day is unreal. Completely and utterly unreal.

I get into the taxi, put my clunky briefcase on the floor and shoot a nervous look at Luke as I sit down. I'm already slightly regretting this. What if he asks me a question about interest rates? What if he wants to talk about the Bundesbank or American growth prospects? But all he says is, 'Harrods, please,' to the driver.

As we zoom ff, I can't stop a smile coming to my face. This is so cool. I thought I was going to have to go home and be all miserable on my own and instead, I'm on my way to Harrods, and someone else is paying.

I mean, you can't get more perfect than that.

As we drive along, I look out of the window at the crowded streets. Although it's March, there are still a few SALE signs in the shop windows left over from January, and I find myself peering at the displays, wondering if there are any bargains I might have missed.

We pause outside a branch of Lloyds Bank. I look idly at the window, and at the queue of people inside, and hear myself saying, 'You know what? Banks should run January sales. Everyone else does."

There's silence and I look up, to see a look of amusement on Luke Brandon's face.

'Banks?' he says.

'Why not?' I say defensively. 'They could reduce their charges for a month or something. And so could building societies. Big posters in the windows, "Prices Slashed"' I think for a moment. 'Or maybe they should have April sales, after the end of the tax year. Investment houses could do it, too. "Fifty per cent off a selected range of funds."'

'A unit trust sale,' says Luke Brandon slowly. 'Reductions on all upfront charges.'

'Exactly,' I say. 'Everyone's a sucker for a sale. Even rich people.'

The taxi moves on again, and I gaze out at a woman in a gorgeous white coat, wondering where she got it. Maybe at Harrods. Maybe I should buy a white coat, too. I'll wear nothing but white, all winter. A snowy white coat and a white fur hat. People will start calling me the Girl in the White Coat.

When I look back again, Luke's writing something down in a little notebook. He looks up and meets my eye for a moment, then says, 'Rebecca, are you serious about leaving journalism?'

'Oh,' I say vaguely. To be honest, I'd forgotten all about leaving journalism. 'I don't know. Maybe.'

'And you really think banking would suit you better?'

'Who knows?' I say, feeling a bit rattled at his tone.

It's all right for him. He doesn't have to worry about his career he's got his own multimillion-pound company. I've only got my own multimillion-pound overdraft.

'Elly Granger is leaving Investor's Weekly News,' I add. 'She's joining Wetherby's as a fund manager.'

'I heard,' he says. 'But you're nothing like Elly Granger.'

Really? This comment intrigues me. If I'm not like Elly, who am I like, then? Someone really cool like Kristin Scott Thomas, maybe.

'You have imagination,' adds Luke. 'She doesn't.'

Wow! Now I really am gobsmacked. Luke Brandon thinks I have imagination? Gosh. That's good, isn't it.

That's quite flattering, really. You have imagination. Mmm, yes, I like that. Unless

Hang on. It's not some polite way of saying I'm stupid, is it? Or a liar? Like 'creative accounting'. Perhaps he's trying to say that none of my articles are accurate.

Oh God, now I don't know whether to look pleased or not.

To cover up my embarrassment, I look out of the window. We've stopped at a traffic light, and a very large lady in a pink velour jogging suit is trying to cross the road. She's holding several bags of shopping and a pug dog, and she keeps losing grasp of one or other of them and having to put something down. It's so frustrating, I almost want to leap out and help her. Then, suddenly, she loses her grasp of one of the bags, and drops it on the ground. It falls open and three huge tubs of ice-cream come out of it and start rolling down the road.

Don't laugh, I instruct myself. Be mature. Don't laugh. I clamp my lips together, but I can't stop a little giggle escaping,

I glance at Luke, and his lips are clamped together, too.

Then the woman starts chasing her ice-cream down the road, pug dog in tow, and that's it. I can't stop myself giggling. And when the pug dog reaches the ice cream before the lady, and starts trying to get the lid off with its teeth, I think I'm going to die laughing. I look over at Luke, and I can't believe it. He's laughing helplessly too, wiping the tears from his eyes. God, I didn't think Luke Brandon ever laughed.

'Oh God,' I manage at last. 'I know you shouldn't laugh at people. But I mean'

'That dog!' Luke starts laughing again. 'That bloody dog!'

'That outfit!' I give a little shudder as we start to move off again, past the pink woman. She's bending over the ice-cream, her huge pink bottom thrust up in the air. 'I'm sorry, but pink velour jogging suits should be banned from this planet.'

'I couldn't agree more,' says Luke, nodding seriously. 'Pink velour jogging suits are hereby banned. Along with cravats.'

'And Y-fronts,' I say without thinking then blush pink. How could I mention Y-fronts in front of Luke Brandon? 'And toffee-flavoured popcorn,' I quickly add.

'Right,' says Luke. 'So we're banning pink velour jogging suits, cravats, Y-fronts, toffee-flavoured popcorn'

'And punters with no change,' comes the taxi driver's voice from the front.

'Fair enough,' says Luke, giving a little shrug. 'Punters with no change.'

'And punters who vomit. They're the worst.'


'And punters who don't know where the fuck they're going.'

Luke and I exchange glances and I begin to giggle again.

'And punters who don't speak the bloody language. Drive you crazy.'

'Right,' says Luke. 'So most punters, in fact.'

'Don't get me wrong,' says the taxi driver. 'I've got nothing against foreigners' He pulls up outside Harrods. 'Here we are. Going shopping, are you?'

'That's right,' says Luke, getting out his wallet.

'So what're you after?'

I look at Luke expectantly. He hasn't told me what we're here to buy. Clothes? A new aftershave? Will I have to keep smelling his cheek? (I wouldn't mind that, actually.) Furniture? Something dull like a new desk?

'Luggage,' he says, and hands a tenner to the driver. 'Keep the change.'

Luggage! Suitcases and holdalls and stuff like that. As I wander round the department, looking at Louis Vuitton suitcases and calfskin bags, I'm quite thrown. Quite shocked by myself. Luggage. Why on earth have I never considered luggage before?

I should explain. For years now, I've kind of operated under an informal shopping cycle. A bit like a farmer's crop rotation system. Except, instead of wheat-maize-barley-fallow, mine pretty much goes clothes-makeup-shoes-clothes. (I don't usually bother with fallow.) Shopping is actually very similar to farming a field. You can't keep buying the same thing you have to have a bit of variety. Otherwise you get bored and stop enjoying yourself.

And I thought I had as much variety in my shopping life as anybody. I thought I had all the areas covered. To be honest, I was quite blas about it. But look what I've been missing out on, all this time. Look what I've been denying myself. I feel quite shaky as I realize the opportunities I've just been throwing away over the years. Suitcases, weekend bags, monogrammed hat boxes With weak legs, I wander into a corner and sit down on a carpeted pedestal, next to a red leather vanity case.

How can I have overlooked luggage for so long? How can I have just blithely led my life, ignoring an entire retail sector?

'So what do you think?' says Luke, coming up to me. 'Anything worth buying?'

And now, of course, I feel like a fraud. Why couldn't he have wanted to buy a really good white shirt, or a cashmere scarf? Or even handcream? I would have been able to advise him authoritatively and even quote prices. But luggage. I'm a beginner at luggage.

'Well,' I say, playing for time. 'It depends. They all look great.'

'They do, don't they?' He follows my gaze around the department. 'But which one would you choose? If you had to buy one of these suitcases, which one would it be?'

It's no good. I can't bluff.

'To be honest,' I say, 'this isn't really my field.'

'What isn't?' he says, sounding incredulous. 'Shopping?'

'Luggage,' I explain. 'It's not an area I've put a lot of time into. I should have done, I know, but'

'Well never mind,' says Luke, his mouth twisting into a smile. 'As a non-expert. Which one would you choose?'

Well, that's different.

'Hmm,' I say, and get to my feet in a businesslike manner. 'Well, let's have a closer look.'

God, we have fun. We line up eight suitcases in a row, and give them marks for looks, heaviness, quality of lining, number of interior pockets and efficiency of. wheels. (I test this by striding the length of the department, pulling the case behind me. By this time, the assistant has just given up and left us to it.) Then we look to see if they have a matching holdall and give that marks, too.

The prices don't seem to matter to Luke. Which is a bloody good thing, because they're absolutely astronomical and at first sight, so scary they make me want to run away. But it's amazing how quickly ?1,000 can start to seem like a very reasonable sum for a suitcase especially since the Louis Vuitton monogrammed trunk costs about ten times as much. In fact, after a while I find myself thinking quite seriously that I too should really invest in a quality suitcase, instead of my battered old canvas bag.

But today is Luke's shopping trip, not mine. And strangely enough, it's almost more fun choosing for someone else than for yourself. In the end, we narrow it down to a dark green leather case, which has wonderful trundly wheels, or the palest beige calfskin case, which is a bit heavier, but has a stunning silk lining and is basically so beautiful I can't stop staring at it. It has a matching holdall and vanity case and they're just as beautiful. God, if it were me, I'd

But then, it's not up to me, is it? It's Luke who's buying the case. He's the one who's got to choose. We sit down on the floor, side by side, and look at them. 'The green one would be more practical,' says Luke eventually.

'Mmm,' I say noncommittally. 'I suppose it would.'

'It's lighter and the wheels are better.'


'And that pale calfskin would probably scuff in a matter of minutes. Green's a more sensible colour.'

'Mmm,' I say, trying to sound as though I agree with him.

He gives me a quizzical look and says, 'Right. Well, I think we've made our choice, don't you?' And, still sitting on the floor, he calls over the assistant.

'Yes sir?' says the assistant, and Luke nods at him.

'I'd like to buy one of these pale beige suitcases, please.'

'Oh!' I say, and I can't stop a smile of delight spreading over my face. 'You're getting the one I liked best!'

'Rule of life,' says Luke, getting to his feet and brushing down his trousers. 'If you bother to ask someone's advice, then bother to listen to it.'

'But I didn't say which one'

'You didn't have to,' says Luke, reaching out a hand to pull me to my feet. 'Your "Mmms" gave it all away.'

His hand is surprisingly strong round mine, and as he pulls me up, I feel a slight swooping in my stomach. He smells nice, too. Some expensive aftershave which I don't recognize. For a moment, neither of us says anything.

'Right,' says Luke at last. 'Well, I'd better pay for it, I suppose.'

'Yes,' I say, feeling ridiculously nervous. 'Yes, I suppose you had.'

He walks off to the checkout and starts talking to the assistant, and I perch next to a display of leather suit carriers, suddenly feeling a bit awkward. I mean, the shopping's over now. What happens next?

Well, we'll just say goodbye politely, won't we? Luke'll probably have to get back to the office. He can't hang around shopping all day. And if he asks me what I'm doing next, I tell myself, I really will say I'm busy. I'll pretend I've got some important meeting arranged or something.

'All sorted out,' he says, coming back. 'Rebecca, I'm incredibly grateful to you for your help.'

'Great!' I say brightly. 'Well, I must be on'

'So I was wondering,' says Luke, before I can continue. 'Would you like some lunch?'

This is just turning into my perfect day. Shopping at Harrods and lunch at Harvey Nichols. I mean, what could be better than that? We go straight up to the fifth floor restaurant, and Luke orders a bottle of chilled white wine, and raises his glass in a toast.

'To luggage,' he says, and smiles.

'Luggage,' I reply happily, and take a sip. It's just about the most delicious wine I've ever tasted. Luke picks up his menu and starts to read it, and I pick mine up too but to be honest, I'm not reading a word. I'm just sitting in a happy glow, like the Ready Brek kid.

I'm looking around with relish at all the smart women coming in to have lunch here, and making notes of their outfits and wondering where that girl over there got her pink boots from. And now, for some reason, I'm thinking about that nice card Luke sent me. And I'm wondering whether it was just being friendly or or whether it was something else.

At this thought, my stomach flips so hard I almost feel sick, and very quickly I take another sip of wine. Well, a gulp, really. Then I put down my glass, count to five arid say casually,

'Thanks for your card, by the way.'

'What?' he says, looking up. 'Oh, you're welcome.'

He reaches for his glass and takes a sip of wine. 'It was nice to bump into you, that night.'

'It's a great place,' I say. 'Great for table hopping.'

As soon as I've said this, I feel myself blush. But Luke just smiles, and says, 'Indeed.' Then he puts down his glass and says, 'Do you know what you want?'

'Ahm' I say, glancing hurriedly at the menu. 'I think I'll just have erm fishcakes. And rocket salad.'

Damn, I've just spotted squid. I should have had that. Oh well, too late now.

'Good choice,' says Luke, smiling at me. 'And thanks again for coming along today. It's always good to have a second opinion.'

'No problem,' I say lightly, and take a sip of wine. 'Hope you enjoy the case.'

'Oh, it's not for me,' he says after a pause. 'It's for Sacha.'

'Oh right,' I say pleasantly. 'Who's Sacha? Your sister?'

'My girlfriend,' says Luke, and turns away to beckon to a waiter.

And I stare at him, unable to move.

His girlfriend. I've been helping him choose a suitcase for his girlfriend.

Suddenly I don't feel hungry any more. I don't want fishcakes and rocket salad. I don't even want to be here. My happy Ready Brek glow is fading away, and underneath I feel chilly and rather stupid. Luke Brandon's got a girlfriend. Of course he has. Some beautiful smart girl, called Sacha, who has manicured nails and travels everywhere, with expensive cases. I'm a fool, aren't I? I should have known there'd be a Sacha somewhere on the scene. I mean, it's obvious.

Except Except it's not that obvious. In fact, it's not obvious at all. Luke hasn't mentioned his girlfriend all morning. Why hasn't he? Why didn't he just say the suitcase was for her in the first place? Why did he let me sit on the floor beside him in Harrods and laugh as I marched up and down, testing the wheels? I wouldn't have behaved anything like that if I'd known we were buying a case for his girlfriend. And he must have known that. He must have known.

A cold feeling begins to creep over me. This is all wrong.

'All right?' says Luke, turning back to me.

'No,' I hear myself saying. 'No, it's not. You didn't tell me that case was for your girlfriend. You didn't even tell me you had a girlfriend.'

Oh God. I've done it now. I've been completely uncool. But somehow I don't care.

'I see,' says Luke after a pause. He picks up a piece of bread and begins to break it up with his fingers, then looks up. 'Sacha and I have been together a while now,' he says kindly. 'I'm sorry if I gave any other impression.'

He's patronizing me. I can't bear it.

'That's not the point,' I say, feeling my cheeks flushing beetroot red. 'It's just it's all wrong.'

'Wrong?' he says, looking amused.

'You should have told me we were choosing a case for your girlfriend,' I say doggedly, staring down at the table. 'It would have made things different.'

There's silence and I raise my eyes, to see Luke looking at me as though I'm mad.

'Rebecca,' he says, 'you're getting this all out of proportion. I wanted your opinion on suitcases. End of story.'

'And are you going to tell your girlfriend you asked my advice?'

'Of course I am!' says Luke, and gives a little laugh. 'I expect she'll be rather amused.'

I stare at him in silence, feeling mortification creep over me. My throat's tight, and there's a pain growing in my chest. Amused. Sacha will be amused when she hears about me.

Well, of course she will. Who wouldn't be amused by hearing about the girl who spent her entire morning marching up and down Harrods, testing out suitcases for another woman? The girl who got completely the wrong end of the stick. The girl who was so stupid, she thought Luke Brandon might actually like her.

I swallow hard, feeling sick with humiliation. For the first time, I'm realizing how Luke Brandon sees me. How they all see me. I'm just the comedy turn, aren't I? I'm the scatty girl who gets things wrong and makes people laugh. The girl who didn't know SBG and Rutland Bank had merged. The girl no-one would ever think of taking seriously. Luke didn't bother telling me we were choosing a suitcase for his girlfriend because I don't matter. He's only buying me lunch because he hasn't got anything else to do and probably because he thinks I might do something entertaining like drop my fork, which he can laugh about when he gets back to the office.

'I'm sorry,' I say in a wobbly voice, and stand up. 'I haven't got time for lunch after all.'

'Rebecca, don't be silly!' says Luke. 'Look, I'm sorry you didn't know about my girlfriend.' He raises his eyebrows quizzically, and I want to hit him. 'But we can still be friends, can't we?'

'No,' I say stiffly, aware that my voice is thick and my eyes smarting. 'No, we can't. Friends treat each other with respect. But you don't respect me, do you, Luke? You just think I'm a joke. A nothing. Well' I swallow hard. 'Well, I'm not.'

And before he can say anything else I turn, and quickly make my way out of the restaurant, half blinded by disappointed tears.

| The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic | c