I walk through the door of our flat, Suze looks up – and the first thing she says is, 'Denny and George! Becky, you're not serious.'
'Yes,' I say, grinning from ear to ear. 'I bought myself a scarf.'
'Show me!' says Suze, unwinding herself from the sofa. 'Show-me-show-me-show-me!' She comes over and starts tugging at the strings of the carrier. 'I want to see your new scarf! Show me!'
This is why I love sharing a flat with Suze. Julia, my old flatmate, would have wrinkled her brow and said, 'Denny and who?' or 'That's a lot of money for a scarf.'
But Suze completely and utterly understands. If anything, she's worse than me.
But then, she can afford to be. Although she's twenty-five, like me, her parents still give her pocket money. It's called an 'allowance' and apparently comes from some family trust – but as far as I can see, it's pocket money. Her parents also bought her a flat in Fulham as a twenty-first birthday present and she's been living in it ever since, half working and half dossing about.
She was in PR for a (very) short while, and that's when I met her, on a press trip to Guernsey. As a matter of fact, she was working for Brandon Communications.
Without being rude – she admits it herself– she was the worst PR girl I've ever come across. She completely forgot which bank she was supposed to be promoting, and started talking enthusiastically about one of their competitors. The man from the bank looked crosser and crosser, while all the journalists pissed themselves laughing. Suze got in big trouble over that. In fact, that's when she decided PR wasn't the career for her. (The other way of putting it is that Luke Brandon gave her the sack as soon as they got back to London. Another reason not to like him.)
But the two of us had a whale of a time sloshing back wine until the early hours, and kept in touch ever since. Then, when Julia suddenly upped and ran off with the professor supervising her PhD (she was a dark horse, that one), Suze suggested I move in with her. I'm sure the rent she charges is too low, but I've never insisted I pay the full market rate, because I couldn't afford it. As market rates go, I'm nearer Elephant and Castle than Fulham on my salary. How can normal people afford to live in such hideously expensive places? I can never fathom it.
'Bex, open it up!' Suze is begging. 'Let me see!' She's grabbing inside the bag with eager long fingers, and I pull it away quickly before she rips it. This bag is going on the back of a door along with my other prestige carrier bags, to be used in a casual manner when I need to impress. (Thank God they didn't print special ' Sale ' bags. I hate shops which do that. What's the point of having a posh bag with ' Sale ' splashed all over it? You might as well splash 'Cheapskate'.)
Very slowly, I take the dark green box out of the bag, remove the lid and unfold the tissue paper. Then, almost reverentially, I lift up the scarf. It's beautiful. It's even more beautiful here than it was in the shop.
I drape it around my neck and grin stupidly at Suze.
'Oh Bex,' she murmurs. 'It's gorgeous!'
For a moment we are both silent. We’re communing with a higher being: the God of Shopping.
Then Suze has to go and ruin it all.
'You can wear it to see James this weekend,' she says.
'I can't,' I say almost crossly, taking it off again. 'I'm not seeing him.'
'I'm not seeing him any more.' I try to give a nonchalant shrug.
'Really?' Suze's eyes widen. 'Why not? You didn't tell me!'
'I know.' I look away from her eager gaze. 'It's a bit… awkward.'
'Did you chuck him? You hadn't even shagged him!'
Suze's voice is rising in excitement. She's desperate to know. But am I desperate to tell? For a moment I consider being discreet. Then I think, oh what the hell?
'I know,' I say. 'That was the problem.'
'What do you mean?' Suze leans forward. 'Bex, what are you talking about?'
I take a deep breath and turn to face her.
'He didn't want to.'
'Didn't fancy you?'
'No. He…' I close my eyes, barely able to believe this myself. 'He doesn't believe in sex before marriage.'
'You're joking.' I open my eyes to see Suze looking at me in horror – as if she's just heard the worst profanity known to mankind. 'You are joking, Becky.' She's actually pleading with me.
'I'm not.' I manage a weak smile. 'It was a bit embarrassing, actually. I kind of… pounced on him, and he had to fight me off.'
The cringingly awful memory which I had successfully suppressed starts to resurface. I'd met James at a party a few weeks back, and this was the crucial third date. We'd been out for a really nice meal, which he'd insisted on paying for, and had gone back to his place, and had ended up kissing on the sofa.
Well, what was I supposed to think? There he was, there I was – and make no mistake, if his mind was saying no, his body was certainly saying yes, yes, yes.
So, being a modern girl, I reached for his trouser zip and began to pull it down. When he reached down and brushed me aside I thought he was playing games, and carried on, even more enthusiastically than before.
Thinking back, perhaps it took me longer than it should have to twig that he wasn't playing ball, so to speak. In fact, he actually had to punch me in the face to get me off him – although he was very apologetic about it afterwards.
Suze is gazing at me incredulously. Then she breaks into gurgles of laughter.
'He had to fight you off?. Bex, you man-eater!'
'Don't!' I protest. 'He was really sweet about it. He said, was I prepared to wait for him?'
'And you said, not bloody likely!'
'Sort of.' I look away.
In fact, carried away with the moment, I seem to remember issuing him a bit of a challenge. 'Resist me now if you can, James,' I recall saying in a husky voice, gazing at him with what I thought were limpid, sexual eyes. 'But you'll be knocking at my door within the week. '
Well, it's been over a week now, and I haven't heard a peep. Which, if you think about it, is pretty unflattering.
'But that's hideous!' Suze is saying. 'What about sexual compatibility?'
'Dunno.' I shrug. 'I guess he's willing to take that gamble.' Suze gives a sudden giggle.
'Did you get a look at his…’
'No! He wouldn't let me near it!'
'But could you feel it? Was it tiny?' Suze's eyes gleam wickedly. 'I bet it's titchy. He's hoping to kid some poor girl into marrying him and being stuck with a titchy dodger all her life. Narrow escape, Bex!' She reaches for her packet of Silk Cut and lights up.
'Stay away!' I say irritably. 'I don't want my scarf smelling of smoke!'
'So what are you doing this weekend?' she asks, taking a drag. 'Will you be OK? Do you want to come down to the country?'
This is how Suze always refers to her family's second home in Hampshire. The country. As though her parents own some small, independent nation nobody else knows about.
'No, it's OK,' I say, morosely picking up the TV 'I'm going to visit my parents.'
'Oh well,' says Suze. 'Give your mum my love.'
'I will,' I say. 'And you give my love to Pepper.'
Pepper is Suze's horse. She rides him about three uggest times a year, if that, but whenever her parents start selling him she gets all hysterical. Apparently he costs ?15,000 a year to run. Fifteen thousand pounds. And what does he do for his money? Just stands in a stable and eats apples. I wouldn't mind being a horse.
'Oh yeah, that reminds me,' says Suze. 'The council tax bill came in. It's three hundred each.'
'Three hundred pounds?' I look at her in dismay. 'What, straight away?'
'Yeah. Actually, it's late. Just write me a cheque or something.'
'Fine,' I say airily. 'Three hundred quid coming up.' I reach for my bag and write a cheque out straight away. Suze is so generous about the rent, I always pay my share of the bills, and sometimes add a bit extra.
But still, I'm feeling cold as I hand it over. Three hundred pounds gone, just like that. And I've still got that bloody VISA bill to think of. Not a great month.
'Oh, and someone called,' adds Suze, and squints at a piece of paper. 'Erica Parsnip. Is that right?'
'Erica Parsnip?' Sometimes I think Suze's mind has been expanded just a little too often.
'Parnell. Erica Parnell from Endwich Bank. Can you call her.'
I stare at Suze, frozen in horror.
'She called here? She called this number?'
'Yes. This afternoon.'
'Oh shit.' My heart starts to thump. 'What did you say? Did you say I've got glandular fever?'
'What?' It's Suze's turn to stare. 'Of course I didn't say you've got bloody glandular fever!'
'Did she ask about my leg? Anything about my health at all?'
'No! She just said where were you? And I said you were at work-'
'Suze!' I wail in dismay.
'Well, what was I supposed to say?'
'You were supposed to say I was in bed with glandular fever and a broken leg!'
'Well, thanks for the warning!' Suze gazes at me, eyes narrowed, and crosses her legs into the lotus position. Suze has got the longest, thinnest, wiriest legs I've ever known. When she's wearing black leggings she looks just like a spider.
'What's the big deal anyway?' she says. 'Are you overdrawn?'
Am I overdrawn?
'Just a tad.' I shrug. 'It'll work itself out.'
There's silence and I look up, to see Suze tearing up my cheque.
'Suze! Don't be stupid!'
'Pay me back when you're in the black,' she says firmly.
'Thanks Suze,' I say, and give her a big hug. Suze has got to be the best friend I've ever had.
But there's a nagging feeling in my stomach which stays with me all evening and is still there when I wake up the next morning. A feeling I can't even shift by thinking about my Denny and George scarf. I lie in bed staring up at the ceiling and, or the first time in months, calculate how much I owe to everybody. The bank, VISA, my Harvey Nichols card, my Debenhams card, my Fenwicks card… And now Suze, too.
It's about… let's think… it's about six thousand pounds.
A cold feeling creeps over me as I contemplate this figure. How on earth am I going to find six thousand pounds? I could save six pounds a week for a thousand weeks. Or twelve pounds a week for five hundred weeks. Or… or sixty pounds a week for a hundred weeks. That's more like it. But how the hell am I going to find sixty pounds a week to save?
Or else I could bone up on lots of general and go on a game show. Or invent something clever. Or I could win the Lottery. At the thought a lovely warm creeps over me, and I close eyes and snuggle back down into bed. The Lottery far the best solution.
I wouldn't aim to win the jackpot of course – that's completely unlikely. But one of those minor bets. There seem to be heaps of those going around. Say – a hundred thousand pounds. That would do. I could pay off all my debts, buy a car, buy a flat…
Actually – better make it two hundred thousand. Or a quarter of a million. Or, even better, one of those shared jackpots. 'The five winners will each receive one point three million pounds.' (I love the way they say that. 'One point three.' As if that extra three hundred thousand pounds is a tiny, insignificant amount. As if you wouldn't notice whether it was there or not.)
One point three million should see me straight. And it's not being greedy, is it, to want to share your jackpot?
Please God, I think, let me win the Lottery and I promise to share nicely.
And so, on the way down to my parents' house I stop off at a petrol station to buy a couple of lottery tickets. Choosing the numbers takes about half an hour. I know 44 always does well, and 42. But what about the rest? I write out a few series of numbers on a piece of paper and squint at them, trying to imagine them on the telly.
1 6 9 16 23 44
No! Terrible! What am I thinking of? 1 never comes up, for a start. And 6 and 9 look wrong, too.
3 14 21 25 36 44
That's a bit better. I fill in the numbers on the ticket.
5 11 18 27 28 42
I'm quite impressed by this one. It looks like a winner. I can just imagine Moira Stewart reading it out on the news. 'One ticket-holder, believed to live in southwest London, has won an estimated jackpot of ten million pounds.'
For a moment, I feel faint. What'll I do with ten million pounds? Where will I start?
Well, a huge party to begin with. Somewhere smart but cool, with loads of champagne and dancing and a taxi service so no-one has to drive. And going-home presents, like really nice bubble bath or something. (Does Calvin Klein do bubble bath? I make a mental note to check next time I'm in Boots.)
Then I'll buy houses for all my family and friends, of course. I lean against the lottery stand and close my eyes to concentrate. Suppose I buy twenty houses at ?250,000 each. That'll leave me… five million. Plus about fifty thousand pounds on the party. And then I'll take everyone on holiday, to Barbados or somewhere. That'll cost about… a hundred thousand pounds, if we all fly Club. So that's four million, eight hundred and fifty thousand.
Oh! and I need six thousand to pay off all my credit cards and, overdraft. Plus three hundred for Suze. Call it seven thousand. So that leaves… four million, eight hundred and forty-three thousand.
Obviously, I'll do loads for charity. In fact, I'll probably set up a charitable foundation. I'll support all those unfashionable charities that get ignored, like skin diseases and home helps for the elderly. And I'll send a great big cheque to my old English teacher, Mrs James, so she can restock the school library. Perhaps they'll even rename it after me. The Bloomwood Library.
Oh, and three hundred for that swirly coat in Whistles, which I must buy before they're all up. So how much does that leave? Four million, eight hundred and forty-three thousand, minus…
'Excuse me.' A voice interrupts me and I look up dazedly. The woman behind is trying to get at the biro.
'Sorry,' I say, and politely make way. But the interruption has made me lose track of my calculations.
Was it four million or five million?
Then, as I see the woman looking at my bit of paper covered in scribbled numbers, an awful thought strikes me. What if one of my rejected sets of numbers comes up? What if 1 6 9 16 23 44 comes up tonight and I haven't entered it? I'd hate myself, wouldn't I? All my life, I'd never forgive myself. I'd be like the guy who committed suicide because he forgot to post his pools coupon.
I quickly fill in tickets for all the combinations of numbers written on my bit of paper That's nine tickets in all. Nine quid – quite a lot of money, really. I almost feel bad about spending it. But then, that's nine times as many chances of winning, isn't it?
And I now have a very good feeling about 1 6 9 16 23 44. Why has that particular set of numbers leapt into my mind and stayed there? Maybe someone, somewhere, is trying to tell me something.