“I’m just going to have to make a quick call,” says the assistant, staring at her machine. She reaches for the phone next to the till.
“Hi,” she says. “Yes, if I can give you an account number. .”
Behind me, somebody sighs loudly. I can feel my face growing hotter and hotter. I don’t dare look round. I don’t dare move.
“I see,” says the assistant eventually, and puts down the phone. She looks up — and at the sight of her face, my stomach gives a lurch. Her expression isn’t apologetic or polite anymore. It’s plain unfriendly.
“Our financial services department would like you to contact them urgently,” she says curtly. “I’ll give you the number.”
“Right,” I say, trying to sound relaxed. As though this is a fairly normal request. “OK. Well, I’ll do that. Thanks.” I hold my hand out for my charge card. I’m not interested in my shopping anymore. All I want to do is get out of here as quickly as possible.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid your account’s been frozen,” says the assistant without lowering her voice. “I’m going to have to retain your card.”
I stare at her in disbelief, feeling my face prickling with shock. Behind me there’s an interested rustle as everybody hears this and starts nudging each other.
“So, unless you have another means of paying. .” she adds, looking at my heap of stuff on the counter. My waffle robe. My new duvet set. My scented candle. A huge, conspicuous pile of stuff. Stuff I don’t need. Stuff I can’t pay for. Suddenly the sight of it all makes me feel sick.
Numbly I shake my head. I feel as if I’ve been caught stealing.
“Elsa,” calls the assistant. “Will you deal with this, please? The customer isn’t going to make the purchase after all.” She gestures to the pile of stuff, and the other assistant moves it along the counter, out of the way, her face deliberately blank.
The woman behind me steps forward, avoiding my eye in embarrassment, and slowly I turn away. I have never felt so humiliated in all my life. The whole floor seems to be looking at me — all the customers, all the sales assistants, all whispering and nudging. Did you see? Did you see what happened?
With wobbling legs I walk away, not looking right or left. This is a nightmare. I just have to get out, as quickly as possible. I have to get out of the shop and onto the street and go. .
Go where? Home, I suppose.
But I can’t go back and face Suze. She’s been so kind to me and how have I behaved? She has no idea what a horrible person I am. If I go home, I’ll have to hear her telling me again how sweet Tarquin is. Or even worse, risk bumping into him. Oh God. The very thought makes me feel sick.
What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?
Shakily I begin to walk along the pavement, looking away from the mocking window displays. What can I do? Where can I go? I feel empty, almost light-headed with panic.
I pause at a corner, waiting for a traffic light to change, and look blankly at a display of cashmere jumpers to my left. And suddenly, at the sight of a scarlet Pringle golfing jumper, I feel tears of relief springing to my eyes. There’s one place I can go. One place I can always go.
WHEN I TURN UP at my parents’ house that afternoon without warning, saying I want to stay for a few days, I can’t say they seem shocked.
In fact, so unsurprised do they seem that I begin to wonder if they’ve been expecting this eventuality all along, ever since I moved to London. Have they been waiting every week for me to arrive on the doorsteps with no luggage and red eyes? They’re certainly behaving as calmly as a hospital casualty team operating an emergency procedure.
Except that surely the casualty team wouldn’t keep arguing about the best way to resuscitate the patient? After a few minutes, I feel like going outside, letting them decide on their plan of action, and ringing the bell again.
“You go upstairs and have a nice hot bath,” says Mum, as soon as I’ve put down my handbag. “I expect you’re exhausted!”
“She doesn’t have to have a bath if she doesn’t want to!” retorts Dad. “She might want a drink! D’you want a drink, darling?”
“Is that wise?” says Mum, shooting him a meaningful what-if-she’s-an-alkie? look, which presumably I’m not supposed to notice.
“I don’t want a drink, thanks,” I say. “But I’d love a cup of tea.”
“Of course you would!” says Mum. “Graham, go and put the kettle on.” And she gives him another meaningful look. As soon as he’s disappeared into the kitchen, she comes close to me and says, in a lowered voice, “Are you feeling all right, darling? Is anything. . wrong?”