What have you told them at work?' she asked. What have you told them at yours?' I countered.
I don't need to tell them anything,' she said, looking down her long nose at me unsmilingly. 'I'm in charge.'
We had met as arranged on the pavement outside the Huguenot house in Fournier Street, the one whose area railings are headed with thistles rather than spears. I had been out east that morning to see the man at the Regulators about some recent embarrassing losses suffered by Leviathan Bank, whose compliance department I was running. On the way back from Canary Wharf to my lunchtime assignation in Spitalfields I had had the bad luck to be driven by one of those furious obsessive cabbies who hate traffic and know a thousand secrets about London's backstreets. He scorned the obvious routes, refused Commercial Road, shot off up in the direction of Bow then lost his temper at the first red light and tore off round Salmon Lane to grind to a swearing, cursing and of course entirely foreseeable halt on the Mile End Road. I was feeling mildly sick by this point but he would not be satisfied until he'd swung us madly north up into Bethnal Green. At Weavers Fields I began to despair of ever escaping, but then at last he dropped me at the top Of Brick Lane, expressing indignant incredulity at the one-way system, which, as any child knows, is nothing if not long-established.
Even so, I was early. I was feeling buoyant and restless when I looked forward to the next hour or so. While I waited for Isobel Marley, I watched an old man running for a bus which had overshot the stop. He was creeping along, legs low down like a jaguar stealthily approaching its prey through the rainforest, with a broad ingratiating grin of pain on his face. I'm not really young any more, it came to me, wincing in sympathy; but then (cheering up) I'm not that old yet either.
Isobel's black cab drew up at last, gleaming and purring. She took her time unpacking her long-limbed full-bellied self from the back. It had taken her over twenty minutes just from Gray's Inn Road, and she made the driver write out a receipt. We exchanged nods, avoiding each other's eyes. Guilt and complicity hovered in the air like creaky old stage conventions.
'So,' she said, after we had exchanged formal greetings. 'Where is this secret cavern of temptation?'
'I'm not allowed to say,' I said, truthfully. 'You'll just have to follow me.
'That's ridiculous!' she hissed as I led her down past Fashion Street and the police station, then left into Chicksand Street. 'Ludicrous! Who do they think they are?'
I had met Isobel Marley two days before at Iddon Featherstone's reception for their corporate finance clients in Seething Lane. Iddon Featherstone is a smallish law firm and its partners are always hoping I'll put work their way. Sometimes I do. I went along this time because I'm curious about their mooted merger with the German law firm Marbeiter Rotenhart, which is looking both inevitable and, for some Iddon Featherstone partners, disastrous.
The trouble is, Laura, we need more than a toehold in Frankfurt,' fretted John Mannion, head of Corporate Finance. 'We may not like it but we've got to bite the bullet.'
'Difficult,' I commiserated, taking a sip of mineral water. I glanced round the room. It was a picture by Manet rather than Monet. Everyone there was in the self-concealing monochrome of corporate life. The only flashes of colour to contradict the moonlit effect were provided by the men's ties.
Not far from us a very tall strong-featured woman stood talking to Iddon Featherstone's managing partner, Graham Groton. She must have been six or seven months pregnant, and I couldn't help thinking how much better pregnancy looks in tailored worsted than in the more traditional maternity smocks.
'Of course, it's the way the whole world's having to go now,' I said. 'There's been a positive stampede of mergers in the broking sector. Everyone's very jumpy.'
We both watched as a waiter approached and the tall woman held out her glass for more champagne.
'That's illegal now, isn't it?' said John Mannion. 'Boozing while up the duff? You'd get lynched in the States for less than that.'
'Good luck to her,' I said.
'It'll be her fourth,' said John Mannion, and for a moment I thought he was referring to her alcohol intake. Isolbel Marley QC. She's done a great job for us on that money laundering case in the Philippines.'
'Oh yes,' I frowned, recognising the name from an article about high-flying women in that week's Financial Times. 'In the Updraught.'
We watched Graham Groton raise his glass to her. He is rather short, Graham, and she was having to talk down to him.
'I only like tall men,' I said flippantly.
I'd been working like a maniac towards the CGGI deal that the board kept insisting should go ahead despite all the counter indications of shadiness I had been urging them to consider. My integrity was on the line. The man I had met earlier that year and whom I might, given time, have grown to love, had understandably grown tired during this CGGI case of waiting until ten or eleven at night for my work-weary self to grace him with an hour or two, and had gone.
'I like to look up at a man,' I explained.
'To,' said John Mannion, with a startled roll of the eye. I realised he was several inches taller than me.
'No, at,' I said, and smiled.
'Ah,' he said. 'Got you. But let me introduce you to Isobel. You must meet her.'
Isobel Marley had been listening for long enough to Graham Groton's gung-ho line on the merger and how we were all now part of one big European family for her face to register as we approached a flash almost of joy. Only almost, for her face was singularly serious, impressively so, and, except for the odd luxury of a frown, impassive.
'But how can Europe be one big happy family,' I launched in, unable to let this go; it was Europe's various madly conflicting regulatory regimes which had kept me on fifteen-hour days these last two months. A deal which was whiter than white in one country could be distinctly off-colour in another and downright criminal in a third. The Euro wasn't the half of it.
'You must feel like the Lone Ranger,' chuckled John Mannion. 'You and the other compliance guys. Galloping around after the outlaws. Them thar traders.'
'Hi ho Silver,' I said. 'Someone's got to do it.'
'Not exactly bad news for law firms,' said Isobel, but her heart wasn't in it. She had been distracted; she had noticed what no man would ever notice.
At this point, John Mannion and Graham Groton were drawn away by another Iddon Featherstone partner to meet the grauen emminenz from Marbeiter Rotenhart, who was over in London on a rare dynastic visit.
Isobel paused, then allowed herself to comment, 'That's a nice shirt.'
I was wearing a white shirt with my grey suit, boringly meek and plain. Only a member of the unofficial ocular freemasonry would have noticed that it was made of nun's veiling, with a faint grey stripe the width of a pencil lead.
'Why,' I remembered asking the sales assistant at Wurstigkeit that time, staring hard at the beautiful but after all plain shirt, 'Why, um, is it so much money, this one?'
'Ah, this one,' he had replied. 'Look, there, the stripe, you see? It is because the line is broken.'
Sure enough there were minute sugar-grain sized gaps in the fine stripe.
'Of course,' I'd said. And bought it.
'Thank you,' I now said to Isobel.
I saw her struggling with herself. She was an intensely competitive type, that much was obvious, and she would not be able to bear not to ask.
It's nice cloth,' I taunted, almost laughing. Like down against the skin. And see, the line is broken.' I held out my cuff for inspection.
'So it is,' she said. 'Yes.'
She paused again, poker-faced, then could not help herself and asked, 'It's not from that shop, is it? That mad shop with the password where they won't give out their address? What's it called?'
'Wurstigkeit,' I said, blushing slightly.
'What a ludicrous idea, a shop with a password,' she scoffed.
She couldn't bear to feel excluded, it was obvious. She was used to being on every list, right at the top.
'It's eccentric,' I agreed, blithely.
'Isn't it terribly expensive?' she sniffed.
'Not to someone in the updraught,' I said. 'Surely.'
It was far too expensive for me now, but I wasn't going to tell her that. Since I first visited, Wurstigkeit's prices had quintupled, sextupled, rising by at least a hundred per cent each year. Market forces!
Five years ago I had met a man from Shibui Investments for lunch in a restaurant near Liverpool Street. He had been summoned by his mobile to an emergency dealbreaker before we had finished the amuse-gueules and so, finding myself with a rare uncharted hour, I had allowed myself to drift outside mapless into the dusty sun. It was at a point in my life when I could not sleep for worrying. I was starting to experience low-level panic attacks at night when I could hear my jumpy heart and ragged breathing as myriad horrors, regrets, fears and raw-heads hurtled towards me (lying doggo beside my now ex-husband and pretending to sleep) in a shower of meteorites. I had taken to carrying with me in my briefcase a collection of small bottles of flowerdew remedies, each claiming to protect against a specific misery. The ones I used most were Rock Water, labelled 'For the self-repressed who overwork and deny themselves any relaxation,' and Wood Betony 'For those who find it difficult to love themselves.'
Anyway, it was during this window-like hour at a less than euphoric stage in my life that, by chance, I stumbled into Wurstigkeit, which had opened only that week. It was like stepping into the fabled wardrobe and finding yourself in another country. The point was, it was an experience in weightlessness. It subtracted your centre of gravity.
' Wurstigkeit,' said Isobel. 'I wonder what that means. Sausage something, it sounds like.'
'Laura,' said John Mannion, waltzing up with an older man in tow. 'Laura, I'd like you to meet Gunter Mangelkammer. Herr Mangelkammer is head of Commercial Litigation over in Frankfurt. Herr Mangelkammer, this is Laura Collinson, head of Compliance at Leviathan. And this, this is the distinguished QC, Isobel Marley.'
'How fortunate,' said Isobel, smiling at Herr Mangelkammer. 'We were just puzzling over the meaning of a German word. Perhaps you will be able to help us.'
'I might be delighted,' said Herr Mangelkammer warily.
'What was it, Laura?' Isobel asked.
Wurstigkeit,' I said.
'Ah yes,' said Herr Mangelkammer, visibly relieved. 'I know this. It is an expression introduced by Bismarck. It describes a mental state. How must I say? To do with sausages.
'Sausages?' said John Maiinion, his eyebrows in his hair.
'A state of sausage like behaviour, persisted Herr Mangelkammer.
'Sausageness,' I put forward.
'Sausageness is good ' he agreed. Meaning, people dont care. They don't care a sausages worth.
They don't give a fig? I offered.
They don't give a fuck?' cried John Mannion, laughing heartily. They dont give a flying fuck"
'Your way is better, I think, said Herr Mangelkammer, honouring me with a nod.
We turned from Chicksand Street into Frostric Walk, then down a villainous urinous alley so narrow that where a moment before there had been enough blue sky above to cut out a pair of sailor's trousers, now there was nothing but a forget-me-not ribbon.
Are you quite sure you know where we're going?' asked Isobel with some asperity as she picked her well-shod way between various noisome puddles.
We took a twist at the end here, then on to one last dark paved lane, and we had arrived.
'You must be joking,' said Isobel flatly, staring at the scuffed and numberless portal with the blacked-out picture window beside it.
She glanced at her watch with irritation, then at me.
'Wait a moment,' I said.
On the wall at the level where a doorbell should have been was the bas-relief head of a satyr, and into the ancient whorled ear of this creature I whispered the password. Then I stepped back and waited.
The door opened slowly on backward hinges, and we followed. Inside, it was the hall of the Mountain King filled with the trousseau of his robber bride. I caught my breath, and started to feel bouncy and oxygenated, airy and greedy. My eyes lusted around all over the place. The colours teased and tingled and clashed like music, while the walls receded into velvety darkness. I tried to keep some semblance of indifference but the smiles kept crossing my lips, and soon I was cooing and clucking and gasping as I moved from rail to rail. Isobel riffled through this rack and that, pursing her lips. I saw the stuff through her eyes, as when I'd looked in for the first time five years ago. What a load of tat, I'd thought. What a heap of magpie rubbish, little bright bits of rubbish.
Then I'd suddenly got caught. Was it a corsair's slanted stripes down the front of a structured cardigan? I'd thought, how can they charge more than a fiver for this nonsense; and, a second later, the scales had fallen from my eyes. I'd understood that here was something indefensible at work, and had reached for my chequebook. It was the story of the Emperor's new clothes, but backwards.
Now Isobel was reaching for the price tags and huffing and puffing and casting stuff aside with a curled lip.
'Don't look at the price tags,' I advised. 'Look at the clothes.'
I took a long viridian garment from its hanger and held it out behind her. Instinctively she slid her arms back into the sleeves and shrugged it on. We looked at her guarded face in the long mirror, and at the grande dame opera coat whose plaited, puffy, serpentine collar she had drawn superbly up to her chin.
'No,' she said, casting it aside. 'I'd never wear it. When would I wear it?'
'That's not the point,' I started to say, but decided to wait.
Perhaps after all she was merely status-seeking, an acquisitive label-conscious shopper. If so, I had misjudged, and this was a waste of time.
I remembered that FT interview with Isobel Marley. A blur of phrases came back at me, things like, a hundred and twenty per cent, superleague, total commitment, that sort of stuff. She had been quoted as saying, 'I'm a workaholic, I'm fantastically good at what I do,' and had rejected the soubriquet of fatcat with talk of freedom and markets. That was all distinctly unpromising. Surely she had no time for anything else.
On the other hand she had been the one to fall in love with a shirt, I reminded myself; so she must have something.
'There is nothing here that I could wear to work,' she said. 'There is nothing here that I could wear at home. Family life. What's the point?'
'But it's you, that coat. You can see that,' I declared. 'Apotheosis clothes, that's what this place is for.'
You would never look at me and think, There goes a well-dressed woman. Outside work I do not dress to please anyone except myself. The concept of rational dress has always appealed strongly: useful pockets and plimsolls and William Morris' thoughts on vegetable dyes. If I want to look like a happy madwoman, I can. I'm paying for these clothes, I'm having fun. All this goes against the revered French approach: the top two buttons undone; the neat waist cinched; the short short skirt. The French wouldn't like this shop - it's too eccentric, there's too much colour. And as for that vile cynical Gallic maxim which holds that clothes should be chosen expressly pour mettre en valeur various good bits of the body! Leg or breast, sir? Bah, I say to this; à bas les vêtements pimpants; pimp clothes I call them. And for your information, no I am not fat. Nor am I thin. I'm just right.
Then Isobel caved in. Her defences crumbled, reason fled. She didn't care about the money any more, she stopped looking at the little tickets and their prices. Instead she narrowed her eyes and started to hunt down the most fantastical, the most artfully bizarre. I knew I hadn't been mistaken. I knew she had an eye. We were two of a kind when it came to this. She'd caught on. She was caught in. From now on she was a driven woman.
Soon we had amassed enough between us to start trying on. In the little side lavatory off the showroom --Wurstigkeit had nothing as utilitarian as a changing room -- with silks and velvets over the rusted old wash basin, elbows in each other's faces, we struggled into mad dresses, lunatic ensembles. I barely knew this woman, I'd only met her once before, yet here we were taking off our clothes together in a rusty cubicle.
I tried on a cotton shirt first, raspberry-coloured and almost raspberry-scented as I pulled it over my head. I could smell the cleanness of the cotton, and the pleasant smell of our sweat, recent, slight and grassy, then wafting stronger from under our arms. Touching the cotton to my face, my cheek, I found it as fine as a baby's skin, and sighed.
She's much taller than me, Isobel. I'm not short, but my eyes were level with the great mamelonated nipples of pregnancy spread out by the gauze of her bra. I looked away. I hoped she wouldn't appraise what she saw of me with that merciless female regard which is so chilling. You must have seen the way women look at each other in dressing rooms or at the gym -- furtive , assessing, without lust or kindness, hypercritically alert to my sign of age or deterioration. No wonder there is so little nakedness in British life. We live under a cloud inside our clothes blue-veined as cheese, bluish white as milk.
'I would love to hold a baby again. I said, thinking back to that good dense beanbag weight.
'For half an hour, she said shortly, struggling inside a hiss of silk. 'I'm not that keen on babies per se. Her head surfaced above the glinting tussore and she scowled. She really did look impressive when she scowled her features baroque and curly round the long straight nose
'All those vile health visitors in hospital moralising about breast-feeding,' she shuddered.
It was on the tip of my tongue to mention antibodies, just for fun, but I thought she might punch me in the face.
When I had my daughter, I expressed my milk at home and at work; the freezer hoarded those precious cubes for the nanny to defrost; I carried the agonising breast pump round in my handbag as reverently as if it were a holy relic. The milk I managed to collect in the Ladies at work I stored at the back of the office fridge in a clearly-marked bottle until I could take it home. I stopped all that rather abruptly when my secretary one day came and whispered to me that there was a rumour that the boys in Sales were adding vodka. To the milk. Which is the sort of thing that seems mere infantile fun before you have a baby, but cruelty itself afterwards. I could see I might have seemed too earnest to them about the baby-feeding business. They simply couldn't begin to imagine. That was almost seven years ago, though.
'Have you got a good nanny?' I asked as I pulled on a stretchy velvet skirt like pliable moss.
'I loathe her with a passion,' she said, her voice muffled as she drew the dress back up. 'So do the children. But she's excellent, she runs the entire domestic show, I couldn't do without her. Anyway it's good for them to realise that life isn't just about what they want all the time. It's not a picnic.'
Whenever I ache for another baby, I think about the whole nanny business and think again. One child was fine. I mean, it was too much for my husband. In the year after she was born, he said he was wilting, he no longer felt free. (Do you know, that's exactly how I felt.) Then in the second year he said, 'I don't feel I can grow unless I leave,' and, dashing a manly tear from his eye, he left. I've kept the same nanny, for whom it is an ideal job. Nannies tend to jump ship at new babies, but I didn't rock the boat and now she's like my wife.
I looked at the glamorous velvet against my thighs, its pile as close as sheep-nibbled grass, soaking up light and sound.
'Wouldn't it be nice to be covered with this all over,' I said dreamily, 'Like a cat.
'What,' she said, frowning. 'A catsuit?'
'What's a catsuit?'
For an instant I saw a cat unzip its fur and step out naked into the sun. I caught my eye in the mirror above the basin. Some days I look at my face -- I might be a bit tired -- and find myself thinking, That could do with a press with a damp cloth. Time marches on. Recently a graininess like slub silk has appeared in the valley between my breasts, where a few months ago all was perfectly smooth and unmarked. It's more obvious after sleep, and rather fascinating to see age approaching in leaps and bounds. The man for whom I had not been able to spare the time was suddenly upon me, an excellent weight, for those few ideal moments when my knees had been drawn up into the made-to-measure hollows of his armpits.
'It's hot in here,' I said, and heaved another sigh.
In that cramped washroom space, trying not to catch each other's elbows or noses as we pulled garments over our heads, tugged others along our thighs, eyes averted, up in the air, musing apparently on other things, I caught glimpses of Isobel's baby-packed belly and of her extra-long limbs, more bone and health than is usually a woman's share, and wondered for a moment how she and her husband had sex together. Did she go up and catch him by the lapel like a judo wrestler? Did he rugby tackle her from behind and bring her down like that? Or did she collapse elegantly onto a chaise longue, a giraffe, a folding ruler, gradually succumbing? Perhaps there was no surrender; possibly she was proactive in her rapprochement with her husband, chucking him under the chin, bearhugging him, exchanging sportive punches. Hard to imagine how a very tall strong woman comports herself here. Shrinking and passivity would look ridiculous, like a mountain trying to be a mouse. You'd have to live up to your stature, be splendid, remote, brave, ungirlish. To be big and tall and spiritless would be worse than being little and short and spiritless; as somehow more of a waste, like an uninhabited tenement building. I reflected on the spite tall women endure, as though they're not entitled to that extra length of bone, as though there's something risible about it; and, frequently, their woundedness in the face of this, the huddled quality which makes them the diametrical opposite of so many short men who go round causing trouble, demanding more space and attention than they were born with. Than their mothers could give them.
Anyway, there was nothing passive or spiritless about Isobel. She was full of power. Back in the shop where we went to stand in front of the long mirror, a sweet-faced young salesgirl had attached herself to her splendour, eyeing her with the shrewdness of a lover, pulling out this, then this, then that for her to try. Despite herself, Isobel was impressed.
'That on you,' I said excitedly of the strange item the girl had persuaded Isobel to try, pelisse-like but sleeved, pink and fawn and minutely pleated as the gills on the underside of a field mushroom. 'That's so clever, like Mme de Sevigné meets Simone de Beauvoir.'
'Hmmm,' she said, staring hard at herself in the mirror.
'I think it's right for you,' murmured the salesgirl.
She was some fifteen years younger than either of us, a few inches of golden stomach open to the air, her navel pierced with a diamond-tipped silver ring. Isobel and I are both in our mid-thirties, the age of heroes in Russian novels, halfway through the threescore years and ten.
'Try this,' said the girl to Isobel, holding against her a dress in a green the violent colour of a cricket pitch before a thunderstorm.
'Yes,' said Isobel slowly, nodding.
The girl dropped an acid-yellow mantilla over her left shoulder and we let out our collective breath with a hiss. She smiled in triumph.
After that, Isobel was in the buying vein. Straight on to the yes pile went a jacket the good honest colour of carrots and their paler core; a grey linen suit with the mauveness of dry earth; a blue-and-white dress like a willow-patterned teacup.
I cannot imagine what colour has to do with emotion, but the two are certainly inextricable. When I call my daughter to mind, I see her pale hot eyes, a furious light blue, fair-fringed, and the coral-freckled pink pallor of her father's thin skin. My best friend (to use my daughter's terminology) appears, and her celadon eyes are full of understanding without hardness, translucent, like sage backlit or the clear green of chives, their colour and light remarkable as if reflected off a silver plate.
When I think of women I know, I always see their eyes; with men, I see their mouths, their hands, the shape of their heads. I've tried to imagine why this is, and can only conclude that it's because women and men still do not fully meet each other's gaze.
Isobel's mobile phone sang out in muffled urgency from her bag. It was buried beneath a heap of bias-cut frangipani-petalled skirts and pinstriped peignoirs, pink plush toreador pants and a richly ribboned peajacket.
It rang and rang.
She looked at the heap of clothes as though it cradled a howling baby. She scowled, and the frown line between her brows was like a fault-line running clean through her.
'Leave it,' I said. 'I can't even hear it.'
'It might be important,' she said.
It stopped after a while.
Both of us ought to have been somewhere else. Both of us had too much to do. Her time is so precious that it is charged out to other people at a pound a minute. Five pounds a minute. Ten!
I never have enough time. I work an eleven-hour day, excluding commuting. That means my nanny has to work a thirteen-hour day. I have to be out before seven in the morning, and if I'm lucky I'm back to kiss my daughter goodnight.
Isobel's words floated back to me from that high-flying FT interview. 'It's unreal to say you can balance work and children. At the end of the day you have to make up your mind whether you're going to bake cakes with them or go to work.'
Cakes again! Why do hard-working women always bring cakes into it when they're discussing childcare? Nobody bakes cakes these days, they're difficult to cook and bad for us. Surely we should be more concerned about the impossibility of persuading the childminder to prepare, and then to persuade the children to eat, plain fresh food. That's invisible work all right; thats a labour of love. But no, it's always cakes that are mentioned. It's obviously something to do with having our cake and eating it.
'Do you feel guilty?' I asked Isobel.
'What about?' she said.
'Work,' I mumbled. 'The children.'
'Why should I?' she said. 'If you don't want to be financially dependent on your partner, then you have to work. That's obvious.'
How strange, I thought; that sounds just like the sort of thing you say before you have children. And after all the what my ex-husband would term 'personal growth' I've been through in recent years, nothing is obvious to me any more.
'Anyway,' she continued, 'guilt is not a useful emotion.'
I almost fell on the floor. I had never before considered emotion in terms of its usefulness. I was amazed.
'Try this,' said Isobel, surprising me again.
And so I tried on a long peculiar dress, yellow as a pear with mulberry-stained panels from armpit to hem, and a sash which tied over the stomach making a present of the wearer like the bow on a box of chocolates. It was a wild figment. It was unhinged. And yet I stood between big Isobel and the little salesgirl and we all smiled at the mirror, even Isobel, that expert shopping smile. The dress was made for me.
The salesgirl held up her fingertips in some cabalistic continental sign indicating perfection. I don't look at my reflection much these days, but now I was doing so and felt rather shy, like laughing, as though seeing a once-close friend after a long time. Isobel said. That's you. It's got that look you have. Don't mind me saying so.'
She was a little embarrassed. After all, we didn't know each other from Adam. These were intimate exchanges. And yet we probably saw the point of each other, the visual point, more than our husbands, or ex-husbands, did.
Do you know that old euphemism 'a bit of the other'? To me it suggests a different world just on the edge of our own, a middle-earth free of the usual cares and weights. Well, this dress was a bit of the other, it was what you might wear to a middle-earth party. I felt aerated and energised, the very opposite of the creeping dismay which descends when you buy and immediately know you should not have bought, so that the new garment dogs you grimly, haunts you miserably, to flap at you from the touchline of your dreams.
As for Isobel, she had accumulated a heap of finery and was now standing frowning by the till while they totted up how much it would cost. She looked like a baffled monarch, unable to believe that she was preparing to hand over vast sums to these illusionists.
'I think these things are right for you,' said the salesgirl consolingly. She smiled and nodded her head and wandered back to her patch.
We were now in the hands of two assiduous bustling boys. One was removing the price tags and the other was folding and wrapping.
'This gilet, it does not have a ticket,' said the first boy. Ow much is it?'
The second boy raised a quizzical eyebrow.
'One hundred fifty? Two hundred, I think.'
He shrugged, and held it in the air, hallooing up to his colleague in the chemise gallery.
'Ow much is this, Gianni?'
'Three hundred,' he repeated, turning back, unblinking.
'Three unnerun fifty,' called someone from another corner of the shop.
Figures ricocheted around in the air, as at an auction.
'No, three hundred,' came the final estimate from the woman at the till, chimed out as though announcing a bargain.
Isobel moved her head from side to side as if she had been swimming and was trying to shake the water from her ears.
After such an exchange in Wurstigkeit, everything is so unreal that payment becomes something oddly casual and insouciant. You are anaesthetised against the usual anxiety at handing over money. It is pure thaumaturgy. I remembered my own first visit here, years ago, when I had asked the price of something, and politely scoffed at the answer and walked out. Then I'd walked around the narrow streets thinking about the silly little garment in question, and it was just like coming down with flu. Actual feverishness joined forces with a sense of suddenly lowered resistance and I had gone back in and handed over my money.
'You've got to hand it to them,' I quipped.
Isobel gave a wan smile.
'Let's see,' she said, 'I'd have to wear that dress eight hundred times before it came down to thirty pence a wearing. So that's twenty-seven times a year until I'm sixty-five.'
'You would spend the same on a picture,' commented the woman at the till. 'Is the same thing.'
'Is not the same thing,' hissed Isobel to me.
'Have them both,' I said, as she havered between two shirts, the one pale pink and the other bright Saxe blue.
'You've got to make choices, Laura,' she said sternly. 'You can't have everything.'
'Why not?' I enquired. 'Here at least.'
I wandered off while she paid. When I returned she sat sprawled on a chair, flushed and exhausted and leaden-eyed.
Our salesgirl approached with a little tray holding a crystal noggin of eau-de-vie and a few frail sugar biscuits. These Isobel wolfed down.
Then she said crossly, 'What are they for.'
We turned and watched as a pair of cowry-trimmed chaperejos was wrapped in silver tissue paper.
'They are smart but casual,' pronounced the beautiful boy who was wrapping them.
'Yeah yeah,' said Isobel rudely.
Back in her work clothes, the spell was wearing off. She glanced at her watch and clicked her tongue impatiently.
'You can wear them anywhere,' he insisted, looking up from under raven's wing brows.
'Like where?' snapped Isobel.
He shrugged superbly.
'You can do the gardening in them,' he said.
'Oh yes of course,' said Isobel. 'The gardening!'
And at last she capitulated. She was positively wreathed in smiles. I barely recognised her. Amusement played on her face and made it appear like floating quicksilver. She was transmogrified; she had literally lightened up.
'I can offer you a five per cent discount,' said the boy, superbly magnanimous.
'Well,' she gurgled, 'That might just tip me over the edge.'
I glanced at my watch. Good grief, was that the time? It was.
Things started to move fast. Her five per cent was restored in a hurry, the crackling carrier bags were handed across like hot cakes, and we were out in the real world again, turfed out onto the pavement with the numberless door closed firmly behind us.
'Where are you going next?' she asked.
'We can share a cab,' she said. 'Do you know, I've got eight hundred pages to read before four o'clock.'
We were walking fast towards the main road, almost skipping. Her strong face was alive with pleasure and sweetness, silvery and flickering with smiles like water in the sun.
'And I've got to go and interview the Head of Sales.' I laughed. 'Guilty as hell. Out on his ear!'
'That reminds me,' she said, slowing down for a moment. 'Now I've paid, I want the password.'
'Fair enough,' I said.
We stopped, she stooped down, and I stood on tiptoe to whisper it into her ear.
She laughed aloud.
|© 2000 Helen Simpson
This electronic version of 'Wurstigkeit' appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission from The Peters Fraser & Dunlop Group Ltd, UK. It appears in Simpson's collection Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Jonathan Cape, UK, 2000. The Knopf edition will be published in New York on June 5th 2001. Book ordering available through amazon.co.uk
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photo: Derek Thompson
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