The saleswoman gave me a look that said "Where have you been, you sad shopper?" I, just as silently, answered as I headed towards a drapey, purpley number: "Too busy to even contemplate entering this store, much less this department, much less this dressing room!"
And I had been, too - busy that is. In fact, for the past decade I had been too busy for almost anything but work and motherhood and now, at long last, I was supposed to be enjoying a bit of down-shifting. But first I had to re-acquaint myself with this thing called time. For years I had been beating the clock. Why take the bus if you can take a taxi? Why walk if you can run? Or write if you can fax? Is cooking really necessary? The latest Mintel survey says most working mothers have two to four hours of leisure time a day. If this is true, I must have spent mine sleeping.
Now all of that would change. Or that was the fantasy. It didn't help that whenever I talked to anyone about this they gushed: "Oh I wish I had that problem. I know exactly what I'd do - all those things I've been wanting to do for years." Like what? Take one small thing: now I had the time I decided to go green and take a bus. Except, I discovered, the bus did not want to take me. It stopped, it changed drivers, it stalled, it collapsed on hills. This was not downshifting; this was living in neutral.
Everyone has a story about people who can't or won't get off the treadmill. There is the executive who finds holidays hellishly stressful without his Psion. Or there is the executive who retires and, in lieu of running his company, decides to run his wife instead.
This was one problem I didn't have: I had no wife and I wasn't retiring - merely working a normal week instead of a superhuman one. Ben Williams, an Edinburgh-based chartered organisational psychologist, knew exactly what I meant: "People live at different paces. To enjoy our lives, we need a certain amount of pressure to get to our comfort zone - the pace we feel comfortable at. If you have too much pressure, it's called burn- out. If you don't get enough pressure, you suffer from rust-out."
Rust-out? "Yes. There's no urgency. There's no pressure. Some people call it boredom."
Some people call it plain awful. That feeling that nothing matters, that life might as well be played out in a dentist's waiting room, is enough to keep many people knuckled down from eight to six for the rest of their lives. I could see that it was more fun to run around being stressed out and terribly important than to be bored to death on the bus or trying on what must have been the 15th swimming costume (this one being drapey and turquoisey). Suddenly, my comfort zone seemed too far away for, well, comfort.
So I fled. Next door, in the bulging self-help section of the bookstore (when did there get to be so many self-help books?) was Time Management by Robert M Hocheiser. He advises goals, planning, prioritising and scheduling. He is full of information on the likes of the US Procrastination Society (it has just got around to placing an obituary for Julius Caesar). But when it comes to time, he admits it's not easy. "If you don't manage time, it will manage you," he says. "Time management is not necessarily about getting everything done. It's about getting what you want done. The point is what do you want to get done? What are you concentrating on?"
That's easy: doing less and doing it well. So where is the manual on that? I've read One-Minute Manager, what about the Ten-Minute Manager? The latter would be much harder to do well. The future is supposed to be female - no more time sandwiches and thrusting agendas - but you'd never know it from the bookshelves.
So I'll just have to wing it. Somewhere, between the blur of burn-out and the boredom of rust-out is a comfort zone just waiting for me. But there are no rules and a lot of those things I've been meaning to do for years will just have to stay undone. Life is too short to find the perfect bathing suit or to cook dinner every night. The kids are pleased that fast food is here to stay (that's their comfort zone). And we've all agreed: no more buses for the time being.
Although I have never been rich, I had been "comfortable" enough for many years to spend money without thinking much about what things cost. If I wanted to go to the theatre, I booked tickets. If I wanted a bottle of champagne, or a holiday, I had one. I no longer had any idea what everyday items cost. I just filled up my supermarket trolley and handed over a card at the checkout, hardly glancing at the bill.
That's all very well when money keeps coming in. But if suddenly it stops, it takes time to adjust. So how did I draw in my horns and develop the fine art of fine living without money?
With great difficulty. First, I had to reappraise my priorities. Everybody's notion of luxuries and necessities is different, but this is what turned out to be mine.
I decided I could no longer afford to go to the theatre and cinema. Strangely enough, I've been able to relinquish them with hardly a pang, even though they had been so much a part of my life. I realised that the arts are a wonderful, sensual indulgence when you have money to spare, but seem like a frippery when you don't. I now wait for films to come out on video, content myself with reviews of plays, and life seems no poorer. I had often treated myself to new, hardback fiction. Now, I flip through new novels and biographies in bookshops, reading reviews and books from Sunday stalls for 50p.
What of other reading matter. A newspaper junkie, I used to have five delivered a day; now I buy just one, and read friends' Sunday papers. Women's magazines have had to go. I didn't even know that they cost pounds 2.40 or so; now, although I miss the variety, I have more pressing uses for that amount. But Private Eye is a must. My craving for gossip means I can't do without it, even though it costs pounds 1. And as a compulsive chatterer, trying to cut down on phone calls has not been easy. Mobile phones, the Internet and satellite TV will have to wait.
If cutting down on information has been hard, reducing my food and drink spending, has been quite painless. Restaurant meals, random cups of cappuccino and endless glasses of wine have had to go, yet I've hardly missed them. I buy loose, seasonal vegetables instead of the expensive, packaged, air-freighted varieties that look so seductive, and just the cheapest butter and cheese. I know that small stores are often better value than supermarkets. Commercially produced snacks are a waste of money. I can't, though, live without entertaining friends at regular intervals, but I prepare very simple, cheap meals and, so far, nobody has complained.
For me, life is not worth living without wine, but I now look out for the cheapest, discounted varieties, and find them quite drinkable. I can easily do without soft drinks and just buy mineral water in bulk. I can hardly tell the difference from tap water chilled in the fridge. But I'd rather go without than trade real coffee for instant.
There is a deep longing in many of us to shop, and I am not immune to this. But whereas I used to buy expensive clothes on a whim, I now go to chains such as Dorothy Perkins, where for less than a tenner I can satisfy my craving.
Like Hyacinth Bucket, I must keep up appearances. I think I would die if I didn't regularly visit the nail parlour to maintain my nails in Hollywood- style glamour. But whereas I used to buy Crabtree and Evelyn and Floris toiletries, I now buy supermarket own-brands.
So far, I can't bring myself to wash and iron my own sheets and continue to send them to the laundry. The cleaner's had to go, though.
So I've learnt what I can do without and still have at least some quality of life. I realise I still have many of the things that really matter. But if the money rolls in again, will I revert to being a big spender in an instant? You bet.
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