Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'The purchase of the Tia Maria tells me something catastrophic is going on with our finances'
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The Independent Online

One of the many things that I have failed, over the years, to fathom about Matthew is his need to buy such eye-boggling amounts of alcohol whenever we hit a difficult financial patch. That one is imminent I know from the six cases of Sancerre in the kitchen and the five of Rioja that are being carried in. Ten minutes later it is impossible to reach the cooker without performing hopscotch (hop-Famous-Grouse-scotch to be precise), and finally, with much straining and puffing, a solitary bottle of Tia Maria is balanced precariously on the top of a very tall tower of boxes.

I have no idea what complicated issues lurk behind the purchase of this last item - Matthew has always regarded Tia Maria as the alcohol world's equivalent of the string-backed driving glove. But whatever they are, there is something sinister and possibly catastrophic going on with our finances.

The situation is worse than I dared to imagine. Matthew refused to go into detail, even after demolishing a large tumbler of vodka with a Cointreau and Martini Rosso chaser, but the gist is that horns mustn't so much be drawn in as hacked off while belts must be tightened to the point of rupturing our abdomens. I suggested we might like to consolidate our debts with Ocean Finance or one of Carol Vorderman's firms (not the one that produces probiotic yoghurt drinks) and at this Matthew opened a bottle of Malibu and swigged.

A planned trip to Emporio Armani has therefore been cancelled and I will be shopping for clothes at Oxfam. Clearly the main purpose of such a charity is for baling out middle-class women whose husbands' only economy in times of trouble is to restrict their internet poker playing to eight hours each day while contributing 50 per cent at least to the annual group profits of Majestic Wine Warehouse. Relieving famine in Africa is a mere side effect.

Whatever the morality of this - and it is dubious - I have become addicted to Oxfam. It's the competition I crave, from all those other women, all capable of spending a month's wages on a Prada T-shirt, but who are just as happy to circle Oxfam for bargains, like crows over roadkill. They show no mercy to me; a former compadre on hard times - today in the St John's Wood branch I was forced to shriek in mock pain to confuse a Vanessa Feltz lookalike who was about to snaffle a Marc Jacobs skirt that would never have fitted her anyway.

St John's Wood and Kensington High Street are my favoured branches - however desperate things might be, I still have standards.

This week there is, in the window of the Kensington branch, an especially covetable pink chiffon dress. When I inquired after it, I was told by the assistant that it would not be available for purchase till Friday. "Come Friday morning, doors open at 10am, and it's first one in who gets it," she said. There was something mildly threatening about her tone, something to do with the Mafia-style phraseology, that made me believe that the process of securing this dress was not going to be a genteel affair.

Arrangements have been made, however, to ensure that I succeed. When I asked Matthew if he would do the school run on Friday morning so that I could be certain to be waiting outside the shop from 6am, he slapped his head into his hands, sighed and then unleashed some signature sledgehammer irony.

"Canon Theodore Milford and the Oxford Quakers founded the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief in 1942," he said (and clearly he had been boning up with Wikipedia in preparation for such a speech), "and funnily enough it was primarily goading middle-class women in Kensington to engage in warfare over designer clothes that they had in mind. So yes, of course I will do the school run." And then, before loping off to pour himself a glass of Havana rum, he suggested I spend the entire night in the shop doorway in a sleeping bag.

I have no sleeping bag, so I will be sticking to the original 6am start time.

I did manage to find a collapsible seat in a War on Want. I left the house at 5.45am with a thermos of English Breakfast tea, two rounds of pilchard sandwiches and a copy of Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. There was already someone sleeping in the doorway when I arrived at the Oxfam shop, but he wasn't quite the type to go for pink chiffon. I offered him a sandwich when he woke at 8am, but he said he preferred salmon. I said that I did too but needs must. He was right about the pilchards though, they were quite salty and I was very glad of the tea.

By 9am there was quite a queue forming behind me. The man in the sleeping bag had moved on (I gave him my Orwell because he said that he had never read it) and the two new arrivals, both women, looked like serious contenders for the ownership of the dress, both annoyed that I had beaten them to it.

Except I hadn't. At 9.45 I realised the game was up, that I shouldn't have drunk so much tea. I would have to abandon my post and search for the nearest loo.

There is, however, a Comme des Garçons tunic dress that I am coming back for next week. I'll go through the same routine, but without the pilchards and the English Breakfast, which, in itself will be something of an economy.