Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew leant over the counter and reached for a calculator to work out the mark-up. We didn't linger after that'
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The Independent Online

A biblical-sounding period of seven years has elapsed since Matthew and I last went shopping together. We are both superstitious, and because an antique mirror was purchased and broken on the last outing, we made a decision not to risk any further trips until now.

The mirror was the least of it that day though; the most of it being a visit to the Joseph shop in Knightsbridge. Matthew had promised to by me a coat, but after he performed a Basil Fawlty-style faint beside the cash register, I picked up the first thing to hand - a nondescript cardigan pretty much like the other nondescript cardigans I already owned - paid for it myself, wrote Matthew an IOU and marched him to the door vowing never to repeat the experience. Then I dropped the mirror and was presented with an immediate, counter IOU.

Many such documents have passed between us since then and not once has any money changed hands, so an amnesty has been declared and we are off to the shops to buy me a new desk and to search for a present for Matthew's one-year-old god-daughter, my niece, Ellie.

Worryingly, he seems quite excited. He says he feels like a lifer told that, against all odds, his parole application has been approved. This, I suppose, is an improvement; he has often compared any shopping trip with me (and that includes two minutes in the pet shop buying tortoise pellets) unfavourably with being on Death Row. But he is looking forward to this one, and has promised to keep his rampant impatience under strict control and to not embarrass me.

Which is why I was so surprised when he started pacing up and down inside the entrance of the furniture warehouse after just five minutes. He had started complaining the moment we arrived, saying: "The Treaty of Versailles was written in less time than this. How long can it take you to choose a desk? The oak tree that supplied the wood for much of the furniture in this retail outlet - a stout and ancient oak - grew to its full majesty from a tiny acorn in the half the time we have been in this shop. "

The morning had started well, with an uneventful full English breakfast in a brasserie next door to the warehouse. Matthew was impressed by the presence of brown sauce on the table. This meant that the little bottle of HP that he carries with him on such occasions could stay in his pocket. He was annoyed by the chef's "imbecilic" decision to put the baked beans in a ramekin with the sausages arranged around it, but was distracted from complaining by a man who wasn't, as it turned out, Mike Batt of Wombles fame, sitting next to us.

* And then, as we left the brasserie and neared the antiques warehouse, Matthew took my arm just beneath the elbow in order to steer me with accuracy, and sped up so that we entered the shop like Paula Radcliffe finishing a marathon. As it happened, there was a perfectly lovely and ideal desk, (limewashed Victorian oak) just inside the door, and we came to a juddering halt so that it might be examined.

"That looks just the thing," said Matthew, "We'll take it." I told him that I thought it did indeed appear perfect but that I would quite like to have a look at some others. "You could start looking for something for Ellie," I suggested.

I was gone for no more than four minutes and in that time, although I failed to find a more suitable desk, I did find a 1950s novelty lamp for Ellie's bedroom. And then I returned to the entrance to find Matthew pacing and asking whether he thought his god-daughter might like a reconditioned roulette wheel. When I said that I didn't think she would, he said that, alternatively, there were some attractive silver-tipped walking canes. I didn't reply, other than to say that the first desk we had seen would do after all.

* And then began the working out; the arithmetic. It wasn't anything to do with my new desk or the novelty lamp that started Matthew off. No, he had spotted a box containing some framed Punch cartoons, on sale for either £10 or £15. He started by picking one up, reading it and then handing it to the sales assistant and asking: "Excuse me, please could you tell me where the joke is in this cartoon." The assistant smiled wryly but said nothing, which was wise. Matthew continued by asking exactly how many cartoons there were in each issue of Punch and how much each issue had cost. He then leant over the counter and reached for a calculator to work out the mark-up.

* We didn't linger after that, although we did stop in a cosmetics shop to buy me a new pot of cleanser for £45. It was me who started pacing this time, while Matthew calculated how much this product was costing me per cleanse. I was tempted to hurl the hand-mirror on the counter, thereby guaranteeing another seven shopping-free years.