by Ron Simmonds
Mary Roberts stood at the handbag counter of the huge department store, looking down at the wondrous layout before her. The smooth polished items on display gleamed softly in the discreet overhead lighting. The sweet, heady aroma of new leather filled her nostrils. There was a beige purse there that she simply must have. She looked around. The salesgirl was occupied at the other end of the counter. At the moment no one appeared to be the slightest bit interested in her.
Ten minutes later she walked quickly out of the store into a crowded Oxford Street. A twenty minute bus ride, and she was in another, even larger store, over in Kensington. She found her way to the small, cosy restaurant on the fourth floor and sat for a while, sipping coffee, watching the frantic scurrying of the people thronging the store. Mary was in no hurry. She had the whole day before her.
The coffee finished she walked slowly around, savouring the atmosphere of the place to the full. She had never been in this store before, but she had heard all about it. Here one could buy anything in the world: at least, that was its proud boast. From an elephant to a hairpin. She giggled to herself and imagined walking in and saying, One elephant please, cash on delivery.
Mary wandered the lush counters, picking up and admiring the goods from time to time. It was really like being in an Aladdins Cave. The salesgirls smiled at her, encouragingly. The people here were so polite. It all added considerably to the utter charm of the place.
She stopped suddenly in surprise. Right in front of her was a large display of beige leather purses, identical to the one in her handbag. She picked one up and examined it. Yes, they were exactly the same, but here the price tag was way above that of the other store. Mary came back down to earth with a bang. What a cheek! Just because this store was in a more upperclass district there was no need to inflate the prices like that. She moved on between the counters, looking, touching. She intended to treat herself to some earrings, in the same way she had treated herself to the purse in Oxford Street.
The store detective, a young man named Saunders, watched Mary as she ambled around, seemingly aimlessly. Hed had his eye on her for ten minutes, ever since she entered the department and began fingering the goods on the counters. He followed her now, down the stairs, through soft furnishings, making her way ever downwards towards the exit. He had to wait while she visited the Ladies Room, and took up the trail when she emerged. Mary paused only briefly at the costume jewellery display before moving slowly over to the doorway. As she put one foot over the threshold Saunders pounced.
Mary struggled, but there was no escaping his grasp. I am the store detective, madam. He showed her his identity card. I would like you to come along to the managers office for a moment. Just a formality. Please dont struggle, or make a scene. We will try to keep this as discreet as possible.
Mary allowed herself to be led, in a daze, the few steps along to a private doorway. Saunders pushed her into a small office and sat her down in a chair. A few moments later another man entered and introduced himself as the general manager of the store. All this time Mary had been so dumbfounded that she had not uttered one word of protest.
I must ask you to empty your pockets, and the contents of your handbag on to this table. I have reason to believe that you have in your possession goods of this establishment for which you have not paid.
Mary found her voice at last, but even then she could hardly speak for the sense of outrage boiling up inside her. How dare you! she spluttered, finally. I am an honest citizen. How dare you treat me like a common criminal!
The men had heard it all before, several times daily. I have no doubt that you were here today on a perfectly innocent shopping expedition, said the manager. If you will allow us to examine your purchases here Im sure that you will soon be on your way. If you refuse to help us things may not proceed quite so smoothly.
Mary was appalled. They were more or less accusing her of theft! Even as a small girl she had been impulsive, and now, in a sudden rage she upended her handbag and dumped the entire contents all over the managers desk. He started back at the onslaught. Saunders, unperturbed by her show of temper, picked up the beige leather purse. I thought so, he said. May I see your receipt for this item.
You may not, snapped Mary, now thoroughly annoyed. I bought that purse earlier on this morning in Selfridges.
Im afraid that cant be true, madam, remarked the manager, who prided himself on being polite and correct at all times, even to thieves. That purse is manufactured exclusively for this store, and this store alone.
Mary rummaged amongst her belongings, now spread all over the desk. Its no use your pretending to look for a receipt, said Saunders sarcastically. I was watching you all the time. After stealing the purse you transferred the contents of your old one into it in the Ladies Room. He picked up her old purse, now empty. They sorted through her possessions for a while, and made a loudspeaker call for a woman detective. When she arrived Mary was subjected to the shame of a body search. Saunders was mystified. Cant find any earrings on her, and she isnt wearing any, he muttered to the manager. I was positive she had them in her hand as well.
I didnt like the earrings, said Mary angrily, overhearing the remark.
Well, well! I suppose we can consider ourselves really lucky about that, sneered Saunders.
Ipaid for the pursewith my Master Card, stammered Mary, now very flustered indeed. They watched her search in vain for proof of the purchase. Saunders raised an eyebrow at the manager. There was no credit card of any description amongst the things spread all over the table.
Wont you please check with Selfridges, pleaded Mary. They really do sell the purse. I must have left my credit card there when I bought it.
There are large signs all over this store warning of the consequences of theft, said the manager, as though she hadnt spoken. I must ask you for your name and address. Anyone caught thieving is automatically taken to court, charged and fined quite heavily.
Mary was now almost crying with humiliation. I wish to telephone my husband, she said. He is a senior government official, and he is in the House of Commons right at this moment.
The men exchanged glances. These people were all the same. Obviously a wealthy woman, that much was evident by her clothes. And clearly a kleptomaniac. Usually they went to great lengths to keep these little excursions secret from their husbands, but this one was now trying to pull rank.
You are free to contact anyone you wish, said the manager, dryly. Kindly do so outside the store. The telephones here are exclusively for office use. And certainly not for thieves, he thought, but he didnt say it. In the end Mary had to go through the intensely embarrassing routine of giving her personal data. The purse was emptied and confiscated. Saunders escorted her to a side entrance.
I must warn you not to set foot in this establishment again, said the detective. You are banned from doing so, and we will not hesitate to prosecute should you be found here in the future.
Mary took a taxi back home, trying to hold back her tears. She had never been so humiliated in her life. She lay on the bed sobbing and shaking until it was dark. There her husband found her on his return from work.
A meticulous man, used to sorting out facts, he soon had the whole story. He was naturally incensed by what he heard, but his main concern right now was to stop his wife from sobbing her heart out. She was convinced that her appearance in court would greatly interest the media. Her husbands career could be ruined.
Nonsense, said Bernard, comforting her. Well clear everything up tomorrow. Youll see. He was quite certain about it, but still Mary tossed and turned all night, reliving the events of that terrible day until dawn.
Next morning the salesgirl at the handbag counter in Selfridges remembered Mary perfectly. She recalled admiring the small photo of Marys granddaughters that had fallen out when she transferred her things to the new purse. Mary had been flustered at the time, confessing that it was the very first time she had used her brand new credit card. The girl had helped her with her purchase, but, before she could give the card back, together with the receipt, Mary had disappeared into the busy throng of shoppers.
Right! Much obliged. Thank you very much, said Bernard. They wasted no time and took a taxi. In the Kensington store he bulldozed his way into the general managers office, waving the receipts. The manager was unruffled. I certainly am surprised to hear that Selfridges are selling our purse, was all he had to say.
And cheaper, put in Mary.
Well, Ill just check on that.
Youd be well advised to do so, said Bernard, stiffly correct. A simple phone call could have avoided all this. Right now Ill thank you for my wifes purse, and an apology for your disgraceful behaviour.
The manager was adamant. We were only doing our jobs. Your wife was acting suspiciously, and...
Please. Bernard held up a hand to stem the flow. Mary looked at him with pride. He was always wonderfully dignified in such situations. They retrieved the purse and left.
That evening Bernard composed a letter. It was addressed to the managing director of the Kensington emporium, and it spared nothing. He attacked the shabby treatment of customers, secretpolicetype security handling, unfeeling managerial behaviour, unlawful detention, unwarranted violation of human rights, common assault, illegal confiscation of property, the causing of unnecessary upset to an innocent person and the total lack of an apology. He ended by threatening to turn the juicy story over to the media, with which he was extremely well connected.
Two days later they received a personal telephone call from the managing director himself, inviting them to come and meet him. That gentleman was charming, considerate and profuse in his apologies for the behaviour of his staff, who had all been suitably chastised. Mary hoped that they would not lose their jobs. She didnt want to be responsible for anything like that.
The director asked how he could repay Mary for all the trouble and humiliation she had suffered. After some thought he suggested that Mary walk around the store once more with him personally. To make up for the unfortunate incident he would allow her to pick out anything she liked from the display, and the store would give it to her, free of charge. Bernard said he found that a very fair offer, indeed, and they toured the store with the now very contrite general manager in tow.
They began on the ground floor, where Mary looked at various objects, crystal, clothing, kitchenware. Upstairs they walked around looking at TV sets, hifi towers, sporting goods. Mary took her time, enjoying the unusual situation. The men trailed behind her. Halfway through the furniture department she stopped suddenly and retraced her steps. Something had caught her eye: a glint of light reflected in dark polished wood. She walked through an archway and stopped in front of a magnificent Steinway concert grand piano.
On the lid was a small card. Mary viewed it for a moment. The instrument cost almost as much as a small family car. The general manager was staring at the huge piano in horror. One elephant please, cash on delivery. She smiled at the memory.
Mary tinkled a few notes in the upper register of the concert grand, thrilling at the golden sound. She closed the lid over the keyboard and stroked the dark, softly gleaming wood. She raised her eyes and looked at the three men. Her husband gave her a quick wink, hardly noticeable, just the flicker of an eyelid.
Anything I like, free of charge?
Of course. Anything you like, madam.
Thats it, then.
I beg your pardon?
Mary patted the closed lid of the Steinway.
Ill take this, she said.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved