The shop window has just one handbag on display.
It is artfully placed just off center on the buttermilk colored canvas that unrolls, reminding Alice of the butter spirals that her grandmother would carefully prepare for her ladies teas and place on a chilled porcelain saucer only ever used for this purpose.
The handbag is square, squat, pistachio green leather and dull gold fastenings and findings, it is quite the most beautiful bag that she has ever seen and every day on her walk home from work, she treats herself to a little gaze, a little fantasy about the kind of life that that would go with a bag that costs three times her monthly salary.
And then one day, something amazing , well, actually, something quite commonplace happens. She wins some money on the lottery, not a life changing amount, not enough to pay off the mortgage or to replace the car with its ever present slightly worrying rattle, but a neat, useful amount, which is co-incidentally, exactly the cost of the green handbag.
She knows she is not going to buy it, this money needs to be used to replace the boiler, fix the car and its many niggles, provide a buffer for next years’ fuel bills but emboldened with a bank balance that says she could, if she wanted to, actually own this bag, on a wet February lunchtime, she walks into the shop.
The store is silent, in large glass cases sit eight perfect items, a clutch bag, a vanity case, an over night bag. She feels as though she is entering a museum, an art gallery, she cannot quite imagine anything as vulgar as shopping happening here.
The woman, shop assistant doesn’t seem an appropriate term, sitting on a madly modern and possibly uncomfortable metal chaise longue, clicking at a tiny, tiny lap top, looks up as Alice enters. Her gaze is unexpectedly friendly, open, welcoming. Alice expected to be measured, evaluated, found financially wanting, but this woman seems pleased to see her.
There is a tiny pause
“the bag, the bag in the window, I’d like to see it please”, Alice surprises herself, her tone is firm, purposeful, the healthy state of her bank balance is making her surprisingly confident.
The woman smiles again and unfolds herself, neatly, elegantly from the seat.
She is, of course, taller, thinner and better dressed that Alice.
Carefully, she removes the handbag from the window and offers it to the other woman.
“This is the Ethel” she says and for a mad moment Alice feels as though she is being socially introduced to an accessory.
She has never met a handbag that has a name before and she is unsure of the correct response.
Hesitantly, with one careful finger, she strokes the soft leather, traces the subtle engraving on the clasp, explores the perfect stitching.
The woman urges her to try it on, directs her towards a mirror at the back of the shop and Alice looks at her reflection, she is not transformed, it is still just her, but with a very expensive bag hanging from her shoulder and she realizes that the bag will not improve her life, it will simply make everything else she owns look poor, second rate, not quite good enough.
Days later, walking past the shop, car serviced, British Gas booked to quote for an improved boiler, she notices that the display has changed, there is a new bag sitting in solitary splendor almost, but not quite in the center of the window.