The tap on her shoulder freezes her; the quiet, warning voice in her ear is exactly what she has feared. In a small dark place inside herself she is prepared for both. She had not expected a teenager.
"Come with me please, Madam," the young man says, his back stiff with self-importance.
He is young enough to be her son; young enough to be one of the troubled youths she tutors in the small charity-run literacy programme in the suburbs. She is tutoring a boy now: he has a tattoo on his forehead that spells HATE and eyes that dart around the room, alert for predators. This young man, though also dark skinned and mixed-race, keeps his eyes averted. He is smooth suited and smells of fresh citrus cologne as he grips her arm and leads her to the manager's office.
The manager is tired and he lowers his pale lashes when he asks to see her ID, as if asking for something intimate, inappropriate. Then he turns to his computer.
Helen swallows. This is new. As he scrutinises the screen, then types something into the computer, fear knots her chest. Her name is now accessible to every major store in the city. The next time she is caught she will be arrested and booked. No question.
"Is that legal?" she asks. "Storing information on someone who hasn't even been charged?"
"You want to call your husband?" he replies, with a tiny smile. "Or a lawyer?"
"My husband is a lawyer," Helen says.
The manager blinks rapidly, the smile vanishes. The young man who had escorted her from the jewellery department leans against the door and makes a small groaning sound.
"He'll be very angry if I call him," Helen says. "At me. Or at you. I'm afraid he's likely to make a big fuss about wrongful arrest."
They understand her. She knows they haven't called the police yet. She is carrying a fat wad of cash in her purse, four credit cards, including a Platinum American Express and their own Valued Customer Card. She wears an emerald ring, an anniversary gift from her husband. The diamond studs in her ears are one caret each. She is easily able to pay for the designer scarf and the hard plastic earrings in the shape of sunflowers she was seen to stuff into her bag. Helen knows that what most disturbs them is that these are two different items, from two separate counters. But she always steals two items. That is one of her rules. It has to be two items, from different counters, from the same floor of the same store. But they want to let her go. They don't want trouble.
"Perhaps if I pay for these things now? " she asks.
When she reaches her car, Helen is shaking too hard to insert the key into the car door. She stands still, taking deep, gulping breaths, willing herself to calm down. That was too close.
They had almost called Daniel. The thought makes her light-headed. Her husband is a man of principle and firm opinions. A strong man, which is why she married him. He seemed the type of man who would take care of her. And he has. But his view of the law is simple and punitive. He thinks that teenage gang members who commit murder should be executed, that fourteen-year-old thieves should be tried as adults. Only yesterday they had disagreed over a youth arrested for stealing a bottle of cider in a local off-license.
"It was an initiation thing," Helen had said. "His mother's a crack head. He wants to be part of the gang. He wants a family."
Daniel had given her a long look.
"He's probably been unhappy and hungry all of his life," Helen added.
"Nobody's hungry in this country, " Daniel said. He actually believed it. "You heard of Benefits?"
Helen thought of the people in the literacy programme – young and old, struggling with so many demons. Hunger was not unknown. Though her teenage pupils were more likely to eat badly than not at all, their problems went far beyond an inability to read or write.
Daniel knows little about the literacy programme. He believes she teaches pensioners how to use a computer. He would not understand Amanda, the girl who carries a kitchen knife to make small cuts in her wrists when she is stressed. Or Zak, the boy with HATE tattooed on his forehead.
When she first met Daniel, he was studying law and she was passionately involved in a course on Writing and Madness. She would quote Rimbaud, Breton, Artaud, Foucault. He teased her for taking this "foreign" literature seriously. He made her feel stupid for liking it, stupid for understanding it. An irony that did not occur to her until much later.
There are many things, she admits now, that Daniel does not understand. Things that are grey, with edges that are undefined, confuse him. He would not understand what had happened today in the department store.
In the newly decorated bedroom of her immaculate suburban home, Helen places the earrings and scarf in the locked trunk with the other shoplifted items. There are hundreds of them now. Many hundreds. She calls them her gifts to the dark gods. She knows that it is the dark gods who turn the wheels of a tricycle and send the toddler screaming into traffic, the dark gods who guide children to falling fences, hidden currents and smiling strangers with death in their black hearts. She cannot afford to stop now, after such a soft, uneventful life. Who knows what vengeance the dark gods might take?
She can't remember exactly when it began. It was soon after Chloe and Nick left for university, when she quit her job at the advertising company. When she became, as Daniel describes her, a lady of leisure.
"We can afford it, sweetheart. Do charity work or something. No need for you to stress out in
It started in Marks and Spencer's food hall: she stole a chocolate bar at the counter. A week later she took a magazine. It grew to two items a week. The rules gradually became more complex and demanding. The rule now is: two items a week by Friday at three in the afternoon. The items have to be from the same store, on the same floor, and they have to be different. Two scarves, for example, won't do. Today's items, the pretty scarf, the silly earrings, don't qualify because she has paid for them. The problem now is that she is behind. She is two items behind. And it is already Thursday. Tomorrow then. At the Mall.
"Meet me for lunch tomorrow?" Daniel asks, as they have dinner. "That client we met at the Algarve. John Stanton? He's in town with his wife. "
"Tomorrow?" she repeats. "Where?"
"The Blanc place."
He studies her expression.
"Busy day?" he asks. "Hair appointment?"
He laughs. There is a strange pride in the way he teases her about her empty, frivolous days. He is the sole breadwinner now.
"No problem. The Blanc place it is," she says.
But Helen is seething. That means the local mall is out. That means it has to be the city centre again. She was there last week, when that middle-aged businessman followed her around. She knew he was plain-clothes security. He had the look. She was carrying her Debenham's bag; she always carries a department store bag with a number of purchased items inside it. A basic rule. And she was dressed well and carrying a good quality handbag. Her new one is Italian and black linen, full of expensive clues to background and breeding. Intimidation. The guy hadn't been intimidated though. He'd stayed close.
In the city centre the following day, Helen avoids Harvey Nicks, too many close calls there, and heads to House of Fraser. A lanky kid in sweats shoots up from nowhere. He is behind her as she enters the store. He is still there at the jewellery counter. She is certain he is security; she has learned to spot them. Helen avoids looking at him. She picks up a scarf, replaces it, studies earrings, bracelets, tries one of them on her wrist, then puts it back. He waits, watching.
When she takes the escalator, he is four people behind her. Lingerie will smoke him out, she knows that. It's worked well before. Plain-clothes store detectives stand out in the red satin thongs and French bra department. But he's behind her. She can feel him. She glances at her watch and catches her breath. She is almost out of time. She has to be at the restaurant in half an hour.
"May I help you, ma'am?" asks a salesgirl. She is a sweet Barbie doll of a girl, about Chloe's age. Security kid must have alerted her.
"Just looking," Helen smiles, panic starting in her chest. Her heart begins pounding. She is not going to be able to do it. The kid stands only ten yards away, and he is watching openly. She meets his gaze, then tries to smile.
"Hello there," she says. He turns away.
She is ten minutes late to the restaurant and Helen is damp with fear. It is Friday and already 1:30 p.m. It will have to be items from the restaurant: knives, forks, saltshakers. She has done it before but it is awkward, and this is her husband's client.
John Stanton and his wife, Barbara, are already seated at the table, sipping aperitifs. Barbara has the kind of drink no one orders in the city anymore: a martini with an olive. His looks like a scotch.
Daniel regards her with some disapproval.
"Sorry," she says. "Traffic."
She shakes hands and smiles but she is starting to tremble. She is running out of time. It will soon be too late.
Barbara Stanton has the perfectly manicured and coiffed look of the suburban matron. A generation ago her type of woman would have had blue hair. Her hair is streaked blonde, her chin tucked, her skin spa-pampered. She smiles a white, wide smile.
"Lovely to meet you," she says. The men talk business, the women chat about children. The competition is equally fierce on both ends of the table.
"Your daughter's at Cambridge?" asks Barbara.
"Yes. Chloe's choice. And Nick's at Edinburgh. Medical school. As far away from home as they could get! You have two sons?"
"Yes. Both Oxford," says Barbara, her smile victorious.
They exchange photographs, making admiring noises.
"Chloe looks just like you," Barbara says.
Helen cannot see it. Her bright, lovely daughter, Chloe: so confident, so creative. She is amazed that she produced these children. The gene pool had obviously sucked more from Daniel's side during their formation; all the classy traits from his Patrician Berkshire family are visible. Her own working class genes are not in evidence.
Helen lifts the fish knife, turns it over, and places her hand over it. The waiter appears with salad, and takes the knife away with a swift, smooth stroke. Too late. They are too efficient here. She looks at the dessert spoons. Possibly, possibly. She is sweating. Her blouse is sticking to her back and she can feel her hair, damp, curling against her neck. Her heart is starting to pound, a hard nauseating pounding. Panic attacks, her therapist, Martha Kim, calls them.
"Terrifying but temporary," she had said to Helen when they first began.
"I think I'm going to die; that's how it feels."
"No-one dies of panic attacks. Stay calm until it passes."
Helen has not told Martha the reason for these attacks. The stealing, the rigid rules about the stealing, is something she has never shared with anyone. How could Martha, with her small, empathetic smile, understand about dark gods?
When the waiter asks about dessert, Helen pretends an interest only to keep the silverware on the table. She studies the menu: chocolate mousse, crème caramel. She looks up, and so quickly that she wants to cry out, the waiter is there and the silverware is gone. The table is bare. Helen looks at him.
"Decided?" the young man asks.
"Oh, nothing. Thank you." She knows her mouth is trembling. "Excuse me."
In the ladies room, she stands at the sink, fighting the nausea. It is fifteen minutes to three. It would be awful to vomit; she hates that. She splashes cold water on her face. She is ashen, her eyes wide with fear. In the mirror suddenly she sees Barbara Stanton's face.
"Are you all right, my dear?" Barbara asks. "You turned so white in there."
"Fine, fine, thank you," Helen says weakly.
"You're not pregnant, are you?"
"Lord no. No. Too old for that. Menopause more likely."
"Is that it? You look so young."
Helen continues staring into the mirror as Barbara disappears into the stall. Barbara has left her purse on the counter. Helen takes a breath, listens, every nerve ending on red alert. The purse is soft kid leather, black with a silver snap clasp. Helen opens it.
"You get the hot flashes too?" calls Barbara.
"Hmm. Yes. Sometimes."
"St. John's Wort, dear. Try it. Better than estrogen. Works like a charm. More natural."
Helen is not listening. She is staring into the bag. A lipstick. Estee Lauder. She recognizes the casing. She takes it. And…what else? Fuck! What else? The bag is a tip. The toilet flushes. Helen grabs a tiny leather purse. It is tight in her fist when Barbara comes out of the stall and begins to rinse her hands. She smiles at Helen.
Helen catches sight of herself in the mirror: her eyes are round, sparked with fear. She has realised that the tiny purse, curled in her palm, surrounds sharp metal. Something is protruding. Car keys. Oh shit. They will turn the place upside down. Barbara must have driven here. Must have parked her car outside. They'll search the place. Helen drops the car keys on the floor.
"Oh," she says, her voice too high. "You dropped something. That yours?"
Barbara still has her hands under the tap. She looks at Helen, then glances at her bag. It is lying on its side, closed. Helen had snapped it shut automatically. Barbara dries her hands slowly, then stoops down to pick up the little purse containing the car keys. She opens her bag, looks into it, running her finger along her lower lip. Then she turns to Helen. She studies Helen for a long moment. There is no censure in her look, only sympathy.
"What were you looking for, my dear?" Barbara asks finally. "Is there a problem?"
For just a moment, Helen hesitates; it would be so easy to say, yes. Yes, there is a problem. As she has not been able to say to Martha Kim, or ever to her husband. But she shakes her head.
"What do you mean?"
"Does your husband know about this?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"He should. He could help you to find counselling. Before it becomes," there is a pause while she thinks of the right word. "Public."
She snaps her bag closed, looks hard at Helen.
"Someone should mention it to him," she says quietly as she walks out.
Helen stands still for a few minutes trying to curb the shaking, fumbling in her bag for Valium. She finds only Paracetemol and takes three of those. Anything will do, anything. When she walks back into the restaurant, only Daniel sits there.
"The Stantons leave?" she asks.
"Yes, had to rush. Is that woman a bit loopy? She said you were distressed. You had issues to discuss."
He stares at her, astounded.
"Sent John off to get the car for Christ's sake, then starts whispering in my ear, talking some psychobabble crap."
He shakes his head.
"She left you her card."
Daniel picks up a business card:
"You don't want it, do you? I'd avoid her if I were you."
Helen shakes her head and he tears up the card, throws it onto the tiny saucer that holds a candle.
"Ready to go?" he asks.
Helen nods her head but she is barely listening. All she can think is that it is two minutes to three and she has only the lipstick. Only the lipstick. She is an item short. She is one fucking item short. She lifts the napkin as if to wipe her mouth, but the waiter is beside her, holding her chair, helping her up. The napkin has to go back on the table.
On the way to the door, Helen begins to shake. She can feel the shaking from her knees right up to her hair. So hard and strong is the shuddering that her head trembles on her neck. Fast, impulsively, she lifts a small vase from a table near the bar. It contains daisies. Helen sniffs them. She does not look at anyone. Staring straight ahead, she puts the whole thing into her bag. Vase, water, flowers, everything. And keeps walking. She begins to breathe again. The trembling slows.
It is then Helen notices that her skirt is damp. She pauses. Water drips from her soft linen bag onto the carpeting, onto her shoes. Helen thinks of the mess inside her bag. She imagines her wet driver's license, her sodden checkbook, the photographs of her children, the card from Chloe, all destroyed by the water from a vase. It is lunacy. Helen stops.
"Daniel," she calls, and he turns. He is holding the door for her. "Wait. Hold this."
She hands Daniel the bag. She does not want to drip all the way back through the restaurant. He frowns.
"What's this? Did you drop this thing in the toilet?"
"I forgot something," she says.
Helen walks swiftly back to the table, praying it will still be there. The two pieces of card are curling in the saucer. She places them together. Barbara Stanton. Interior Designer. Well, why not? A start. Maybe a friend.
When she gets outside Daniel is pacing the pavement. He holds her bag in front of him, at arm's length so that it does not drip on his suit. He stares at her.
"What's going on?" he asks.
She shrugs, meets his eyes. His frown is deepening, fear and worry are on his face but the irritation has gone.
"Is there something the matter, Helen?"
Helen slides Barbara Stanton's card into her pocket so that it is safe and dry then reaches for her dripping bag. With her fingers, she traces the outline of the small vase inside the bag. Still there, still intact. Her last, her very last, gift to the dark gods.
"No. I'm fine," she says. "I'll be fine."