There are certain situations that send your sense of self-worth plummeting. You may have been the Queen of Sheba moments before (or at least the Duchess of Malfi) but now, suddenly, you’re a little squished mouse: Jerry flattened by a high rise or an anvil, questionable matter beneath an undistinguished shoe.
This is how I feel when I return something to a shop. It goes against nature, for a shop is for buying things, not attempting to reverse the process. And, of course, no one’s ever happy to see a garment-returner. The approval you received at the point of purchase dies a death. You’re a person who makes mistakes, a woman who does not know her mind, a nuisance. You’re an unpromising stranger striding into a saloon bar where no one knows your name … Or something.
I almost never return things to shops. It makes me feel like a straggly urchin giving amusement to a Rolls-Royce filled with kings. I try to be very certain before I buy anything. I visit the item many times. When I am wrong, I give things away or let them reproach me loudly from my wardrobe rather than go through all that attrition. When I make my bed, I tend to lie in it, so I try not to make it too early in the day.
But last Saturday I had to return a dress to a department store because it was damaged, faulty and therefore unwanted. These are strong adjectives that I would not use about my dearest enemy: like firearms, the very fact that you have them on your person increases the chance they will be marshalled against you. I braced myself.
I had bought the dress in a flash of vanity. In it I looked like a Cartier Bresson photograph: mysterious, European, a little sharp or, at least, at the confident end of fierce. I’ve never thought of myself that way.
I put it on that night to go to see Meow Meow in cabaret. The way she mixes joy and grief on stage is mesmerising, for people always separate these things. I know her very slightly and was keen to make a good impression. I would take her the quarter-bottle of pink champagne from my Christmas stocking.
The dress all zipped and buttoned, I looked up at myself in the mirror expecting Ingrid Bergman’s little sister but all I saw were strange smears down the front. I dabbed at them gingerly but they did not come off the black crêpe. Then I noticed a sizeable hole in the side seam. I bit my lip. I imagined the shop assistant, bitter and incredulous: “You wore that dress and spoiled it and now you expect your money back!”
“I have not worn it,” I cried out. “These marks, that hole, predate me.”
The phrase “this will not affect your statutory rights” came into my mind. It is mildly threatening, as though in some parts the very act of returning an item might place you in jeopardy. I tried it again replacing statutory rights with statuary ones – the right to a bit of marble on your grave, a decent funeral …
I took the dress to the store. It was one of the grander concessions, and I had that dreadful urchin/Rolls-Royce feeling. I handed the dress over. “It’s got marks and a hole,” I said. “Not quite right, you’ll agree.”
And what did the sales assistant do? He sniffed it. I believe the sniff to have been involuntary but it made me feel like a criminal, all the same. “You’ll have to come back in 45 minutes,” he said airily.
“But I have things to do!”
“The only person who can do the return will be here at one.”
“I’ll come back then,” I said. But at 1pm I was told to come back in 20 minutes. “No, no, no, no,” I protested. “That’s not good enough.”
Eight phone calls later and the correct person materialised. He would not look me in the face. There was a sort of shame-off between us for I believed he thought I was no better than I ought to be (why had I not washed my hair?) and I could tell he believed I thought the same thing about him. (I did not.) Wholly unable to apologise, he obviously wanted to build a bridge but his technique was unusual. Praising the sparkliness of my engagement ring, he asked if I had recently cleaned it.
“No,” I said. (Should I have?)
Apropos of the smears on the fabric he confided: “People and their deodorant,” shaking his head. “I know, awful,” I said. “The pits.” We had a common enemy: the artificially unsweaty!
“Sorry about the dress,” he said very very quietly, putting the money back on to my credit card.
“These things happen,” I murmured, walking off at an indecent speed, like one who had stolen something or had something stolen, or both.