“Right. No problem.” At the reminder of his wedding, I feel myself growing slightly warm.
“So — how’s married life?” I say, examining one of my nails.
“Oh… it’s all right,” he says after a pause.
“Is it as blissful as you expected?” I say, trying to sound lighthearted.
“Well, you know…” He stares into his glass, a slightly hunted look in his eye. “It would be unrealistic to expect everything to be perfect straight off. Wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
There’s an awkward silence between us. In the distance I can hear someone saying, “Kate Spade! Look, brand new!”
“Becky, I’m really sorry,” says Tom in a rush. “The way we behaved toward you at the wedding.”
“That’s all right!” I say, a little too brightly.
“It’s not all right.” He shakes his head. “Your mum was bang on. You’re one of my oldest friends. I’ve been feeling really bad, ever since.”
“Honestly, Tom. It was my fault, too. I mean, I should have just admitted Luke wasn’t there!” I smile ruefully. “It would have been a lot simpler.”
“But if Lucy was giving you a hard time, I can really understand why you felt you just had to… to…” He breaks off, and takes a deep swig of his drink. “Anyway. Luke seemed like a nice guy. Is he coming tonight?”
“No,” I say after a pause, and force a smile. “No, he isn’t.”
After half an hour or so, people begin to take their seats on the rows of plastic chairs. At the back of the room are five or six friends of Tarquin’s holding mobile phones, and Caspar explains to me that they’re on the line to telephone bidders.
“They’re people who heard about it but couldn’t come, for whatever reason. We’ve been circulating the catalogues fairly widely, and a lot of people are interested. The Vera Wang dress alone attracted a great deal of attention.”
“Yes,” I say, feeling a sudden lurch of emotion, “I expect it did.” I look around the room, at the bright, expectant faces, at the people still taking a last look at the tables. A girl is leafing through a pile of jeans; someone else is trying out the clasp on my dinky little white case. I can’t quite believe that after tonight, none of these things will be mine anymore. They’ll be in other people’s wardrobes. Other people’s rooms.
“Are you all right?” says Caspar, following my gaze.
“Yes!” I say brightly. “Why shouldn’t I be all right?”
“I’ve done a lot of house sales,” he says kindly. “I know what it’s like. One gets very attached to one’s possessions. Whether it’s an eighteenth-century chiffonier, or…” He glances at the catalogue. “A pink leopard-print coat.”
“Actually — I never much liked that coat.” I gave him a resolute smile. “And anyway, that’s not the point. I want to start again and I think — I know — this is the best way.” I smile at him. “Come on. Let’s get going, shall we?”
“Absolutely.” He raps on his lectern and raises his voice. “Ladies and gentlemen! First, on behalf of Becky Bloomwood, I’d like to welcome you all here this evening. We’ve got quite a lot to get through, so I won’t delay you — except to remind you that 25 percent of everything raised tonight is going to a range of charities — plus any remainder of the proceeds after Becky has paid off all her outstanding accounts.”
“I hope they’re not holding their breath,” says a dry voice from the back, and everyone laughs. I peer through the crowd to see who it is — and I don’t believe it. It’s Derek Smeath, standing there with a pint in one hand, a catalogue in the other. He gives me a little smile, and I give a shy wave back.
“How did he know about this?” I hiss to Suze, who has come to join me on the platform.
“I told him, of course!” she says. “He said he thought it was a marvelous idea. He said when you use your brain, no one comes near you for ingenuity.”
“Really?” I glance at Derek Smeath again and flush slightly.
“So,” says Caspar. “I present Lot One. A pair of clementine sandals, very good condition, hardly worn.” He lifts them onto the table and Suze squeezes my hand sympathetically. “Do I have any bids?”
“I bid £15,000,” says Tarquin, sticking up his hand at once.
“Fifteen thousand pounds,” says Caspar, sounding a bit taken aback. “I have a bid of £15,000—”