“No, you don’t!” I interrupt. “Tarquin, you can’t bid £15,000!”
“You have to bid realistic prices.” I give him a stern look. “Otherwise you’ll be banned from the bidding.”
“No! You can bid… £10,” I say firmly.
“All right, then. Ten pounds.” He puts his hand down meekly.
“Fifteen pounds,” comes a voice from the back.
“Twenty!” cries a girl near the front.
“Twenty-five,” says Tarquin.
“Thirt—” Tarquin catches my eye, blushes, and stops.
“Thirty pounds. Any further bids on 30…” Caspar looks around the room, his eyes suddenly like a hawk’s. “Going… going… gone! To the girl in the green velvet coat.” He grins at me, scribbles something on a piece of paper, and hands the shoes to Fenella, who is in charge of distributing sold items.
“Your first £30!” whispers Suze in my ear.
“Lot Two!” says Caspar. “Three embroidered cardigans from Jigsaw, unworn, with price tags still attached. Can I start the bidding at…”
“Twenty pounds!” says a girl in pink.
“Twenty-five!” cries another girl.
“I have a telephone bid of 30,” says a guy raising his hand at the back.
“Thirty pounds from one of our telephone bidders… Any advance on 30? Remember, ladies and gentlemen, this will be raising funds for charity…”
“Thirty-five!” cries the girl in pink, and turns to her neighbor. “I mean, they’d be more than that each in the shop, wouldn’t they? And they’ve never even been worn!”
God, she’s right. I mean, thirty-five quid for three cardigans is nothing. Nothing!
“Forty!” I hear myself crying, before I can stop myself. The whole room turns to look at me, and I feel myself furiously blushing. “I mean… does anyone want to bid 40?”
The bidding goes on and on, and I can’t believe how much money is being raised. My shoe collection raises at least £1,000, a set of Dinny Hall jewelry goes for £200—and Tom Webster bids £600 for my computer.
“Tom,” I say anxiously, as he comes up to the platform to fill in his slip. “Tom, you shouldn’t have bid all that money.”
“For a brand-new Apple Mac?” says Tom. “It’s worth it. Besides, Lucy’s been saying she wants her own computer for a while.” He gives a half-smile. “I’m kind of looking forward to telling her she’s got your castoff.”
“Lot Seventy-three,” says Caspar beside me. “And one which I know is going to attract a great deal of interest. A Vera Wang cocktail dress.” He slowly holds up the inky purple dress, and there’s an appreciative gasp from the crowd.
But actually — I don’t think I can watch this go. This is too painful, too recent. My beautiful glittering movie-star dress. I can’t even look at it without remembering it all, like a slow-motion cine-film. Dancing with Luke in New York; drinking cocktails; that heady, happy excitement. And then waking up and seeing everything crash around me.
“Excuse me,” I murmur, and get to my feet. I head quickly out of the room, down the stairs, and into the fresh evening air. I lean against the side of the pub, listening to the laughter and chatter inside, and take a few deep breaths, trying to focus on all the good reasons why I’m doing this.
A few moments later, Suze appears beside me.
“Are you OK?” she says, and hands me a glass of wine. “Here. Have some of this.”
“Thanks,” I say gratefully, and take a deep gulp. “I’m fine, really. It’s just… I suppose it’s just hitting me. What I’m doing.”
“Bex…” She pauses and rubs her face awkwardly. “Bex, you could always change your mind. You could always stay. I mean — after tonight, with any luck, all your debts will be paid off! You could get a job, stay in the flat with me…”
I look at her for a few silent moments, feeling a temptation so strong, it almost hurts. It would be so easy to agree. Go home with her, have a cup of tea, and fall back into my old life.
But then I shake my head.
“No. I’m not going to fall into anything again. I’ve found something I really want to do, Suze, and I’m going to do it.”
“Rebecca.” A voice interrupts us, and we both look up to see Derek Smeath coming out of the door of the pub. He’s holding the wooden bowl, one of Suze’s photograph frames, and a big hard-backed atlas which I remember buying once when I thought I might give up my Western life and go traveling.