The Secret Shopper Affair – Excerpt
Once upon a time, there was a girl who grew up not believing in fairy tales.
I knew from the beginning that handsome princes did not exist, and neither did turreted castles nor fairy godmothers. Instead of wishing on a star, I put my faith in elbow grease and GCSEs, and I worked my way up, from the basement stockroom of Garnett’s, the best department store in the world, towards the oak-panelled glory of the Management Floor. Unlike Cinders, I did it the hard way.
Which is why when I somehow scored the fairytale hat trick – handsome prince, castle with its very own turret, plus two best friends to be godmothers for my unborn baby – it all seemed too good to be true.
Guess what? It was.
‘Oh, my word. Sandra, there is no way that this house is going to be anywhere near ready in time for the baby!’
My gramma raised me, so perhaps it’s not surprising we’re both pessimists.
My mother Marnie, meanwhile, always thinks her wine glass is half full. ‘Ah, but look at the potential. It is the most amazing house I’ve ever seen. That tower is amazing, and this street is like millionaire’s row. I bet your neighbours are actors and rock stars! It just needs a lick of paint.’
‘Not to mention windows, doors and walls,’ I say, shivering uncontrollably. We’re in the basement of the new house, Gramma, Mum and me in hard hats and fluorescent jackets, standing closer together than we normally do, like cavemen huddling together for warmth. I don’t think there can be anywhere in London that’s colder than this.
I blame the architect. His computer model was so advanced that until now, I almost believed I’d already walked round the cream and ochre kitchen with the hand-painted bronze range, and laid a table for sixteen in the dramatic dining room. I’d gazed out of the floor-to-ceiling windows that beckon you up the chunky limestone steps and into the lush tropical-style garden. I’d imagined our sleeping baby in its Beatrix Potter-themed nursery, in the turret that the original Victorian owners had added as a mad, but madly enchanting, act of building folly.
But ten minutes here, and the fantasy is gone, as ridiculous as a pumpkin carriage. I try to smile. ‘The contractors said they’ll definitely get it done before July, Gramma. That’s why we’re paying them top rates. To work round-the-clock.’
She looks around her and tuts. ‘So I see.’
My future dream home echoes with emptiness. No drilling, no hammering, no concrete mixer. Only the rapid tapping of four paws against tiles …
Monty races around the corner, his legs splaying out to the sides as he tries and fails to get a grip on the glassy red tiles of the kitchen floor. I feel bad about the tiles. We’re having to rip them up, to install the baby-friendly and up-to-the-minute rubber the architect recommended, but it does feel like we’re ripping out a century’s worth of footsteps too. Babies will have been born – and possibly conceived – on those tiles. Soldiers’ boots will have marched across them during two world wars.
It must be my hormones making me so emotional. I’m normally Ms Practical, but the pregnant bit of me – well, all of me is pregnant, let’s face it, however I try to pretend antibiotics it’s not – is as soft as cashmere.
Emily warned me it’d happen. Though I’m pretty sure Emily was a big softie even before she gave birth to Freddie.
There I go again. Thinking about Emily – potential Godmother Number One – makes me feel bad, too, because I know I should be with her today, supporting her latest store launch. We’ve been mates for three years now, and even though we don’t do our undercover shopping missions together any more, we’re always there for each other. Except today …
But what do I do? Right now every minute of my life is accounted for: settling the insurance claim on our burnt-out flat, organising this refurb, keeping Mum and Gramma happy, trying to convince my clients that it’s business as usual, despite the fire and my bump and the sleepiness that strikes when I least expect it.
Toby appears in the doorway. Lush, long strands of blond hair spring out from under his blue plastic hard hat. Bob the Builder he is not. ‘Whatever you chaps do, don’t try to go above ground level.’
‘They’ve taken the old first floor out, but as yet they’ve neglected to put a new one in. Monty almost fell into the gap, never to be seen again.’
Hearing his name, the dog whimpers, then rolls onto his back to have his belly scratched. For once, Toby ignores him.
‘We’re missing a floor?’
‘I’m sure it’s only temporary,’ says Toby, but his face tells a different story. ‘That’s the thing with building work, it—’
‘—has to get worse before it gets better.’ I finish the sentence that is our new mantra. I just never expected it to get this much worse. When we got the keys for the house a fortnight ago, the refurb seemed daunting but doable. For the first time since the fire destroyed Toby’s penthouse, I could imagine calling somewhere home again. And, actually, this was much more my idea of a home than his Chelsea apartment. That was glossy and glam, whereas the new house is solid and sturdy and ever so slightly stuffy, on a leafy avenue not far from Chiswick High Road.
Choosing this place was the least logical thing I’ve ever done. Despite the estate agent’s nonsense –‘this stunning house has stayed in one family since it was first built and offers unlimited potential for the discerning buyer, blah, blah’ – Toby and I both knew that ‘potential’ is Rupert-speak for ‘total wreck’.
And when we arrived at dusk on a bitter and overcast January day, it looked more like the Addam’s Family mansion than ‘the perfect forever home’. The turret didn’t help: it gave the whole building the look of Dracula’s castle.
Toby hated it, and anyway there was so much more to see, thanks to the credit crunch: the townhouse in Bloomsbury, the villa in Putney. Before I got together with Toby, I couldn’t have afforded a lock-up garage in Leytonstone. I’m no gold-digger, whatever Toby’s mother thinks, but I am lucky in love. Who’d have thought it?
Why was number ten, with its damp smell and the forest of saplings growing out of the tacked-on tower, the first house I thought of when I woke up the next day? Hormones again, it has to be.