The Secret Shopper Unwrapped – Excerpt
Once upon a time, there were three little girls.
(Can you still call yourself a girl at thirty-three? Maybe I’ll never feel like a grown-up.)
Life was tough. The lowest point came three Christmases ago. One of the girls lost her childhood sweetheart to a Swiss banker and took far too long to work out that Heidi the husband-stealer had done her a massive favour. One girl lost her job, before landing a better one. And one lost her brilliant artist husband to the great gallery in the sky, and with it her purpose in life … before she found herself again.
Most important of all, the three girls found each other, when we became mystery shoppers. We were Charlie’s Shopping Angels, using our secret cameras to record the best and worst in customer service. Along the way we happened to become the best of friends.
And we all expected to live happily ever after. Because isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?
‘Mummeee! Done a poo! Wipe time!’
‘Will?’ I call out. ‘It’s your turn to sort Freddie out.’
‘I’m in the middle of decorating the shop.’
‘But I’m in the middle of something too.’ OK. Maybe being in the middle of an idle daydream and a Kit Kat doesn’t trump being eight feet up a ladder hanging dried cranberry garlands, but my secret shopping buddies would stand up for my right to enjoy a moment of Me Time. Sandie would say it’s my duty to be assertive, to make up for centuries of female oppression, and Grazia would insist that a woman must be adored for mystique, not mundane tasks. All the same, I feel a little guilty.
The love of my life grunts. I hear heavy footsteps down the treads of the ladder and then up the steps to the flat.
‘Will’s on his way, sweetheart.’
I take another bite of the Kit Kat. Where was I? Oh yes. Happy ever afters. The trouble is, fairy tales are so much more clear-cut than real life. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d end up with an ex-husband (Duncan Prince, as far away from charming as it’s possible to be) or that my son would have a stepdad who is anything but wicked. Unless you mean wicked in the cool and brilliant sense, willing to wipe bottoms and mop up midnight tears.
But happy ever after has not turned out to be what I expected at all. In my mind, happiness was like a tableau at Madame Tussaud’s: me, Will and a toddler-sized Freddie, on the steps of our newly purchased shop, laughing, ready to sell dreams and beautiful things. We’re looking our best: I’m a size ten (which I haven’t been since Long Before Baby) and my hair’s more blonde than mousy in the sun, with a designer fringe I’ve never quite managed with kitchen scissors. Will towers over me, cute as ever, and for once he’s lost that permanently anxious look of his. Like waxworks, we were fixed in time, forever smiling.
But life’s not like that. Instead we’re a work-in-progress. Freddie is no longer a toddler. He’s three and a half, with more personality than the entire line-up of Britain’s Got Talent. He knows he’s adored, not least because he has two male role models: the wonderful Will, plus Daddy, who is good for rough-and-tumble but would never be caught wiping anyone else’s bottom (or tears, for that matter).
And two years after opening the shop, Will and I are still smiling, but we’re not selling nearly enough of anything. In fact, the profits at Bell’s Emporium are now lower than they were when we started out, which was definitely not the business model. Then again, no one predicted the credit crunch would bugger up our happy ever after.
A pair of arms envelops my hips, using my body as a brake.
‘Hello, Little Londoner. I hope you’ve washed your hands.’
Keen eyes stare up at me. He sidesteps the question completely.
‘I’m not from London. I’m from Heartsneeze!’ And then he fakes a sneeze, our little joke. Everything’s a joke to Freddie.
We giggle. Heartsease Common is a funny place, a village in search of a purpose, with a few too many commuters and not quite enough community to connect us all together. Though the Emporium has helped. It used to be a dusty, loss-making hardware store that Will kept going despite the best efforts of his head office to close it down. And when the suits finally handed down the death sentence, the two of us brought it back to life, and renamed it Bell’s Emporium after the original Mr Bell, who opened his first store on this spot almost a century ago.
‘Shall we have a look at what Will’s done in our shop?’
‘Okey dokey,’ says Freddie.
We head down the stairs from our flat, via the staffroom – more of a cubby-hole really – and then go through the door that always reminds me of Mr Benn’s, onto the shop floor.
Will frowns when he spots us. ‘Shut your eyes! I haven’t finished yet!’ He runs his hands through his dark curls – his hair needs cutting, as usual, but when would he find the time? – and tries to block the window display with his long body. He’s a perfectionist, and we both know that more than ever before, getting this right really matters.
‘Wow!’ says Freddie, unable to keep his eyes closed.
I open my eyes, too.
Freddie’s right. It is very wow. Thank Donner, Blitzen and the spirit of Father Christmas for that.