Jul/Aug 2006  •   Fiction

There Has to Be a Better Balance

by Ian Duncan Smith

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

I looked up at the glass and steel in front of me. I pushed against the doors and entered the smartest store in the smartest part of the city. It didn't take long for the smartest assistant to notice me. She leaned on an oval counter.

"Can I help you?"

I put my shopping down and unfastened the buttons of my long coat.

"I've overdone it here."

"I'm sorry?"

"I'll have one of your bags to put my shopping in, if you don't mind."

"I'm sorry, sir, but that's not company policy."

I folded my arms.

"I guess toilet rolls are not Blahnik shoes. You know, I'd hate to see this lot spill across the floor."

I was carrying four full grocer bags, and one of the carriers was about to burst. She stared.

"I can't do that, sir. A Fendi carrier bag holds a lot of prestige, and I'm not permitted to give them away."

I looked round the store.

"I want Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci, Prada... I want to impress."

"Who are you trying to impress, sir?"

"My wife. Let me have one of your carriers."

She looked at me. She took a deep breath and unhooked a carrier.

"There you are, sir. This is quite irregular."

"Thank you very much."

I lifted one of the heavy bags inside the pristine Fendi carrier and set off round the store. I looked along the racks, sliding each hanger back to see the dresses, the shoes, and the bags.

"If you need any help, sir, please ask."

"I can't decide at the moment."

But I had decided. There was nothing in Fendi that would impress the wife sufficiently.

"I'll be back tomorrow. Thanks for the bag."

I headed out across the broad street, underneath the jeweller's clock, and into the next store. DKNY. I waited for the assistant to notice me.

"But this bag's about to burst. How would you like that?"

"I'm afraid it's not company policy, sir."

"It's just a bag. I'll buy it if you prefer."

"I'm sorry, a DKNY bag is a priceless identifier."

"And bleach is manna from heaven? Give me one of your bags."

"I'm sorry?"

"I need Versace, Gucci, Non! Chanel, anything to take her mind off floral bouquet spray polish. That's not a gift, it's a slap in the face with a wet fish. Let me have one of your bags."

She looked weary and handed over a bag. I slid a bulging carrier inside the sharp new creases of the DKNY carrier. The racks in DKNY were pretty much the same as the racks in Fendi.

"If you need any help, sir."

"I can't decide. I'll be back later. Thank you anyway, and thank you for the bag."

I smiled and left. I was more determined than ever.

Joseph's assistant came to the door and looked at my bags.

"Allow me, sir."

She wanted a piece of the action. I put the ordinary shopping down.

"These bags are useless."

"I'm sorry?"

"I'm overloaded. Do you think I could have one of your carriers?"

"No, sir, I'm sorry. We just don't do that sort of thing at Joseph."

"But it's free advertising."

"It says more about the person than it does about Joseph."

"Vuitton, Prada, Versace, Gucci, Fendi, DKNY. Come on, lady, let me have a bag. Do you know who you are dealing with here?"

She handed me a new carrier bag. I didn't spend much time in Joseph's, and I certainly spent no money. There was nothing new, and my task was now immense.

I searched the racks in Whistles. The handles snapped. The remaining bag hit the floor. The assistant rushed over to clear up, but the bag stayed upright, and nothing spilled out, which was lucky.

"Please have one of ours, sir."

She held a carrier for me. I looked at it.

"That's no good."

"I'm sorry?"

"Who do you think I am? That bag doesn't have Whistles on it."

She looked at the white plastic bag.

"Well I can't give you one that does, sir. A Whistles bag says more about you than it does about us. It says a person can afford Whistles."

"Don't insult me, lady. Look at these bags. Fendi, DKNY, Joseph. Think it through. Versace, Gucci, and Prada. I know them all, personally. Now give me a bag with your miserable name on it before I call on someone who will fire you."

I snapped my fingers. She came back with a Whistles carrier. I knelt and slid the broken bag into it. My coat flopped open. I stood up and looked round the racks. There was nothing suitable, and I left. I couldn't find anything in the smartest shops in the smartest place on earth. There had to be a better balance.

Bright sidewalks competed with street lights, reflecting rain. The new carriers dug into my fingers. I was outside a restaurant, the tables all set, and no one inside, which was how I liked my restaurants. The overwhelming smell and the need to eat before I could carry on with my quest overcame me. Leaning on the restaurant door, I pushed it open. I found a waitress straightaway.

"I gave up smoking and started eating alone. Coincidence?"

"I'm sorry?"

"No smoking, for one."

"We're none smoking throughout, sir."


She took my wet coat and hung it by the door. I picked up the carriers and followed her to a table. I sat down, making sure I could see my coat in case it decided to walk. I placed the carriers on the floor and lifted a chair leg over the handles. She handed me a menu.

"Smart move, sir, but we have cameras. They'll be fine. What would you like to drink, sir?"

I opened the menu.

"Montepulciano, please."

"And to eat, sir?"

I inspected the card.

"Discomfort food. Something to take my mind off shopping. How about ice cold, peppered tuna steak? And make sure it's ice cold."

She delivered my bottle of wine. I felt the bottle.

"That'll do me fine."

The food arrived. I ate quickly and drank the whole bottle of wine. It didn't solve my problem, though. I needed to return to my desperate search. I had to continue. The waitress returned, and I asked for the bill. There was no time for dessert. She brought the bill, and I went to my pocket.

My pocket was empty. I tried the other pocket. Nothing.

"Sorry... I just can't seem to find... It was right here."

Standing up, I took everything out of both pockets. I checked the floor, and then I remembered my coat. I went to check it, but those pockets were empty, too. I buried my face in the arm of the coat. Then I remembered it flopping open.

"Look, I think it fell out in one of the shops. Joseph, or Whistles. I can go across the road... before the shop closes. Look, this hasn't been a good day."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I need some ID."

"What do I look like? There's my ID."

I pointed at my shopping. She looked at the carriers. She nodded her head. Then she looked at me and smiled.

"I'll take care of those."

I smiled and pushed open the door. I kept walking. I walked to the end of the bright street. I crossed the shining concrete slabs of wide-open square, and I passed under the wrought iron lamps, rounding the looming war memorial. I wasn't sure which war it was. There was always a war.

I pulled my coat tighter. It was a Prada, top shelf. I looked across the whole vibrant scene, and I smiled because it paid me to smile. I gave nothing away. I wasn't on their cameras. Hours would pass before the waitress checked the smartest carriers from the smartest shops and found bricks.

I stopped and looked up, clapping my cold hands. The immense statue of Queen Victoria scanned the whole city. I stepped up to that mass. The steps lifted right beneath me, lifting me up to where the air was colder and the lights were stronger, and I could shout to anyone who wanted to listen. I could shout anything, and that's what I did. I shouted.