Extract from my book
“Think champagne and you’ll drink champagne; think beer and you’ll drink beer.”
That’s what my mother told me. So I blame her for my champagne expenditure on a beer income.
Nowhere did the advice prove more lethal than in Puerto Banus, just outside Marbella in southern Spain, where I had just bought an apartment. Sunkissed Villas might not have paid me, but I had fallen in love with that part of the Spanish coast. Although I had moved out of my beloved Paris apartment, my finances were stretched as I had purchased a much bigger house in Cardiff, but I figured that with two salaries from two newspapers, I could afford it.
It was the summer of 2006, and, holidaying with my friend Elizabeth in Puerto Banus, I hooked up with top businessman and Dragons’ Den TV star Theo Paphitis and his family, who had become friends.
Not only did Theo have an apartment close by, he was buying a boat that was going to be moored almost right below my terrace. I calculated that I would pretty much be able to get from there to Theo’s deck in a short hop, skip and jump. Then Theo decided to buy boat number two, which was even bigger than boat number one. He signed the deal with the boatyard representative over a pizza at Picasso’s in the port, and I was impressed with Theo’s negotiating skills, which quickly made me see why he was very, very rich, and I was comparatively very, very poor. Alas, my admiration did not extend to my developing the foresight to see that I was about to become a great deal poorer.
Elizabeth and I took up Theo’s invitation to join him on the boat, and as we left the port behind and took to the waves of the Mediterranean, I started to feel a tincy bit rich myself. With the wind in my hair, I was enjoying a millionaire lifestyle and it wasn’t costing me a penny. When we said our goodbyes at the end of the trip, Elizabeth and I decided to celebrate our new lifestyle over supper.
That’s when it happened.
I didn’t even want to go on a shopping spree. Walking along the port, I happily passed Dolce and Gabbana with barely a glance; likewise, Versace and Jean Paul Gauthier.
Then I saw IT.
Love at first sight. I had never believed it existed, but here it was, in the window of Chloe: an exquisite, Sixties style, cream, silk shift dress laden with glittering discs, beads and baubles that caught the sun, drawing me uncontrollably towards it. Simple, yet beautiful, the shiny silver and gold reminding me of my ballroom dancing youth and the 10,000 sequins my mother sewed on my dress prior to my partner and I becoming Old Tyme juvenile champions at Butlin’s Minehead. Suddenly, I was Lulu, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black, all rolled into one.
I doubted they had it in my size, but upon entering the shop and enquiring, the assistant Claudia headed for the dummy in the window quicker than you could say Boom Bang-a-Bang. When I saw the price tag of 10,722 euros, I decided that it should stay in the window. Too late. Claudia had it whipped off the dummy and onto me in less time than it takes a dragon in the Den to say the series’ catchphrase: “I’m out.” Which is what I should have been. Outa there. Would have been, had it not been for the drink.
They gave me a glass of champagne; it was what all the designer dress shops in the port did for potential customers/suckers. My glass was being topped up when I emerged from the dressing room in the Chloe dress. I thought I looked stunning in it. I thought I looked better than the model wearing it in the film at the Chloe fashion show that Claudia showed me on the computer.
Gushing about my beauty, Claudia informed me that there were only six of these dresses in the world. That was what sealed the deal. I felt like a million dollars, which suddenly made 10,722 euros seem like a bargain. It made the cost of the shoes that I had to buy go with the dress look like cheapskate Primark. Then there was the bag, which cost almost as much as the shoes. I owned butter dishes that were bigger than the bag. But I whipped out my exclusive black French credit card and, while Claudia waited for her machine to devour it, I secretly prayed for the computer to say no.
Not a chance. I left the shop carrying my designer frock, bag and shoes and kept telling myself I was really, really pleased with my purchase. After another drink, I had convinced myself. In fact, I was delirious with excitement.
The next thing I remember was waking up: Oh, my God: WHAT HAVE I DONE? I wasn’t Theo! He acquired his riches by buying up flailing companies and turning their fortunes around. He had just sold La Senza for £100 million, which was a lot of Chloe dresses (9,326, to be precise), but my bank balance was showing that I could barely afford a bead.
Why didn’t you stop me? I asked Elizabeth. I can’t afford it! I have no money! I’ve just bought a new house and wouldn’t pay three grand for fitted bookcases that I needed and now I’m out buying a curtain with beads on that will be soaked in red wine within three minutes of my wearing it! Oh, God, what am I going to do!
Depression set in. And I don’t mean just a bit down. I mean black, terrible, suicidal despair. The only words that came to mind were Conrad’s from Heart of Darkness: The horror, the horror. Now I knew what he meant. I felt physically sick. The dress had to go back. The problem was whether they would take it. I spent the morning on the net, reading up about statutory rights and credit card rules and regulations. In the UK, I noted, there was a five-day cooling off period following a credit card transaction, but was that for online purchases or in-store, and would it apply to other European countries? I rang my cousin Simon, who had lived in Switzerland for 15 years and would probably know about European trading laws. He said to be sure that this was what I wanted: what if Chloe accepted the dress as a returned item and then I wanted it back again and had to tell them that the deal was back on?
I took the dress back to the shop, trembling with terror. I couldn’t stop shaking. Then I started crying, telling them that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Leo, who had plied me with the champagne the day before, looked crestfallen. Danielle, the manager, said she could probably offer a credit note, but that Chloe’s policy was a non-refundable one. I cried some more, spouted some things about credit card law, and Claudia said she would call the Paris main office to see what she could do.
In the meantime, I called the credit card company and, having used my euro French card, spoke to a very nice man called Jean Luc, who sounded thrilled to be talking to a lunatic who had 11,000 euros to throw around on frocks.
He rang back to say that the shop was under no obligation to refund my money and that French credit law was different from that in the UK; Claudia rang back to say that Spanish credit law was not the same as in France or the UK. I felt like the United Kingdom entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, as neighbouring states closed ranks and ganged up to award us nul points.
I was again offered a credit note but worked out that I would be dead by the time I found enough things that I liked to cover the cost. I rang Theo to ask his advice. “Find a rich husband before the IOU comes in,” he said. So I texted Theo’s co-panellist Peter Jones, but he never texted back, and I wasn’t sure whether his divorce would come through by the time the bailiffs came to take away my new bookcases (I had decided I was going to have them, after all: they suddenly seemed a snip compared to the dress).
I pondered throwing the dress into the Med and claiming on the credit card insurance. One friend thought I could try to claw some of the money back by doing a game show, the climax of which would be a studio audience having to decide “Take the credit!” or “Take the dress!” Another friend told me to wear it in a dodgy part of south London, where it would be ripped off my back within seconds and then I could claim on the insurance genuinely. I decided that the best thing to do would be to write about it and exploit it, until I earned enough to cover the cost.
One article would be tracking down the other five people in the world who owned the thing. I thought I might contact Okay! Magazine and throw a party for the dress, at which stars of stage and screen would be queuing up, eager to touch the hemline of my garment in the hope of its greatness rubbing off on them. Or a competition to name it, the proceeds from which would go to paying off my credit card bill, or posting my bail when I was thrown into the debtors’ prison. And when I was done with it, I could sell it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It was my mother’s reaction I dreaded the most, but she was quite philosophical. She told me how, when she was newly married, she and Dad went out to buy a fridge and made the mistake of stopping off at a hostelry for a sherry or two and came back with a stereo system the size of a coffin. Other reactions to my purchase varied from the “How shallow” to the “How stupid”, to the “Good on you” (Simon Cowell said “We’ve all done it”, but I felt that doing it in his income bracket wasn’t quite the same thing).
My own vacillated between all three, breaking out into a cold sweat of “Please God, don’t let it be true” one minute, to “What’s done is done” the next. When I published an article about my purchase, news of my insanity quickly spread. I started to get calls from people enquiring not after my health, but after the dress. It was as if they had struck up a relationship with the thing, and I pondered writing a regular column about my own feelings towards it, like those women do who are always banging on about their latest marriage or divorce. I was stuck with it so decided to show it off at a big charity ball at the five-star Puento Romano hotel in Marbella.
I prepared for it as I would a first date. Legs and underarms shaved, hair cut and coloured, new Clinique make-up, expensive tights – nothing was too much trouble for the great work of art (it didn’t seem so expensive when looked at in that light) I had purchased. When the moment came to put the dress on, I held my breath. I had to. The bloody thing got stuck. I kid you not. Every bead and bauble tangled with another and I was wandering around my apartment trying to find my way to the mirror by radar. It took me half an hour to manoeuvre my way back out of it, by which time hair and make-up both needed re-doing. I finally managed to get my top half into the dress, but then the bottom became tangled in my 25 euro tights, a rip-off that had to become literally that, when the beads massacred them, too. I made it to the ball feeling like Cinderella a minute before midnight and with my dress already looking like hers did a minute after.
“Your hem’s come down,” was one guest’s first reaction, before calling for safety pins. We went to the rest room to begin the reconstruction, and I decided to use the toilet while I was there. Another big mistake. I had to call for help when, in pulling down my pants, the beads became all tangled again. Doubled over, with my chest hooked to my thighs, after I relieved myself I had to ask a woman to pull my pants back up. Then began the long process of untangling again.
I returned to the ball, where I was afraid to eat a morsel or drink a drop, for fear of causing any more damage. The jewels and beads were falling like sweat every time I moved. Surely this wasn’t right. You couldn’t sell someone a dress for seven and a half grand and have it fall apart on its first outing.
I returned to Chloe the next day, where the best I was offered was a repair job. “But it’s unwearable!” I shrieked, only to be told that this was “not a practical dress” and, as haute couture (it wasn’t; they clearly did not even know the meaning of the phrase), was not meant to be worn to parties. Besides, Kylie Minogue had no trouble wearing hers, they said. “She can afford to throw it away after wearing it once!” I yelled. But they had sold “lots of this dress” and no one else had brought it back. “Eh? What do you mean, lots? I thought there were only six in the world!”
My depression following the day of purchase had turned to hysteria and anger. I shouted. I screamed. I sobbed. I employed a French lawyer. Finally, they agreed to give me a credit note.
Getting my designer dress might have given me a few hours’ pleasure, but only when it was in the bag. Never was it more true to say that all that glisters is not gold. My Chloe dress may have come with a gold price-tag, but frankly it wasn’t worth its weight in tissue paper.
OTHER THINGS I LIKE TO BUY
1. Saxophone. £1200. Reasoning:-
a) I used to play the recorder and clarinet and fancied something bigger.
b) I thought I would look cool, like Lisa Simpson.
c) I had half an hour before my train was due to leave and decided it was fate’s way of telling me to go to the music store.
Times played: every day for three weeks. Twice in subsequent 15 years.
Tunes learned: first line of Italian love song, Arrivederci Roma.
2. Upright Clavinova. £3500. Reasoning:-
a) Went out to buy £60 keyboard as aid to singing Arrivederci Roma. Seemed silly not to stretch to whole keyboard.
b) Seemed even sillier, having stretched finances to purchase whole keyboard, not to stretch to in-built hard drive, complete with 66 instruments.
c) Delivery was free with Clavinovas, but not keyboards.
Times played: 8 hours a day for 1 week. Never, during subsequent 15 years.
Recordings made on hard drive: 4, by pianist friend.
Tunes learned: I Dreamed a Dream, miming fingers to friend’s recording.
3. Spanish apartment. 595,000 euros. Deposit placed on credit card: 7000 euros. Reasoning:-
a) It would be cheaper to buy an apartment than pay for a 5 star Spanish hotel every week for the next 55 years.
b) There are very good flights from Cardiff to Malaga, and I had a Priority Pass to the VIP lounge at each end.
c) You can never go wrong with property.
Times visited: 8 times during the first six months, quickly reduced to three times a year.
Lessons learned: property is a dud investment when the market crashes and the pound goes into freefall against the euro. And they stop flights from Cardiff to Malaga.
4. Diamond tennis bracelet. 11,000 euros. Reasoning:
a) Turkish fortune-teller told me I was going to come into a lot of money.
b) Turkish fortune-teller told me I would spend a lot of money before due inheritance arrived.
c) I deserved to buy myself something special for my 50th birthday.
Times worn: constantly, apart from day lost in waste paper basket and, subsequently, stolen.
Lessons learned: don’t believe everything you read in the stars, and wait until your birthday comes around or you will ruin your mother’s surprise gift of a tennis bracelet.
5. Ballantyne’s Christmas wine selection. £2200. Reasoning:-
a) It would be rude not to buy a case of everything tried at the store’s festive tasting.
b) I saved £100 by buying in bulk.
c) 50 people might drop by unannounced on Christmas Eve.
Number of bottles consumed between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day: 10.
New Year’s Resolution: drink 12 boxes of wine in garage to make room for car currently on driveway.
6. Paris rental apartment. 12,000 euros – one month’s deposit, one month’s rent. 36,000 euros – 6 months’ bank bond required by landlord. Reasoning:-
a) The bank offered me a £40,000 overdraft.
b) I had lived in Paris in another life.
c) The central heating was making a funny humming noise in my Cardiff house.
Time spent in apartment: 7 months.
Time spent trying to claw back money from French bank and utilities companies: terminal.
7. Squash racket, balls, headband, skirt, top, 12 lessons. £700 of student grant. Reasoning:-
a) Went to buy badminton racket, but everything was reduced in the squash section.
b) The mature student selling the equipment and lessons was very attractive.
c) I kept losing at badminton.
Lessons taken: 1, following short-lived relationship with squash teacher.
Squash games played in 30 years: 4.
8. Alfa Romeo. £4000. Reasoning:-
a) I hadn’t owned a car in 25 years.
b) I was contemplating giving up drinking and would finally be sober enough to get behind the wheel.
c) The sellers were moving to Dubai and it was a bargain.
Number of miles driven in 2 years: 327.
Number of times battery charged owing to lack of use: 14.
9. Artist. £6000. Reasoning:-
a) His workshop had been destroyed in a fire.
b) I would see a return on my investment when the Tate Modern held his exhibition.
c) I was making a valuable contribution to the arts.
Time spent waiting to see artist’s new workshop: 7 years, and counting.
Time spent regretting stupidity: daily.
10. Los Angeles. £100,000+. Reasoning:-
a) I was nearly 50 and had never lived in the States.
b) If I sat looking at the Hollywood sign long enough, that Oscar would be in my hand.
c) It was where I belonged. That’s what the man running the writing course said. The man with whom I was completely obsessed.
Time spent in Los Angeles: six years.
Additional unforeseen costs of Los Angeles: additional rental, to stay on to sue ex-landlord over non-refunded deposit; trip to New Zealand for the rugby World Cup; flights home every three weeks owing to homesickness.