‘You look as impressed with this Christmas shopping malarky as I am,’ he says, sliding the CD he was idly looking at back on to the shelf and falling into step beside me as we leave the store. ‘Although you’ve clearly been more successful than I have.’ He eyes my bags. ‘Here, let me.’
I don’t argue when he takes the heavy carriers from me; the handles have bitten red welts into my palm and I flex my sore fingers with relief. There’s grey slush underfoot as we step out on to Oxford Street, remnants of the snowfall from a few days ago still hanging around because the arctic wind is blowing straight down from the north. Jack pulls a woolly hat from his pocket and jams it on his head, shivering for effect.
‘Have you got much to get?’ I ask.
He shrugs. ‘Sarah’s, mainly. Any bright ideas?’ He looks at me sideways as we walk, blending our pace with the bustling crowds. ‘Please say yes.’
I rack my brain. She isn’t hard to buy for, but her gift from Jack should be something particularly personal. ‘A bracelet maybe or a pendant?’
We pass a High Street jeweller and pause to look, but nothing in the window really shouts ‘Sarah’.
I wrinkle my nose and sigh as we shelter inside the doorway. ‘It’s all a bit too … I don’t know. Not individual enough.’
Jack nods, then narrows his eyes and looks at his watch. ‘Do you need to rush off?’
‘Not really,’ I say, not looking forward to the trudge home.
‘Good.’ He grins, threading his arm through mine. ‘Come with me, I know just where to go.’
Shopping is so much easier with Laurie than on my own. We’ve just hoofed it round the corner from Oxford Street to Chester’s antique emporium; a place I vaguely remember and hope is still there.
‘Wow,’ Laurie murmurs, her violet-blue eyes widening as we step inside the tall terracotta-brick building. I came here years ago as a kid to help my father find something special for my mum’s birthday. It’s a vivid memory; I think it might have been a special birthday, one to mark. We found her a slender silver bangle set with amber stones, and my dad had them engrave all of our names round the inside. She wore it sometimes when he was still alive, at Christmas and on special days. She wore it to his funeral too, and I don’t think I’ve seen her without it since.
I’m pleased to see the emporium hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, that it’s still the same Aladdin’s cave of vintage stalls.
‘This place is amazing! I never even knew it was here.’
‘Proper London.’ I shove my hat into my coat pocket, pushing my hand through my hair because it’s plastered against my head. ‘Where do you want to start?’
Her eyes glitter as she laughs, delighted as she takes it all in. ‘I have no idea. I want to see everything.’
‘Steady on. We’ll be here until Christmas.’
I follow her as she moves amongst the stalls, stroking her fingers over the head of a carved leopard, exclaiming over locked cabinets full of beautiful, top-grade diamonds, and then she’s just as excited by the paste and costume jewels at the next store along. She smiles, shy when the owner of a retro hat shop takes one look at her and pulls a heather Harris Tweed baker boy cap out for her to try; the old boy clearly knows his hats because she’s transformed into a sixties waif as soon as it’s placed on top of her wayward curls. Laurie’s hair is only ever sixty per cent tamed at best, and right now she looks like a street urchin from Oliver Twist. The lavender shades in the tweed bring out the colour of her eyes, but they also highlight the dark, bruised circles around them. She’s tired, I notice with a jolt, and it’s not ‘I just need an early night’ tired; it’s ‘I’ve had the shittiest few months of my life’ tired, the eyes of someone who’s worried and has been for a fair while. I realize I haven’t even asked her how she’s doing.
She takes the hat off after examining herself from each angle in the gilt hand mirror the shopkeeper obligingly holds up, turning the tiny label over to look at the price before she hands it back and wistfully shakes her head. It’s a shame. It was a good look on her.
‘How about in here?’ she asks a little while later. We’ve considered and discarded a little water-colour painting and earmarked a 1920s turquoise pendant as a definite maybe, but as soon as we step into the little perfume paraphernalia shop I know this is where we’re going to find the perfect thing. Laurie’s like a little girl let loose in a sweet shop, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over elaborate gilt bottles and exotic scents, and then she breaks into this sunshine-slash of a smile.
‘Jack, over here,’ she says, calling me to her side to look at something she’s just unearthed from the back of a shelf. I gaze over her shoulder to see what she’s holding, and I thank my lucky stars I haven’t bought the turquoise pendant already. The golden clamshell powder compact lying in Laurie’s hand is so very Sarah that it would be wrong for any other woman in the world to own it. Art deco, I’d say, from my extensive viewing of Antiques Roadshow, sizeable enough to comfortably fill Laurie’s palm, with an enamelled mermaid inlaid into the lid. There’s something of Sarah about the auburn waves cascading over her shoulder and the pronounced, coquette dip of her waist. Laurie hands it over to me with a sparkle-eyed grin.
I’m pleased by the weight of it. It’s Sarah-worthy, something that says I notice everything about you and you’re valuable to me.
‘Call off the search,’ I say, praying it’s not going to cost more than a small mortgage and breathing out with relief when I flip the tag. I can still afford beer after all. ‘Am I glad I bumped into you.’
We browse as the woman who owns the shop packages up the compact, taking her time to find a velvet pouch that fits and encasing the package in tissue and ribbons. I think she probably took one look at me and concluded that, left to my own devices, I’d wrap it in tinfoil or something. I wouldn’t, but she’s not that far off and I’m bloody glad I haven’t got to wrangle with the Sellotape myself.
It’s almost dark even though it’s barely four when Laurie and I make our way back out on to the street again.
‘Celebratory beer? I owe you one for helping me out,’ I say. She looks like she needs a good sit-down and a chat. ‘God knows what Sarah would have ended up with without you. Petrol station flowers and a dodgy pair of knickers from a sex shop. Or something.’ Laurie laughs, pulling her coat sleeve back to check the time as if she has places to be.
‘Okay,’ she says, surprising me. I was sure she was going to dash off.
‘Good girl. There’s a place I know just round the corner. A proper pub, not some trendy bar where you can never get a seat.’ I duck my head against the beginnings of snow on the bitter wind and spread my hand against her back to steer her down a small side street.
As soon as we step inside the stained-glass doors of the pub I’m glad I didn’t say no to a drink. There’s the reassuring smell of a coal fire and beeswax polish, and the dark-green leather button-back booths are deep and comfortable, built for long, relaxed drinking sessions. An old man and his snoozing Jack Russell are the only other patrons. It’s one of those unpretentious, end-of-the-world pubs that you know hasn’t changed much in decades, ruddy quarry tiles and a brass surround running the length of the well-stocked bar.
‘Glass of red?’ Jack asks, and I nod, grateful as I take my shopping bags from him. ‘You go and find a seat by the fire, I’ll bring the drinks over.’
I bag the best booth in the house, closest to the warmth of the fire. I drop down and stow my bags under the table, shrugging out of my damp winter coat and hanging it on the newel post at the end of the booth to warm through for later. Warmed coats remind me of home; when we were kids my dad fitted an extra radiator behind the coat hooks so we’d always have a warm jacket on winter school mornings.
‘Wine for the lady,’ Jack jokes, appearing with a glass of deep-ruby wine and a pint. He follows my lead and hangs his coat on the other newel post, as if we’ve marked our territory, claimed this tiny lounge for two.