You’re wandering around a nice florist’s in Stoke Newington on a Saturday morning. It’s the first time you’ve had a garden in London and what a wonderful thing – a small space to call your own just as we’re coming into spring. You’re having a little housewarming and you’re here to treat yourself to a few potted plants and bits and pieces to set it up.
On your way to the till, you spot some nice, rustic-looking sticks and throw these into your basket, too, to set around the plants, thinking they can’t possibly cost very much – after all, they’re sticks. When the price is read out to you, your card already extended across the counter, it’s more than you thought and you redden with alarm, but smile grimly anyway and don’t make a fuss. When you get outside, you check your receipt and see those innocent sticks have set you back £18. Eighteen English pounds. A pound, like what you pay for milk. But 18 of them. For sticks.
When these presumably premium sticks in Botanique were lampooned online, I could so easily imagine my horrified silence at that till. Earlier this week, I asked on Twitter for people’s worst experiences with being charged an unexpectedly exorbitant amount, but being too embarrassed to refuse to pay. I was, I admit, taken aback both by the enormous volume of responses and the number of people expressing relief that it’s not just them who do this. But it makes sense – a lack of money is something systemically cloaked in shame. That we will regularly screw ourselves over to avoid admitting it publicly is depressing, but perhaps unsurprising.
Occasionally, this yearning to be an entirely other sort of woman would explode and I would blow most of a week’s dole payment on eating a nice meal and having a glass of wine
When we are charged £40 for a bottle of bog-standard red wine we expected to be £20, what is it that prevents us from saying, “No, thank you, I had the price wrong”? I can feel, when this happens, an acute collision between my actual self and my desired self. The shame of not being a person with money renders me temporarily irrational. In that moment, when you hand over the cash you absolutely do not have, you truly do become the person who has it to throw away – simply because you are throwing it away. The ostensibly levelling nature of money and transaction means that whoever can pay for a product may have it, regardless of context. In that moment, I transcend the hard limitations of my class position, because nobody can deny I am handing that money over – I am buying the stupid lipstick. I am drinking that wine. I am damn well taking that bundle of beautiful sticks home.
The many inadequacies of how we are able to live now, and how we relate to one another, are temporarily soothed by some of the comforts money can bring. I once had an unhappy relationship, which I had sacrificed much of my identity and a not-insubstantial amount of money for. My partner was disdainful of drinking and had a moralistic attitude to eating what he considered “bad” food. I remember Sunday afternoons becoming my safety valve. I would go alone to a French bistro near our house and order steak frites and a glass of red wine and become myself again for a few hours. Money gave me that. But I shouldn’t have needed it.
This interaction functions in much the same way as having a drink when you’re hungover does, in that you are merely delaying the onset of an enormous and avoidable doom, not to mention that you now have £17 left to last a week. Many years ago, after I had dropped out of university and was unemployed, I would walk past restaurant windows and stare in at the people so casually working through a hundred quid’s worth of pasta and wine. I truly felt they were a different species to me. Occasionally, this yearning to be an entirely other sort of woman would explode and I would blow most of a week’s dole payment on eating a nice meal and having a glass of wine, just so I could feel that I was a person like them – or any sort of person, really.
And so you find yourself, outside the florist’s on a hot March morning, hyperventilating, holding a small pile of sticks which are clammy with sweat – hoping, praying, that someday you will be the sort of person to whom £18 will mean nothing at all.