Her grandson dragged on her hand where he held it, but she pretended not to notice. She wasn’t one of those over-indulgent grandparents who returned children to their parents high on sugar and convinced they were entitled to whatever they wanted. She’d made it her business to ensure Sam was well versed in the ways of honesty and virtue. A few moments of hand-dragging was as much protest as he’d offer, and he’d give that up when she didn’t react.
A woman crossed the road in front of her, and Bertha stopped when she recognised the vicar. “Marjorie! What a surprise. Now you must tell me, where did you get that handbag? It looks brand new.”
“Oh Bertha, you have an eagle eye for self-indulgence,” said Marjorie. “They had a batch in the clearance shop down the road. I saw it through the window and decided there wasn’t a moment to lose. I baggsied the second to last that they had. No pun intended.”
Bertha laughed. People liked you for laughing at their jokes, and it was much easier to deal with people who liked you. “if the lord sees fit to place a handbag in your way, it would be rude not to seize the opportunity. Perhaps even ungracious.”
“That’s just what I thought.” Marjorie frowned. “More or less.”
“Marjorie, would you mind watching Sam for a minute or two? I really need to spend a penny and it’ll be easier to sneak into that pub toilet on my own.”
“Dear me, you of all people sneaking into a pub,” said Marjorie, so Bertha had to indulge her with another laugh. “Of course I will, we won’t mover from this spot, will we Sam?”
Sam looked up but said nothing. Bertha suppressed a swell of pride at the obedience she’d instilled in him.
Bertha crossed the road to enter the pub’s front door. It was on a street corner so she was able to leave through a side door that Marjorie and Sam wouldn’t be able to see. She took a roundabout route though the backstreets to the clearance shop but it only took a couple of minutes and someone had helpfully parked a white van in front of it, so she didn’t have to worry about Marjorie seeing her going in.
The handbag sat alone on a stand in front of the door. The manager had evidently decided it was worth pride of place. Bertha walked straight past it to the shoe rack, sparing it no more than a glance out of the corner of her eye. The price tag read £99. No doubt it would be twice or three times that in Zara or Liberty’s or wherever the brand had been designed for, but she couldn’t justify spending so much on a handbag. She would be prising Sam’s inheritance from his sticky hands.
She sidled over to the dress racks, where several other women were milling around. Their attention was firmly on the dresses rather than on each other, and the dresses formed a curtain between Bertha and the nearest shop assistant. A quick glance around and she knew that if she turned to the trouser suits behind her, none of the cameras would be able to see anything below her shoulders either. It was doubly fortuitous that the trouser suits were where they were; not much womenswear had pockets.
With one hand, Bertha slid one suit after the other along the rail as if she was looking for the perfect combination of size and colour. With the other, she felt in her coat pocket for the packet of cigarettes – wouldn’t she just die if Marjorie saw them? – and slipped the whole bundle into a pocket. Without breaking the rhythm of her sliding of hangers, she slipped her lighter into the pocket and lit as many as she could.
As if none of the trouser suits had caught her attention, she walked round to the blouses which happened to place her in full view of the camera by the time there was enough smoke coming out of the trouser suit to set the smoke detector off.
She dropped the blouse she was holding up, as any respectable middle-aged woman would when startled by the unholy racket of a fire alarm.
The shop assistant looked just as startled, but gathered herself faster than the customers who were looking around as if they couldn’t react to the fire alarm until they saw it.
The shop assistant struggled to make herself heard until she walked over to the clothes racks, when a combination of shouts and gestures got all the women moving in a gaggle toward the exit.
The gaggle had to break in two to pass on either side of the stand with the handbag on it, which kept them between Bertha and any inquisitive cameras as she slipped the handbag under her coat. The customers dispersed as soon as they got outside. It wasn’t the sort of shop that people went into because they had business pressing enough to be worth waiting for.
Bertha retraced her steps through the backstreets, through the pub and across the road to where Sam was waiting as patiently as Marjorie. He was such a good boy.
“Thank you, Marjorie, you’re a life-saver.”
“My pleasure,” said Marjorie. “Well, I must be getting along. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Your sermons set me up for the week.”