OK, don't panic. Don't panic. It's simply a question of being organized and staying calm and deciding what exactly I need to take. And then fitting it all neatly into my suitcase. I mean, just how hard can that be?
I step back from my cluttered bed and close my eyes, half-hoping that if I wish hard enough, my clothes might magically organize themselves into a series of neatly folded piles. Like in those magazine articles on packing, which tell you how to go on holiday with one cheap sarong and cleverly turn it into six different outfits. (Which I always think is a complete con, because, OK, the sarong costs ten quid, but then they add loads of accessories which cost hundreds, and we're not supposed to notice.)
But when I open my eyes again, the clutter is all still there. In fact, there seems to be even more of it, as if while my eyes were shut, my clothes have been secretly jumping out of the drawers and running around on my bed. Everywhere I look, there are huge great tangled piles of . . . well . . . stuff. Shoes, boots, T-shirts, magazines . . . a Body Shop gift basket that was on sale . . . a linguaphone Italian course which I'm definitely going to start soon . . . a facial sauna thingy . . . And, sitting proudly on my dressing table, a fencing mask and sword which I bought yesterday. Only forty quid from a charity shop!
I pick up the sword and experimentally give a little lunge toward my reflection in the mirror. It was a real coincidence, because I've been meaning to take up fencing for ages, ever since I read this article about it in The Daily World. Did you know that fencers have better legs than any other athletes? Plus, if you're an expert you can become a stunt double in a film and earn loads of money! So what I'm planning to do is find some fencing lessons nearby, and get really good, which I should think I'll do quite quickly.
And then—this is my secret little plan—when I've got my gold badge, or whatever it is, I'll write to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Because she must need a stunt double, mustn't she? And why shouldn't it be me? In fact she'd probably prefer someone British. Maybe she'll phone back and say she always watches my television appearances on cable, and she's always wanted to meet me! We'll probably really hit it off, and turn out to have the same sense of humor and everything. And then I'll fly out to her luxury home, and get to meet Michael Douglas and play with the baby. We'll be all relaxed together like old friends, and some magazine will do a feature on celebrity best friends and have us in it, and maybe they'll even ask me to be . . .
"Hi, Bex!" With a jolt, the happy pictures of me laughing with Michael and Catherine vanish, and my brain snaps into focus. Suze, my flatmate, is wandering into my room, wearing a pair of ancient paisley pajamas, with her blonde hair in plaits. "What are you doing?" she asks curiously.
"Nothing!" I say, hastily putting the fencing sword back. "Just . . . you know. Keep fit."
"Oh right," she says vaguely. "So—how's the packing going?" She wanders over to my mantelpiece, picks up a lipstick, and begins to apply it. Suze always does this in my room—just wanders about picking things up and looking at them and putting them down again. She says she loves the way you never know what you might find, like in a junk shop. Which I'm fairly sure she means in a nice way.
"It's going really well," I say. "I'm just deciding which suitcase to take."
"Ooh," says Suze turning round, her mouth half bright pink. "What about that little cream one? Or your red holdall?"
"I thought maybe this one," I say, hauling my new acid-green shell case out from under the bed. I bought it last weekend, and it's absolutely gorgeous.
"Wow!" says Suze, her eyes widening. "Bex! That's fab! Where did you get it?"
"Fenwicks," I say, grinning broadly. "Isn't it amazing?"
"It's the coolest case I've ever seen!" says Suze, running her fingers admiringly over it. "So . . . how many suitcases have you got now?" She glances up at my wardrobe, on which are teetering a brown leather case, a lacquered trunk, and three vanity cases.
"Oh, you know," I say, shrugging a little defensively. "The normal amount."
I suppose I have been buying quite a bit of luggage recently. But the thing is, for ages I didn't have any, just one battered old canvas bag. Then, a few months ago I had an incredible revelation in the middle of Harrods, a bit like Saint Paul on the road to Mandalay. Luggage. And since then, I've been making up for all the lean years.
Besides which, everyone knows good luggage is an investment.
"I'm just making a cup of tea," says Suze. "D'you want one?"
"Ooh, yes please!" I say. "And a KitKat?" Suze grins.
"Definitely a KitKat."
Recently, we had this friend of Suze's to stay on our sofa—and when he left he gave us this huge box full of a hundred KitKats. Which is such a great thank-you present, but it means all we eat, all day long, is KitKats. Still, as Suze pointed out last night, the quicker we eat them, the quicker they'll be gone—so in a way, it's healthier just to stuff in as many as possible right away.
Suze ambles out of the room and I turn to my case. Right. Concentrate. Packing. This really shouldn't take long. All I need is a very basic, pared-down capsule wardrobe for a romantic minibreak in Somerset. I've even written out a list, which should make things nice and simple.
Jeans: two pairs. Easy. Scruffy and not quite so scruffy.
Actually, make that three pairs of jeans. I've got to take my new Diesel ones, they're just so cool, even if they are a bit tight. I'll just wear them for a few hours in the evening or something.
Oh, and my embroidered cutoffs from Oasis, because I haven't worn them yet. But they don't really count because they're practically shorts. And anyway, jeans hardly take up any room, do they?
OK, that's probably enough jeans. I can always add some more if I need to.
T-shirts: selection. So let's see. Plain white, obviously. Gray, ditto. Black cropped, black vest (Calvin Klein), other black vest (Warehouse, but actually looks nicer), pink sleeveless, pink sparkly, pink—
I stop, halfway through transferring folded-up T-shirts into my case. This is stupid. How am I supposed to predict which T-shirts I'm going to want to wear? The whole point about T-shirts is you choose them in the morning according to your mood, like crystals, or aromatherapy oils. Imagine if I woke up in the mood for my "Elvis Is Groovy" T-shirt and I didn't have it with me?
You know, I think I'll just take them all. I mean, a few T-shirts aren't going to take up much room. I'll hardly even notice them.
I tip them all into my case and add a couple of cropped bra-tops for luck.
Excellent. This capsule approach is working really well. OK, what's next?
Ten minutes later, Suze wanders back into the room, holding two mugs of tea and three KitKats to share. (We've come to agree that four sticks, frankly, doesn't do it.)
"Here you are," she says—then gives me a closer look. "Bex, are you OK?"
"I'm fine," I say, rather pink in the face. "I'm just trying to fold up this insulated vest a bit smaller."
I've already packed a denim jacket and a leather jacket, but you just can't count on September weather, can you? I mean, at the moment it's hot and sunny, but it might well start snowing tomorrow. And what happens if Luke and I go for a really rustic country walk? Besides which, I've had this gorgeous Patagonia vest for ages, and I've only worn it once. I try to fold it again, but it slithers out of my hands and onto the floor. God, this reminds me of camping trips with the Brownies, trying to get my sleeping bag back into its tube.
"How long are you going for, again?" asks Suze.
"Three days." I give up trying to squash the vest into the size of a matchbox, and it springs jauntily back to shape. Discomfited, I sink onto the bed and take a sip of tea. What I don't understand is, how do other people manage to pack so lightly? You see businesspeople all the time, striding onto planes with only a tiny shoe-box suitcase on wheels. How do they do it? Do they have magic shrinking clothes?
"Why don't you take your holdall as well?" suggests Suze.
"D'you think?" I look uncertainly at my overflowing suitcase. Come to think of it, maybe I don't need three pairs of boots. Or a fur stole.
Then suddenly it occurs to me that Suze goes away nearly every weekend, and she only takes a tiny squashy bag. "Suze, how do you pack? Do you have a system?"
"I dunno," she says vaguely. "I suppose I still do what they taught us at Miss Burton's. You work out an outfit for each occasion—and stick to that." She begins to tick off on her fingers. "Like . . . driving outfit, dinner, sitting by the pool, game of tennis . . ." She looks up. "Oh yes, and each garment should be used at least three times."
God, Suze is a genius. She knows all this kind of stuff. Her parents sent her to Miss Burton's Academy when she was eighteen, which is some posh place in London where they teach you things like how to talk to a bishop and get out of a sports car in a miniskirt. She knows how to make a rabbit out of chicken wire, too.
Quickly I start to jot some broad headings on a piece of paper. This is much more like it. Much better than randomly stuffing things into a case. This way, I won't have any superfluous clothes, just the bare minimum.
Outfit 1: Sitting by pool (sunny). Outfit 2: Sitting by pool (cloudy). Outfit 3: Sitting by pool (bottom looks huge in morning). Outfit 4: Sitting by pool (someone else has same swimsuit). Outfit 5:
The phone rings in the hall, but I barely look up. I can hear Suze talking excitedly—then a moment later, she appears in the doorway, her face all pink and pleased.
"Guess what?" she says. "Guess what?"
"Box Beautiful has sold out of my frames! They just phoned up to order some more!"
"Oh, Suze! That's fantastic!" I shriek.
"I know!" She comes running over, and we have a big hug, and sort of dance about, before she realizes she's holding a cigarette and is about to burn my hair.
The amazing thing is, Suze only started making photograph frames a few months ago—but already she's supplying four shops in London, and they're doing really well! She's been in loads of magazines, and everything. Which isn't surprising, because her frames are so cool. Her latest range is in purple tweed, and they come in these gorgeous gray sparkly boxes, all wrapped in bright turquoise tissue paper. (I helped choose the exact color, by the way.) She's so successful, she doesn't even make them all herself anymore, but sends off her designs to a little workshop in Kent, and they come back, all made up.
"So, have you finished working your wardrobe out?" she says, taking a drag on her cigarette.
"Yes," I say, brandishing my sheet of paper at her. "I've got it all sorted out. Down to every last pair of socks."
"And the only thing I need to buy," I add casually, "is a pair of lilac sandals."
"Mmm?" I look up innocently. "Yes. I need some. You know, just a nice cheap little pair to pull a couple of outfits together . . ."
"Oh right," says Suze, and pauses, frowning slightly. "Bex . . . weren't you talking about a pair of lilac sandals last week? Really expensive, from LK Bennett?"
"Was I?" I feel myself flush a little. "I . . . I don't remember. Maybe. Anyway—"
"Bex." Suze gives me a suddenly suspicious look. "Now tell me the truth. Do you really need a pair of lilac sandals? Or do you just want them?"
"No!" I say defensively. "I really need them! Look!"
I take out my clothes plan, unfold it, and show it to Suze. I have to say, I'm quite proud of it. It's quite a complicated flow chart, all boxes and arrows and red asterisks.
"Wow!" says Suze. "Where did you learn how to do that?"
"At university," I say modestly. I got my degree in Business and Accounting—and it's amazing how often it comes in handy.
"What's this box?" she asks, pointing at the page.
"That's . . ." I squint at it, trying to remember. "I think that's if we go out to some really smart restaurant and I've already worn my Whistles dress the night before."
"And this one?"
"That's if we go rock-climbing. And this"—I point to an empty box —"is where I need a pair of lilac sandals. If I don't have them, then this outfit won't work, and neither will this one . . . and the whole thing will disintegrate. I might as well not bother going."
Suze is silent for a while, perusing my clothes plan while I bite my lip anxiously and cross my fingers behind my back.
I know this may seem a little unusual. I know most people don't run every single purchase past their flatmate. But the fact is, a while ago I kind of made Suze a little promise, which was that I'd let her keep tabs on my shopping. You know. Just keep an eye on things.
Don't get the wrong idea here. It's not like I have a problem or anything. It's just that a few months ago, I did get into a . . . Well. A very slight money scrape. It was really just a tiny blip—nothing to worry about. But Suze got really freaked out when she found out how much I owed, and said that for my own good, she'd vet all my spending from now on.
And she's been as good as her word. She's very strict, actually. Sometimes I'm really quite scared she might say no.
"I see what you mean," she says at last. "You haven't really got a choice, have you?"