It was a moment of madness. I’d never stolen before, well, no more than the odd biscuit out the tin anyway, and I haven’t since. But what would you do if temptation sidled out in front of you with a great big grin on its face?
It’s an ordinary Saturday afternoon in 1988 and we’re wandering round the town, in and out of the shops, trying on things here and there. We need black skirts and white shirts for our first after-school jobs, which start next week. In Miss Selfridge, Heather sees a couple of things she likes. ‘Chum me to try these on?’ she mouths, her voice drowned out by the bombast of U2. I grab a white top and a skirt and follow her. When we get to the fitting rooms, the lassie with the tokens isn’t there. So we just go right on in.
It’s one of those communal changing rooms, with mirrors all round. There’s one other person in here, an older lady. The music’s playing in here too, only now it’s Madonna, so we sing along and practice a few dance moves whilst wriggling ourselves into the shop-smelling clothes. I think the top suits me so I check the price tag. I pull a face; no way I can afford that. Heather looks like a supermodel in her outfit and I see the woman glance at her sourly as she leaves. ‘Face like a slapped arse, that one,’ Heather says loudly, the echo of her mother. She grins at me, then shimmies over to the entrance and peers out. ‘Still no-one there,’ she says. We look at each other for a long moment. Very slowly I see Heather raise her eyebrow questioningly. My heart is thumping; somehow I know exactly what it is she’s suggesting, even though we’ve never done this before. The strange thing is, I’m not horrified by it. In fact, I’m really, really excited. I turn away and am confronted by six Heathers behind me, eyes boring into my back, waiting for their answer. I look at her and nod. She smiles and immediately begins stripping off, balling up the clothes and stuffing them into her bag. I whip the top off and do the same.
As I wait for Heather to do up her jeans I stuff the empty hangers under the cushion of the communal bench. We each return a couple of items to the rail outside the still unguarded entrance, just like normal shoppers. My bag is bumping against my thigh; I can feel the top almost burning a hole through it. The shop is very hot and bright. Suddenly there seems to be shop staff everywhere and I can feel my face going bright red like a beacon. All I want to do is run towards the glass doors of the shop and get out of here, but I force myself to follow Heather as she walks all-round the store again, pulling things off racks and holding them up against herself. I hide among the coats, plucking at a leather jacket with what I’m hoping looks like interest. Then, out of the corner of my eye I see a burly security guard heading my way. I concentrate on appearing nonchalant. Seconds pass. I am radiating guilt. My scalp is beginning to prickle. I wait for him to come over, hardly able to breathe. Despite myself I look up at exactly the wrong moment. Our eyes meet and I know that he’s rumbled me. I look round wildly for Heather but there’s no sign of her. Where the hell is she? Oh God, what am I doing?
‘You OK, lass?’ His voice is oddly soft for such a huge man. I am surprised into silence. He peers at me closely. ‘You look a bit wabbit. Here, I’ll give the manager a shout and she’ll find you somewhere to sit down for a bit.’ I smile weakly at him. ‘No, it's ok … my friend’s over there. We’re just going to have some chips. I’m hungry that’s all. I’ll be fine.’ He nods. ‘Well OK, you take care though. Just off for a cuppa myself.’ He turns away, pushing his bulk back through the faux fur jungle. Dizzy with relief, I start to make my way towards the doors, pressing my bag tight against me, heart hammering nineteen to the dozen. I hold my breath as I pass through the security gates, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it doesn’t and I’m outside, blinking in the sunshine.
I stand on the threshold of the shop for what seems like an eternity. The street is full of shoppers threading their way through the crowds. Suddenly the enormity of what I’ve done hits me and I’m off, running pell-mell down the street, propelled by adrenaline, high as a kite. I see Heather leaning against the wall of the bank, arms crossed, chewing gum, but I can’t stop now. I run and run until the shops I’m passing are smaller and less glamorous. Eventually I stop outside a chippy. Knackered, I bend double, hands on knees, gulping in air like someone saved from drowning. Eventually my chest stops heaving and the nausea wears off. I enter the chippy, buy a Pepsi and walk down the street on shaky legs. I don’t stop until the front door of my parent’s house clicks shut behind me.
As I said, a moment of madness. Or perhaps just of badness. Either way, I didn’t regret it and still don’t, thirty-five years later; not through a lack of moral compass but because the experience was so very vivid. And Miss Selfridge, if it’s any consolation, I wore that shirt until it fell apart. It was worth the price tag …