Word count: 1749
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
My phone vibrates. It’s Jessica.
shut. uppppp! this is not real
She’s freaking out over a selfie I sent her of me lying in a free-standing bath tub in the ivory marble bathroom of my room, wearing a fluffy white robe with gold embroidery. I’ve just taken what has to be the best shower of my life, better than that one time Amy and I won free spa vouchers at Tesco’s and after the saunas we got to shower with Jo Malone wood sage and sea salt body wash. The phone buzzes again.
how on earth is this actually happening to you??
I don’t even know what to say. The room even has a mirror with makeup lights! And the view on the thunderstorm in Hyde Park was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Looking at something so familiar from such a different point of view gives you a different understanding of everything.
And my understanding is that I’d gladly move here, in this very room (or does it count as an apartment, seen as it has its own sitting room and the bed alone is as big as my whole room at home?). I’ve had enough of being poor.
The storm is waning now and it looks like the late afternoon sky is setting itself up for a beautiful sunset. There is one small detail, however, that is keeping me from relaxing completely: my clothes and handbag are still soaking from the earlier downpour, not to mention my socks and shoes. What am I going to do? Climbing back into them would be a cold, clammy nightmare.
I’m wondering if I should nip into a nearby H&M and just buy myself a whole new outfit. It’s not exactly the way I wanted to spend my next fifty pounds but I don’t think I have a choice. Going back home to change is not an option, and there’s no way I’m giving up the rest of this day.
If I buy as few items as possible — dress and a pair of flats, maybe? — I can keep the price down. Thankfully, at Jessica’s insistence, I brought a little pouch with makeup essentials along with me so at least I don’t have to fork out on a new mascara I don’t need.
There’s only one problem, though: what am I going to wear out to buy my replacement outfit? After drying my hair, I plonk myself down on the bed, belly-up and let out a huge sigh. I stretch out my arms and legs and I’m not even close to touching the edges.
No, I will not be defeated. I will simply plug that hairdryer back in and patiently dry my jeans shorts, my socks, shoes, everything. It might take a while but it will work. One thing I know for sure, I am going on the London Eye with Liang tonight and I will eat with him at that fancy restaurant, because I know that this is literally a once in a lifetime—
The doorbell rings, making me jump. Lost in thought, I hadn’t realised just how quiet this room is. Thick carpets and state-of-the-art double glazing muffle all sounds. I should probably turn some music on.
The only person it could be is Liang. The thought of opening the door in my bathrobe makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. Should I pretend I’m sleeping? That sounds like a better idea. I try not moving a muscle, barely breathing so as to not make a noise.
But the doorbell rings again; a slightly longer sound this time.
I should really answer. What if he has something important to tell me? We still haven’t exchanged phone numbers after all. Taking deep breaths and passing a hand through my hair to try and give it some sort of shape, I open the door.
But it’s not Liang, it’s a housekeeper holding a some packages. “Good afternoon, Miss Koehler. This is from Mr Baili. Can I come in?”
Speechless, I watch her walk in and place everything on the coffee table. As quickly as she walked in, she leaves the room.
On the table is a large, satiny white box and two green Harrods bags. These are from Liang? Well, if they are I should open them, right?
I slide the satin ribbon off the big box first. From in between layers of monogrammed soft tissue paper I pull out a pale lilac chiffon skirt, high-waisted and falling in pleats down to the floor and a white wrap top made of the finest silk. In the shopping bags, a pair of flat nude leather sandals and a small shoulder bag on a delicate golden chain.
I lay out everything on the bed and just stare. This can’t be for me, and yet it can’t be for anybody else. The labels on these clothes are brand names that I’ve only ever glimpsed at on adverts. No, there must be some kind of mistake
There’s got to be some other explanation as to why these things ended up here. I can’t figure out what it could be yet, but I feel my face flush with panic. This is probably some sort of mistake and I wasn’t supposed to open these. The sandals are one size too big, after all. Oh my god, what am I going to do?
I start putting the items back into the boxes and bags, trying to wrap everything exactly as it was. How could I be so stupid? Why would Liang buy me clothes? I now realise it doesn’t make any sense. They could be for his girlfriend back in Shanghai. Or for his mum. Maybe they’re for himself — I don’t know this guy, anything is possible. Did the housekeeper even say This is from Mr Baili? Couldn’t it just as easily have been This is for Mr Baili? He’s probably waiting for it in his room and wondering what’s taking so long.
I have to move faster before he comes here and finds out I’ve opened all these boxes thinking they’re for me, which I’m sure wouldn’t be the end of the world, but would definitely be in the top five most embarrassing things that have ever happened to me. Although I struggle to remember how the tissue paper fit over the skirt and whether the ribbon had some sort of bow, once I close everything up it looks kind of like it did before. Some parts look a bit wonky but it’s almost unnoticeable. I can breathe again.
This is it, I’m marching over to Liang’s room straightaway. I don’t care if I’m wearing a bathrobe — if I think about it I’m more covered up than I ever was in front of him — I have to give this back to him now, before he realises I actually thought it was for me. I walk down the corridor in my hotel slippers, trying not to drop anything, and ring the doorbell.
Liang listens to my fumbled explanation as to why I’m knocking on his door holding bags and boxes that belong to him. He doesn’t say anything; doesn’t take the bags from me, he just stands and stares. Maybe I speak too fast sometimes? To make my message clear, I push them towards him.
He pushes them back. “This is for you.”
I’m stunned. I was right, then. This guy I just met and whom I’ve spent half a day with has bought me clothes, without consulting me, that probably cost more than my whole wardrobe combined. “Why?”
“My clothes are wet, and your clothes were wet too.” Taking a step back I notice he’s switched his pale linen shirt with a more structured, striped blue cotton one and the suede loafers with a pair of out-of-the-box white sneakers.
He suddenly looks like he’s finally made sense of it. “Don’t you like them? If you want I can get different ones sent to you.”
“I don’t know, I haven’t opened them yet,” I mutter. I have to keep my story straight. “But I won’t. I can’t accept this.”
There’s a trace of confusion in Liang’s typically inscrutable features. “Why?”
“This is too much. I can’t accept this from you, and there’s no way I could ever pay you back. I mean, I have no idea what’s inside, but judging from the boxes…” I shake my head.
“I wasn’t expecting you to pay me back. You don’t pay back for gifts.”
“I still can’t accept this. Like, thank you, obviously. I’m really grateful. But you can return these and I will go and dry my clothes and be ready in no time. I was actually just about to try drying them with the hairdryer and I’m sure it will work very well.”
“But… you might to get sick if you don’t change. It will get colder later.” Liang looks completely at a loss. He seems unable to wrap his head around why I wouldn’t want to accept his gift. More than anything today — more than the chauffeur-driven Mercedes, more than spending a middle-class person’s monthly salary on tea, more than the luxury hotel rooms — this is what is showing me just how different our worlds are.
It’s not that I feel like it’s charity: I know he got me these clothes purely to get me out of (a) having to climb into wet clothes and (b) having to wear denim hot pants to a fancy restaurant. And given what he’s used to, given that for him it’s more normal to walk into Chanel than Primark, I don’t think he has any clue as to how far he’s put me out of my depth.
I was brought up to accept gifts and compliments alike and to be gracious. If anything, to give something in return at the right occasion. But there’s nothing I could ever give in return that could make up for this. Ever. It’s way too much and he doesn’t even realise, and now he’s looking at me like he offered me the last bite of his favourite dessert and spat it out.
“I just want to spend the rest of the day with you. If you want I’ll get these sent back and but I want to help you dry your other clothes. I also have a hairdryer, it will be faster like this.”
There’s nothing I can do to hide the smile that’s creeping on my face.