Luxury? Extravagance? Devil-may-care spending? Retail therapy? Well, women do it much better than men, of course. Obvious, isn’t it? Women can spend with style; men creep about, riddled with guilt.
That’s the accepted wisdon, but is it true? I thought I knew my spendthrift Susans from my parsimonious Petes, but it turns out I don’t. A quick trot through the couples in my circle of friends shows that most are comprised of an impulsive male married to a more measured female.
In each case, it’s the man whose like to say yes to something and think about the cost afterwards. Christmas in Mexico? Count us in and hang the expense. We’ll worry about that when we get back, eh? You’re a long time dead, don’t you know?
The women, while all warm, generous people, are more likely to pause. In fact, often their first instinct is to say no to a plan, and then change their minds later if time, money and circumstances permit. The men generally say yes to everything, and then have to cancel when they find they’ve already said yes to something else on the same day.
There are exceptions, of course. One friend’s wife knows absolutely nothing about the household finances. She doesn’t even know what bank they use, and if, for some reason, her Laser or credit card is refused, she rings her husband and berates him for not keeping her in due luxury.
Another friend confided that he was thinking of down-shifting at work, but he’s worried about what his partner will say. “She has no real idea what it costs to run the house,” he said. “I’m afraid she won’t stay when things get a bit tighter.”
I am more likely to abandon all signs of fiscal rectitude at the winter sales that my wife is, but then she comes from a family where thrift is valued. Mind you, the ability to spend is not related to any sense of style. People can spend all they like, but they may merely accumulate more outfits to look awful in.
For example, the most expensively dressed woman I ever met was also the scariest. She was blocking the aisle of an Olympic Airways flight from London to Athens. She was struggling with a large Louis Vuitton case, too big, I thought, to be allowed on as hand luggage. She was dressed almost entirely in black: black polo-neck sweater, black palazzo pants, black patent pumps and, as far as I could make out, black make-up around her eyes. The only splashes of colour were provided by a Hermes scarf at her throat and the quantities of gold she wore on every inch of exposed skin.
After a moment of desultory wrestling with the case, she stopped, and looked about her in the way a Duchess might scan for a porter on a railway platform. She was well past 60, and the lines on her forehead and around her mouth spoke of a life full of violent emotions. Rather nervously, I said: “May I help you with that?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, “thank you. These people,” she added, with a gesture towards the other passengers, “would never help me. They are like sheep, no?” I heaved the LV case into the overhead bin. Its owner, meanwhile, took up her seat and waved her thanks to me when I had finished. “Come sit next to me later,” she said.
I have to admit, I was intrigued. What circumstances of birth had given her such a patrician air? What tragedies lay behind drama of her face? She had the air of an aristocrat fleeing a revolution, and I wondered what tumult was she leaving behind in London, or what alarms she was returning to face in Greece.
“Ah, young man,” she said in greeting. “I knew you would come.”
Over the course of the flight over the European landmass, I got answers to all my questions. Her father was a Greek shipping tycoon. The business had been in the family for generations. But now, her father, who was well over 80 himself, was divorcing her mother in order to marry a younger woman.
When she spoke the word father, she spat it out with a venom peculiar to Mediterranean countries. In Ireland, it is too cold for such hatred to burn for long. But, along with the hatred came a strange vulnerability: daddy’s little girl was revealed for an instant.
In the terminal, waiting for her Louis Vuitton case, in the glare of the harsh lighting, I could appreciate the extravagance of her jewellery. Even the lighter she used by the carousel was gold, and the hand with which she waved away the airport policeman who came to remonstrate was stiff with rings.
Here was a woman who used luxury as a weapon. Her clothes and her jewellery and her bespoke luggage, these were all pieces of the armour with which she protected herself from the world. She did not really enjoy the trappings of wealth; she depended on them. As I saw her chauffeur meet her at the other side, I was struck by how she greeted him. She was pleased that he was there to take care of her, but she also hated herself for needing him.
“My driver is here,” she said to me. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”