I met a tall woman in the street, draped in a magnificently coloured shawl on which I complimented her. We had a cup of coffee and I discovered I couldn’t invite her home for a glass of wine because she doesn’t drink it: she drinks Scotch.
She is the daughter of a grand Prussian house, trained late in art history and by one of those strange coincidences, her great love was a man I had a crush on when I was 17.
We talked to each other about our children – my son, her son and daughter.
She rang me with complimentary tickets to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Ballet Russes and Beyond and we had a fine time together.
We talked on the telephone about people and clothes and books and art.
When I met her she had spent a year in a small clean box of a service apartment, waiting to find a flat she wanted to buy. When she found it, she gladly released her treasures from storage and moved in. It made me nervous. In my experience of even looking at such properties, there is always a sum you haven’t bargained for, tucked in somewhere between “mod.con” and “garden view”.
But it was what she wanted.
And then one day we spoke about money.
In most friendships of any worth, you have to choose when and if you will attempt a serious conversation about money, for two main reasons.
The first is that people’s attitudes to money are strange to everyone but themselves.
I recall a high flying business executive who frequently wore several thousand pounds’ worth of clothes but carried the same beat up handbag with everything.
And the man who wore Brioni suits at £1800 apiece, who lost weight, ditched them, and bought them all over again, the same man who never repaired anything. If it broke, he put it aside and bought something else.
There is a man with £300,000 worth of jewellery in a strongbox, who buys his groceries at week’s end in M&S when they bring the prices down.
And think of those endless people who cut the corners on the holiday of a lifetime, or won’t shell out for the right underwear under once in a lifetime Versace.
Each to his own, I hear you say? Well, yes, OK but it is rare that people see money for what it is.
It has emotional meaning and people are funny, that is to say peculiar, about money.
And secondly, beginning a dialogue about money risks having to wade through cliché before you can get to real exchange, remarks like “But you always look wonderful” ..
It is rare and to be treasured to find someone of either sex who is straight forward about money.
I have a great friend who is wealthy and carries it with more grace and less attitude than anyone I have ever known.
Trust comes into this of course but so does the wish to communicate and be plain about it.
So my friend in her new flat had been hit with “hidden costs”, her share of repainting “the common parts”, a phrase that made her giggle even as she worried herself sick about how she was going to manage both in finding her share and keeping herself afloat.
She said she had some things to sell, she thought she would take them to a famous auction house, there were old ties through them to her family, surely that would count for something?
I drew a deep breath and said “Let me give you the name and address of my pawnbroker” not that I ever pawn anything. If you don’t have income, it’s the last thing you must do. I sell.
But I told her how I found them, where they were, established in 1770 as a “discerning moneylenders”, dealing in assay weight.
And I told her I had used them, to help a friend sell a Rolex and for myself, when I wanted to go away the year before last. She made a note and it was done.
She rang me later that afternoon. She had been to the auction house whose employee had been slightly dismissive. And she had gone on to the address I gave her, where she was received politely and professionally, and offered exactly twice the first bid. She couldn’t thank me enough. And as with all risky things in friendship, if they work out, they make a bond.
We laugh about now. Once, we say, we’d have swapped dressmakers and hairdressers. Now, it’s pawnbrokers.
And we like ours best.