Living on the edge of Cambridge, Bink and I were able to see Serena (at Trinity) and Alex (at Peterhouse) often, for tea in the Grad Pad or a drink in the Eagle. Though without a car or child seat on my parents’ bikes, not easily and only when we could leave Rosie behind or she was attending nursery school.
It was late January. Serena rang me, early afternoon. “Can you come immediately?” All she could tell me was that Bink was with her in her rooms, extremely distressed. She had begged Serena not to tell me but she had somehow gently persuaded her it would be ok.
I had to promise though, absolutely, not to breathe a word to Shaun.
Shaun is hardly the fierce pater familias. What could Bink possibly be so frightened of?
Pregnancy. Must be. There is nothing else that scary.
It was twenty minutes by bike, leaving immediately and pedalling as hard as I could.
Bink was in a dreadful state, sobbing uncontrollably.
Poor child! How long she had coped without telling any of us...?
When the children were much younger, my dear mother had given each of them two hundred pounds. I had taken all four to the Post Office, so they could each open an account. A couple of years later she gave them all the same again.
So Bink, like the others, had four hundred pounds carefully saved over ten years, with interest, waiting for something important enough to spend it on. Serena had been allowed to invest half of her nest-egg buying chickens, when she was twelve and had first expressed an interest in becoming a farmer. She had to keep accounts, and sell the eggs, and kill any surplus cocks herself... and discover, by doing everything herself, what a very expensive hobby farming can be.
The other three had not touched their precious pots. As far as I knew.
What I didn’t know was that for years, Bink had needed up to a hundred pounds’ worth of toiletries every single week. Her savings had disappeared very quickly. And then the rest of Serena’s, with Serena sworn to secrecy.
And then what? She knew we couldn’t afford that kind of expenditure. What else was left to her to do?
So she had no option but to help herself. Without paying. For years. Until that fateful day when she was caught.
First in Boots. And then, because she had unpaid-for goods from the previous shop and she was searched, Sainsbury’s too. She had been told she wouldn’t be arrested and charged on this occasion, but banned from both shops indefinitely.
The shame couldn’t have been greater if she had been an unmarried teenager in Catholic Ireland half a century earlier.
And poor little Bink did it out of concern for her parents. Knowing we couldn’t afford to pay for her habit. Her addiction. To cleanliness.
Serena and I reassured her, and loved her, and calmed her, and somehow persuaded her that Shaun would understand. Then I rang both shops and explained.
They were lovely. Both managers very understanding. Both assured me they wouldn’t take it any further.
Neither offered to lift the bans.
What was Bink to do? She couldn’t survive without toiletries! Without ever going into Boots...
She would have to rely on the rest of us.
It wasn’t until she was about to start at Cambridge University six months later that I rang both shops again and she was allowed to use them once more.
Years later, Serena commented on the way it was handled.
Bink had been beside herself, scared out of her wits. I, in my naïvety, assumed the shops were being generous and charitable in not pressing charges. I was almost as relieved as she was.
Serena thought otherwise. Bink had a registered and very severe disability. She was about to be hospitalised for several months. Any attempt at prosecution wouldn’t have survived five minutes’ scrutiny.
“I doubt it was even legal, to frighten her like that...”