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Chapter 22

I WAS MADE TO GO ON TELEVISION. That’s the truth. I was absolutelymade to go on television.

We’re sitting on the sofas again, Rory and Emma and me, and Anne from Leeds is admitting over the line that she’s never given retirement planning a thought.

I glance at Emma and smile, and she twinkles back. I’ve never felt so warm and happy in all my life.

What’s really strange is that when it was me being inter-viewed, I felt all tongue-tied and nervous—but on the other side of the sofa, I’ve been in my element right from the start. God, I could do this all day. I don’t even mind the bright lights anymore. They feel normal. And I’ve practiced the most flattering way to sit in front of the mirror (knees together, feet crossed at the ankle), and I’m sticking to it.

“My mum used to tell me to take out a pension,” says Anne, “and I used to laugh at her. But now I’ve started to panic I’ve left it too late.”

“Rebecca?” says Emma. “Should Anne be concerned?”

Pensions, I think quickly. Come on, what do I know about pensions?

“Well,” I say. “Of course, the earlier you start saving, the more you’ll accumulate. But that’s no reason to panic, Anne. The good thing is, you’re thinking about itnow.”

“How old are you exactly, Anne?” says Emma.

“I’m thirty,” says Anne. “Thirty last month.”

Yes! Thank you, God!

“Ah, well,” I say knowledgeably. “A typical woman of thirty, who invested £100 a month, would receive an income of £9,000 on retirement at sixty. That’s assuming 7 percent growth.”

Bingo. Rory and Emma look so impressed. OK, quick, what else?

“But you should also look for flexibility, Anne,” I continue. “Choose a scheme which allows you to take a ‘holiday’ from payments, because you never know when you might need it.”

“That’s true,” says Anne thoughtfully. “I’d like to take a year off sometime and travel a bit.”

“Well, there you are!” I say triumphantly. “If you do that, you’ll want to be able to pause your pension payments. In fact, what I would do is—”

“Thanks, Rebecca,” chimes in Emma. “Wise advice there! Now we’re going to go briefly to Davina for news and weather . . .”

I’m rather disappointed at being interrupted. There were so many more things I could have said to Anne. All the points I made in my pensions article are popping up in my head—and now that there’s a real person involved, they all suddenly seem a lot more interesting. In fact, the whole subject seems more inter-esting today. It’s as though all this stuff has suddenly got a point.

Believe it or not, I’m really enjoying the questions on this phone-in. I know about mortgages and I know about life insur-ance and I know about unit trusts. I know so much more than I ever realized! A few minutes ago, Kenneth from St. Austell asked what the annual contribution limit for an ISA is—and the figure £5,000 just jumped right into my head. It’s as if some bit of my mind has been storing every single bit of information I’ve ever written—and now, when I need it, it’s all there.

“And after the break,” Emma’s saying, “since so many of you are ringing in, we’ll be coming back to this phone-in: ‘Managing Your Money.’ ”

“Lots of people with money problems out there,” chimes in Rory.

“Absolutely,” says Emma. “And we want to help. So whatever your query, however big or small, please call in for Rebecca Bloomwood’s advice, on 0333 4567.” She freezes for a moment, smiling at the camera, then relaxes back in her chair as the light goes off. “Well, this is going very well!” she says brightly, as a makeup girl hurries up and touches up her face with powder. “Isn’t it, Zelda?”

“Fantastic!” says Zelda, appearing out of nowhere. “The lines haven’t been this busy since we did ‘I’d Like to Meet a Spice Girl.’ ” She looks curiously at me. “Have you ever done a course in television presenting, Rebecca?”

“No,” I say honestly. “I haven’t. But . . . I’ve watched a lot of telly.”

Zelda roars with laughter. “Good answer! OK, folks, we’re back in thirty.”

Emma smiles at me and consults a piece of paper in front of her, and Rory leans back and examines his nails.

I’ve never felt so completely and utterly happy. Never. Not even that time I found a Vivienne Westwood bustier for £60 in the Harvey Nichols sale. (I wonder where that is, actually. I must get round to wearing it sometime.) This beats everything. Life is perfect.

I lean back, full of contentment, and am idly looking around the studio when an oddly familiar figure catches my eye. I peer harder, and my skin starts to prickle in horror. There’s a man standing in the gloom of the studio—and honestly, I must be hallucinating or something, because he looks exactly like—

“And . . . welcome back,” says Rory, and my attention snaps back to the set. “This morning’s phone-in is on financialproblems, big and small. Our guest expert is Rebecca Bloomwood and our next caller is Fran from Shrewsbury. Fran?”

“Yes,” says Fran. “Hi. Hi, Rebecca.”

“Hi there, Fran,” I say, smiling warmly. “And what seems to be the trouble?”

“I’m in a mess,” says Fran. “I. . . I don’t know what to do.”

“Are you in debt, Fran?” says Emma gently.

“Yes,” says Fran, and gives a shaky sigh. “I’m overdrawn, I owe money on all my credit cards, I’ve borrowed money off my sister . . . and I just can’t stop spending. I just . . . love buying things.”

“What sort of things?” says Rory interestedly.

“I don’t know, really,” says Fran after a pause. “Clothes for me, clothes for the kids, things for the house, just rubbish, really. Then the bills arrive . . . and I throw them away.”

Emma gives me a significant look, and I raise my eyebrows back. But my cool act is starting to falter a little at Fran’s story.

“It’s like a vicious circle,” Fran’s saying. “The more in debt I am, the worse I feel, so I go out and spend more.”

Outstanding bills. Credit card debts. Overdrafts.All the things I’ve been desperate not to think about are being thrust back into my mind. Desperately I thrust them back out again.

“Rebecca?” she says. “Fran’s obviously in a bit of a spot. What should she be doing?”

For an instant I feel like cryingWhy ask me? But I can’t crum-ble, I have to do this. I have to be Rebecca Bloomwood, top finan-cial expert. Summoning all my strength, I force myself to smile sympathetically at the camera.

“Well, Fran,” I say. “The first thing you’ve got to do is . . . is be brave and confront the issue. Contact the bank and tell them you’re having trouble managing.” I swallow hard, trying to keep my voice steady. “I know myself how hard it can be to tackle this kind of problem—but I can honestly tell you, running away doesn’t solve anything. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll get.”

“Rebecca,” says Emma earnestly. “Would you say this is a common problem?”

“I’m afraid it is,” I reply. “It’s all too easy to forget those unpaid bills, to put them in a dressing table drawer, or . . . or throw them in a skip . . .”

“A skip?” says Rory, looking puzzled.

“Whatever,” I say hurriedly. “Everybody’s different.”

“I put mine in the dog basket,” interjects Fran. “Then he chews them and I can’t read them.”

“I can understand that,” I say, nodding. “But you know what, Fran? Once you take those letters out of the dog basket and actu-ally read them, you’ll find they’re not nearly as bad as you think.”

“You really think so?” says Fran tremulously.

“Open each envelope,” I suggest, “and write down all the outstanding amounts. Then make a plan to pay them off, even if it’s only £5 a week. You can do it.”

There’s a long pause.

“Fran?” says Emma. “Are you still there?”

“Yes!” says Fran. “Yes, I’m still here—and I’m going to do it! You’ve convinced me. Thanks, Becky! I really appreciate your help!”

I beam back at the camera, my confidence restored.

“It’s a pleasure,” I say. “And you know, Fran, as soon as you turn that corner and wake up to the real world, your life will be transformed.”

I make a confident sweeping gesture with my arm, and as I do so, my gaze takes in the whole studio. And . . . oh my God, it’s him.

I’m not hallucinating.

It’s really him. Standing at the corner of the set, wearing a security badge and sipping something in a polystyrene cup as though he belongs here. Derek Smeath is standing here in theMorning Coffee studios, ten yards away from me.

Derek Smeath of Endwich Bank. It doesn’t make any sense. What’s he doing here?

Oh God, and now he’s staring straight at me.

My heart begins to pound, and I swallow hard, trying to keep control of myself.

“Rebecca?” Emma says puzzledly and I force myself to turn my attention back to the show. But all my confident words are withering on my lips. “So you really think, if she tries, Fran will be able to get her life in order?”

“I . . . that’s right,” I say, and force a smile. “It’s just a question of facing up to it.”

I’m trying desperately to stay cool and professional—but all the bits of my life I’d so carefully buried are starting to worm their way out again. Here they come, wriggling into my mind, one piece of dreadful reality after another.

“Well,” says Rory. “Let’s all hope Fran takes Rebecca’s very good advice.”

My bank account. Thous............

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