I was at the supermarket when it happened. One minute I was standing there planning how to get my cherry tomatoes to ripen and the next I was exposing my intimate life for the world to see.
Before you jump to any hasty conclusions, the incident involved neither wardrobe malfunction nor bodily fluid, but it was nearly as bad. In a split second, my daydreams about my vegetable garden turned into a horrible nightmare of stranger stares and smirks behind raised hands.
You see, for women a handbag is sacrosanct. Its innards are a window into the female soul; its various pockets are sometimes the only way to maintain a sense of calm in a dichotomy of chaos and confusion.
It's a bit like a MySky menu or a prostate for men. Exposing it to all and sundry not only strips back its intricate layers of personal privacy and mystique, but its very existence mirrors the type of person you are and how you manage yourself.
Dropping it on the ground in front of 85 bored people waiting in queues at the supermarket is akin to stripping naked, standing on a counter before a bemused pimply- faced teenage checkout operator and performing the can-can as you belt out a rendition of New York, New York.
I hope you get the picture as to how terribly I was affected by this incident. Of course, it's always when you've forgotten to do up all the zips that your handbag suddenly leaps from your shoulder, does a 360-degree twirl in the air and drops to the linoleum, its contents scattering at least 30 metres in each direction.
In fact, stuff in handbags seems to defy normal gravitational theory. It spits out like an invisible Valerie Adams, determined to fling everything as far as possible.
So there I was, surrounded by all the flotsam of my life in the presence of several dozen strangers all craning for a look. The air was silent, thick with the scent of embarrassment and humiliation. I stared at them and they stared at me.
Then a lone voice pierced the room. A tiny girl, about 4, had picked up a pair of undies that belonged to now 15-year-old daughter, once known as Little Weenie, when she was the same age, and turned to look at her mother. "I've got some like these, eh, Mummy? They've got 'Monday' written on them."
The crowd stared. I went red.
"I keep them in there in case of emergency," I explained.
"Well, I did 11 years ago, when my daughter was four and couldn't hold her bladder for more than two minutes at a time."
The mothers all smiled; the dads guffawed. I felt as if I was thawing them out. A young man in front of me picked up the 127 or so credit, eftpos and loyalty cards I carry around with me at all times, shuffled them expertly, then handed them back.
"I don't know why you women have so many of these," he said mildly. "You could chuck away 90 per cent and not notice."
A portly gentleman in the next queue picked up the three lipsticks I keep for emergencies, such as bumping into Robbie Williams, Colin Firth or Brad Pitt - primrose pink, burnt orange and amber hue. From under the next counter, his wife retrieved two shorthand notebooks, 17 pens, a pack of paracetamol, a wedding ring valuation and 13 years of bank statements.
From behind, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A red-headed beauty, no older than 20, handed me an information flier for the Pat Benatar, Bachman & Turner, America concerts this weekend and next across the country.
"Are you going?" she asked.
I nodded and some wag in the background started humming Love is a Battlefield.
I wished Pat had been with me. While I couldn't imagine her dropping her handbag and its glimpse into the depths of her personality at a supermarket on a busy Monday night, I also couldn't imagine people leaving her in virtual no-man's-land with all her possessions scattered around her.
I don't know her, but I guess Pat would be way too cool for that.
One by one, the items were returned to me. There was my old passport that made me look like a Russian mail-order bride, the MR13B form for people acquiring a motor vehicle, the local pharmacy family health diary from 1998 and $2.38 in loose coins.
I got the power bill from February 20, 2006, a face powder in matte neutral, sunscreen seven years out of date and a card from some long-gone insurance agent.
There was an afro comb, two sets of felt-tip pens, an old and battered muesli bar with the wrapper open at one end, an empty packet of chewing gum and my son's apprenticeship agreement that I'd put there to look over some time in 2011.
One woman smiled indulgently at a picture of my children circa 2004, when they were really cute. Another frowned at the crumpled handkerchief she retrieved from beside a stack of toilet rolls.
A gaggle of giggling schoolgirls retrieved some women's feminine products from a nearby rack of M&Ms and an elderly man in an inappropriately thick winter coat handed me back the Dire Straits CD I carry around just in case I'm stuck in traffic in an unfamiliar car and need the dulcet tones of Mark Knopfler to keep my mood stable. I'm a road-rage driver- passenger, you see.
A man holding the largest lamb roast I've ever seen hoisted the meaty prize under one arm and picked up my receipts dating back to the late 1980s, nodding, impressed at me.
"My wife always loses her receipts. You are so organised."
I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd last cleaned out my bag during the summer holidays of 1986-87 and the receipt collection was merely a product of filthiness.
As I left the supermarket, cheeks still flaming, I heard the small girl's voice again, its staccato rising above the normal shop noise. "Mum," she asked, "what undies did that lady's daughter use on Mondays?"
In the back of my mind, Pat Benatar sang Hit me with your best shot. It's still playing in my head now, as I clean out my handbag.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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