I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable in posh places, regardless of how much I might earn or own in the future. Whether I’m in a five-star hotel, an airport lounge or behind a velvet rope, I experience the same uneasy feeling of being in an expensive shop with silent, snooty assistants watching my every move.
They know I don’t belong here, and they know I know I don’t belong here. I’m afraid to touch anything or try anything on. Nothing has a price tag because wealthy people don’t need to know prices. Only paupers have to concern themselves with ignoble matters like having to know how much something costs. The shop workers are looking at you but saying nothing. Is it because they think you’re going to steal, or are they just working out from your creased sneakers that you’re unlikely to give them a big enough sale worth the effort of smiling at you?
Christ, here they come.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m just looking, thanks.”
Then the awkward scurry out without actually looking.
On rare occasions, I have paid the same money as everyone else to be in these places, but despite this fact it feels like I will be asked to leave. “Quietly, if you could, please, madam, without making a scene.”
There is an ongoing background fear that a fictional Oliver Twist-esque character in a top hat will appear with a hook to pull me back onto the street with the other urchins (I don’t know which is worse about that fate – having to pick pockets to survive or having to sing musical theatre numbers). Or that a bossy boarding house matron will materialise, blocking my path because “we don’t serve your kind ‘round ‘ere”.
Of course, neither eventuality has happened, because posh – or worse, the posh-adjacent people – favour passive aggression as their favourite tool of disapproval. There will be no confrontation. Just a look. The kind that comes out of the side of their eye, goes up from your shoes (not leather, clearly Zara sale jobs knocking off another designer), up your body (is your bag real or fake? What brand is your watch?) to the top of your head (earrings are clearly cubic zirconia and the gold colour is tarnishing off). It all happens in silence but it feels violent.
If, like me, you grew up in a working class community, you know the “look” well and there are two ways it can go. You either fear it and try to pass by carefully choosing what you wear, what you order and how you speak to fit into certain places. Or, you decide you don’t give a crap and happily go about your business. Sometimes, as a little treat, you can really lean into annoying the doses around you trying to make you feel out of place. Once, a dinner companion corrected how I held my knife while in a restaurant that had cloth napkins and the absence of a Coca-Cola branded drinks fridge. “God, you’re so uncouth,” he said. “Go piss up a rope,” came my cheerful and appropriate response.
The uneasiness I feel in these spaces won’t ever fade, however, and I know I’m not alone. For various reasons, including the fact I’ve had to fly around the world six times in the past two years for urgent and often depressing reasons, I have had access to the same fancy airport lounges as the passengers up the pointy end of the plane in first or business class. I can always tell the passengers like me who are first-timers or there on a temporary pass.
We’re the ones whispering to each other, checking to see if the cocktails with top shelf liquor are still complimentary. We’re the ones folded up in a chair in the corner with our headphones on if we have to make a quick call, while men in suits yell into their phones which they don’t bother to hold to their ear as God intended. Why do that when you can hold it flat in you palm and raise it up to your mouth, involving a room of complete strangers into your 10-minute monologue about how you “smashed sales targets”? Some people are just thoughtful, I guess.
The lounge usually has an a-la-carte restaurant and a buffet. But because I hate the idea of anyone waiting on me, I’ll choose the second option and happily fill my own plate. If I do have to ask for anything, it will be accompanied by about 50 or so whispered phrases of “I’m sorry” and “is that okay?”
Despite the wine and cocktails freely flowing alongside the mini cakes, I feel obligated not to take as much as I like. The pretend man with the top hat in my head is watching and judging. I mustn’t make a show of myself and every other working class person by using the service I am entitled to, lest I look greedy. “Typical pleb, coming in here drinking the bar dry, shoving cake in her handbag,” they – the people in the room who I don’t know and will never see again – might say.
The last time I was there, I watched a woman with enough diamonds to self-fund a conflict tip an entire bowl of Freddo Frogs into her matching designer hand luggage. No shame, no fear. So, next time, I have vowed that I will take up space, I will not let class anxieties hold me back, I will seize the day. I will tip the sweet bowl into my bag.