I know it’s a very uncharitable thing to say when I work in a charity shop, but there are certain customers …. well, it’s perhaps as well they can’t read minds and don’t metamorphose into flies in the wall! Mr Rathbone – Horace, as he all but implored us to call him – wasn’t quite one of them. Not really. He didn’t make a mess of our newly-folded piles of bedspreads and pillow-cases and tablecloths without buying them, and didn’t come out with sentences beginning “I’m not racist but,” and never tried to persuade us to charge less for an item on the basis that we’d been given it for nothing. By the way, we had a flexible policy on that. If something had been dust-gathering for months, we were open to negotiation.
Horace always left things neat and tidy, always put some coins in the collection tin for the Hospice even if he didn’t buy anything, and never tried to get us to knock a price down.
But Horace was a collector. He collected vinyl records of obscure rock bands, and novelty salt and pepper pots, and (although he was a life-long non-smoker) interesting cigarette lighters. The day we had one shaped like a gondola, he actually clapped his hands in glee. You don’t see people do that very often. The other assistant, Cara, and I sometimes remarked that for someone who seemed so neat and particular, his home must be very cluttered. Something about the leather patches on the elbows of his rather threadbare jackets reminded me of one of my old geography teachers. But we tactfully avoided directing him to our rail of gents’ jackets. He wasn’t poverty-stricken. He could afford a new jacket.
The absolute and utter objects of his desire, though, were super-hero comics. We got a surprising amount of those, though they tended to come in fits and starts. Generally a quiet, self-effacing little man (he was of average height, as he was of average most things, but one of those unfortunates who is, somehow, always referred to as a “little man”) if the lighter shaped like a gondola had set him clapping, a comic he hadn’t had, or, even better, one he had lost and replaced, sent him into fits of ecstasy.
He was the kind of person you genuinely couldn’t dislike, but I couldn’t always hide what Cara called my “sniffiness” about his superhero comics. Not in front of him, of course. Hurting his feelings would have been like forgetting to feed the puppy in the animal sanctuary who always gets left behind. “Okay, fair enough,” I said, “Maybe it’s a boy thing, even though we’re not supposed to stereotype. But is it really a man thing?”
“Your trouble, Alicia,” she said, giving me an old-fashioned look (she was only a couple of years older than I was, but very good at old-fashioned looks), “Is that you’re a bit of a snob. No offence.”
“None taken,” I replied. Mind you, perhaps she was right. I was, after all, fine with Siegfried in the Ring Cycle and still treasured the book of Greek myths I’d been given as a school prize more years ago than I cared to mention. “I wonder if he really believes in superheroes. Honestly, I swear sometimes he waits for the bloke with the beard on Christmas Eve!”
Still, human nature being as contrary as it is, I was irritated when we had a donation of a massive bundle of superhero comics, tied up with string, and it looked as if Horace wasn’t going to come in. He did, though, at the eleventh hour (well, at five minutes before closing time). Though he had never been in any way inconsiderate, neither of us wanted him to start sorting through them just before closing time.
“Tell you what, Horace,” I said, “You can have the lot for £5.”
“Oh – that’s very generous! I will, and leave you good ladies in peace.”
He gave us a fiver that was slightly the worse for wear (who said those plastic ones are virtually indestructible?) and put a handful of coins in the collection book, before departing, bearing his spoils like a dog-eared Technicolor Holy Grail.
“Bless him,” Cara said, fondly. “He really is just like a little boy, at times!” I nodded, though thinking that there was something vaguely pitiful about a man in his 50s (okay so I wasn’t far off myself!), going slightly bald who worked in an insurance office finding such perfect happiness in a bundle of comics. We hurriedly closed up before anyone else could come in. Oh, we loved our work (well, most of the time!) and knew it was in a good cause, not to mention thinking of the staff at the actual hospice putting us to shame, but we were also quite glad to put the shutters down at the end of the day!
Later on that evening I did start to feel a bit guilty about being so condescending about Horace. Yes, I was a snob. Still, a couple of glasses of red and a nice gory crime novel are usually quite effective in sidelining such awkward emotions.
Even Cara, who was far more sunny-natured than I am was in something of a bad mood the next day as we’d had a “doorstep drop”, as we called them. Why do people develop selective illiteracy when it comes to signs asking them not to leave donations outside the shop? And though there were exceptions, meaning we had to sort through the offending boxes (which, somehow, by some odd process, always seemed to be wet, even if it hadn’t been raining) their contents were all too frequently more suited to the tip than to the charity shop. That day’s “haul” included a manual for a car that hadn’t been in production since 1995 and a headless doll. No matter how often you see them, there’s something unnerving about headless dolls.
Anyway, we decided that some of the clothes might be suitable to tear up for cleaning rags, and that there was a “permanent calendar shaped like a globe, which might have appealed to someone if half the dates and numbers weren’t missing. Still, it was an attractive enough object, and we decided to give it a temporary respite in the 50p box.
We were quite surprised to see Horace. He’d told us only the previous day that he was working that morning (he worked for an insurance broker) and they were short-staffed. “So it’s a good job I came in at the last minute today,” he’d said.
“Sorry, Horace, but no more comics,” Cara said.
“Nor any new salt and pepper pots or lighters,” I added, determinedly trying to be a NICE PERSON and suppress my meaner thoughts.
Horace was the kind of man who would have regarded interrupting as a mortal sin, but he spoke the minute I ended my own remark.
“No, it’s nothing like that though thank you for looking out for me. But those comics you sold me yesterday – most of them were pretty bog-standard, though there were a few interesting ones, but one of them – well, it’s a find. To put it mildly. It’s one called Pelican Man produced by Miracle Comics in the 1960s about – well, about a man who transformed into a pelican. It didn’t catch on,”
“I can see why,” I said, wryly.
“Oh, it was ahead of its time – he was a bit of an eco-warrior. But maybe the world wasn’t ready and some of the illustrations are, well, weird.” He extricated a comic from a carrier bag, holding it with an air of reverence. He wasn’t actually wearing gloves, but somehow it looked as if he were.
To my untutored eye it was an uninspired specimen; the colours muted and the hero, well – weird. “The thing is,” Horace went on. “There have only ever been five of them come up at auction. The last one was at a specialist auction they had at Christies a couple of years back – and the market for comics was lower than it is now – and – well, check it out online!”
To this day I don’t know if he had developed an unexpected sense of the dramatic, or if he was so self-effacing he thought we would want a confirmation from the Great God Google rather than trusting him. Still half-thinking I was humouring him, I did as he suggested, thinking that perhaps it was worth a tenner or maybe £100.
I had angled the screen of our little in-house laptop so we could all see it – and could see that at that particular auction a copy of Pelican Man that was in worse condition than Horace’s (which was dog-eared, but had all its pages, and no stains) had sold for £25,000.
“I need a drink,” muttered Cara, who only the previous day had been making gently tactful remarks about me being rather too fond of discounter store Merlot.
Horace cleared his throat and said, “Well, I have a good job and Mother left me a nice little nest egg. And – something so valuable, well, I wouldn’t feel easy about handling it. What I want is for you to put it to auction and for all the proceeds to go to the hospice. I – I must get back to the office now. Maureen was very good about holding the fort, but it’s not fair on you. I bid you good day.”
Well, we didn’t actually have a drink drink, but both of us needed a restorative coffee. For a while Cara didn’t say anything at all. I was the first one to speak. “I – I’m not a person who likes to admit to being wrong,” I said. “But this time I’m happy to make an exception. Super-heroes most definitely do exist! And we’ve had the privilege to meet one of them!”
Just to tie up a few loose ends; the comic ended up selling for £50,000! We – by which I mean anyone concerned with the St Barbara Hospice – were lucky, as there were two rival bidders. It was used to open a new play facility for the children at the hospice. The director, Dr Major, who was one of the few “in” on what was going on and who the benefactor was, wanted to call it the Horace Rathbone Room. But Horace was aghast at the idea. We knew he was a very private person, and though we thought his massive generosity should have been acknowledged, we respected his wishes. Luckily for him, the buyer was just as keen on preserving his privacy. Horace did, however, agree to it being called the Pelican Man Room. There were issues of copyright, but they were wonderful at Miracle Comics and said they were more than happy for us to use both the name and the image. A local artist, Cherie Sanderson, painted wonderful murals, keeping entirely to the spirit of the original comic. We had worried about it scaring the children a bit, but they absolutely loved it, and quite a few of them said that they were sure that Pelican Man swooped into the room, and ate up their troubles, their worries about themselves and their loved ones, in his big powerful, benign beak. Of course, nobody contradicted them.
I knew several of the nurses there, and a while back, one of them, Susanna, mentioned almost in passing that, in the woodlands surrounding the Hospice, she had knelt down to pick up a couple of particularly impressive conkers, and lying in the leaf-carpet, self-effacing and half-hidden by the colours of autumn as they turned brittle, was a little leather patch.