Most people agreed that the Hospice Shop got it just right. It wasn’t one of those charity shops that made the average jumble sale look like Harrods, but it hadn’t been colour-coordinated to within an inch of its life with prices to match. Betty Chambers, the manager, was one of those Good Eggs that every town needs to function properly, though there were occasionally unkind whispers that if she saw a committee, she’d apply to join it on principle before she even knew what it was for or against. But one thing – well, two, really – you had to give Betty. She wasn’t a Nosey Parker (not that she minded knowing things,) and she wasn’t a gossip. She also didn’t miss much.

     Chloe Mason knew that Betty had her eye on her, and knew she had a saying that “Us voluntary workers must stick together!” Chloe couldn’t claim being a voluntary worker as much as Betty could. She was paid, and not badly paid, either, for working at the local gift shop, but she did fund raise for the local branch of the British Legion, and was on the Carnival Committee – as, needless to say, Betty was too.

     She sensed, though, it was genuine concern and not nascent nosiness that made Betty say, “You seem a bit down, Chloe. Feel free to tell me to mind my own business!” One day, Chloe thought, someone is going to say that and someone actually will tell them to mind their own business. But the truth was she did want to talk to someone about the sad news she’d received that morning. “Geoffrey has passed away,” she said, “Geoffrey Abbott.”

     “Oh, that is a shame!” Betty exclaimed, sincerely. Geoffrey was one of the veterans that Chloe knew well through her work for the Legion, but everyone in town knew of him and had the utmost respect and affection for him. He was remarkably sprightly well into his nineties, and though he had seemed more frail lately, everyone still hoped and expected he would make it to both his hundredth birthday and the 80th anniversary commemorations of Dunkirk. Both were only a few months away, and Geoffrey had been on the beaches and in one of the little ships, and though he was not an overly emotional man on the surface, there were always tears in his eyes and a tremble on his voice when he repeated, We Will Remember Them. But nobody was more dedicated to reconciliation and looking to the future, and Chloe had once heard him say, “War, sometimes, not nearly as often as folk think, is a necessary thing. But that never stops it being a bloody awful one.” And Geoffrey rarely even used mild swear words, especially in front of a lady.

     “He was taken into hospital with pneumonia at the weekend,” Chloe went on, “But we all thought he’d come through. He’s had illnesses before and I think they had the obituaries ready at the Gazette but he bounced back.”

     “So sad,” Betty said, putting an arm on Chloe’s shoulder. “I know you were very fond of him. And you certainly wouldn’t think me for coming out with remarks about having a good innings.”

     “He might not mind,” Chloe mused, “He loved his cricket. When his grandson got him Sky TV for his 90th birthday so he could watch the test matches, he went through the motions about playing the grumpy old man about it not being right it wasn’t free to air, but it wasn’t convincing, and I know it gave him a lot of pleasure. He was never a bore about it, but he knew more statistics than some of the folk on the TV and radio.”

     “That’s good,” Betty said, passing Chloe a mug of coffee. They didn’t serve refreshments in the hospice shop as a matter of course, but she believed in making exceptions. “And I’m afraid this might sound a bit insensitive – well, more than a bit! – too, but I’m old enough myself, and my Mum was a nurse, to remember when pneumonia used to be called the Old Man’s Friend.”

     “I have heard the phrase, and I daresay there’s a lot of truth in it, but I still can’t help wishing …..”

     “I know love. I know!”

     “But I’m the last person to accuse anyone of being insensitive. I was about to say I’d come in here for a bit of retail therapy, and that sounds so crass.”

     “I’d say that sounds so human! You have a good browse. Up to you, of course, but we only got that coat –“ she pointed across the shop, “In yesterday. It looks as if it’s barely been worn, and that forest green would set off your hair beautifully.”

     It was a lovely coat, there was no denying it. It was simply cut, double breasted with shiny metallic buttons, and the kind of coat that folk said you could “get a lot of wear out of” – depending on what you wore with it, it would be wearable on all but the coldest winter or the warmest summer day, and be dressed up or down. Chloe hadn’t been meaning to buy a coat – her mind had been more, as it so often was, on books, but especially when she saw it was her size, too, a 14, she was finding it harder to resist. 

     “I don’t know who brought it in” Betty said, as if that were a personal affront. “Gina was minding the shop when it was, and she’s a dear girl, but observation isn’t her strong suit.”

     Chloe slipped off the coat she was wearing, and Betty helped her into the green coat with the silver buttons. She didn’t need any help, of course, but Betty was the kind of woman who did help you on with a coat. It fell to just above her knees, a length she liked, and she was pleased to note that the pockets were real and not fake. She’d never seen the point of fake pockets. She plunged her hands down into the silky lining – and realised there was something in the right hand pocket. She pulled it out, and put it on the counter. Both women knew what it was, at once. A simple Remembrance Day poppy.   “I checked the pockets,” Betty said, “I always do.”

     “I know you did,” Chloe said, quietly. “I’ll take the coat, Betty.”

     She kept it on, and put her other coat into her bag, and Betty carefully snipped the price tag off.

     And although it was months before Remembrance Day, Chloe pinned the poppy to the forest green coat. She was wearing it for Geoffrey. After all, he had left it there for her!  She was privileged to be his friend.

December 06, 2019 08:23

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