“Whoo! Look at this, Eileen – I’m Marilyn Monroe!”
Eileen peered over the top of her glasses and put down the receipt she had been puzzling over. Janice, her eccentric boss at the Rewild Life Charity shop was holding the straps of a dazzling white ball gown up to her shoulders, doing twirls in the back room that barely had space for the staff lockers, let alone such activity.
It was January 8th and they’d been inundated, as usual for the time of year, with unwanted Christmas presents. Piles of DVDs still in their cellophane wrappers. Perfumes from women perplexed by why their husbands wanted them to smell like Parma Violets. Confusing board games families had decided they had had their mileage from already, lengthy instruction booklets not lending themselves well to post-roast slumps.
“Price it up at 20 quid?” suggested Eileen.
Janice checked the label and Eileen heard her gulp that followed inspection even over radio softly crooning on the shelf behind her. “Reckon we’d get £40 for this one.”
“Reckon we’d actually stand a chance of selling it this decade if we stuck to £20.”
Janice shrugged in grudging agreement. She hung the beautiful dress on the rail ready to be steamed and took her trusty scissors into slicing open the next bag of goodies, or not-so-goodies.
Eileen, satisfied she had solved the mystery of the receipt – someone had punched an extra ‘0’ on a sale – and which volunteer to quietly reprimand about it, moved on to the bric-a-brac shelf. She started checking the week numbers stamped on the labels to decide whether it was finally time to cast the eyesore of the souvenir novelty ashtrays in the recycling bin. Janice had been so sure they would sell. But then Janice struggled to see why every prospective customer who walked in to their little shop did not share her somewhat unique taste. Today this was represented by pink elephant earrings and a cartoonishly gaudy combination of a lemon yellow belt and green pumps.
The bell over the top of the door tinkled, its instigator chiming in with “Morning Janice, Morning Eileen.”
“Hi Grace,” Janice and Eileen chorused in return, Eileen uttering a small sigh of relief after. An extra pair of hands was direly needed to sort through donated stock and unwrap the new goods Head Office insisted on sending through, even though the staff barely had the space to hang their own coats up. Janice had once wondered aloud what market research it was that resulted in pre-packaged measuring spoons and shoehorns being sent their way when most customers wanted to try on clothes, root through boxes of old costume jewellery and pick a book to take to the beach.
Janice had also voiced her usual misgivings when considering the 20-year-old Grace’s application to volunteer. “Students…,” she’d begun. “…they go home in the holidays and they’re lumbered with too many essays, then realise they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.” But Eileen had just ignored her and had called Grace in to interview. The young woman had nodded enthusiastically, saying she could come in for four hours a week and so far had stuck to her word. Except for an extended field trip to an art gallery in Edinburgh; but then she’d come back laden with so much shortbread to divvy up amongst the staff that the managers, with bellies straining, told her she would have to do it more often.
“Lovely to see you, Grace,” said Janice. “Did you have good hols?”
“Yes thank you Janice,” replied Grace, tucking a lock of strawberry blond hair back under from where it was escaping her hat. “And you? How are the boys?”
Eileen let the pair catch up while she made a list of everything she wanted to get done that day. ‘Nothing’s impossible if you simply break it down to smaller tasks’ was her oft-quoted motto. Janice was forever threatening to print it on a tie-dyed t-shirt for her.
“Grace,” said Eileen, “would you be willing to nip over to Scribbles over the road and see if they can change up these tenners?” They were forever running low on £5 notes.
“The girl’s only just got here, give her a break!” protested Janice, theatrically rolling her eyes and puffing at her fringe, which was purple that week.
Grace laughed. “I’m here to work. Of course I will – I’ll do it now while I’ve still got my coat on.”
“Grand. Cuppa tea’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” assured Eileen, handing over a sheath of tenners to their new charge. “Don’t worry if they can’t change up all of them. Just whatever they can spare.”
Grace returned triumphant, and the three fell back into their usual rhythm: Janice sorting donations, Eileen on banking, Grace on till when it was busy, neatening displays when it wasn’t.
The bell went again and Grace looked up from the vase she had decided to fill with plastic flowers to greet a tall, rather pasty-faced gentleman who looked to be in his thirties. He raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement of her chirpy greeting, then decided to add a nod in lieu of words. Grace thought perhaps he was shy like many of their customers, lovers of nature and peace, seemed to be. The man made a beeline for the books. And continued the metaphor when he started humming along to a pop song on the radio (which Grace had subtly changed the station of when she deemed it safe to do so). Perhaps he wasn’t so shy.
Grace started running a cloth over some of the china ornaments, wondering for about the eighteenth time whether she should adopt the porcelain cat with the whiskers covered in splashes of cream. A sculptor herself, she was forever marvelling at how the tiny white drops had been formed. She had the skill for bold designs, but lacked the patience required for smaller embellishments. She was still waiting to find out if patience was a subject taught on her course.
A clicking noise took her out of her reverie and she looked up just in time to catch the mysterious man quickly putting something in his jacket pocket and striding out of the shop. Curious, Grace went over to see what had made him run off – surely he hadn’t stolen something? Who would be so heartless as to steal from a charity?
The only thing she noticed was the spine of a science fiction book standing out a little further from its line of brothers, which she had fastidiously straightened earlier. She loved the painter Piet Mondrian and hence loved a clean line. Grace looked at the cover of the book – strange ships floating in unnaturally coloured skies. Curiosity told her to open the book and to her horror she found someone had scribbled a mysterious illegible message in it. Whenever she opened a textbook from the university library if she found underlinings or highlighting added by a previous borrower she was driven to distraction and would have to return the book.
“It can’t be sold in this condition,” she thought, and so left it on the checkout desk with a sticky note on for her bosses explaining why it had been pulled out.
Nothing further untoward happened that day. When Eileen cashed up at the end of the day – it had been another slow one and she was dreading justifying the takings to Janice, whose responsibility it was to sign off on reports to Head Office – she caught sight of the pulp paperback Grace had left on the desk. She read the note, deciding to peep to assess the damage herself. Grace could overreact at times, which both Eileen and Janice agreed was due to her generation’s time spent in such sterile environments. “Afraid of getting her hands dirty,” Janice had said. She’d offered once for Grace to have a go at sorting. The girl had only lasted half an hour before saying the smelly socks and smudged picture frames were pushing it but finding someone had donated a used toothbrush sealed the deal for her, and back to tidying and dusting she went.
Eileen quickly identified the ‘scribble’ as the author’s signature, wondering what they were teaching in higher education if Grace hadn’t been able to see that. She laughed to herself while unlocking the cabinet they put the more valuable items on display in and finding a nook for the book in amongst the exquisitely beautiful rings and old cameras.
The funny-looking, slightly dog-eared book sold three days later, to a buyer saying they should have been asking for more. He’d slipped an extra fiver into the box on the till.
A fortnight later, the now less mysterious man (now identified as award-winning author, John Glass) came back to the shop, entering with more of a stride than a shuffle this time. Grace, recognising him (she read a lot of crime books and was attuned to registering distinguishing features in case she was ever called to give a statement), assumed he was now feeling more confident in his surroundings, having scoped out the scene and left his mark. After a time spent flicking through an aeronautical tome, John cleared his throat and approached Grace at the desk, where she was pricing up bags of buttons.
“Hello,” she said, with a shy closed lipped smile. She had dazzlingly white teeth and usually afraid to let people know it, so what was happening to her? Had she become a little star-struck? Over this man she hadn’t know from Adam until a mere couple of weeks ago? “If it’s buttons you’ve come for, you’re in luck,” she announced, waving a little plastic bag of them.
Grace mentally kicked herself. Who says such things? If they had been chocolate buttons, it might have been a touch more understandable. She tested one by bending it. Definitely plastic.
Fortunately John smiled back at her instead of running for the hills.
“Bit old for her, isn’t he?” commented Janice, from where she was hiding out the back with Eileen. Both occupied, but keeping one eye on the proceedings. It wasn’t every day they had visits from esteemed writers.
“Oi, weren’t there fifteen years between you and your Paul?” queried Eileen, who was trying to untangle a bunch of necklaces and only succeeding in making it worse. Defeated, she put them in a basket and decided to sell them as a job lot.
“Fourteen, actually,” said Janice, her hand automatically drifting to the locket she wore. Eileen knew it contained a picture of Janice’s husband and an ultrasound scan photo of her son, Peter.
Eileen looked back at the counter, where some sort of information exchange was in process. Grace had brought out the notepad they used for when the till was playing up, and Mr Glass was brandishing his controversial pen again.
“Is he signing her a personal poem do you think?” asked Janice, in what she considered to be a whisper.
Eileen was fretting. What if somehow he hadn’t meant for the book to be sold? Was he registering a complaint? Well if so, Janice would have to step up and deal with it. The assistant manager may have a dutiful nature, but she drew the line at –
Grace had rushed over even before the shop’s bell had finished its goodbye serenade.
“You’ll never guess!” she squealed, flapping the bit of paper around like a bird that had alighted upon her hand and wouldn’t get the hint to leave.
“Dinner reservation/complaint”, said Janice and Eileen in unison, which threw Grace for a moment, who ceased her pirouetting.
“I got chatting to the man who signs his own books…”
Janice nodded impatiently, causing her laser blue frames to almost bounce off the tip of her nose.
“…and he was telling me all about his new book. It’s set in the head office of a nature reserve, he says…”
“That’s quite a change of scene for him, isn’t it?” Eileen interrupted.
“I expect something peculiarly wild happens in it, but I said ‘no spoilers’ please. Anyway – he’s offering to do a signing here. He said his agent could take care of the marketing and it would bring a load of new people into the shop.” The famed white teeth were flashing now.
“What about refreshments?” asked Eileen.
“You’re too practical for your own good at times,” remarked Janice. “Continue, Grace.”
“He said the agent would sort all of that as well. Oh, I could get my housemates involved too – Sara makes her own elderflower cordial and Angelique bakes a scrumptious carrot cake.”
Eileen was showing signs of warming to the idea; her forehead displaying fewer crinkles.
Janice was almost bouncing off the walls. “We could certainly use the custom. Let’s ring him up and say yes, shall we? C’mon Eileen.”
“Now don’t you start singing that song at me again, you know it makes me –”
“Agree to anything I say? Yes, that’s why I do it.”
Eileen scowled as she watched as her colleagues crumpled into heaps of laughter at her expense. “Fine, but you’ll be the one calling.” Eileen took the scrap of paper from Grace’s quivering hands and passed it to Janice, who pinned it to her noticeboard. Grace was called away by the door again and the three once again returned to their usual routine, only all lighter in heart in that moment.
The book signing event seemed to roll around in no time. It was to start at 6:30pm, giving the women time after closing to clear what space they could and to lay out rows of chairs (some of which were kindly on loan from Ari’s, the Greek café down the street). The publisher’s team were busy pouring out cups of wine and orange juice that completely covered a trestle table that was normally reserved for housing stationery in the back office. Janice had covered it beforehand with a large shawl that was woven with glinting gold thread.
“Looks fit for a king,” remarked Grace’s housemate Angelique, who was cutting a large cake into dainty slices. She had been hearing a lot about the author over the past few weeks. She had to hide a smile when her comment resulted in Grace going over to the table to flatten down a wrinkle.
Eileen was occupied in pinning donated curtains over the wall displays, to give the evening a clearer backdrop. The agent from the book company looked particularly relieved when the novels by other authors had been hidden from view. Janice had wanted to hang up a string of fairy lights shaped like flying saucers in the area from which John Glass would be doing his reading, until Eileen pointed out they had not been tested by a qualified electrician, as was business practice. Janice clucked, but complied. The agent sounded relieved by this also, saying it wasn’t in keeping with the new image they were trying to project for the author. The agent spotted a spinning display of nature-related birthday cards and wheeled it towards where John’s chair awaited him.
“Who does she think she is, coming in here and rearranging the furniture,” hissed Janice.
“Hush, will you,” said Eileen. “We might end up selling some cards tonight.”
“I thought you’d already cashed up for the night?”
But Eileen was two steps ahead. She turned around and dove into a box, bringing out a donation tin patterned with bees and their hives. “I’m giving these out to the volunteers, with instructions to mingle after the Q&A.”
Janice squeezed Eileen’s arm. “You’re brilliant, you are.”
Eileen blushed under the extra make up she had treated herself to for the evening. She noticed Grace’s eyelashes also appeared to have doubled in size, plus she was wearing an elegant blue dress spotted with tiny white butterflies she hadn’t seen on her before, which fitted her lean form like a glove.
By 6:45, all the seats were occupied, a few other interested parties even standing at the back.
“If only we could always be this busy,” murmured Eileen.
“Be careful what you wish for,” warned Janice. “We wouldn’t even be able to get to the stock to replenish it.”
“Shush, it’s starting!”
Sure enough, John’s agent had become the welcoming intro. Everybody listened enraptured after the introduction while John read extracts from his new book, aware they were the first members of the public to be hearing the words. John began quietly and some struggled to hear. He was clearly more accustomed to writing instead of talking, but the applause he received bolstered both his confidence and the volume of his speech.
When the evening drew to a close, Eileen and Janice collected the tins from the volunteers, joyful at finding them all a lot heavier than when they had initially been distributed.
Many customers, clutching freshly signed first editions, remarked that they would be returning soon to see the mysteries that lay behind all the curtains. Soon, all who were left were the managers, the agent, the star volunteer, and the author. All were tired, but happy.
John was signing the last book of the batch to Grace, after waving her money away.
“Perhaps he’ll include dinner details this time,” Eileen said hopefully.
“No. He’s probably writing a complaint.”
Eileen looked at Janice.
Janice look at Eileen.
Then exploded into cackles, causing the agent to almost upset her orange juice.
“Only kidding,” said Janice. “Oh, you should see your face. Priceless.” Then she nodded toward Grace and John. “I bet their story has only just begun.”