I’m feeling extra grouchy today. It’s unfortunate because ‘giving out’ to others is what I do. But then, being driven half-crazy by scratching whilst lying in wait on my futon can do that to a person. Especially during the middle of the night.
It seemed to be coming from the back of the skirting board. The intermittent scraping put my teeth on edge. So much so, I barely slept until the last hour. My heart rushed as the morning alarm jolted me awake; it was too late to do my daily exercises (a vigorous workout keeps me sane and enlivens me). I showered, gulped coffee, slammed the door and sprinted up the road, praying my new occupant isn’t a rat! Rats conjure up images of Plague doctors dressed in long coats, carrying sticks and wearing disproportionate beak masks beating a path through infested streets during the 16th and 17th centuries. I can cope with anything but a rat!
But having a mouse as a house guest is bad enough. For the sake of argument, let’s assume last night’s visitor was a mouse who managed to sneak in from the garden where everything is ice-coated, even the pond. Come to think of it, why isn’t the silly creature hibernating? But when I googled it in the night (always fatal), I discovered mice are more sensible than humans. Give them some credit. They can sneak in and out of the tiniest hole, even making it in through a house’s foundations. You can’t blame them.
Somehow, the idea of its presence defeated me. I hate being defeated. Perhaps it scampered in when I was tying the leaves of Lyndsey’s palm to protect it from the frost. It was her last gift to me and I can’t stand the thought of losing it.
I first heard it two nights ago, when dropping off. I closed my ears to the scrabbling. But when it started again last night, I was on high alert and switched on my lamp, prepared for battle. I planned to use my dressing gown as a net, but there was nothing to be seen other than wooden floorboards and shadows. I waited some time, but other than the ticking of the clock, there was only silence. I was just about to doze off when it started again. I was now highly agitated. How could a creature, no bigger than my hand, be causing such aggravation? I suddenly remembered the gerbil I had as a kid. A friendly little thing called Pinky, I loved watching it exercise on its wheel. But as I’m rapidly discovering, a wild mouse is another matter altogether, particularly when one is alone in the house. It’s like a predator. My heart beat steadily. At any moment, the mouse might scurry across the floor and land on me! Considering I sleep on a futon (in retrospect, not one of Lyndsey’s finest ideas, but I knew she’d always wanted one), it can’t be discounted! Urgh! How I wish she were here with me now. We could deal with this blasted pest together. At the very least, she’d have seen the funny side of it. I miss her humour.
But then, everything is exaggerated at this time of year! Christmas which was once a happy occasion, now secretly dreaded. You see, Lyndsey, my partner and best friend, died two years ago - just before Christmas in fact, and tomorrow is the anniversary of her death. I keep hoping it will get easier and sometimes it does. I thought I was doing alright until I overheard someone say, “It’s about time she met someone new,” but I’m not ready.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.
Yesterday I got a message from Natalia. “My mother has arrived in England. Can she come and help in the shop tomorrow at 9.00? Her name is Ivanna.”
Natalia, I should explain, is one of my helpers at the shop. She arrived from the Ukraine under a scheme to help those fleeing from the war and has been living in England at Graham’s house. Graham is another volunteer who helps. He sorts, prices books, attends to the banking, and acts as general handyman and magician all rolled into one. Our shop is the busiest charity shop in town and I’m its manager. Graham and his wife have given Natalia a room in their house while she improves her English and looks for full-time work. She found a part-time position at an art studio, but it was temporary. At the charity shop, she helps steam clothes, tag labels and puts out the finished products for sale. She’s friendly and efficient and I like to think I’ve done my bit to make her feel welcome. I can only imagine what it must have been like to to leave her former life behind. Her brother and father are fighting in the war, but I don’t like to ask her about it. Some things are too painful. My father was also a soldier, but that’s another story.
The first time Natalia came to the shop, I wondered how we’d communicate, but I needn’t have worried. Aided by her translation app, we soon made it work. Her English is certainly improving. Recently, she mentioned the possibility of her mother joining her shortly.
By all accounts, Natalia’s mother knows very little English. It would be easier if mother and daughter were together the first time Ivanna comes to the shop so Natalia can explain what needs doing. I need to catch up on a growing number of tasks and checklists on the back office computer. There’s always extra work to do and I’d planned to spend a couple of hours getting onto it. Even one hour would have been good.
When I got Natalia’s message about wanting her mother to help at the shop, I quickly rebooted.
“Can she come in at ten? 9.00 is too early,” I messaged back.
“Sure,” she replied.
That was yesterday evening.
Today, my eyes are sore and my head is filled with all things MOUSE. In my mind, the house is infested with them. A veritable tribe have built a nest somewhere and it just keeps growing. Maybe I should ring up the council? They ought to take pest control seriously, but I’ll probably have to spend hours waiting for a reply, only to be fobbed off from one department to another. The other alternative is to go online. Me and computers?? Enough said..
It’s easier to deal with the problem directly. Be strong Yvonne, I tell myself. Live up to your surname. What about mousetraps, then ? Sounds ok in theory, but I’m not keen on the idea of inflicting unnecessary pain. I don’t hate it/them enough for that. YET!! Poison, then? Not a particularly pleasant way to go either, from what I’ve heard. The only thing left is “humane traps.” The protagonist (me) tempts the antagonist (the mouse) into a small chamber with morsels of delightful food. At which point the door jams shut. Let’s hope it’s not a claustrophobic mouse because it could have a heart attack while waiting for me to return home to be released in a field where it will probably freeze to death.The mind boggles. Maybe the lethal mousetraps are the best method, after all.
My mood turns thunderous when I catch sight of bags and boxes stacked up against the shop door. Why would anyone do that? Isn’t it bad enough leaving it against the window? As I get closer, it appears to be piles of rubbish and filthy bedding. Usually there’s a respite before Christmas as people are preoccupied with shopping and have less time to donate. It’s a welcome chance to catch up on neglected tasks. Apart from the fact that the path outside the shop is a treacherous slide, leaving stuff outside the shop is actually fly tipping. In other words, illegal. The perpetrators clearly haven’t read the sign on the window.
It states in bold letters: Do not leave donations, except in shop hours, as they are liable to be ransacked.
Standing by a bench, I see a woman waiting outside the shop. I hope it’s not a customer wanting a refund. Another annoyance. They must be keen to be hanging round a quarter of an hour before the shop opens. Normally, I arrive at the shop at least an hour before opening so I can set up and prepare for the onslaught. I like to be prepared.
The woman turns to me.“Excuse….. I Natalia’s mother.”
What! Already? You’re not supposed to be here till ten! I want to say, but don’t.
My head is aching and I’m desperate for coffee. “Ok. Come in.” I try not to sound cross as I fiddle with keys and she follows me in.
Close up I see she’s very much like her daughter, only about twenty years older.
“I’ve just got to bring these bags in. Can you help?”
It takes a while but after a few gesticulations and grimaces she helps bring them in.
“They shouldn’t do this. It’s not fair,” I mutter to myself. “Bloody arseholes.”
“Sorry. I speak only little English.” She gives me a concerned look.
It’s just as well she can’t understand me because I make various rude suggestions about where such people can stick their unwanted goods. If first impressions are anything to go by, most of it should have been disposed of at the town’s tip!
Inside the shop, I gesture a seat.“You wait here…..”
She sits down.
“Your name?” she asks holding out her hand.
“Hello. I Ivanna.”
“Hello Ivanna. Nice to meet you. Now. Wait here.”I hold up my hand like some police officer stopping traffic. “Won’t be long. I have to set up.” She waits while I turn heaters on to warm the place. I then get the money from the safe and set up my float. Although people increasingly use cards now, many prefer cash.
I feel I’m being heartless here. Making her wait.
Over time, I’ve perfected a way of settling new volunteers in on their first day. It’s called a “taster session” where both manager and volunteer see how they get on. At least, in theory. In reality , there’s nothing worse than when someone totally unsuitable shows. Since Covid, more and more people are battling with depression and mental health. I do my best to help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. I’m not a trained professional or social worker and it’s difficult to strike the right balance. Between helping people and running a shop. There’s no secret to a successful shop. The more quality items are sorted and processed to be sold, the more money the charity makes.
By now, Jane, the assistant manager has arrived. She can see I’m struggling.
“I’ll go in the shop, if you want. Then you’ll be able to spend time with the new lady. Shout if you need me.”
After showing Ivanna where to hang her coat, she follows me to the kitchen area where staff lockers are kept. Some of the keys are missing and have not been replaced (in spite of having kept a spare set in the safe). With the amount of people coming in and out, keys often get lost. Note to self. I must get some new keys cut ASAP.
Ivanna seems baffled when I explain about pinning the locker key to her jacket so as not to lose it. I feel like an actor in a pantomime mining where to hang her coat, and the need to ‘sign in’ in case of a fire.
Normally I would explain about the fire doors, safety, and the nearest exit routes, but I’m feeling shattered. When all else fails, steaming is a job that needs doing. Ivanna looks more than capable.
“I’ll show you how to use the steamer.” I point to an electrical gadget which looks a bit like a Henry hoover minus the friendly face. It’s a cylinder with a hose attached to it. At the end of the hose, a nozzle rests on a holder. Ivanna watches as I unscrew a lid and pour in water from a jug using a funnel. The water must be hot (I explain), otherwise it will take ages to reach the right temperature. After readjusting the lid, I press a green switch. The water heats up and a cloud of steam emerges from the nozzle. Ivanna watches me take a blouse from a rail and place it on the holder. The heat has made the pipe malleable and soon the creases iron out. She looks suitably impressed.
When it runs out of steam, the machine makes a loud noise to alert the user they must switch it off. You then refill, wait for it to heat up and start the process all over again.
Ivanna wants to ask a question.
“Have you got a translate app?”I ask.
She checks her mobile phone and tries to work the app. “Ooooh,” she says irritably. I wait while she perseveres. What with that and me speaking English as slowly as a snail (how peculiar words sound spoken like this), we get there in the end.
Ivanna a settles into a routine and diligently steams a rail of clothes. By now, other volunteers have trickled in to offer their services. I introduce them to Ivanna. They are a friendly bunch.
Suddenly Natalia appears bright-cheeked at the doorway. Unexpectedly, shes cycled through icy roads to check on her mother’s progress.
“Getting on well,” I say.
“Ah, I see you get her use steamer,” she grins.
“Yes, I’ve tried to show her where to put the clothes in the shop, but it’s difficult. I really need to go on the computer. Have you got time to quickly show her?”
Natalia takes off her coat. “Of course. I would have come in earlier but I did not want to miss my English lesson.”
“Well, if your mother works at English like you, I think she’ll be good.”
For a while, they converse in their own language. Ivanna is being thoroughly instructed by her daughter. While Ivanna sets about her task, Natalia smiles at me.
“I have question to ask. I’m looking at Christmas present for Graham. What you think I should get him?”
I smile. Graham a very kind man, with a cheeky sense of humour. He has a saucy side which we all take it with a large pinch of salt. This year he’s managed to get invited to at least eight Christmas meals, all of which he will greatly enjoy. I count myself lucky to have been invited to two. I’m less certain whether I will go.
“I thought maybe I get him game,” Natalia says.
“A good idea. What about monopoly?”
“How you say?”
I skip monopoly for the moment. What do you play in Ukraine?”
Her expression turns wistful. She once told me before she got out, her family lived by the sea. She said it was warm in the summer which surprised me, but then the Ukraine is a large country. “Well, the young people my age like playing video games in cafes.”
After searching the back room for a monopoly set, I find one for sale in the shop and hand it to her.
“Ah monopoly!” She understands now. “But Graham already has that. He loves it. It is very loud when he plays. It is a big family game with him. His daughters enjoy it too. They shout loudly.”
We suddenly come across a beer glass designed in the shape of a woman’s body. It’s fairly mild compared to some of the things I’ve encountered in the the shop. Sex toys are a definite no-no. Some of the customers might be offended and send an email of complaint to head office. It generally results in grovelling on my part.
Perhaps Graham would like this beer glass?” I suggest mischievously.
“But I think his wife would not.” We laugh. “I already have chocolates for Graham’s wife.” Natalia finally settles on a game of chess for Graham. “I don’t think he has a chess set. I think maybe I teach him. He likes to learn. Something I can give for him being kind and letting me live with his family. And for helping me with forms for my mother to come too.”
“Yes, he is good.” I cannot imagine how hard it must be for them. Their courage and strength shine through.
A day or two later, I sift through the Christmas cards we keep on a shelf in a box for the staff. When I get home I open mine. Graham’s one says. You’re very welcome to join us for Christmas. Natalia and Ivanna both hope you can make it. xxx
No pressure then. But then, why wouldn’t I want to join them? Last year, I did Christmas alone - in spite of several kind invites. As I make my way home, I think of Ivanna. Her step when she left the shop was lighter than when she came in. All in all, a job well done. As for the mouse business? Tonight I’ll sleep in the spare room. Let’s hope it’s mouse-proof. In the New year, I’ll treat myself to the cat Lyndsey always wanted. As for joining Graham’s family and my two Ukrainian friends, why not?
We can always play a game of monopoly.