3,246 words – approx. 11 minutes
He knows he shouldn’t have shouted. He shouldn’t have shouted, but it had been a long day. He’d started at 8:30 in the back room, with the pile of clothes on their hangers. Sometimes, if he was in early, it was his job to look through the rack for clothes that needed taking off, pushing them along the rail one by one, checking the little tags for today’s date. He’d slide the hangers up his arm then take them into the back, and say “Not many today,” or sometimes “Cor, there’s a lot of them!” so that everyone knew.
But today Alison had been in before him, so the pile was there already. He slid each item from its hanger, paying particular attention to the dresses, with their thin little straps that might snag. These were the clothes that no-one had bought in the two weeks they’d been on display. Their fabric might have been rubbed between fingers, they might have been held up against bodies, or even tried on in the little changing room with the red plastic curtain, but no-one had taken them to the counter to buy. Now they’d be moved on. Martin didn’t know where – maybe to another charity shop, or maybe they would be recycled. All he had to do was take them off the hangers and put them in the big black bag that gaped below the table. He should ask, really.
It was amazing, the clothes that people would bring to the charity shop. All those nice coats, trousers, and dresses. He didn’t understand how someone could not want them. But sometimes people would leave clothes that were in no fit state, as Alison called it. Clothes in no fit state might be torn, or jeans cut off at the knee to make shorts, or just dirty or paint-spattered. It made him angry. “We’re not a bloody tip,” Alison would say when she thought no-one was there, because she shouldn’t swear. But sometimes he heard her.
So Martin’s first job of the day was to take the clothes off the hangers, leave the hangers on the big table so they could be used again, and put the clothes in the bag. The bag could get quite heavy even though it was only clothes, and when you picked it up you had to be careful the plastic didn’t go thin and grey. Then it might break. Martin was always careful when he picked up the bag.
Sorting the clothes was a good way to start the day, because it meant being in the back room with the radio on, and Martin liked the feel of the different materials as he took each item off its hanger. It was nice to see the pile get smaller and smaller, and the pile of empty hangers get bigger and bigger until they started to slide and you had to make a second pile so they didn’t all fall off the table. When he had finished that he asked Alison what he should do next. She was in the back room too, ticking things off on a sheet of paper on a blue clipboard. She didn’t hear him the first time, so he asked her again, louder, and she told him to make sure all the books were in alphabetical order.
The bookshelves covered three walls in a little enclave in the shop: two walls for fiction and one for non-fiction. Martin could see straight away that they were all muddled, because the ones with the old spines and the author’s name in big gold letters were scattered around the fiction shelves, when they should have been all together. He felt his head start to chatter, but it wasn’t a sound exactly, more of a sensation. He blinked hard and rolled his shoulders forward, and started working so the chattering would go away.
People got the bookshelves in such a mess. Judy Blume was under ‘J’ rather than ‘B’, some of the books were sat on top of the rows, and there were lots of copies of some books that he had to take through to the back room to wait their turn. Gareth was there when Martin came through the little doorway. He must have been there to collect a delivery, maybe the clothes Martin had sorted earlier. He usually stayed to chat for a while though.
Martin liked Gareth. The first time Martin met him he’d asked “What do we call you?”, which made Martin laugh, because everyone called him the same thing. Then he’d asked whether Martin was volunteering or whether they were making him come there, which was confusing, but Alison had explained that some of the helpers went there to say sorry for doing bad things, and Martin had said no, he was there because he liked it. “I bet you’re a real ladies man, aren’t you?” Gareth had said, and smiled at Martin. Martin had smiled back, and from then on he looked forward to Gareth’s visits.
“Hi Martin,” he said with a grin. Martin said hi, then Gareth asked him if he had a girlfriend. He always asked that, and the answer was always the same, but Martin didn’t mind. He liked the idea that he might have a girlfriend. “But when I do,” he said, “I’ll really give her one!” At this he thrust out his hips and the top couple of books slid from the stack he was carrying and onto the floor. Gareth started laughing hard, his faced creased and red, and Martin joined in. They stopped when Alison gave Gareth a look and said “That’s enough now,” in a way that meant it was definitely time to stop.
Organising the books was boring, but Martin liked the responsibility. He hadn’t been allowed to do it unsupervised at first, even though they knew that he knew his alphabet. Alison or sometimes Sarah had stood behind him, making noises and telling him where the book should go before he’d had time to work it out, as if he was stupid. He wasn’t stupid. When Alison did it he didn’t mind so much because she was the manager, but Sarah had just been there longer. He liked Sarah but she wasn’t his manager, so she shouldn’t get to tell him what to do.
Sarah had been there when he went into the back room earlier, talking quickly and quietly with Alison and holding some sort of ornament. Martin only remembered it now he was back ordering the books, but she’d been there with her frizzy black hair that looked like a child’s drawing that they couldn’t be bothered to colour in. He turned back to the books. How did the customers make such a mess? If you took a book out you just had to put it back where it came from, then it was easier for everyone. But once a few people had carelessly chucked unwanted books back on the shelf, or stuffed them into too-small spaces so they bowed and twisted, more and more followed their example until it took half a morning to rearrange.
Martin’s back had started to ache from all the bending and carrying, and he was glad it was lunch. Sarah and Alison were huddled together again when he went to tell them, so he didn’t know if they knew where he had gone. Maybe Sarah was having one of her days, and would have to be given something quiet to do upstairs.
The café was next door but one to the shop. Martin ordered a tuna mayonnaise sandwich on brown bread and a coffee from the usual man behind the counter. The man never said much, never asked how his day was going. Some filling squeezed out when he cut the bread. The knife wasn’t sharp enough and it squashed the bread down before breaking the crust. He wondered whether the man would put the filling that had squeezed out back in, and was pleased when he did. Some people would skimp on the filling. Martin counted out the correct change to give the man, to help him. It was a little thankyou for putting the filling back in.
The coffee was slightly too hot, and Martin couldn’t hold it for long. He took quick sips from the polystyrene cup and ate his sandwich looking out at the road. There weren’t many people today. Maybe that was why the shop had been quiet. Maybe that was what Alison and Sarah had been talking about.
Martin was supposed to take an hour for lunch. If Sarah noticed he had only been gone for half an hour she would tell him off, and make him go back outside for the rest of the time even if it only meant he was wandering around with nothing to do and no money left because he’d spent it all on lunch. She was bossy like that. Alison wasn’t so strict, and as long as Sarah didn’t tell on him she would let him work as much as he liked. It was nice to be busy.
He came in quietly, so Sarah wouldn’t notice and tell him to come back when the hour was up. But when he went into the back room to look for Alison and ask what he should do next, Sarah was there. He lowered his head and turned away, but she called his name and now he had to turn back to her.
“Did you lose a tooth?” It took Martin a moment to realise she wasn’t telling him off for returning early. Sometimes Sarah said things like this, strange things, and he was supposed to get Alison if she did, except if he went now Sarah might remember that he was supposed to be on lunch and make him go back outside.
“No,” he said. Sarah stepped towards him.
“Let me look.” Martin opened his mouth as wide as he could, and Sarah looked inside until his jaw started to hurt. Then she pulled away, and seemed to be calmer.
“OK. Because on the news last night they said there would be flash photography but there wasn’t any flash photography and George Alagiah wasn’t wearing glasses and he usually does so I thought maybe it was a sign. I thought maybe it was some sort of Day of the Triffids thing.” There was no panic in her voice. She went back to sorting through the morning’s donations after that, so Martin went to look for Alison. He found her in the tiny office upstairs, and when he told her about Sarah she rubbed her face with her hand.
“Thanks Martin,” she said, then sighed and said something to herself that Martin couldn’t hear. “OK. Martin, I need you to take over sorting the donations from Sarah, can you do that?” Sorting the donations was not a job Martin was often allowed to do, and he rushed downstairs at this rare responsibility.
“I’m doing this now, Alison said,” he declared. Sarah looked for a moment as though she was going to protest, but then she saw Alison in the doorway and went to her instead. Martin put them both from his mind as he started working his way through the bags piled along the walls. Any of these bags could contain anything at all, and Martin pulled them open with the excitement of Christmas morning. He knew what his job was, and it was an important one: sort through the items in each bag and make three piles, one for keeping, one for throwing away, and one for don’t knows. Alison always told him that he should put as many as he needed to in the ‘don’t know’ pile, that he shouldn’t worry if there was a lot in the pile when he was finished. But Martin was determined to keep the ‘don’t know’ pile as small as possible, because otherwise Alison would have to go through the whole thing again, and he might as well have not done it at all.
The first two bags were easy, and the ‘keep’ and ‘throw away’ piles were pleasingly large. In the ‘throw away’ pile were clothes in no fit state, as well as books with the covers torn off, or with laminated jackets that meant they had once belonged to the library so couldn’t be sold in the shop. It made him angry sometimes, when whole bags of things they couldn’t sell were left, but Alison told him it was OK.
Martin was singing along to the radio when Alison came in to check on him. He stopped when he saw her and blushed, laughing.
“Are you alright in here Martin?” she asked.
“Good. Sarah’s upstairs now, so it’s just you and me this afternoon, alright? You come and get me if there’s anything you’re not sure about.”
Martin nodded. If there were just the two of them downstairs then Alison would be very busy, being on the counter and tidying up after customers when they let clothes fall on the floor. It would be even more important than usual that he didn’t bother her, and put the right things in the right piles.
Throughout the afternoon he worked methodically, and enjoyed watching the piles of bags reduce. He felt proud at his contribution – Alison would be so pleased! He only left the back room once, to go to the bathroom. It was upstairs so he had to go into the main shop and he waved to Alison as he hurried past the counter. He felt like a businessman, busy but in control. He felt good.
There must have been a lot of customers in the afternoon, because the drivetime show had started by the time Alison came back in. Her hair was wild, and there were strands sticking to her red face.
“Sorry I’ve not been in before Martin, I don’t know what happened but we were so busy! How have you got on?”
Martin turned to the table to show her the piles he had made. But something was wrong. They were no longer separate. They had spread and begun to merge, and a cold dread rushed up through him as he realised that he must have got the piles mixed up at some point. He’d made a mess of everything.
Stupid, stupid Martin.
Alison was nice about it, of course. She saw his heavy breathing and said not to worry, easily done, and why didn’t he go on the counter for ten minutes while she had a look at these piles. He’d like that, wouldn’t he? He wasn’t usually allowed on the counter.
His head was chattering loudly now but he wanted to go on the counter so he said OK. He might have said it too loudly, because Alison gave him a funny look and asked if he was alright. It was hard to know how loudly he was talking, when his head was chattering like this.
It was late. The shop had usually started shutting by now. Alison would turn the lights at the front of the shop off, and lower the shutter so people knew not to come in. Martin felt tired. He wanted to tell the few people who were still in the shop, flicking through the CDs and inspecting the ornaments, that it was time to go, but he knew he couldn’t until Alison said it was OK.
He served two people: a little old lady who bought a plate with a gold trim and a picture of a dog on it, and a man who bought a belt. The plate was like something his grandma would have, and the lady called him ‘young man’. Martin liked that, and he liked the ring of the till when it sprung open so he could put the money in.
He was feeling better when Alison came out, and she was smiling at him, which made him feel less nervous.
“Looks like we’ve made it! You’ve been a big help.” Martin was about to reply when he heard a grunting and scraping sound at the front of the shop.
“I’m not… I’m not too late am I?” the man gasped. He dragged a large, heavy-looking bin bag behind him. “Didn’t want to leave them outside,” he explained.
“No problem,” smiled Alison. “You’re just in time. Martin will take these for you, then we’ll shut up shop, OK Martin?” She turned down the lights at the front and closed the shutter halfway, then went into the back room.
Between them, Martin and the man hauled the bag to the counter. It was heavy, and they were both tired, but eventually it was done.
“Can I leave this here, then? Don’t need to sign anything?”
“We can’t have this.”
“What?” said the man. Martin pulled a plastic-backed book from the bag and held it up.
“It’s from the library,” Martin explained. He pulled out another. “And this.”
“Can’t I just leave them here with you?” asked the man. He was already moving towards the door, but Martin was moving more quickly towards him, the books in his outstretched hand.
“Excuse me, you need to take them. Excuse me.” Martin’s voice was getting louder. He looked behind him, but Alison wasn’t there. He would have felt reassured if she was there. She would know what to do. He turned back but the man had gone, and a horrible feeling spread around Martin’s insides as he searched through the bag, increasingly desperate, until the floor was strewn with useless laminated books.
Stupid, stupid Martin.
At school when he had got like this they had called him the Ape Man. Ape Man. Look at him, he’s gone apeshit. He’s the missing fucking link. He thrashed his arms up and down helplessly and made a sound that was part roar, part wail, a sort of lowing noise. His eyes became small and hard inside his reddening face.
“Martin? Martin, what’s the matter?” Alison had appeared from somewhere, but her voice was distant, and maybe she wasn’t calling to him at all. He couldn’t be near her – couldn’t be near anyone. So he charged out of the shop, ducking under the half-closed shutter, ignoring Alison’s pleading, guilt-ridden cries.
Momentum carried him forward. He ran blindly, tilted close to 45°, shouting “Excuse me! Excuse me!” to warn anyone who might be in the way that here came Martin, and he wasn’t going to stop. But he did stop, eventually, and crouched next to a large red metal bin, his eyes closed and his exhausted body rocking back and forth.
He didn’t dare open his eyes. They were dark little kernels, and he ground the heel of his hand into them until lights glittered behind his eyelids. There was no way Alison could have kept up with him, not when he was running at full speed, but she might have seen where he had gone or asked someone who he had passed. She might be stood there right now, right in front of him, arms folded and with a stern look on her face. It was too scary to think about, so he kept his eyes shut. He would open them when he heard a cough, or felt a touch on his arm. Then he would know she was there. Then it would be less scary.
He knows he shouldn’t have shouted. He shouldn’t have shouted, but it had been a long day.
Stupid, stupid Martin.
I started trying to write this by speaking it aloud, but soon realised that wouldn’t get me very far. Instead, I now read my stories aloud (particularly longer ones) once I’ve finished drafting them, to catch any odd rhythms or sentences that are much too long. This story’s partially based on when I worked in a charity shop for a bit a few years ago, and also owes a lot to Jon McGregor, who you should definitely read.