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The coach driver slams the overhead door closed before he notices me standing to the side, out of the way of the others collecting their bags.
“Are you waiting for something?” His voice has a rough edge. He doesn’t want to ask but knows it will be better in the long run. He’s desperate for a pie and a pint.
“My bag,” I say. His gaze roams over the bags lying on the glistening footpath. Ragged men and women are pulling their belongings out of the rain, ducking under cover, moving towards their next destination.
“Where is it?” he asks.
“I put it in there,” I say, gesturing to the cavern he’s just closed. With a sigh to show I’m being inconvenient, he opens the door again and peers in. He moves aside and I understand I’m supposed to look as well. It smells of petrol and dirt, and yet somehow the smell of dirty laundry is strong enough to linger as well.
“Nothing there,” he says.
“No.” We both turn away. The footpath behind us has emptied. The people snaking along the road towards the fluorescent section of town are weighed down with bags, but none of them are mine. He sighs again.
“Where did you get on?”
When I tell him he whistles.
“We made twenty-three stops after that.”
“Anyone could have taken it.”
A car passes and its headlights shine on us. He’s wearing a cap which protects him from the dripping rain, but my hair has flattened around my shoulders. I wipe water off my forehead.
“You’ll have to fill in a form and I’ll report it.”
He wants more from me, or to know what I want from him, but I don’t think he took my bag.
He gets back on the bus and sits in the driver’s seat. I stand near him. The windows are steaming and the bus still smells like people even though no one is on it anymore. He takes a clipboard from below the seat and hands it to me.
“Was there anything valuable in it?” he asks, then adds, “you’re not supposed to put valuables in the hold.”
“No, nothing,” I say. I pretend I don’t need the dirty clothes, the half-empty bottle of shampoo, the stub of soap.
He speaks on the radio as I fill in the form, turning to the window and muttering so that I can’t hear his words. I’m not sure if he’s blaming me for losing my bag or just for delaying his dinner.
I hand him back the clipboard and he scans the form.
“You didn’t put a phone number on it,” he says.
“I don’t have a phone.”
“We need a number to call if we find your bag.”
I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t have a phone, and we both know that my bag is gone.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “I’ll call lost property later. If it hasn’t turned up—” I don’t finish the sentence because it would sound too dramatic to say “then it’s gone forever”, but I know he knows what I mean.
“Is there someone here to meet you?” he asks. We both look out the window, as though there might be a friendly figure skulking in the dark.
“Will you be alright?”
I imagine he has teenage daughters and he’d never forgive himself if he didn’t ask. Not that I’m a teenager, but it’s an easy mistake to make. Maybe he wants to take me for a pie, feed me salty pastry and lemonade, and pretend a meal tonight will help me find surer footing in the future.
“I’ll be fine,” I say.
The bus passes me as I walk along the dark road towards the well-lit seafront. He’s on the radio again. I pull a box of pringles from my rucksack and eat them one at a time. I eat quickly so the rain doesn’t have a chance to make them soggy.
The main street runs along the sea and holds a string of pubs, with chip vans and doughnut vans sitting at the kerb. There are hungry, horny people yelling, and that sugary smell of spilled alcohol has crept from the doors of the pubs onto the street. Everything is fried, alcoholic, sweet. People look at me, or maybe they don’t.
“You alright, love?” A man leans over his empty counter. No one wants a kebab yet, it’s too early, and he’s bored. It’s not a pickup line though, that would sound more like, “You right? Love?”
“What’s your cheapest kebab?” I ask. I let my rain-sodden hair hang over my forehead, sweeping over my eyes like a pathetic veil. The counter is higher than my outstretched hands. From his angle, I look like Oliver Twist’s equally needy sister.
“Chicken,” he says. “Three pounds.”
I let my face fall and turn away.
“Oh come on,” he says. “Have some chips then, on the house. Just don’t tell anyone.” I return his smile, like it’s our secret, and take the free chips. They make my breath oily.
The house is along the seafront then two streets back. The weatherboards look white in the glow from the streetlights, but I know that when the sun rises they’ll look grey and patchy. I let myself through the squeaking gate and up the front steps. The keys are in my rucksack and I open the door. It smells like dust, rust, dirty underwear. I flick on lights as I move through the house and drop my rucksack on the couch. The bedrooms are at the back, cold and empty. The door to Granna’s room is closed, but I switch on the hall light and open the door. Her sleeping mound doesn’t move, but she says, her voice low and croaky with the need to sleep, “Welcome back. Leave me alone.” I turn the hall light off but leave her door open a crack in case she needs me during the night.
In the kitchen, I boil the kettle and drop two teabags into a mug. The milk in the fridge is out of date but still liquid. The rain taps on the window and I listen to the blinks and dinks as I drink my tea.
I take my rucksack to the room I sleep in and sit on the bed. The sheets are the ones that were here when I left. They still smell like me, but colder. I empty my rucksack onto the tired duvet. I have coins and a twenty. A charger for the phone I don’t have anymore. A dog-eared copy of Mein Kampf that a boy on the bus gave me. He was trying to be controversial and interesting, and I let him. A copy of Wild Swans, which I’ve almost finished. Spray-on deodorant for men. Three scrunched up receipts. And the half-empty tube of Pringles. I eat a few more.
In the bathroom, my toothbrush is still in the cup on the sink. I brush my teeth for a long time. The mirror has a few extra rust spots since I last stood here. When I get into bed, I sleep easily.
In the morning, Granna is up early, like always. The rain has stopped and the screeching seagulls are pushing through the rubbish bins on the street. In the kitchen, she’s eating a boiled egg and a piece of toast. I flick the kettle on and put two teabags in a mug.
“There are eggs,” she says.
“Thanks.” But I don’t open the carton. “I’ll do some shopping later,” I say.
“Do you have money?”
I’ll have to spend my twenty on replacing the things from my bag, so I don’t answer. She sighs, but I don’t know if it’s at me or from the effort of standing up. She takes her wallet from her handbag hanging over the kitchen door, and hands me a tenner. “Just the usuals,” she says.
“Nothing fancy,” I say, hoping for a smile, but she either doesn’t remember our bit or she isn’t ready to forgive me yet.
“Exactly.” She sits again, leaning so heavily on the table that it tips slightly. “Fuck it,” she mutters as her tea slops from her mug. I hand her a sponge.
I add her tenner to my twenty and take my rucksack with me. I have to find some other shoes, mine are still squelching from the rain. I need a jumper. My hoodie was in my backpack because the heating on the buses is always turned up so high. I have to find somewhere to get rid of Mein Kampf.
I follow the street that runs parallel to the seafront. The rain has stopped but the sky is still overcast. I can smell the fried food vans from a block away and hear the racket of people suddenly freed from their everyday routines. This street has shops on it that normal people visit, the people who live here year-round. Granna used to work in the plant shop specifically to get away from tourists. The woman who owned the shop refused to stock any folksy, whimsical, seaside-themed ornaments, and tourists aren’t interested in pot plants that need transporting. Up ahead is the charity shop. I’ve decided it’s my best bet.
The shop has no customers. The two staff members are crouched on the floor near the glass cabinet in the middle, whispering and pointing at something. One of them, a man, stands when I enter, and behind him I can see the bottom shelf of the cabinet has collapsed. The ceramics are lying in a huddle on one side, like they’ve reached the bottom of a slide and have nowhere to go next.
“Good morning,” he says. He mutters something to the woman still crouched at his feet, and she stands too. I don’t think she wants me in the shop during this moment of crisis, but I’m cold. I flick through the jumpers. The hoodie I lost was dark purple, with a sturdy zipper that never broke or got stuck. The hood was huge, like it was designed to go over a helmet, and hung down in front of my eyes. The pockets were deep and still furry, even though I’d been wearing it every day for a year. It was perfect, really, and as I flick through the items on offer I realise it was irreplaceable. I’m going to have to compromise. The only hoodies don’t have zippers. I like zippers, it means it can double as a jacket. So no hood. That’s an extreme concession when you’re looking to buy a hoodie. There’s a blue zip-up jumper that feels soft and furry, but it has a logo emblazoned across the front. The only plain one is grey, and the material is thin. I think it was probably thin to start with and has now been worn into submission.
“Can I help you?” the man asks. The woman is crouching by the open cabinet with a pan and brush. She takes a couple of unbroken ornaments from the muddled pile and puts them carefully aside before she sweeps the rest into the pan, and tips them into a black bin bag.
“You’re not supposed to put broken ceramics into a bag. It could hurt the garbage man who has to pick it up.”
The man looks back at his colleague, and I know he knows I’m right, but he doesn’t want to embarrass her in front of me.
“We’ll sort it out the back,” he says. “We just need to get it out of the shop for the moment. Health and safety.”
“Because a customer could trip and end up with broken crockery embedded in their knees.”
I flick through some more jumpers but I’ve already seen them all, and none of them are right.
“Are these the only jumpers?”
“For women, yes. The men’s are over there.”
I decide to look, just in case, and there’s a zippered hoodie with soft material. It has a logo, ugly letters that are spiky and multi-layered, but that’s a compromise I’m willing to make. I take it to the counter and wait for him to come back from escorting his colleague and her black bin bag of broken things out the back.
“That’s five pounds,” he says.
“Right. I was thinking—” his eyes become glazed, like he’s used to people haggling and he knows how this will end. “Could I swap it for a book?”
“This is for charity.”
“But I wanted to donate a book as well, and you’ll probably be able to charge more for what I’m donating. So—”
“What’s the book?”
Thinking I should have prepared him more, I pull Mein Kampf from my bag. He doesn’t touch it when I put it on the counter.
“Why are you donating that?” he asks. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ask why I own it.
“Someone gave it to me but I don’t want it.”
“I don’t want it either.”
“You could sell it for a lot of money,” I say.
“What makes you think that?”
“History,” I say. “It’s like the first celebrity memoir, if you thought up a marketing strategy you could sell it for—”
“We don’t have a marketing strategy. This is a charity shop.”
“Did you just say it’s the first celebrity memoir?”
“Yes. Look, my bag was stolen from the bus last night and I don’t have a jumper. I just wanted to swap the book for the hoodie.”
“Do you have money?”
I pull out Granna’s tenner.
“I still need to buy shoes though,” I say. I lift my foot and water trickles down my ankle. It’s a sorry sight. The stench of a muddy pond wafts towards me and I wonder if he can smell it too.
“I don’t want the book,” he says. He still hasn’t touched it. “And you can’t just have the jumper for free. But if you work out the back for a few hours, you can have it then.”
“Doing what out the back?”
“Sorting the donations.”
“Can I pack up the broken crockery properly, so it doesn’t hurt anyone?”
His eyes flick to the book on the counter and I realise he thinks I am a Nazi sympathiser with a strong concern about garbage men getting hurt on the job.
“Sure,” he says. “I’ll put the jumper here.” He takes it and puts it under the counter where I can’t see it. “Keep your book though,” he says. I put Mein Kampf back in my bag. “Follow me.”
Out the back the woman is sitting on an old couch. There are piles of stuff everywhere. “Jean, can you please mind the counter? This young woman is going to do some work in exchange for a hoodie.”
She is sipping from a cup and saucer, and she sighs like Granna when she stands up. She leaves her cup by a sink at the back. We can hear her talking to a customer as soon as she leaves.
“You can start with the shoes,” he says. The shoes are in a metre-high pile in a corner of the room. They’re fenced in by old suitcases, as though the bags can stop them from escaping across the floor.
“What do I do with them?”
“Put them in pairs. Good quality ones over here, ones that need laces or a polish or something over there. Leave broken ones, or singles, in the pile where they are.”
I think he’s going to stay and supervise me, but he goes to the front of the shop with Jean. The music from the radio station playing over the shop speakers is faint here, but I can tell when Marvin Gaye comes on.
The shoes smell like leather and dirt and the laces get caught around each other. There are lots of shoes like Granna wears: soft and wide with short laces. The laces are short so that if they come undone, it’s still difficult to trip. They’re basically the same as wearing Velcro, but when I said that to Granna she was really offended, so I haven’t mentioned it again.
The shoes are all messed up together. It seems like a silly system. If I worked here I would sort donations as they came in, instead of waiting until there was a haphazard pile like this.
I find a pair that I want. Trainers made from fake denim and red laces. Or laces that used to be red and are now a dirty brown, but I could clean them. I don’t know how long I’d have to work to earn those as well as the hoodie, though.
After twenty minutes I start sneezing. The shoes at the bottom of the pile have been there a long time and are covered with dust as well as dirt. The pile of shoes that I think are sellable is growing quickly. Maybe my standards are too low, but it’s a charity shop not John Lewis.
The man comes back just as I’m finishing up. He stares at the three piles.
“Which ones are to sell?”
I point to the pile, and a kid’s shoe without laces falls slowly from the top and tumbles to a stop at my feet.
“That’s a single shoe there,” he says, pointing to a solitary purple boot.
“I know, but it’s a cool shoe. Someone might want it for something.”
He nudges the boot with his foot and it tips over.
“What can you do with a single boot?”
“Make a doorstop,” I say. “Or put a pot plant in it. Or – I’m sure there’s other things too. You could have a special shelf for them.”
“A shelf for single shoes?”
“How many are there?” His eyes are roaming the pile but he won’t be able to see them all without digging.
“We don’t sell single shoes.”
“What happens to them then?”
“We send them to the main warehouse.”
“And what do they do with them?”
He looks at his watch.
“Jean has gone on lunch so I need to go out the front. Take the single shoes out. Please.”
I do what he asks and when he comes back half an hour later there is the saddest pile of single shoes in the middle of the floor.
“Thanks,” he says.
“Is there anything else I need to do?” I ask. I’ve worked for over an hour. Even if he paid me minimum wage, I’ve more than earned that hoodie.
“You can pack up the broken crockery properly,” he says. “It’s that bin bag there.” The black bag is crumpled against the cupboard underneath the sink. I guess the bin is in the cupboard and he had to stop Jean from throwing it away before I fixed her stupidity.
“Do you have cardboard boxes?”
“In a pile there.” He points to a stack of flattened cardboard shoved between an old wardrobe and the wall. I sneeze again. “There are tissues in the bathroom.”
He wrinkles his nose, but I don’t think he knows he’s doing it.
I open the black bin bag and buffer each broken piece in cardboard. I find Sellotape in the old wardrobe and bandage up the packages. They’re like sad Christmas presents. When I finish, I put them back in the black bin bag and leave it where it was.
Back in the shop, Jean is carefully wiping the counter even though it already looks clean. I can’t see the man.
“I’ve finished,” I say. I don’t know why she doesn’t like me, but I can tell she doesn’t.
“Has Mike said that you’ve finished?”
“I’ve been here for two hours.”
We stare at each other until she looks away.
“Where’s my hoodie?”
“The hoodie he put under the counter for me. Mike did. The one I’ve been working for.” My shoulders give a sudden jerky shiver. The door of the shop is propped open and the air is cold, but I know she thinks I’m faking it.
“There’s no hoodie here,” she says. She doesn’t even look. “Wait, the dark green one?” I nod. “Someone bought that already.”
“Mike put it aside for me.”
She shrugs and smiles, and then stops when she sees my face. I know she just wants another cup of tea.
I take a necklace from the jewellery stand next to her. I move slowly and she watches, transfixed, before she remembers to say, “Hey!” She reaches out to stop me and I grab her hand. I pin it against the counter. Her other hand scrabbles at me but she can’t do anything.
With one finger I flick open the clasp on the necklace and I press the metal into her soft skin. She screeches as blood comes up in a long, thin line. It’s only an inch long, and probably barely hurts, but she is shrieking like anything.
“What’s going on?” Mike is puffing as he comes running in. He’s holding a McDonalds bag that smells of hot oil and meat. He rushes over and shoves me away from Jean’s hand, but I’ve already stopped.
“She sold my hoodie,” I say.
“No – I didn’t—” she stammers and uses her uninjured hand to pull it from under the counter. She cradles the hand I cut against her chest as though it pains her to use it. What a fraud.
“You told me you sold it,” I say. Mike looks down at the necklace. There is blood on the clasp.
“You’ll have to buy that necklace now,” he says. “Ten pounds, for the necklace and the hoodie.”
“Fine.” I drop the tenner on the counter and take the hoodie and the necklace.
When I get to the door, I hear him say to Jean, “I bought her lunch but you can have it.” And Jean stammers something about not eating McDonalds. I hope they don’t find where I put Mein Kampf in the pile of kids books at the back of the shop. Maybe they’ll be closed down for inappropriate sorting.
When I get back to Granna’s, she’s not there. It’s four o’clock, so she’s probably walking the seafront to see which buskers are braving the chilly air. In the room where I sleep, I empty my rucksack onto the bed. I have the purple boot and a black one of the same size. I kick off my squelching shoes and pull the boots on. I also have the denim trainers and I put them side by side under the bed. I reshape the cap that lost its roundness under the heavy soles and hang it off the bedpost. It will protect me from the rain, like the bus driver’s cap last night.
I put the hoodie on and it’s as warm as I thought it would be. I take the necklace to the bathroom and wash the blood off. I’ll give it to Granna when she gets home. It’s only when I hold the necklace up to my neck in front of the mirror that I remember I forgot to buy the usuals.
I still have my twenty, maybe I could buy us something fancy for breakfast. I could take her to the café with the best eggs and free coffee refills. It’s near the bus station though and she might think I’m planning on leaving again. Even the best eggs couldn’t distract her from whatever she’d feel about that.
About Alison Theresa Gibson
Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Spelk, Litro, Crack the Spine, Meanjin, and Every Day Fiction, and she won the Furious Gazelle Spring Writing Contest in June 2019. She volunteers for the Primadonna Festival, and is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.
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