Sophie had just turned off the lights at the back of the shop and switched on the alarm when there was a frantic knocking at the front door.
She could see a white-haired woman in a long tweed coat standing outside, with two large black bin bags. She went up to the door and said, ‘We’re closed! Sorry!’
‘What shall I do with these bags, then?’ the woman asked her, exaggerating her lip movements so that Sophie could understand her through the glass. ‘I can’t take them back.’
‘Just leave them there in the doorway,’ Sophie told her.
‘There’s some very good-quality clothes in here, and some other bric-à-brac, too! It would be a shame to have them stolen!’
Sophie hesitated for a moment, and then sighed and said, ‘All right… just hold on a moment!’
She went back to switch off the alarm, and then she returned to unlock the front door. The woman immediately bundled the two bags inside and dropped them onto the floor by the counter.
‘That’s got rid of that lot, thank God!’ she said. Now that she was inside the shop, Sophie could see that she wasn’t as old as she had appeared when she was looking in through the window. Her hair was white, but only because it was blonde and she had bleached it. Her ankle-length coat made her look older, too. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-eight or thirty-nine, and very thin, with pale blue eyes and sharp angular cheekbones.
‘My uncle’s clothes,’ she explained. ‘He died three weeks ago and we’ve been clearing out his house. You can’t imagine how much stuff he had! All of my aunt’s clothes, too, and she passed away nine years ago. He hadn’t thrown away anything. Not even her tights!’
‘Well, if you have any more—’ said Sophie. ‘Especially sweaters and jackets, at this time of the year.’
‘No, this is the last of it,’ the woman told her. ‘There’s a lot of books but they’re mostly in Russian and Polish and they’re mostly medical. He was a doctor of something-or-other.’
‘All right, well, thank you anyway,’ said Sophie. ‘I have to lock up now. My boyfriend will be wondering what’s happened to me.’
The woman looked around the shop. ‘You have it very organised in here, don’t you? It doesn’t even smell like a charity shop, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do you get very busy?’
Sophie smiled. ‘You’d be amazed. We’re packed out sometimes, especially on Saturdays. But thanks, yes. I do try to keep it neat and tidy. Before I came here to Little Helpers I used to work in Selfridges, in the fashion department.’
She could tell that the woman was dying to ask her – Selfridges? So how did you end up managing a charity shop, and in Tooting Broadway of all places? Instead, she said, ‘Well – thank you so much for taking those bags in. I never want to go back to that house again – like never in my whole life.’
She left, and when she went to lock the front door after her, Sophie saw her climbing into a black Mercedes saloon which had pulled up on the opposite side of the street. Although she had said that her boyfriend would be wondering where she was, there was no sign of Mike yet. He was almost always late picking her up these days, and three or four times lately she had been forced to take the 77 bus home.
She had been feeling for months now that she needed to change her life completely, but she had become so dependent on Mike, especially for money, that she couldn’t see what she could do to break free. She was beginning to wish that she had never met him. Everything that she used to find attractive about him now irritated her, especially his habit of never answering when she asked him a question. She used to think his silence was masculine and moody. Now it made her wonder if he was simply thick.
As she went to switch on the alarm, she heard a scuffling sound. She stopped and listened. In the early summer, the back of the shop had been infested with rats. They had tunnelled in through the drains from the Turkish restaurant next door, and had been trying to make nests among the unsaleable clothes which were piled up waiting for the rag man. She had called in the council to exterminate them, and soon after that the Turkish restaurant had closed down. But perhaps they had found their way back in again.
There it was again: a sharp, distinct scuffling. It didn’t seem to be coming from the back room, though. It seemed to be coming from one of the two black bin bags that the white-haired woman had just brought in.
Sophie went up to them and prodded each of them with her Ugg boot. She had once found a dead tortoiseshell cat in a bag of clothes that an elderly man had brought in, but never anything living. She was beginning to think that she had imagined the scuffling when she heard it again, and this time she was sure that she saw one of the bags moving.
Oh God, what if it is a rat? I mean, it must be a rat – what else could it be?
She didn’t want to open the bag in case the rat jumped out at her. Perhaps she should carry the bag outside the shop and leave it by the dustbins until tomorrow morning. If the rat hadn’t managed to escape by then, she could ask her volunteer Raymond to open it for her. Raymond had worked in an abattoir and wasn’t squeamish about killing anything. He would squash wasps with his thumb.
She picked up the bag by its twist-tied top. It was quite heavy, but then the woman had told her that she was donating bric-à-brac as well as clothes. She carried it as quickly as she could to the doorway at the back of the shop which led through to her small office and the toilet and the storeroom where they steam-cleaned the clothes before they hung them on display. She prayed that she wouldn’t hear that scuffling sound again or feel any movement inside the bag before she had managed to drop it by the dustbins.
As she made her way past the heap of clothes that were waiting for the rag man, her feet became tangled in an old velveteen curtain that had slid down onto the floor. She stumbled into the bag that she was carrying and it split wide open, so that jackets and dresses and shoes and corduroy trousers tumbled out onto the floor, as well as a cuckoo clock and a box of silver-plated teaspoons.
Sophie took a quick step back, fearful of a rat or some other creature running out, but after she had waited for almost half a minute, nothing appeared. She prodded a grey tweed coat with her foot, but there was still no movement, and no more scuffling sounds.
I know I didn’t imagine that noise, but perhaps it was the cuckoo clock whirring, or simply the clothes settling down inside the bag.
Cautiously, she dragged the tweed coat out from the rest of the clothes, shook it, and laid it out on the table they used for ironing clothes that were badly crumpled. There was still no more scuffling, so she pulled out the corduroy trousers, and then two striped shirts and a dark green sweater with frayed holes in the elbows. She picked up the cuckoo clock, too. Its pendulum chains were twisted and its doors were jammed open. The cuckoo was trapped inside, with one wing broken.
Just the way I feel… like I’m stuck inside a stopped clock, unable to fly.
The bag also contained a knitted blanket which smelled strongly of Voltarol liniment, a pair of worn-out gardening gloves and at least a dozen odd socks, but Sophie also found two women’s turtle-neck sweaters, one grey and one cream, both of which looked as if they had hardly ever been worn, and a woman’s velvet jacket, midnight blue, with military-style braiding around the buttons.
She knew that she could get a good price for the sweaters, and she really fancied keeping the jacket for herself. She thought that it would look great with her skinny Mantaray jeans and her Red Herring ankle boots, and she would make a donation of £10 to the shop to cover the cost.
She finished emptying the bag. There was nothing else of any value in it, only a few old Penguin paperbacks with yellowing pages and a badly stained pair of oven gloves. No rats, no mice. Nothing that would account for that scuffling sound.
She took the velvet jacket into the curtained-off changing-room and tried it on in front of the mirror. It was slightly tight across the chest, because whoever had owned it had obviously been slightly less bosomy than Sophie, but she wouldn’t have to button it up, and otherwise it fitted her perfectly. She thought that its military style suited her looks, too, because her mother was half-Polish and she was slightly Slavic-looking, with a round face and small feline eyes, and although her dark brown hair needed washing after a day in the shop, it was cut in a sharp geometric bob.
As she stood staring at herself in the mirror for some unaccountable reason she began to feel wistful, as if she had fallen out with a very close friend, or someone close to her had moved away, or died.
You need a break, she told herself. Even if you can’t change your life, you could at least take a few days off. You could go down to Sidmouth and see Mum and Dad. You know you always feel better when you can take some long walks by the sea.
She peered at her reflection even more closely and she was alarmed to see that she had tears glistening in her eyelashes. Why did she suddenly feel so sad? But at the same time, she began to feel resentful, too.
Why did you do this to me? What did I do? You think I can’t hurt you any more? You don’t know the half of it!
To her astonishment, she gave a deep, suppressed sob, and the tears started to roll down her cheeks and drip off her chin.
Why am I crying? Why am I so upset and angry? Stop it!
She stepped out of the changing-room and started to take off the jacket, although she had only just taken her right arm out of the sleeve before she thought that perhaps she should keep it on, and wear it home. But without having it dry-cleaned? Whenever she bought clothes that had been donated to the shop, she always had them cleaned before she wore them. A whole legion of virulent bacteria were capable of surviving in second-hand clothes, as well as lice and scabies. Some infections like hepatitis and syphilis could even withstand repeated washing, and that was the reason that charity shops never sold second-hand underwear.
For some reason, though, Sophie felt reluctant to be parted from this jacket. It almost seemed to be pulling at her left arm to stay inside its sleeve, like an unhappy friend tugging at her and begging her not to leave her alone. She sniffed and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand and she was about to put her right arm back into its sleeve when she was filled with anger again.
You’re such a coward! Only a coward would have treated me like this! But don’t think you’re going to get away with it! Oh, no!
She pulled the jacket off so quickly that its left sleeve was turned inside-out. She dropped it on the counter next to the cash register and stared at it, half-expecting it to jump back up at her.
She couldn’t understand it. How had trying on a jacket disturbed her so much? It had given her a sense of terrible loss, but at the same time it had made her furious.
She lifted up the jacket and straightened out the sleeve. Surely it couldn’t have been the jacket itself. Perhaps it was the way that she had looked when she had tried it on. Perhaps it had reminded her of some person that she had long forgotten. After all, she had imagined that she was shouting at somebody – somebody who had let her down somehow, somebody who had made her feel grief-stricken.
Don’t think you’re going to get away with it! she had told them, in her mind. But who were they? And what had they done to her?
She heard the sharp tapping of car keys at the shop’s front window. She turned around and saw Mike, and for the first time in a long time she was actually pleased and relieved to see him. She went over and unlocked the door.
‘Hi,’ he said. As usual, he never explained why he was late, or apologised for it, but this evening she didn’t mind so much. He was broad-shouldered and bulky, because he worked out almost every day and went to kick-boxing sessions every weekend, and after what she had felt in the changing-room, it was reassuring to have somebody around who could protect her. She still wished he didn’t have his hair shaved so short up the sides. His face was broad, with a deeply cleft chin and a puggish nose, and she thought that his hairstyle made him look like a convict.
She could smell alcohol on his breath. That was why he was late. He had been drinking in the Gorringe Park with his friends from the estate agents where he worked.
‘Aren’t you ready?’ he asked her, seeing that the back door was open and that the contents of the burst-open bag were still strewn across the floor.
‘I won’t be a moment,’ she told him. She switched on the alarm and closed the door, leaving the sweaters and trousers and cuckoo clock where they were. As she passed the counter, though, she hesitated, and looked at the jacket.
‘What?’ said Mike. ‘Come on, Soph, buck up – I’m parked on a double red line out there. That’s a hundred and thirty quid fine!’
Sophie hesitated for a second longer, but then she picked up the jacket and folded it over her arm.
‘You’re not pinching that, are you?’ Mike asked her. ‘Just because I wouldn’t buy you that coat from Next. It was too bloody expensive, that coat, and anyway it didn’t suit you.’
‘I’m going to pay for it. I’ve tried it on and I want it.’
‘All right. Up to you. If you want to walk around dressed in second-hand clothes like some old bag-lady, go ahead.’
Sophie locked the front door of Little Helpers and then followed Mike to his red Subaru. She sat in the passenger seat with the jacket folded in her lap, and as they pulled away from the kerb, she felt almost as if it were snuggling up to her, like a pet cat, and she patted it.
It needs me, she thought. I don’t know why I feel like that, but it needs me, and it doesn’t want to let me go.