Welcome back to Showcase, everyone! Last week, we were pleased to show off our feature from our recently published fifth issue of the magazine, which you can read online here.
This week, we are returning to business as usual with a fantastic novel extract by author Janet Howson, which we featured in our Saturday Showcase (w/c 18th April edition).
Janet taught Drama and English for 35 years in several comprehensive schools, directing a lot of plays, some of which she wrote herself. She was spurred on to start writing again when she found a folder of forgotten poetry she had written years ago. She is now enjoying writing short stories and is honoured to have been chosen to be published in The Best Of CafeLit and also Nativity, a Bridge House publication.
Today, we are proudly featuring the opening chapter of her first published book, Charitable Thoughts. The novel follows Brenda Watts, a sixty-five-year-old retiree. She has no family, no close friends and no hobbies. Feeling lonely and isolated, she decides to volunteer at a local charity shop, where she quickly discovers that charity shops are not the quiet, unassuming places she had always imagined them to be. From schoolgirl thieves, grooms who have lost their wedding outfits and drug runners, to ferrets, floods and discarded goldfish, Brenda had never imagined life could be so enjoyable!
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
Charitable Thoughts by Janet Howson (novel extract)
Brenda woke to an eerie silence, one she could never get used to. This feeling of isolation and loneliness that she was experiencing daily since she had retired. Then her mother had died, leaving an aching gap in her life. Today she was going to do something about it.
She had seen a poster in the window of a charity shop on the High Street. ‘Volunteers required. Full or part-time. Please apply within.’ So, she had taken the initiative, walked in and put her name down with one of the members of staff and today she would be having her ‘Induction Day’ with the manager.
She had always loved wandering around the charity shops and tended to make a beeline for them after she had been to the bank or completed her food shop.
Brenda looked at herself in the long hall mirror. She had puzzled on what to wear and decided on a comfortable outfit. Comfortable, she liked that word. It reminded her of being a child and listening to stories on the radio. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin.” Or her mother’s words to her as they left the house, “Make yourself comfortable”, to avoid the inevitable toilet stops that may occur otherwise.
In the end she had settled on a blue skirt, white blouse and a blue cardigan with sensible brogues that were kind to her bunion. She had got rid of all her suits when she retired, pushing them into black bin liners and taking them to the very charity shop she was now volunteering in.
She had never got on with the young girls in the office with their teetering, high heels, long nails and short skirts, laughing behind her back at her ‘dowdy’ appearance and old- fashioned views.
Brenda sighed, adjusted her skirt and donned her thick ‘duvet’ coat, as she nicknamed it. It would be a protection against the cold winter weather and sharp wind. She remembered her folding umbrella at the last minute. The sky looks threatening, she thought to herself I might be glad of it later.
She had decided to walk. The shop shut at 4.30pm but she might be required to tidy up, sweep round or wash up the teacups – she presumed there would be a cup of tea sometime during the afternoon? It would be far too long to leave her car in a car park. She objected to paying for a car park ticket. Once she had been three minutes late returning to pick up her car and was horrified to discover a yellow bag on the front windscreen announcing the parking penalty. The walk normally took her twenty minutes into the centre of town. The charity shop was favourably placed being next to the main shops in the High Street.
When she arrived at the shop a wave of nerves hit her. She almost turned back. However, she took a deep breath and entered. There were a few customers sorting through the hand rails and an elderly man standing behind the till, endeavouring with obvious difficulty to keep his eyes open. He was dressed smartly in a suit and tie, his grey hair was tidy and he was well shaven. She assumed he was the morning shift. She also spotted a lady with her back to her sorting out the DVDs. She thought it would be wisest to approach the morning shift so donning a smile she approached the till.
“Hello, I am Brenda Watts, I’m here for my Induction Day. The manager, George Forbes said he would be going through everything with me. Do you know where I could find him?”
The man at the till was now wide- awake eyeing her suspiciously. After a moment he seemed to get a grip of the situation. “Wait here….” He was about to leave his sentry post by the till when something made him stop. “Can’t leave the shop floor. Things get nicked, you’d be surprised how much stuff gets nicked. You wouldn’t think people would be so callous as to steal from a charity shop.”
He pulled out a rather grimy handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. “Once they have exhausted our shop they are on to the next. Nothing better to do. I once suggested to one lady who had been in the shop over an hour that she become a volunteer. I might as well have suggested she abseiled down the side of the Shard!” He chuckled at his own joke.
She wondered how long he would carry on with his rather off-putting tales when George Forbes appeared from the back of the shop. He was wearing jeans that were too big for him and a sweat shirt that had seen better days. He looked in a rush and rather anxious. On seeing her he weaved his way to the till through the customers. She put on her smile that she thought looked confident. There was an awkward moment when she thought he was going to shake her hand and brought hers up to meet his. However, he was merely scratching his head, a habit she would witness repeating itself during the afternoon. Embarrassed, she put her arm down by her side.
“It’s Brenda isn’t it? So glad you could make it. We only spoke briefly the other day when you popped in. We have been very short of staff today but I am sure Alan is very capable of holding the fort whilst we go out the back for the induction talk, aren’t you Alan?” Alan looked anything but, in fact, she thought, she would be surprised if Alan was still awake on their return. She found herself following George. Dodging round the customers, they ended up in a room filled with boxes, clothes rails towering piles of books and general organised chaos.
“Let’s sit here and go through Health and Safety and Accident prevention Strategies.” It was obvious he had repeated these ad nauseum and the words tripped off his tongue without the necessity of looking at a pamphlet or brochure. It was all common sense to her and she gradually began to feel less apprehensive, allowing herself to relax a bit. She interjected with the odd, “yes” and “I see” or “I can manage that,” in the appropriate places. He sprung up at one point, like a jack in a box, returning with a pair of white rubber gloves. “These are to sort through the clothes with,” he explained. “You would be horrified at the amount of dirty clothing we receive, even underwear.” She inwardly recoiled at this, although it did not really surprise her at all. Some people’s standards were very low.
He had jumped up again, returning this time with a gun, not the firearm type. She smiled to herself at the thought of that. This was a clothes-labelling gun that thrust a spike through each item affixing a price tag to it. He demonstrated on a dress that had obviously been spiked on numerous occasions to explain the technique to new recruits. Well, that all seemed fairly simple. She was allowed to have a few trail spikes and eventually mastered the task, handing the gun back to George, who again was scratching his head, triumphantly.
Once again, she saw him catapulting from his seat returning with a curious object that she did not recognise. “The steam wand,” he explained, “we hang up the suits, dresses, skirts and trousers and steam the creases out. A wonderful invention, saves all that tedious ironing.” She attempted to put an expression of being truly impressed on her face. Well, perhaps she was, just a little bit.
Having finished the backroom induction talk, he guided her back to the shop floor and showed her how the clothing was hung on the rails, sized and grouped into colour ranges. She liked that. She appreciated order. She felt it was all straight forward and was about to say so when she realised George had made a bee line for the till. She quickly followed him. Here he went into intricate detail with accompanying head scratches, about the Gift Aid, Pink Stickers, World Cancer Day, stand up to Cancer Day and finally, with apologetic tones, introduced the topic of “shaking the bucket”. This was a periodic stint of standing with a tin in the High Street collecting donations from often reluctant, over busy pedestrians who had not quite perfected the ability to avoid eye contact. “It can be quite cold,” he explained, “so we don’t ask you to do it often,” he quickly added.
“Would you like to start on the till or in the store room?” George had obviously finished the induction.
“The till please,” she replied, “If you think I’d manage all right?”
“You won’t know ‘till’ you try!” He roared with laughter at his own joke. She responded as well as she could with a short chuckle but her mind was already on the daunting task of being in sole charge of the incoming money. Alan had disappeared, she assumed he had completed his shift and she couldn’t see any sign of the lady who had been filling shelves.
“Break a leg,” shouted George as she watched his retreating back disappear into the stockroom. It wasn’t until then that she realised that she still had her coat on and her handbag was on her arm. Too embarrassed to call George back she put them both under the counter. Needs must, she thought to herself.
Then she waited. She wondered how long it would be before she could test out her newly acquired shop skills. There were six people all together, roaming around, picking up pieces of memorabilia, reading the first chapter of a book, sifting through the CD and DVD rack, holding up clothes to the light or against their body for size. No movement towards the till though.
“Excuse me,” she was shaken out of her reverie by a voice that seemed to come from nowhere. She then realised it was a child of about five years old whose head hardly rose above the height of the counter. “I want this,” the voice continued.
She leaned over and extracted a large, fluffy rabbit from the hands of the infant purchaser and was about to look at the price label attached to said animal’s ear, when a much larger hand extracted it from her grip removing the infant simultaneously. “She don’t want that, little so and so. She can’t keep her hands off anything. She’s got too many toys as it is, ‘er dad spoils ‘er rotten.” With that she strode out of the shop steering a now grizzling child in front of her.
She felt quite deflated. Her first sale and it turned out not to be a sale. Still, she put that down to beginner’s bad luck.
“How much?” A strident woman, with a voice to match, was standing at the counter. She pulled herself together. She examined the black gloves as the customer rummaged through her purse. She realised there was no price tag on them. Thinking on her feet she calculated how much the gloves would be worth. “£2.50 please. Is that O.K?” she ventured.
“Those are my bleeding gloves, this is what I am buying.” The customer pushed a set of soaps in a box towards her from the place it had been positioned; Brenda excused herself with the fact that it was further away than the gloves, but it didn’t make her feel any less stupid.
“Do you need a bag?” she asked.
“You flaming charge for them now don’t you. A bleeding disgrace, if you ask me. No, I’ll stick ‘em in me ‘andbag.” At which she did exactly that, paid the required £1.50 and disappeared out of the shop.
She thought about this. One no sale and one sale, eventually happening after her initial mistake. Not a brilliant record up to now. It could only get better surely.
She checked her watch. 3.35pm., just under an hour to closing. Still no offer of a cup of tea. She was just weighing up the pros and cons of trying to locate George when a group of secondary school pupils pushed through the shop door and descended on the handbags.
“This all you’ve got?” One of them shouted across to her through a mouth of chewing gum, repositioning her school bag on her back.
She panicked. She didn’t know if they had any more handbags or not. She would have to call for George.
“What is it you are looking for?”
“Don’t know ‘till I see ‘em do I?”
She considered this for a moment. “I will ask if we have anything out the back. Won’t be long.” She hurried into the storeroom and called George. He hurried out at a pace appropriate to responding to a fire alarm.
“What is it? Is there something wrong?” His head scratching became quite manic. He seemed a bit irritable, which she thought was rather unfair as it was her first day.
She explained the situation to him. He eyed up the group of girls. “Only what you see on the shelves. We haven’t priced and labelled the rest yet.”
“Load of rubbish if you ask me,” one of the girls exclaimed as she tossed a bag she was examining back on the pile. “Get one cheaper at Primark.”
“Could I suggest you take your loud voices and rude remarks and go to Primark then!” She couldn’t believe she had said it. Perhaps it was the tensions of the whole day getting the better of her. She blushed, not knowing quite what to do. Apologise?
“Oh charming!” this came from the gum chewer.
“Oh, come on Sophie. Silly cow can ‘do one’!” one of the others shouted.
“We ain’t coming in here again, smells of sweaty trainers anyway!” one of the others joined in. At that, they all left the shop as loudly as they had entered it.
Quite what ‘do one’ meant she wasn’t really sure and did not really want to find out. More important was the fact that George had been witness to her being dismissive of potential customers. This was her third failure on her first day. She felt quite despondent. She turned around expecting George to be scowling at the least, instead he was beaming from ear to ear.
“I’ve wanted to say something similar to those girls for months. They come in here about three times a week, demanding we go out the back to look for an item and disappear, probably with a good selection of the stock. I’ve never been able to catch them and I’ve never confronted them. Well done, hopefully that is the last we’ll see of them.” He paused savouring the thought. “Now how about I make you a nice cup of tea and you make yourself comfortable in the back room for ten minutes whilst you drink it. I’ll lock the doors and get ready to go. My bus is in twenty minutes but we’ve time for a quick chat.”
Comfortable…. she smiled at the use of her favourite word. So, feeling quite proud of herself that she had triumphed over the rude girls, she bent down to retrieve her handbag from under the counter. The handbag wasn’t there. She searched again, with a sinking heart and a deflated self- esteem.
“Oh well, “she thought “those girls did find a handbag to suit them after all.”
(C) Janet Howson/Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd, 2020
You can read more about Janet and her novel here.
Charitable Thoughts is out now and available to purchase.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in Write On! Showcase, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue of Write On! Available here
Comfortable, she liked that word. It reminded her of being a child and listening to stories on the radio. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin.”