Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 10 March 2014

Storylines and characters from the charity shop by Mary Smith

Sometime ago I heard a writer say she often felt like answering the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question by saying she picked them up in a charity shop. I laughed, thinking I might use the line the next time someone asked me that question. Later, though, I found myself thinking about a charity shop as a source of inspiration for characters as well as possible storylines.

I worked for Oxfam for a number of years as an organiser for a cluster of seven or so shops, which raised money for the overseas projects Oxfam supported. I loved my work and have fond memories of both it and the people I met, many of whom were shop volunteers, some of whom were customers. I thought I’d share a few snapshots of some those characters – feel free to choose any and develop them as you see fit! Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Patricia was a terribly posh volunteer who entertained us with scurrilous stories about the landed gentry and other members of the upper classes she would meet at the various royal garden parties to which she seemed to be always being invited. Patricia had an alcohol problem and smoked like a chimney. On one occasion she was working in the back of the shop putting clothes for recycling into black bin liners which, when full were piled up to be collected. Patricia climbed up the mountain of sacks to add one more to the top of the pile, slipped and slithered down, passing out, dead drunk at the bottom. I seem to remember it was about 11 o’clock in the morning. When she had pneumonia and was confined to bed she would wait until her husband had gone out then bump on her bottom down the stairs to smoke an illicit cigarette (kept no doubt in a silver cigarette box) then crawl, gasping for breath, back upstairs.

Another volunteer, Helen was such a softie she couldn’t bear to go near the big open market in the run up to Christmas because the sight of all the plucked turkeys hanging up made her cry. She volunteered to work in the Oxfam shop because she wanted to raise money for the poor people in Africa and India – so they would stay there!

One volunteer struggled to balance her till roll and cash receipts after the introduction of electronic tills. Every time she was on duty the till roll showed quite ridiculous amounts of money. She swore she was entering the correct amount for each sale. I watched her one day and she was indeed very accurate in pressing in the right amount. Then, I spotted what was happening. Molly was extremely well endowed and any time she leant over the counter towards a customer her boobs would ring up yet another sale of a few thousand quid!

A cross dresser frequented one shop because he said the volunteers did make him feel uncomfortable as they did in another, not-to-be-named-here charity shop. The volunteers used to lay aside dresses, skirts and blouses they would fit – and suit – Pearl. He did always moan there were never any high heels to fit his size ten feet.

In another shop we moved the large mirror which leant against the wall in the fitting room and an avalanche of price tickets fell out. Thieves had been taking clothes into the fitting room, putting them, removing the price tickets and presumably putting their own clothes on top. The volunteers were indignant about people stealing from charity until one volunteer gave them pause for thought by saying she thought if people were so poor they had to steal  from a charity shop we should be offering them discounts or even give them clothes for free.

An extremely scruffy man walked into a shop and asked to try on a pair of shoes. The shop volunteer noticed he had holes in his socks as she watched him try on the shoes. They were too small and he handed them back. Just before he reached the door her returned, asked to borrow a pair of scissors, which the bemused shop assistant, with some reluctance, handed over. He sat down in the window, removed his own shoes and proceeded to cut his toenails. Finished, he tried on the shoes he wanted and declared they fit just fine.

I’m stopping here, not because I have run out of character but there is a danger this blog post might go on forever!

14 comments:

  1. Oh Mary, that's hilarious! Thanks for a great laugh - you make it all so vivid. I can picture each and every one of them. You're quite right, a charity shop would make a great setting for a novel. Which of us will be first in the race for this setting?

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    1. Thanks, Jenny. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I always thought a sit-com in a charity shop would be brilliant but someone did that a few years ago - it wasn't nearly as funny as I expected. They shopuld have asked me to write the script!

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  2. Oh my gosh Mary I nearly fell over laughing. You have to finishe this off on my blog someday. My fav outlier ones are the well endowed lady and lady of leisure for sure. U made my day.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, Wendy. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I was able to give you a luagh today. I rather liked the well endowed lady and she was so utterly bewildered about why the till was ringing up such huge sales.

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  3. What a good post, Mary. I love the tramp and his toenails: down and out, but not daft. Anne Stenhouse

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    1. Thanks, Anne. I think the volunteer was a bit worried about what he was going to use the scissors for. He might have cut open the toes of the shoes to make them fit. Definitely not daft.

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  4. I loved non PC Helen the best! But goodness....I'd find myself up before the beak if I did, I suspect. Great post.

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    1. Hi Linda, I have very mixed feelings about Helen whose views were more than a little racist. I suspect if I was using her in a story I wouldn't show her in a particularly good light.
      Her sympathy for the poor naked trukeys didn't stop her enjoying one for Christmas dinner - cooked by her daughter!

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  5. I'm with Wendy - it was Molly who made me choke on my coffee! Thanks for the laugh. When do we get to hear some more?

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  6. Thanks for commenting, Jennifer. I'm pleased to have given you a laugh. I could probably come up with another dozen without pausing too long to think about them. I'll introduce a few more sometime in the future.

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  7. Mary, they're such brilliant characters they deserve a novel - or write all the stories up into a book length series of shorts!

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  8. I like the idea of a series of shorts, Rosemary. I still think there is room for another sit-com about working in a charity shop. Thanks for reading and commeting.

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  9. Lovely Mary, you'ver cheered up my morning when I have a very long list of Things To Do. Now I can giggle over your stories whilst doing them.

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  10. Thanks Gill. Glad I cheered up your morning and hope it makes your list of things to do go quicker.

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