Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Charity case

Since the start of the year I have been volunteering once a week at a charity shop – supporting a bloke with autism. We hang up polyester trousers, label books and talk about films from the '90s - of which he has a spooky knowledge; he’s a walking-talking IMDb.

I started volunteering when I was feeling especially sorry for myself and eaten up with hatred for the city and the job. It has reminded me to keep a sense of proportion, that there is life away from newspapers and the computer screen and that money is not everything.

It is also fun. I get to hang out with the smiley girl on the till with down's syndrome, community service workers who always make you a cup of tea (‘I’m here cos I been a naughty girl, ya nah?’) and an assortment of life’s misfits who are out of work and come in for a chat and a second-hand blouse.

I arrive this week and there has been a mix-up and the bloke I mentor has not turned up. But the shop manager is run-ragged and asks me to stay and help.

I watch the shop floor and rearrange videos, rag dolls and chipped cups. I eye-up two wooden chairs that have just been donated that I quite fancy for my front room.

The manager asks me to pay in some takings to the bank. She tells me that £200 has gone missing from the till today. I tut-tut appropriately and head off with the bumbag of cash, the paying-in slip and my escort – a volunteer in his 40s. He is gay, penniless and claims to be a descendant of the Ming Dynasty, as well as a chartered accountant and hairdresser.

‘She is suspicious of everybody about the £200,’ he says, twirling up the street. ‘They think I could have taken it. I have blue blood! Maybe they think you took it, too?’

I leave him at Greggs, dancing and buying pasties, while I go to pay in the money.

I think about the missing £200 while waiting in the bank. 'What sort of person steals from a charity shop?' I think. The cashier interrupts me.

‘This is £20 short,’ she says, counting the takings for the second time.

I take the money back to the shop.

‘Oh dear. Maybe I counted it out wrong,’ the manager says, looking at me.

I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt even though I know I did not take the £20. The more I try to look natural, the more I look as if I am a liar and a thief. And if I took £20 what would stop me taking £200?

I shuffle around the shop feeling terrible. If I go back and reassure her that I didn’t take it, would that make me look guilty? Should I empty my pockets? Surely she does not think I took it? She had just told me about the missing £200... it would take a particularly stupid person to then go and take £20 from under her nose. Or maybe a particularly clever person?

The rest of the shift passes uncomfortably, with me trying not to look guilty of something I did not do. It is exceptionally difficult.

I finish and go to buy the two wooden chairs. I see they are £10 each. I shuffle out of the shop empty-handed.

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