The Charity Boutique
Everything looks washed out when the fog rolls in, cold and wet like a flannel left on a part-time radiator. Makes it even harder to find my way around these forgotten streets. But I don’t want to ask for directions. Not to where I’m going.
So I wander up and down streets I never bothered with as a child. Lucy skips ahead, her red coat a bouncing blob of colour amongst the pale grey. Splashes and giggles and songs about butterflies flutter back to me; all I have for her are barked warnings about roads and dog poo.
“Mam,” she says at one point, tugging my arm. “Come and see.”
She drags me along the street to look at an earthworm, fat and pink and glistening.
“I think he’s lost.” Concern creases her tiny face. “He shouldn’t be here. He needs some nice oozy mud.”
“Oh dear,” I say, still trying to figure out where we are.
“We should rescue him!” Lucy stoops to pick up the worm, still holding my hand.
“No!” I snap, startled by the sudden pull on my arm.
Lucy lets go of my hand and scowls at me.
“He needs our help,” she says.
“It’s just a worm.”
“But he’s lost.”
“We’re lost,” I tell her. “Why don’t you help me? Mr. Earthworm will be fine.”
“No he won’t! He’ll get stood on and squashed. Or he’ll dry up and die on the street. And it’ll be your fault!”
“Lucy,” I say, dropping my voice to a serious sounding hiss. “That’s enough.”
I hold out my hand, conscious that anyone passing will be judging me. She just starts fiddling with one of her boots.
“I’ve got a stone.” She sits down on the damp pavement and tries to tug her foot out of her boot.
“You can’t take your boots off here,” I say. “You’ll ruin your clothes.” “But it hurts.”
Pick your battles, they say. Our library books are in an extra strength Lidl carrier bag, so I lay that on the cracked pavement for Lucy to sit on. Then I squat down and start yanking her boot from her foot, before shaking a no doubt imaginary stone from it.
Everyone who passes looks like a giant from down here. Dark legs striding out of the fog. Is this how Lucy sees the world? At waist height, everyone is just jeans and jogging bottoms, black skirts and handbags.
Can she hear the giants tutting? Can she understand the barely audible swear words they mutter on their way past us? Just another young mother, doing her business in the street. Their street, not ours. We’re intruding, in the way.
No wonder Lucy looks for earthworms to rescue.
By the time her boot is back on, Lucy is all smiles and dimples, ready to skip ahead again. Now, where were we? What are we doing? For a long second, I’m completely lost. Then I remember, and I’m still lost, but at least I know what we’re looking for. I pick up our ‘Bag For Life’, not sure if that’s an optimistic or depressing prospect, and trudge after
I saw an episode of ‘The Apprentice‘ once, all about ‘up-cycling’. Lord Sugar laid on boutiques for his would-be business partners, and they had to acquire a load of second- hand furniture, doll it up and flog it for a fat profit. Bespoke artisan furniture, hand-crafted to create the illusion of bohemia. Want to live like common people? Buy yourself a set of wooden chairs that don’t match, but have Union Jacks painted on them. Only fifty quid each.
This isn’t a boutique. The ‘Community Recycling Project’, they call it. A warehouse full of furniture, all locally sourced ‘one-of-a-kind’ pieces, but there’s nothing artisan about these armchairs. Still, if you don’t mind using an old school desk as a coffee table, fifty quid spent here could probably fill your sitting room.
“It’s just ’til we get on our feet,” I tell Iris, the lady who is showing me round.
“We’ve all been there,” she says. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Lucy tests the couches by lying on them and then jumping up and down on them, because a good family couch must also function as a bed and as gym equipment. Then we move on to armchairs. She races over to a big, heavy looking chair, dark leather and darker wood.
“It doesn’t match,” I start to say, but she’s already sitting in it, waving at her subjects. Iris curtsies, then turns and waits for me to do the same.
“How may we serve, your highness?” Iris asks and Lucy’s off. She wants tea. She wants cake. She wants teddies and dolls and horses. And she wants a jester.
“My husband’s gone out,” Iris says, winking at me, before scurrying off to find some cups and saucers for Her Majesty.
I squat down beside Lucy, but the twinkle in her eyes chokes my tired words. This is how Lucy sees the world. She doesn’t see dirty looks, doesn’t hear tutting and doesn’t feel judgement. She doesn’t see a dirty, slimy worm. She sees an animal in distress. And she doesn’t see second-hand furniture here. This is her playground and her palace.
When did I forget to see the world like that?
We spend the rest of the afternoon sipping tea, nibbling fairy cakes and telling jokes about bottoms. Iris arranges a time for our new furniture to be delivered, before slipping a plastic pony to Lucy.
“She’s too much work for me,” Iris explains to Lucy. “All that walking and feeding and grooming.”
“It’s okay,” Lucy says. “We’ll look after her for you.”
By the time we get away, you’d think Iris was an old family friend. Lucy insists on waving to her as we walk away from the Community Recycling Project, meaning she has to walk backwards until we reach the end of the street.
Then Lucy skips ahead of me, chattering away to her new pony while I try to figure out where we can get a bus home. As I look for a street sign or a familiar landmark, I almost walk into Lucy.
“Mam,” she says, eyes filled up with concern, “Mr. Earthworm needs to go home.”
I’m about to tell her that I can’t even find the city centre, let alone her pet worm, when I see what she has in her hands. Judging by the amount of fluff sticking to him, Mr. Earthworm has been riding around in Lucy’s coat pocket since we last met. I’m no vet, but he doesn’t look well, all shrivelled and dark and covered in red pocket lint.
“Come on,” I say. “There’s got to be a park round here somewhere.”
James Whitman writes stories for young adults (and not-so-young adults). For over a decade, he worked in Youth Offending Teams and children’s homes, so he often writes about people with a lot on their plates. Sometimes his stories have niceties like heroes and happy endings, but only if he’s been especially well fed that week. James also enjoys collaborating with other arty farty types, and is currently developing a project that combines storytelling and street art in Hendon, Sunderland.
You can read some of James’ stories, and keep up to date with his writerly activities, at jameswhitman.co.uk.