The Dropped Flask
The Twins Who Probably Weren’t Twins were rifling through the clothes rails when Mrs Singh bellowed “It’s a different generation, isn’t it?” into my left ear.
I tore my gaze away from the girls – I couldn’t decide which of the two was the prettier, or if they were pretty at all or simply unusual of feature, or whether their age gap would be measured in minutes or years. Margaret, the manager of the shop, told me on another occasion that I was obsessed, knowing about my previous employment issues and concluding, I suppose, that I was incapable of temperate emotions, to which I had just grunted.
“How old do you think I am?” I asked Mrs Singh.
She scrutinised me, forensically, even her bindi dot narrowing to see me better.
“I’m twenty six,” I lied, and she shrugged.
The Twins Who Probably Weren’t Twins, as ever, left after a few minutes, empty-handed, door jingling behind them. Perhaps the charity shop next door would get their money. There were plenty to choose from along this high street, though we were the largest. The premises used to be a Blockbusters, and a large branch at that. Our square footage alone drew in browsers.
When another of our regulars, a stocky little Iranian man with silver bouffant, Mace-effect aftershave and sweet little scoop-necked sailor t-shirt walked in, wondering if we had anything nice for his wife this week, Mrs Singh patted the back of my hand and stepped aside to let me work.
Not everyone I knew supported my change of occupation. My sister Chloe was so embarrassed by the prospect of people who knew our family seeing me, she talked about moving herself and her daughter Dina to South London. I suggested moving all the people who knew our family there instead, but she wasn’t amused. Or maybe I could leave the area, I suggested, to an unblinking frieze of a face. I went to tuck my niece in before leaving.
Dina didn’t want to move, and we decided to partition London right away. Blow up the bridges. Stuff the Tube tunnels. Blockade the M25. To add to her destructive fervour, I told her she’d probably be the only Jewish girl in the whole south of the city if she and her Mum moved there. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and my family are third-, fourth-generation secular assimilated bacon-eaters anyway. The line had seemed funnier in my head than it sounded coming out of my mouth and frightening a seven year old.
I stroked a curl off Dina’s forehead, apologetically, only to be scolded for messing her hair.
“Does water go down plugs the wrong way in South London, like in Australia?” she asked.
“Only on Wednesdays,” I replied from the doorway.
She declared me mad, and rolled herself over to face the wall.
At weekends, we had a few younger people help out in the shop. When one of them heard I had worked in the City, he asked if I’d help with his Maths coursework. I told him he couldn’t afford my hourly rate. The kid looked at me, weighing up my height, bulk, arm reach, the medicated slur of my eye movements, before calling me a name that hurt my feelings.
I liked an older guy called Eric more. We’d sit out back, sorting through new donations, road-testing any CDs we’d been given. Since he considered anything recorded after Benny Goodman’s heyday to be voluntary tinnitus, a great many of them hit the bin (via the wall) before ever reaching the shop floor. My happiest memory with him was the day he opened a battered suitcase and found that someone had donated a collection of gentleman’s mags dating back to the early ‘80s. He spent the next bright-eyed hour leafing through them, pensively chewing the ends of his moustache while I continued with the rest of the bags. When I turned a thermos flask over in my hands – it tinkled like a rain stick – he asked me to keep the noise down.
Eric and I did the home collections. He’d barely say a word to the donors, keeping his eyes to the ground until we were outside. Then, driving back, he’d not shut up, giving his expert appraisal of the entire property’s inventory. He seemed to notice things with extra sensory perception. I heard evaluations of items in rooms we’d not even stepped into, and wondered, privately, if Eric had untapped professional skills or hobbies of his own, of a nocturnal variety.
Margaret suggested I not be too chatty when we went to people’s homes, which was advice I should have taken. One day, Eric and I had gone to an august property facing the Hampstead Heath Extension, been buzzed in at the gate, and met at the door by a maid. I had colleagues in my previous line of work who’d buy Mayfair flats just to store their off-season footwear in, so I wasn’t intimidated by any of this until the maid led us up a dimly lit flight of stairs to a gallery, where we were introduced to the lady of the house, languishing in caramel sweat pants and zip-up the same colour as her lipstick. The glance that swept across us was like a stomach pump, for the duration that it lasted evacuating any notion of self-worth we may have foolishly scraped together up to that point in our lives. Thankfully, she didn’t look directly at us again, giving us the rest of those lives to recover. With a pained expression on her face, she showed us wardrobe after wardrobe of her husband’s clothes that we were to take. Then she took us down another flight of stairs I’d not seen when we arrived, to a games room, where she showed us his golf clubs, several tennis racquets, a table tennis table. She asked if the charity shop would accept cars. Back up some steps, in another room, stacked on the floor against the wall, framed photographs, some artwork. Take it all, she said.
It took us awhile to load up, and when we finished, I made the mistake of mumbling “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Oh, he’s not dead,” she said. “He’s in Belize with his PA.”
By the time we’d unpacked everything back into the house, it was raining heavily, and we drove back empty-handed and puddling.
I was never in a hurry to leave the shop, often lingering with a mug of tea after my shifts had ended, not necessarily to everyone’s glee. I was back with my parents at this point, which was unexpected and awkward for all of us. I’d sit on my bed in my childhood room for hours at a time, listening to birdsong through the open window, the radio or stereo on murmuringly low. I sent emails to people I knew that disappeared into the ether. I watched DVDs that I borrowed from the shop on my laptop, and tried to avoid going downstairs, except to use the kitchen.
The only member of my family who I truly felt akin to was Dina. For the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend how her dad could choose to live apart from her, whatever he felt for my sister. I’d have gladly adopted her as my own, home schooled her, set up a two-person travelling family circus alongside her to tramp the leafy country lanes of this island... Chloe, in her softer moments, would interrupt such talk and try to reassure me that one day I’d hopefully have kids of my own.
I didn’t like to talk about my domestic circumstances, but Mrs Singh somehow knew of them. She was living with her married son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and told me, when we were locking up one evening, that she felt we were in the same boat. She introduced the subject confusingly, telling me that her son lived at home again, too, but once we’d managed to understand each other, her mouth unpeeled a rare, if tooth-shy, smile of such warmth that I was temporarily convinced she was the incarnation of some Indian goddess moving, rather slowly, amongst us.
Of course I ran too far with this newfound bond. Compared to my previous place of employment, we spent a lot of time at the shop making hot drinks and talking. When it came up in conversation one morning that Margaret’s son was, at that hour, taking his driving test, and Mrs Singh revealed that she had never herself learned to drive, I offered to teach her in my car. She didn’t look especially keen, and Margaret looked outright anxious, but my enthusiasm carried the day, and when I came back from my lunch hour bearing two new magnetic L plates, there was nothing more to do than settle on a time for our first lesson.
We walked to where I’d parked, me touching together then parting the L-plates to enjoy the magnetic cling. Mrs Singh looked at my red 1998 Mercedes SL-class in the grey late afternoon light and asked if I had anything else. I showed her the basic controls, the pedals, the indicators and so on, and let her try them out for half an hour before suggesting we attempt a simple circle around the block. I thought I was doing very well, and pondered whether this might be a possible new career option for me. I explained that the car was an automatic so there was no risk of stalling, and got her to start the engine. We pulled away from the kerb. Rain was spitting at the windscreen, not enough to lubricate the rubber wiper blades but too heavy to switch them off, so we had to listen to them rubbing, rubbing, rubbing across the glass.
I said, “You’re doing great. You’re a natural.”
“It is not so difficult,” she replied, and turned to me for a response before nearly mounting a car-carrier stopped a few feet ahead of us.
I was fit to crawl out, through the air vents, if necessary, by the time we found a space large enough to stop at.
This period was never going to last forever, and I knew it would be something I did that would cause it to end, again. Mrs Singh and I both kept our distance after the driving lesson. Eric wasn’t always in, and maybe I started attending to my own thoughts too much. Sometimes I couldn’t notice them ballooning out of sensible proportion.
I became fixated with the idea of making a sale to the Twins Who Probably Weren’t Twins. I thought it would be fun, a challenge. I knew how they dressed - stretch skirts, hooped leggings, thin cardigans – and started popping into the other charity shops to look for items I thought might appeal. Obviously, this wouldn’t work with clothes they’d already passed over, I realised, and so I started shopping further afield. Then I began ordering new pieces online, leaving the tags on for added attraction.
I’d bring them in in bin bags, so they’d look like any other donations, but on a quiet Friday morning, Margaret invited me to join her in the back. A friend of hers from the Oxfam shop in Highgate had recognised me, and found my general demeanour when in there slightly alarming. I was buying something for my sister, I said, but Margaret remained firm: she’d noticed I was becoming more exuberant of late, a little too insistent with people – she brought up the ‘enforced’, as she put it, driving lesson - and not unkindly suggested it was time that I move on.
So that was the end of my era in the charity shop. I did once see the younger, possibly less pretty, Twin on the street not long after, though, and could have sworn she was wearing one of my V-necks.
Bio: Nick Black’s stories have been published by literary magazines including (b)OINK zine, the Lonely Crowd, Spelk Fiction, Open Pen, Severine, Funhouse, Firefly, Razur Cuts and Litro, with more coming soon to Jellyfish Review and the Ham .
His stories have also won various flash contests and been listed for the 2015 and '16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize.
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