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Harry Lowther

At a certain point in our past the road to the town was completed and most of the businesses here disappeared as the people with money to spend left and spent it elsewhere and the empty spaces were filled by charity shops, and when people died their things were taken there, and then they were bought again by those unlucky enough to still be living, and when they died they went back again, and then again, and then again.

I got a place in one from doing an uncharitable thing. The less said about it the better. It was the first job I ever had, and since then I never kept another one too long. I don’t expect you to understand any of this, but it feels nice to give you a chance, and besides, they said it might help me.

When my father passed from a head trauma - he had fallen on the November night ice outside of our local... well afterwards, we had brought the things here that couldn’t be repurposed for me (I wore his trousers to school). Things like books and pop records from the sixties, the things that held his personality in them that we didn’t want to be reminded of.

My sixteen-year-old self wouldn’t have told anyone for the world, but I was scared when I went in. Prisoners seek out authority. It’s reassuring, like pressing your feet against something firm. It was cold. I was too warm because I was scared and I had my dad’s old thick jacket on because it was the smartest thing I could own.

The shop had been here for years, unlike several of the other charity shops which had hatched from the festering town. The clothes in the window were more dated than the others along the street. The customers too. A smell of sickness came from them which I never got used to. They would stand by the racks of clothes and could not be moved from then on. Their tea-stained lips puckering out and in, gasping for air.

She greeted me right at the door with a warm smile and removed the jacket from me, leading me through the shop and past the STAFF ONLYsign into a small staff area with a seat and a hook for my coat. There was also a kettle and a little window which looked out at a brick wall which dripped with pearlescent green slime.

I still felt hot.

‘Have you ever worked anywhere before?’ she asked. I shook my head. She smiled a lot. She was about forty and wore red. Our small talk on the shopfloor over the following weeks would reveal that her adult sons had left home, and that one had died in service. The father was like all our fathers, gone, God knew where, and not missed.

She asked if I wanted tea, to which I again shook my head. Then she showed me the small stockroom as a tour, and then a walk around the shop floor, upon which walked a number of old women who she knew individually by name and ailment. The more expensive stuff was kept towards the back of the shop so that it was harder to steal. Then she showed me the till, and said that the money was kept track of very carefully, and that after all it was all for charity, wasn’t it?

I wasn’t to keep the till first of all though. Instead I was to earn some trust in the little stockroom, going through the new donations and making sure that they weren’t too soiled. She showed me examples of what was considered too soiled. Afterwards I was to sort the unsoiled clothes into separate piles for men and women and children, but not between boys and girls within the children’s pile. I started to do it at an easy pace, but I forgot about the boys’ and girls’ pile and separated them too, essentially adding to my sorting time by like a quarter or something, but I was lost in it. The clothes were haunted by their previous owners, who were stirred out by their lingering smells, by lost hairs, by loose debris left in pockets. It felt strange to touch the last remains of dead people.

When I was four or five, I was out playing by myself when I came across a sleeping cat. It didn’t wake up when I approached it, and when I put my hand to it its fur and skin came apart and stuck to me. It discharged a toxic odour that stung my eyes. That’s what the clothes felt like. All this sorting between things.

I held some of the uglier garments up to myself in the mirror, for a laugh, as the stockroom doubled as the changing room. For the whole three months my work would be regularly disrupted by me having to leave the room for some woman to try on a £1 skirt, which wouldn’t fit, wouldn’t be her colour, just wouldn’t be the one which was going to make her happy, and it would be handed back to me to be put away again.

But I tried them on more. Something about a flowery pink top help up beneath my ugly eyes-close-together face seemed so funny to me any number of times. A gurning pigmy head. Just for a laugh, you understand.

But then, right on that first day, a weird thing happened. Because of my pace, which was already terminal, and my doing the unnecessary extra sorting, when she came and checked up, I was well behind where I ought to have been. There was a small exchange between us and then she kissed me. Her sweater was pressed against me. She pulled my hand to her soft breast, and then you get the rest.

Sorry, but I should tell you that when I came, and it was quickly, I came inside her. She whispered in my ear that it wasn’t a problem. She kissed me again as she tightened my belt back up on my dead father’s smart trousers. And it was gone like that.

After, she went back through to shop floor, chatting away with the old ladies as if nothing had happened, and I just lay amongst the discarded clothing. I didn’t like contemplating on my own feelings at that point, but I lay there nevertheless, my mind empty, emptied out like a dead woman’s clothes.

A glistening memory had been left on the trousers. I felt slightly sore. Eventually I remembered where I was, before anyone might come in and see me laying there, in the old clothes, my young pink cock rolled out and flaccid.

We repeated the scene over and over again for the rest of my placement there. I would do something badly, like miss things in inventory or take money from the till, and then she’d press herself against me and we’d make love in the stockroom.

My home life changed at that point too. I was the man of the house now. I dictated mealtimes to my own schedule. In the evenings it was me and my mum who stayed up in the living room watching TV. She needed me there. She seemed to have no energy anymore and zoned in and out of conversations. My dad had hurt her, but she had needed him as much as he had her and it was my turn to step up, if just for a while.

She still put my clothes out for me before I went in each day, but I felt like how I thought it would feel to be grown up. And then when I went to the charity shop each day, I felt like more of a child than ever before.

We never talked about what happened. We just kept on doing it.

After the three months were done, I left and I didn’t see her again. My next offense saw me gain a more serious punishment. Prison wasn’t as enjoyable an experience for a young man as the time in the shop had been, but objectively it was at least a more sustainable future, and I returned there long before I returned to the run-down shop, though it kept opening as others’ shutters stayed down. When I did go back it was after my mother had died of pancreatic cancer. It was eleven years later and I took her belongings to the charity shop, the unsoiled stuff of course, which I had sat and sorted out, but by then she wasn’t there.

I wondered what might have been left by her in that shop. Maybe a half empty bottle of her perfume in the loo. Her red sweater lost amongst a pile of others. Or a worse thought. Maybe all her things had passed through the shop too, joining all the other lost items destined to return again, and again. I dropped off the memories with the old woman at the counter and left.

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