There's plenty going on upstairs. It's hot upstairs. There's steamers upstairs and sometimes they burn you. One time one of the pipes broke and that left only one steamer in operation. Nick lets me know gleefully when the new pipe comes in, shows me it in the store room. It's coiled like a snake but I tap it anyway to check its firmness while Nick watches, repeating the fact that we have a new pipe for the broken steamer. It's only a matter of time before he'll be joining me in the hard work.
Most of the time Nick cubes which is to say he puts the little numbered cubes onto the metal hook of the clothes hangers. He identifies them, their size. He has taught me that the black felt hangers are for the ladieswear and there's an abundance of them today. Meanwhile the men's hangers are wooden and thick and make hollow knocking sounds when you snatch a spare one from the rail. The pink hangers are for the vintage clothes, the metal clip hangers are for the trousers and it's a good thing that the radio is on when we get there or else we might lose our minds with the boredom and repetition of it all.
It is repetitive. When the steamer scolds me it wakes me up to the fact that only an hour has passed since the last time I glanced at my watch. Nick's conversation goes on and on in circles. He means well but he has the sort of brain that doesn't age with the rest of his body. Arrested development although please don't hold my word to it, I'm just trying to avoid all the obvious mean-spirited ways of putting it. He's a good kid in a middle-aged man's body but he does go on about DVDs a lot. How many DVDs to a box set of Terry and June? Is Doctor in Distress out on DVD yet? His sister says no but he insists on confirming it with me. I'm a lot more responsive when he talks about Doctor Who or even Queen CDs which he's started doing very recently. Apparently he has every single Doctor Who episode on his hard drive but he isn't bragging, he really doesn't understand bragging. He has a sense of humour with some level of sophistication but only as far as knowing that people are teasing him. I rarely tease him unless Sean is around.
Sean is a character, the life and soul of the bric-a-brac storage room upstairs. There are three floors and the jolliest man is relegated to shifting toys and picture frames at the very top. He does come down to lay out new stock which he sometimes does rebelliously, just to spite another volunteer who is apparently very fussy and likes to boss people about but plays the little old lady card when those people talk back. I hope I never have to meet her. I won't say this woman's name because I don't really know her aside from all the nasty things people say.
Anyway the day goes on: we bring up white bags of clothes, we rip them open and hang the clothes, we steam them, Nick cubes the hangers and we wait for someone else to price them. There is an intricate system of pricing in a charity shop, so intricate that customers often complain about it on the shop floor. They try to haggle but, of course, that's not company policy. Apparently people even come up to Pauline who works down on the till just to tell her that this coat is overpriced or how can you expect to shift so many necklaces and jewelled bands with £3.99 a pop? I quite agree, Pauline agrees, even Sean agrees but that's how we're told to do it. The manager isn't around long enough for us to make proper inquiries.
Pauline is another character. She's the one who stands at the till all day except for lunch and toilet breaks and grumbles at being alone and so cold. There's a heater behind her but it is quite far away from where she needs to stand. She's been getting more help lately after discovering that she has a rather aggressive cancer but she's still on her own whenever I see her. Apparently customers have noticed this too and a few of them have been taking advantage. They say I want to buy a bag for later, which is 5p incidentally, and then they disappear into a changing room with a bundle of clothes. They return some clothes but they keep what remains in the plastic bag and make a hasty retreat. To know that they do this exactly makes me think that someone has caught one doing it and maybe stopped them but all there really is is a note on the till.
I've run the till a few times, both with Pauline and without her, and have cocked up almost all the time in some way. Apparently people don't like their change cocooned in the receipt, it makes them quite venomous. Some people just like to talk which I do but I don't quite feel comfortable around them.
I generally prefer working upstairs with Nick, with the radio playing in the background. I sometimes ask Nick to sing along with the song currently playing but, of course, he says no and just keeps on cubing. I carry on steaming and eventually have to roll up my sleeves so I can properly focus on these new, creased sleeves waiting to be tidied and distributed to the rails downstairs. Thankfully that's not always my job, usually Nick and I just bring them down and the people on the tills do the rest.
Sean often visits us though not as often as he visits Pauline. They have a cute relationship which involves a surprising amount of swearing. They get on very well and, if Sean isn't upstairs, then that just means he's downstairs having a laugh with Pauline about something. He brings her trinkets.
He brings sweets for me and Nick: flapjacks and shortbread stars. He teases Nick about the woman who takes over from me in the afternoon, the blue-haired Charlotte that Nick never seems to stop talking about. She prices the ladies clothes and is apparently quite young. I hope to meet her someday and I hope even more that I find her physically attractive and compatible. We have Nick in common, his little frustrating behaviours, and I like to think that she hangs and steams just as much as I do. We might bond over that. She might see how patient I am with Nick, how well we get on and that might be an attractive quality in her. She isn't the first young female volunteer that I've never met but heard a lot about, that I've thought about like this. It's what happens when you steam iron clothes all day and listen to sexy songs on the radio. Usually Nick's out on lunch at this point.
These are my loneliest and quite frankly oddest moments. I start talking to myself, letting out little verbal tics and glancing over my shoulder to make sure that the manager or Sean or anyone else hasn't just walked in to hear them. So far I've been lucky.
I usually work more thoroughly. I pull out sleeves and iron them individually and check that the shoulder straps of dresses are properly on the dents in the hanger. I run my hands up the rest of the curve but it's not like the hangers you get at a department store, those are plastic and prone to breaking. These are felt or wood and ultimately strong.
It bothers me that I can't work quicker. I want the clothes hanger to pick itself up and plonk itself down on the rail that is always a good two paces away. I want to turn back and find that the next item of clothing is there waiting to be steamed but no, that sort of behaviour is just for Nick. He reappears after his lunch break, coat off, and begins to cube what I have steamed all over again.
I convince him to take occasional breaks when neither the manager nor deputy manager are in and we go down to check on Pauline. We sometimes find Sean there and someone helping Pauline run the till. We have a little joke and keep our eyes on the customers that have been giving Pauline grief but we ultimately go back to work with a laugh cut in half by the closing of the door.
Charity shop volunteering can be a lot of grunt work.