The girl in the tartan jacket kept her head down, avoiding eye contact as she searched through the rails of clothes in the charity shop. She picked out a pair of trousers and two skirts, then gave a furtive look around. A stern looking old lady with a badge, saying “Volunteer” was taking something out of the window display for another customer and, while their backs were turned, she quickly went over to the rail where the coats were hanging and reached for the one she’d chosen the day before.
The changing cubicle was at the far end of the shop. It was right next to the counter, but the woman serving customers was too busy even to glance in her direction when she strolled up there, went inside, closed the curtain and took off her jacket. The long, black coat was soft and warm. When she put it on and turned to the mirror, she saw herself, Zaffron James, nineteen years old and long term no-hoper, transformed into the kind of girl she saw walking in and out of big offices where they had posh jobs, earned good money and had a different life from hers.
Moving swiftly, she took off the coat and laid it over the back of the chair. Using a safety-pin she had brought in specially, she worked a hole in the manufacturer’s label just large enough to get the shop’s price tag out. She made a hole in the faded label of her tartan jacket and slipped the price tag into that, put the jacket on the hanger from the coat and hung it with the skirt and trousers.
She bit her lip, faltering for a moment. What if her dad could see her now? His best little girl, stealing! Why should it matter? It was so long ago since he had left that she could hardly remember his face. Considering how she’d not heard from him since she was about nine, he must have forgotten hers as well. She wiped away an angry tear and hardened her heart to go on.
From the sound of people talking, she could tell that more customers had come into the shop, so getting away should be easy. Wearing the coat, and with the other clothes over her arm, she just had to walk out of the cubicle and hang the skirts and trousers back on their rails as she passed. Then, just before the door, hang her old jacket on the coat rail, get out into the street and away. Easy. Even so, her heart was thumping as she drew back the curtain and stepped outside. Standing in front of her was a youngish looking woman wearing a badge labelled “Christine, Manager.”
‘Finished trying on?’ she said pleasantly. ‘There's another customer waiting.’
Sick with fright, Zaffron just wanted to drop the clothes she was carrying and make a dash for it, but over the manager’s shoulder, she saw two young women with pushchairs blocking the doorway. There was a notice by the door saying thieves would be prosecuted.
Feeling as if she would choke, she managed, ‘Yes, thank you,’ and glanced down at the clothes she was holding. ‘I don't think any of these suit me.’
‘But that coat looks lovely on you. When it came in a couple days ago, I thought it was something really special. Don't you think this coat looks lovely, Ida?’ the manager asked the stern-looking, older volunteer person who had walked up to them.
‘Customer finished with those has she, Christine?’ Ida demanded, as though she hadn’t heard. ‘I'll put them back then,’ and taking the skirts, trousers and the jacket, she marched back up the shop to hang them on the rails.
Zaffron started to undo the coat buttons. ‘I was just trying a few things on. I can’t really afford anything just now.’ Her mouth was so dry she could hardly say the words as she struggled out of the coat.
The manager gave her a sympathetic smile. ‘Coats haven’t been selling that well in spite of this cold weather, so I could let you have it a bit cheaper. How much was it put out at?’
Sweating with fright, Zaffron handed the coat to her and said, ‘There’s no price on it.’ The door was clear now. They couldn’t prove anything. She could walk straight out of the shop and they couldn’t stop her.
‘Everything should be priced before it goes out, so I don’t know what could have happened here,’ the manager was saying. Zaffron’s stomach gave a sickening lurch as Ida came back with her tartan jacket.
She sounded indignant. ‘I don’t know who was on yesterday afternoon, Christine, but I keep finding things wrong this morning. Look at this jacket. It’s a disgrace, worn on the collar and cuffs. Who’s going to buy this rubbish and at that price?’
‘Just bin it then, Ida. Oh, excuse me, there’s a customer waiting.’ Taking the black coat with her, the manager hurried over to the till.
Zaffron knew she should get out of there, but instead she found herself following the volunteer and saw her go through a door behind the counter, take her jacket off the hanger and throw in a bin. It was a rotten old thing, but it was the only one she owned. She had to get it back.
The manager was speaking to her. ‘I can put the coat on one side for you if you like. You can have it for eight ninety-nine.’
Zaffron shook her head. ‘Thanks, but I’d better not.’ She had to find some way of getting into the back of the shop. ‘There’s a notice in the window asking for volunteers. Could I do it, or do you just want older people?’
‘Of course not. It’s very nice to get an offer of help from a young person. What’s your name?’
‘Zaffron, but people usually call me Zaffy. I could start now if you want me to.’
‘Strictly speaking, I shouldn’t let you touch anything until we’ve had you officially checked out as a volunteer, but this morning there’s only the two of us on and we’re really busy, so I’ll make an exception just this once. I’m Christine and the volunteer you just met, is Ida. I’ll let her know you’re helping out and she’ll tell you what to do.’
Zaffron went through the door behind the counter into the sorting room and stood by the long table next to the bin where her jacket had been dumped. Ida, on the other side of the table sorting through a heap of crumpled clothing, gave her a welcoming smile that made her look much kinder.
‘All this was piled up outside the door when we got here this morning,’ she said, pointing to the cardboard boxes, black plastic bags and old suitcases that stood beside a large wooden pen already too full to take any more.
‘We get some lovely donations, but take this bag I’ve just opened. It makes you wonder if people don’t know the council runs a rubbish tip.’ She swept the whole lot into the waste bin standing next to her. As she turned away to tie up the top of the plastic lining sack, Zaffron grabbed her jacket, dropped it onto the floor and kicked it out of sight under the table. She was only just in time because Ida came round to her side of the table, tied the top of the waste sack in the bin next to her and asked her to drag it outside for the ragman.
‘It’s very good of you to come and help. I didn’t know how we were going to manage this morning,’ Ida said as they each heaved another big, black plastic sack over to the sorting table.
Both of them being so nice to her was making Zaffron feel guilty. She was scared too. Once Christine wasn’t so busy at the till, she might put two and two together about the coat. Still, she couldn’t afford to leave without her jacket, so she got on with taking out items of clothing one by one, with Ida giving a running commentary on looking out for moth holes, sorting out sizes and what to throw away. Time didn’t drag when she was with other people, doing something useful for a change. It was nice and warm in here, and there wasn’t that bad smell like in most second-hand shops. After a little while, Ida even made them all a cup of tea with biscuits. They had worked their way through two more sacks when Christine came into the sorting room with an armful of clothes that hadn’t sold after two weeks on the rails.
‘We’ve got to cull the entire stock today, so leave the sorting for now.’ She told them. ‘Ida, I need you to get on and steam some more stuff ready to go out. And Zaffy, I want you to cut the price tags out of the clothes I bring in, fold them and put them in the green sacks ready for transfer to the warehouse.’
Ida gave her a small pair of scissors and she set to work, amazed that some really nice things like trendy skirts and tops hadn’t been snapped up. She was feeling worthwhile for once until Christine came back with another armful of clothes. She looked furious.
‘Three empty hangers in the women’s jumper section again and I really thought I’d been watching out for thieves today. I mean, how despicable can people get?’
‘Well, bad luck to them. They don’t care tuppence whether we raise money for famine victims or not,’ Ida said, ‘There’s not a day goes by that we don’t have something pinched.’
A wave of self-disgust swept over Zaffron, but what did they know about having nothing? They probably could have anything they liked that came in, without even paying for it. She’d got to get out of here.
‘Oh heavens! It’s nearly twelve o’clock. I’ve got to go home and take my dog for his walk, or there’ll be an accident.’ Her voice sounded too loud and sort of jerky, but neither of them seemed to notice.
‘You’d better go then, Zaffy,’ Christine said, ‘but would you believe it? It’s started snowing.’
While they were both looking down the shop at the white flakes swirling outside the front windows, she bent down, snatched her jacket from under the table and threw it back into the bin beside her. She took a chance.
‘Snowing? And I came out without a coat this morning. Can I borrow this jacket from the bin? I’ll bring it back.’
Turning towards the rail of clothes waiting to be put out for sale, Christine said, ‘That old thing won’t keep the cold out. You’d better borrow something warmer,’
‘No, this is fine, I’ve got this thick jersey, so I don’t need anything too heavy,’ She struggled into the jacket and almost ran out of the shop.
Out in the busy road, she started off in the direction of Tooting, walking so fast so that, at first, she didn’t feel the bitter January cold. Not even the snow falling on her face bothered her, but the spurt of anger at what they’d been saying didn’t last long and she slowed down. Another thing she’d made a mess of. Not because of the black coat, she was glad now that she hadn’t managed to take it, but going to work there with kind, ordinary people might have been a way to get back into normal life instead of living on the outside of everything and now she was too ashamed to go back and face them.
Remembering Abdul, the dear old dog, she had to squeeze back her tears. If she still really did have him to go home to, it wouldn’t be so bad, but he had died a terrible death long ago.
Twenty minutes later, standing at the back of the squat, hearing radio one blaring full blast and knowing the boys from the downstairs front room would be in the kitchen, drinking endless cups of tea, smoking their spliffs and whining about having no money, she didn’t want to go in. The thought of having to put up with dirty suggestions when she walked past the open kitchen door to get upstairs to her room made her turn away. She went to sit in the bus shelter. It was freezing cold, but at least she could get some peace and quiet for a bit.
In the charity shop, briefly empty of customers, Ida said, ‘It was when she was going out of the door in that tartan jacket that I remembered seeing her come into the shop wearing it.’
Christine sighed, ‘I should have picked up there was something wrong when there was no price tag on that black coat. And no hanger either, now I come to think about it.’
‘What a pity. She seemed so helpful and interested in what we were doing. Nice looking too with that lovely long hair and dark eyes.’
‘It goes to show that I really must stick to not letting anybody work here until I’ve had a reference.’
There was a pause, then Ida said carefully, ‘It’s not as if she actually took anything, Christine.’
‘Whatever way you look at it, Ida, you can’t get away from the fact that she came in here intending to steal.’
‘The way she was dressed, she looked really poor. Not like some of the people we’ve caught trying to lift things. It might have been just the one lapse because she was so cold.’
‘That doesn’t make it right.’
‘Still, if she comes back, I think you could give her a chance because, unless we get some more volunteers soon, I don’t know how you’re going to keep this place open.’
‘It isn’t an issue, Ida. I’m pretty sure we won’t see her again.’
Half an hour later, both of them were equally surprised when Zaffron, her jacket powdered with snow and her thin face flushed with embarrassment, hurried into the shop, holding out the small pair of scissors.
‘They were in my hand when I put the jacket on, and I must have put them into the pocket without realising. I came back as soon as I found them. You mustn’t think I’m the sort of person who would take anything.’ Neither of them spoke and she went on hesitantly, ‘It was nice this morning. I’d really like to come to work here.’
For a moment Christine wavered, then said, ‘Well, now you’re back, perhaps we’d better talk about which days you can come in. For a try out at first. And there’s some paperwork to complete beforehand.’
Ida, smiling to herself, took over the counter while they went to Christine’s desk in the sorting room. She got out an application form and started to go through it. When they came to the word occupation, Zaffron couldn’t bear to tell the truth. She said she was a student.
‘But I’ve no lectures on Mondays or Thursdays. I could come in all day then,’ she added, remembering students she’d met who seemed to have had more days off than they had on.
‘Two full days would be very helpful, as long as you are sure it won’t interfere with your studies. And I have to have the name and address of somebody who’ll give you a reference, so that I can send off for it straight away. You can’t start with us officially until I’ve heard from them.’
‘There isn’t anybody. I mean I’ve not been living round here long and I don’t know a lot of people yet.’
Christine said firmly, ‘Zaffy, I have to have a satisfactory character reference before you can start. From someone you’ve worked for, or a teacher from your old school would do, because I can’t take you on without.’
When Zaffron didn’t say anything, she suggested, ‘Why not have a think about it and get back to me? You’ll have to get their permission for me to contact them and for them to write back and vouch for your character.’
But they won’t, will they, Zaffron thought as she left the shop a few minutes later, because she didn’t know even one decent person who she could ask to back her up. She was stupid not to have thought about it before because the sports centre, where she had been hoping to get an interview when she had tried to take the coat, would have asked for a reference as well, so it was no use trying for that job either.
It was already getting dark at four o’clock in the afternoon. The snow had turned to sleet and her suede boots were letting in water, so that her feet were like lumps of ice by the time she had trudged the mile back to the squat. She felt worn out after working all morning, on top of walking to and from to the shop twice. She would have paid for the bus just this once, but one had driven off before she could get to the stop and she didn’t want to stand about in the cold waiting for the next to come along.
The house, with the doors and windows boarded up, like the other three in the terrace, was on Seldon Road, off a main street in a run-down area of Tooting, but she could only get in and out from the back, which meant going down the previous turning along Albany road. After about fifty yards, she climbed a narrow flight of open stone steps between two tall shop buildings and made her way across the flat roof of a disused factory, then down a fire escape into a deserted yard and through broken garden fences to the back of the squat, where she climbed in through the back window. More than two years before, when the three of them fled from a previous squat, Wayne Maynard and Mousey had found this house, got the boarding off the sash window of the back hall, levered it open and taken possession. It had been a lovely summer then, but today it was nearly as cold inside the house as it was outside and she just wanted to go to bed and get warm, even though it was only half-past four in the afternoon. It was so quiet that she could tell the boys from the downstairs front must have gone out, but when she went into the kitchen to boil some water for her hot water bottle, Mousey was in there, attempting to wash the filthy vinyl floor with cold water and the remains of a mop.
‘Weather drove us off the site, Zaff. No fun carrying a hod full o’bricks when it’s snowin’ I can tell you.’
Under the harsh white glare of the strip lighting, always on because the windows were boarded up outside, he looked scruffier and more insignificant than ever, but she was glad to see him. She was so fed up about the reference that she told him why she needed one.
‘S’obvious, Zaff. Ask one of those people runs that rehab place you go to Tuesdays. They’d back you up. Say it was good for you, getting back into society and that.’
‘What else could they say? That I’m just the sort of suicidal, depressed, benefit dependent druggy that would be a big help in a shop?’
‘You’re not being fair to yourself, Zaff. You’re clean now and anyway, all that stuff’s supposed to be confidential.’
‘They’d have to say they knew me through the clinic. I don’t want the people at the shop to know about it. I just want to go there as a normal, ordinary person the same as anybody else.’
‘Well then, ask Wayne what to do. Sure to think of something, Wayne is.’
Mousey hero-worshipped Wayne Maynard who, though unscrupulous in most things, did look out for him. When she’d first met them, at that other squat in Camberwell where they lived years before, she’d half believed people who said they were an item, but quickly realised that Wayne’s main interest in life was chasing women. She was sure Mousey liked girls too, though he was probably too shy to do anything about it. He wasn’t much good at cleaning either and she was so surprised to find him making the effort that she decided to help. She poured water from a plastic bucket on the draining board into the electric kettle and put it on to boil.
‘Better use hot water and some of my washing up liquid,’ she suggested.
‘Thanks, Zaff, but go easy on the water. We’ve only got two and a half buckets left and there’s no chance of getting any more until that Egyptian bloke over the back goes off for the night.’
All services had been cut off when they had first moved in. Wayne had known how to bypass the electric meter to get a free supply, but they couldn’t find the stopcock outside the house to turn the water on from the mains. Wayne reckoned it had been concreted over to stop people like them from moving in. An outside tap in the yard behind a nearby carpet shop supplied their water, but only after hours when the shopkeeper had gone home. Even though Wayne had organised Mousey into filling up half a dozen plastic buckets every night, they occasionally ran out.
‘Bloke in the Kentucky Fried was telling me to put a couple of bricks in the lavvie cistern,’ Mousey told her as they did their best to dry the floor with a pair of old track-suit bottoms. ‘Only takes half a bucket of water to get a flush, and now that load of wankers in the downstairs front have gone, we should be all right for a bit.’
‘I didn’t realise they were going.’ She brightened, hardly able to believe their luck.
‘Wayne had enough of them not paying up. He came home and chucked the lot of them out at lunchtime. That’s how I come to be doing this. Wasn’t cleaning up after that lot, was I?
‘Wayne should have made them clean up after themselves. I mean, he’s supposed to be in charge. I hated Steve Harris, but at least when we were in the squat in Camberwell, he made everybody keep it tidy.’
‘We was well out of there, Zaff, whatever. Harris was bad news, went down for three years when he got done for dealing.’ He undid his packet of Kentucky fried chicken. ‘Want a bit of this Zaff? I’m just going to warm it up in the microwave.’
‘No thanks, Mousey. I’m not hungry,’ She put the kettle on again for her hot water bottle, deciding, despite the water shortage, that she had to have something to warm her up. If Mousey noticed, he didn’t say anything.
Instead, he remarked, ‘Never hungry, are you? Wish I was like you sometimes, price of things today.’
‘You could give up smoking, Mousey.’
‘It’s me only pleasure, Zaff. That and footie on the box.’
She had filled the hot water bottle and was at the top of the stairs when Mousey called after her.
‘Here, Zaff. What about asking Wayne write you a ref. himself? Saying you’ve worked for him. No one’s going to know the diff, are they?’
She knew better than to ask Wayne Maynard any favours and pretended not to hear. At one time, she’d been too far gone with drugs and depression to realise how he was taking advantage of her and everyone else who was paying him rent when it wasn’t his house. When they ran away from the squat in Camberwell, she had been too grateful to get her room upstairs to care that Wayne was charging her nearly half her benefits. Mousey had fitted a bolt on the inside of her door and a padlock on the outside as soon as they moved in, and she felt safer here than anywhere she could ever remember.
She loved her room and kept it clean and tidy, though it had been just as dirty and neglected as the rest of the house when they moved in. She’d had to leave all her stuff in Camberwell so, at first, she’d made do with just a sleeping bag on a mattress Mousey had found in a skip. Over the last months, she’d started to feel better and bought stuff from the Indian shop on the main road to make it nicer. First, the white paint for the walls, then the two blue and white checked throws that she had fixed to the top of the window frame to do for curtains. They were always drawn to cover the boards outside, but they looked nice. The most expensive thing had been the folding camp bed, but it was so fresh and lovely with her new duvet and pillow that it was worth it. She’d found a little table in the back yard and scrubbed it clean and bought a folding wooden chair to hang her clothes over at night. One of the helpers at the clinic, where she had to go every Tuesday, had given her a bookcase that her daughter had finished with, so her library books went there. Next, she was going to get a pale blue lampshade to go over the electric light bulb because it would look good and keep the light off the ceiling, still dingy because she hadn’t had enough paint.
After that, she wasn’t going to spend any more because she was saving for the deposit for a room somewhere else. Most of the other girls she’d met at the clinic were living in places of their own. They got the rent paid, but you had to be able to give the landlord a deposit as well as paying the rent for about six weeks until the council agreed to take it over. It was going to take ages to save that much, but it showed how she was getting better that she was even considering it. When they first came to live here, she’d been so frightened in case Steve Harris’s gang found out where she was living that she couldn’t go out, let alone think of getting her own place. She’d been scared last time she had gone for a review of her benefit in case they took her off it, but they hadn’t. Deep down, even though she had been dreaming of being a receptionist at the sports centre when she’d tried to take the coat, she knew she still wasn’t well enough to hold a proper job down. They were going to review her again in six months and, if they said she was O.K., they’d put her in touch with an organisation that specialised in helping people like her find work. She would have a different life then and be a different, better sort of girl.
She got into bed but left the light on, because it was in the dark that memories came back. Even though they’d not been so bad lately, she wished she had a radio, because it helped if she had something else to think about. Glenys and Dave, who had the room next door, were usually out in the daytime, but at night she didn’t mind if they put their TV on so loud that she could hear everything that happened on NYPD or whatever. And at least it was better than listening to them fighting or having sex. Or sometimes both. She clasped the hot water bottle to her and fell asleep.
When she woke at about half seven that evening, she realised that she had got to make her mind up about how to get the reference. There didn’t seem to be any other way than to ask Wayne, so she went downstairs to look for him.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Wayne Maynard was as big and beefy as Mousey was skinny and small. His one-hundred-and-twenty-pound trainers were a testimony to the amount of rent he was charging what he called his tenants and the rest of his clothes were designer gear. When she asked him for the reference, he beamed.
‘No problemo, Zaff. Fact is the Mouse here has already mentioned it to me. What about, “I have known this young person for over three years. My wife and I have every confidence in her as a babysitter for our three young children. I have also found her honest and reliable when she has helped out with paperwork for my electrical supply company. I strongly recommend her to you.” O.K.? I’ll get my Sonia to type it out really nice. There’s nothing that girl wouldn’t do for me, and I’ll have it back to you straight off.’
‘It’s fine Wayne, except that it doesn’t work like that. I have to give the manager your name and address and she has to write and ask for it directly from you.’
‘No point in that with the front door boarded up, including the letterbox, is there Zaff? But I’m sure that the lovely Sonia won’t mind if I use the address of her snazzy little apartment just this once, as I’m practically living there most nights.’ Smirking, he added, ‘And I’ll expect a few concessions from you, once you’ve got your feet under the table. Mustn’t forget how I got you away from a very nasty situation in Camberwell, Zaff, and it’s only fair that you help friends that helped you. See what I mean?’
‘I’m not going to nick anything for you, if that’s what you mean.’ He didn’t like people, especially girls, standing up to him and she could feel the reference slipping away, but he kept on smiling.
‘Wouldn’t dream of suggesting anything dishonest, Zaff. Just, if I should come in and see something I fancy, you could let me have a few quid off and no one would be any the wiser. Would they?’
She said she supposed not, though the thought of it was spoiling things already.
After he had gone swaggering off for a night out with Sonia, a computer programmer who Zaffron thought must be desperate, Mousey asked her, ‘Something up, Zaff?’
To avoid telling him that she hated the sight of Wayne, she said, ‘I’m a bit worried because I told them at the shop that I’m a student. Now I’ll have to keep on pretending and it’ll be hard to make it convincing.’
‘Woman down the job centre told me you can get in free at the Adult Ed. for GCSEs. You could do a couple of them, Zaff, bright girl like you, and then you’d be a sort of student. Unless you already done them all at school.’
Which, of course, she hadn’t because school had ended after she’d got her savings from the Post Office and caught the train to London to look for her Dad at the address on the last letter she’d had from him years before. She had written to him so many times and got no reply that she’d been sure that something was wrong, like he was ill and needed her to go and look after him. She had been thirteen then, six years ago.
‘Left school with no sign of ever having been there, me,’ Mousey was saying, ‘and can’t see the point of starting again now. But, if you want to tell them in the shop you’re a student, you could just go down there and sign on.’
Things were getting more and more complicated, she thought as she left the Adult Education Centre the following evening. The GCSE English course had started last September, but then it turned out not to matter because people had dropped out after Christmas. The tutor had come out specially to speak to her and said she was glad to offer her a place in this term’s Friday evening class to make up the numbers. She explained that if you didn’t feel ready to take the exam in June, there was always next year and getting started was what was important. Zaffron had filled out the form and handed it in straight away, but everything was mounting up. There was the clinic on Tuesdays, the shop on Mondays and Thursdays and now the English on Fridays. With homework to do and books to read as well, she didn’t know if she could keep going because, when she had bad days, she couldn’t get out of bed let alone anything else.
But the good thing was that, when she gave Wayne’s name to Christine, he wrote back to her request for the reference straight away. Whatever he said, must have been convincing because, two weeks from the day she didn’t take the coat, she was doing her first session at the shop.