Wednesday, June 1, 2011

As I live and breath - Charity?

I spent my Adelaide Saturday thrift-store-hunting with Zoe and the Architect.  Zoe is the queen of second-hand-stores: she knows every single one of them between Kapunda and Port Adelaide, and she spends her Saturday mornings in the over-stuffed back rooms of church halls across the Barossa valley. 
            We began in a little store on the edge of Tea-Tree Gulley.  It was the best possible sort of second hand shop.  From the outside,  it was small and nondescript, just a door and a window stuffed with raveled sweaters, a box of distressed paperback romances, and a hanging rack of geriatric car dashboard mats outside on the pavement. Only inside the shop revealed its true self - nested geometries stuffed full of books and vintage evening gowns and baby clothes and antique ski-suits, light-bulbs and crockery and wooly winter beanies and scarves and ties and handbags and shoes and dinner dresses -
            Oh, the dinner dresses... all of them all glittery and spangled and most of them desperately, eye-searingly, shoulder-paddingly pleated, sequined, studded and vintage nineteen eighties.
If my suitcase were as five-dimensional as the shop, I'd have taken home an armful.
            The hats were another kettle of feathers.  A door-frame behind the cash-register, approached at the right angle, unfolded into a long shelf of aerodynamical Adelaide Cup hats, trimmed with feathers and flowers and bunches of glass cherries and crab-apples.  I picked up a fetching black Merry-Widow wide-brim trimmed with most of a  white  feather boa and admired.
            A tiny old woman with white hair piled high on her head appeared from  behind the edge of a dust-mote.
            "She used to do amateur theatricals."  She said to me, fingering the feathers.  "The owner of the hat.  When she retired her husband insisted that she give away SOME of the costumes and she gave all the hats to us.  It's nice, isn't it?"
            "How much is it?"
            "I don't rightly know.  The others are between two and three dollars, but that one's scarcely dented - it could be as much as five.  Do you see a price tag on there?"
At length, and after some difficulty, I found a tag buried in the feathers of the boa.
            "TEN dollars."  The lady read.  "That's a bit much. Clara!"  She called out to another elderly lady  - this one was presiding over the cash register. "Do you think that we could give this nice young lady a discount?"
The lady behind the cash register looked up and I noticed that she had a firmer jaw than the white-haired darling, and that her hair was cropped firmly about her neck in a stiff, no-nonsense bob.  
            "You want me to give you a DISCOUNT?"  She said to me.  "Here?  In this shop?"  Stepping out from behind the cash register, she advanced on me with a contemptuous twist to her lips.
             "What sort of person asks for a DISCOUNT in a CHARITY shop?"  She said, pitching her voice to be heard through the whole room. 
            "It's  the Royal Society for the BLIND giving you that discount.   It's Children with CANCER giving you that discount- you know that, I suppose? Is THEIR money worth that much to you?"
She sneered at me.  "Don't you BELIEVE in CHARITY?"
Elderly women were popping into existence between hats and winter coats and  peg-boards of costume jewelry.  They all stared at me, open mouthed, their heads shaking, their hands rising up and boney, arthritic index fingers raised up to point-
I fled through a door into another room, where Zoe was rummaging through a bin of wooden block toys.  Shuddering and shaking, I  poured out the whole incredible story.  Zoe let out a shout of laughter.            
            "REALLY?" She squealed. "I don't believe a word of it!"
With epic narrative timing, a third elderly lady emerged from a shoe-box behind the toy bin.  She pointed a long index finger at my midriff.  Following the finger, I saw that I was still holding the hat - tightly, in both hands.
            "What were your intentions with this hat?"  She asked coolly.  "The original owner was a noted actress in our local theatrical community.  What were YOU intending to do with it? A birthday party, perhaps?"
She flicked the hat lightly with her finger and looked at me from beneath a raised eyebrow.  Very much beneath.
Stammering slightly, I said something about a past history of fashion school, and a consuming interest in historical costumes and how this hat would make a fabulous accessory for a late-Edwardian merry widow ensemble - I don't know what had gotten into me.  My brief admiration had run its course in front of the cash register.  I wouldn't have wanted the thing if you'd paid me.
The lady considered.
            "Yee-eesss…." She breathed critically.  "That would be acceptable.  But what you have to REMEMBER" she said, pinning me with a stern look and that long index finger "Is the ORIGINAL value of the hat.  Don't you THINK that you're doing rather nicely as it is?"
She turned on her heel and swept out to the cash register.
            "Here."  I said, thrusting the hat to Zoe with shaking hands.  "Put it back for me.  I don't want them to see me do it.  I don't want to be the lady who tried to cheat the charity shop - and surrendered."
Zoe shook her head to clear it, and girding her loins, sailed defiantly into the front room, where a three-way argument was going on.
            "I saw Water for Elephants last night and I thought it was LOVELY."  The white haired darling was saying firmly.
            "But what about the CRUELTY?" The woman with the long index finger said.  "The terrible things they did to that elephant - I wept!  I would hardly have called that film lovely!  I'd never have seen it if I'd known -"
The firm-jawed lady snorted with impatience.  "It's ACTING."  She cried.  "For heavens sake!  I can't believe you were both taken in by a crew of acting animals!  They're perfectly happy!  They probably loved every minute of it!  Really, if we cried about EVERYTHING we saw up on a movie screen - you two bleeding hearts - "
Zoe must have had her jaw hanging somewhere about the level of the floor because the woman with the index finger looked at her sharply and said "Are you all right - dear?" 
Zoe picked up her jaw to answer, but a young man entering the shop behind her though that the question was meant for him and spoke first.
            "Just fine." He said.  "Thanks.  Just looking around."
            "Ooooh!"  The lady with the index finger squealed joyously.  "Isn't he HANDSOME?   And what LOVELY manners!  It's been such a LONG time since a handsome young man flirted with ME!"
Her shoulders shaking,  Zoe turned and precipitously fled from the shop into the sunshine, closely followed by the young man, scarlet faced and steaming.

There must have been something in the water.

We fled into the hills and ate lunch sitting on a verandah that commanded a view of an entire valley- olive groves and acres of vines, with fig and sweet apple trees tangling in our hair and fresh autumn winds to drive cobwebs - and white marabou feathers on black hats  - out of our heads.

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