The shop smells of outgrown teddy bears, black plastic bags and the damp must of discarded lives. The bags are stuffed with piss-stink suits, 1970’s woollen coats with missing buttons and shoes too stiff and scuffed to be useful again. At the back, beside the toilet, cheap toys, spine-burst books and green glass what-not’s pile on Formica shelves. A radio plays thin music covered with static while Monica sits behind the counter, knitting a scarf. The yarn is acrylic and pink. She hums along to the radio and pushes her varifocals back to the bridge of her nose every now and then. Next to her, a cup of tea cools in ring-stained World’s Best Grandmother mug.
A row of slumped jackets and coats stretch against the wall by the door — Gentelman’s and Ladie’s in black marker pen on a piece of corrugated cardboard. Underneath the coats, another collection of wire and plastic hangers holds up shirts, blouses and trousers. To the right of the door is a revolving stand that displays the pink and black ties, belts too short and pale-cream handbags with gold clasps.
Through the blue-tacked appeals posters and faded post-it notes on the windows, the traffic stutters. The rain is grey, spattering the glass, distorting the taxis and buses into indistinct smudges that blur past each other. The windows of the shop are misted with slung patterns and water drops slide down when the vibration of a Number 38 shakes the glass and gravity grasps the water, trailing it to the window ledge.
He ducks in from the street. The bell dings as the door opens. The stiff door closer clacks twice behind him, the slam sends more drops to the ledge.
Monica looks up from her knitting.
‘Hello love, terrible outside isn’t it… been on and off all morning.’
He nods, the rain drips off his coat. He only came in to get out of the rain. He looks at his watch. The gold dials tell him he has half an hour to kill before the meeting.
‘Looking for anything in particular love? We’ve got some lovely ties and there’s a whole new box of videos came in from a nice lady. Her mum just passed away. There’s Pride and Prejudice and some really nice old films.’
‘No, thanks. Just having a look, thanks,’ he lies.
‘Well you work away and if you find anything you like I can do you a good price. It’s all for charity, the disabled.’
The radio crackles and the news comes on.
Monica turns the volume up. She listens with her head on one side, her knitting still on her lap.
He stands looking at the coats, pushing his arm between the tight-stacked crimplene and stay-pressed. He looks at the paper labels, safety-pinned to the sleeves. At the end of the Gentelman’s rack he finds a black suit that looks as though it might fit him. He lifts the suit of the rail and hangs it on the tie rack. It’s been pressed between dead old mans’ clothes for too long and smells of Embassy cigarettes and Mackeson’s Stout; it’s nothing a dry clean wouldn’t get rid of. He had no intention of buying anything when he came through the door but the wool is fine and the cut is classic, expensive even.
He slips off his damp coat and tries the jacket.
‘Ooh, that’s lovely on you. Look nice with a white shirt.’
Monica puts her knitting down and stands.
He looks into the black-spotted mirror. His reflection stares back between the chipped-silver edges.
‘You’re right, it’s not a bad fit,’ he says as he pinches the bottom seam of the jacket and lifts it, looking for marks.
Monica leaves the counter and shuffles over to the low rail, her walking stick is the telescopic type bought from the back of a magazine. She is breathless by the time she holds up a frayed white shirt.
‘You should try it on, you can use the changing room.’
She points her stick at a half-length green curtain, stapled over a recess next to the toilet.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ he says as he looks at the label on the inside pocket. The jacket lining is purple, two-tone rayon. The suit wasn’t cheap when it was new.
‘How much is it? I’ve only a little cash on me,’ he lies again.
A passing bus shudders the windows and the door, the radio’s static bursts loud for a moment covering his question.
‘Sorry love what did you say? It does that all the time… every time a bus passes. I can’t seem to find anywhere to put the thing that it doesn’t,’ says Monica.
‘I was asking how much it was, I’ve only a few quid on me.’
‘Well let’s see if it fits first, before worrying about the money.’
Monica smiles, her arm outstretched with the shirt.
He takes the shirt and jacket.
‘Wait a second,’ says Monica.
She brushes past him, smelling of Imperial Leather soap, reminding him of his own grandmother. The scent is of reassurance, of summer holidays and rice-puddings with jam. He breathes in through his nose to capture it for a moment.
Monica turns and holds out a thin, grey-blue tie.
‘I think that would look just right my love, it would go with your eyes.’
‘Do you have a belt? I think the trousers may be a bit big.’
Monica turns to the tie rack and lifts a black leather belt.
‘I think this is the only one that would fit you,’ she says, handing the belt to him.
‘Just in there?’ he says, nodding to the green curtain.
‘That’s it love, make sure you pull the curtain, don’t want you exposing yourself to me now, do we.’
Monica’s laugh turns to a deep cough. She waves her stick at the curtain, still coughing.
He walks to the back of the shop, past the books and green glass, past the teddy bears and the door to the staircase.
He steps into the cubicle and closes the curtain, making sure it stretches to both walls. The cardboard sign says, Only 3 items of clotheing at a time, please.
There is a single chrome hook on the wall. He hangs the jacket on the hook and undoes his belt. The walls are the same colour as the curtain, green hospital eggshell. The lino floor is cold and damp when he takes off his shoes. He pulls off his jeans, leaning against the wall and leaves them in a pile on the floor. The cubicle smells of rust and disinfectant.
He hears the radio static loud again and the low thrub of a diesel engine in the street.
‘It must drive her mad,’ he mutters to himself.
‘Are you alright in there love, don’t need a hand or anything?’
Monica laughs again and coughs again.
‘I’m fine, thanks.’
The trousers are a little loose, the white lining is yellow stained at the flies but the length is good. He could get them taken in and they would be perfect. The shirt is cold and smells of boiled cabbage but it fits. He doesn’t do the top button; it’s too tight.
He tucks the shirt in and slips the belt through the loops.
Monica coughs and he hears her walking stick’s dull thump on the carpet.
‘You really should have a look at the videos too… she was such a nice lady and there’s some TV series there too.’
‘I will, nearly done,’ he says.
‘That’s alright love, take your time.’
He loops the tie and knots it loosely, then puts on the jacket.
The mirror in the cubicle is short and curved. It makes him look bloated. He opens the curtain.
‘Oh, look at you, you look lovely, turn round.’
He smiles and slowly turns.
Monica stands in front of him, her knitting in one hand and the walking stick in the other.
‘Hold this for a second,’ she says, handing him the stick.
She brushes a few flakes of dandruff from his shoulder, runs her hand up the inside of the lapel to straighten it and moves his tie knot to the right.
‘Now that is a lovely suit. A real bargain.’
He turns round again to look in the mirror.
He can see his own reflection, the shop window and the door. The sign on the door says Open. A red blob crosses the window and stops. The light dims. The whole shop seems to shake with the vibration of the bus engine. The radio static blasts.
‘You must get tired of that noise,’ he says.
‘I do,’ says Monica, but he doesn’t hear.
He doesn’t even feel the knitting needle puncture his eye and he’s dead before she can pull it out.
‘I’m sorry love. It’s for charity. The disabled.’
Monica walks to the staircase door and calls up.
‘Frank,will you come down and clean up. He said he hadn’t got much cash but I reckon his watch is worth a few bob.’
‘I’ll be right down Monica love.’
Monica walks back to her chair, wipes the needle on a tissue and picks up her knitting again.