They bring in beds. They bring in bed linen, pillows, the bedside table, the reading lamp, the bookcases and the books. They bring in the knives and forks, the cups and plates, usually chipped, not always sellable, never quite clean. Out the back, they pull up in their utes and their station wagons and unload their old couch or cupboard. And their men and our men – Bob and young Danny – carry one corner each, try not to drop it, try not to break it, and add it to the pile at the back of the store.
As for Rose, well, she helps out with a couple of little things here and there: things like the phone calls, and sorting and pricing the clothes. We get a lot of clothes. We get bags and bags of shirts and shorts that people have grown out of or grown sick of; bags of skirts that people can’t bear to see any more because they remind them of their skinnier days or their fatter ones. We get clothes from dead people. We get lots of clothes that aren’t quite in style this season, but which are still more than good enough for the poor. I’m still not comfortable with the clothes. I still don’t think I could wear something that’s hung off the shoulders of another life. But Rose seems to like them anyway.
In fact I’ve noticed that quite often the clothes are sorted into three piles: clothes that need throwing out, clothes that need pricing and clothes for Rose. Funny thing is, the clothes that Rose chooses to keep for herself are never the best ones. If there’s lace on her choices, it’s ripped or yellowed with age. If it’s a blouse, there’s a button missing. If it’s a skirt, well it’s never the right length for her – either too short or too long. I used to think that, if Rose was making all this effort, she’d at least be wanting to fix the clothes before she wore them. Rose looks like a person who is good at sewing, or was good at sewing, all big eyes and thick glasses and tiny hands. But I soon learnt that she’d wear those old skirts and blouses just as they were – wrong length, wrong colour, wrong size for her ever shrinking body.
Bob tells me that Rose was once in charge of this place. That for years, she was the one who opened the store in the morning and locked it up at night. The one who monitored all the stock – not just the clothes – and even helped the men out back with the heavy lifting. Her husband, dead now, headed up one of the big city banks in his day. Apparently he made a good enough income that Rose didn’t have to work a real job. She could just work here from nine to three while the children were at school, and on the weekends. Bob says that when Rose’s children moved overseas, they pulled up out the back in their 4WDs and donated all their old furniture to the store.
Bob said that Rose used to have portrait photos on her desk. Shining, professional portrait photos of her husband, her girl, her two boys. They’re all gone now, and the photo frames have been sold in the store.
Bob says that Rose wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting me in, three days a week, to deal with fundraising and PR. After all, she used to manage the money here herself. She used to do it her way, donating a little bit of her housekeeping allowance now and then when there wasn’t enough to pay for the lease on the shop or the tea and biscuits for the volunteers. Rose tells me, over and over, again and again, that the needle that clothes so many people should stay bare itself.
I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I know it wasn’t advice given in any of my PR textbooks. This place needed posters which could be hung in community centres, church halls, doctors’ surgeries, shop windows. Customised letters that could be dropped in every mailbox. A web site. An email list. A banner that could be hung over Albert Park Bridge with big letters and bright colours. A citywide collection day. Give us your money. Give us the things you’ve bought and don’t need. Help us to help the poor. Help us to help ourselves.
Sure the posters and the postage weren’t cheap, but you’ve got to spend money to collect money these days. And the place looks so much more modern now, with the fresh coat of paint and the younger volunteers out the front serving the customers. The logo had to change a bit, sure, but that’s for the best. My research questionnaires showed that the whole cross thing was alienating some of our potential donors. I removed all references to the Church from the mission statement for the same reason.
Rose still has a tiny porcelain Jesus on her desk. But that’s okay. I’ll let her keep that because it’s out the back and none of our clients can see it.
Next to Rose’s area, there’s a staffroom now, which doubles as boardroom when I need to meet with potential corporate donors. There’s a table in there, and a comfy couch (new, not donated). I’ve partitioned off an office with a desk for Bob, who I now call the CEO, and one for me. And there are three phone lines now, and three new computers. At her desk, Rose sorts the clothes-to-sell into colour order, and answers the phone.
‘Hello and thank you for taking the time to make a difference, you’re speaking with Rose.’
If I get my way, Rose will soon be only sorting the clothes. I’ve got nothing against her as a person of course, it’s just that the calls we get now are so much more complex than the ones she used to have to deal with. People don’t just want our address any more. The other week, for example, we got a phone call from a woman claiming to be a close personal friend of Witi Ihimaera or his publisher, or something. She was saying that the publishing house was willing to donate 5 per cent of the net sales profit of Witi’s up-and-coming release to the shop. And Rose said:
‘Who’s Witi Ihimaera?’
Well by the time I got to talk to the woman, she was all offended and pretty much ready to hang up and have nothing more to do with us. She would’ve had every right to, of course. Witi’s pretty famous these days, particularly after Whale Writer. But I managed to calm her down, reassure her I’d read all of Witi’s books (I haven’t but I saw the previews for the movie twice) and that we’re definitely looking to get a better educated receptionist. Looks like the deal’s going ahead now, but it was a close call.
And yet Bob keeps talking about Rose’s great organisational skills. How she once organised a bake-sale to which even the mayor donated a cake (chocolate, and slightly burnt on the base). Rose implemented the pricing system for the store, Bob tells me, and she even used to use her own car to deliver items to families who couldn’t afford the transport. Nowadays, she keeps a list of numbers written on a refill pad by her phone – who’s called, who to call back. Just numbers. No names. ‘I remember the names,’ she says.
Well that’s fine. While she’s here. But say she gets hit by a bus. Then all we’ll be left with is a list of mysterious numbers. That isn’t useful. That isn’t efficient.
We’re growing all the time. We shouldn’t stick to inefficient processes. The pile of donations out the back is bigger than it was last week, and that one was bigger than the week before. We’ve got a waiting list of volunteers. I’m starting to think we might need to get a second store within the next year. I’m starting to think, too, that we could put another 10 per cent mark-up on the goods we sell, pay for a television advertising campaign and maybe a couple of billboards.
To tell you the truth, I’d like to use Rose’s desk for a full-time accounts person. Someone who’s not afraid of the computer, can work a bit of magic with MYOB and make sure we don’t pay too much on the taxes. Someone who knows how to dress to impress, instead of wearing clothes that we wouldn’t sell to our clients. Bob says it’s all a possibility, but not right now. Rose loves this place, he says. This place contains her life work. Sometimes Bob’s a bit old-school as well. He’s the CEO and yet he’s always out the back with the boys, lifting and loading.
We got a staff photo taken over summer. For the annual report. I got a copy printed for all the volunteers and a couple of spares as well. There’s one hanging over the front counter, one on the staffroom wall, one on my desk, one on Bob’s. There was one on Rose’s desk too. A photo of all of us, standing outside the store, wearing our best clothes and smiling. Now it’s only a photo of Rose, and the store.
The rest of us have been cut out of the staff photo, individually. I’ve found individually cut out pictures of Kate and Diana, our serving girls, blu-tacked onto one of the mirrors-to-sell, next to the price tag. $19.95. I found one of Danny on the staff room TV. Bob’s – and it was only his head and shoulders because he was in the back row – was stuck next to the light switch at the back door. I didn’t know where I was, until one day a new customer brought to the counter a copy of Ihimaera’s Whale Rider, and Kate discovered that I’d been placed in there. As a bookmark.
In that photo, my hair has been freshly dyed and gelled back and I’m wearing the new suit I bought from Smith and Caughey’s for the occasion. Look at me, look at my team, look at all the good I’m doing, I think.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Over the past couple of years, Natasha Leitch has lived and worked in Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, America and Korea, but in 2005 she has stayed here in Wellington, done the MA in Creative Writing and tried to write a novel. Her story, ‘Charitable Relations’, was the result of a class challenge to write a story that contained a tiny Jesus, a mysterious number, a photograph from which something had been excised, someone claiming to be a close friend of Witi Ihimaera and the words ‘the needle that clothes so many people stays naked itself’.