‘Mornin!’ Isla threw her woven shopping bag to the floor and quickly untied her headscarf.
‘Mornin,’ Alick shouted from behind the counter, bent down, picking up an array of books donated by a young woman earlier that morning. It had been such a large pile they had collapsed and fallen to the floor, scattered themselves everywhere. He placed them back on the desk one by one and smoothed the glossy covers.
‘Aw we needed mailboxes,’ Isla said as she fixed her glasses on her nose, peered down, inspecting the titles. ‘Smashing! No’ jist crime and romance.’
‘Ah know, but in a wee village like this, yer no’ goin’ tae git much variation ah suppose. The auld biddies like their racy stuff, and a bit ae crime.’ Alick, having now rescued the pile, walked over to the bookshelves in the far corner, and stacked them up ready for the other volunteer that would be in later.
Holding her wet headscarf, Isla peeked at the spines again, and then wandered to the back of shop. She draped her wet scarf over the kitchen sink, removed her coat and leather boots, squished her small feet into a pair of pink, fluffy slippers. She spent so much of her time here, sorting bags of clothes into piles: male, female, child. They would all have to be washed and pressed, before hung on coat hangers at the front of the shop. There were cardboard boxes full of plates, dishes, mugs and cups, and sometimes cutlery, wrapped in pages of old newspaper that inked your fingertips. She flicked on the kettle and set two white mugs down. One for her, one for Alick.
Her favourite donations were always the children’s toys: the teddies, dolls, jigsaw puzzles and colouring books. She often wondered whether children missed their toys. More than once, she had seen a little one come into the shop holding the hand of a parent and get teary-eyed over an old tatty doll without a home. She really did hope most of them had simply grown up, no longer had time for board games, toy cars, soft teddies and dollies in pretty, lace dresses – their innocence having drifted away quite slowly but also all at once. Now with the pained seriousness of teenagers, they preferred computer games and fancy phones and going shopping in town for cool clothes and new shoes.
They had wanted weans, her and Archi, but it had never happened and eventually they’d resigned themselves to being childless. Nevertheless, many children came to the village hall on a Saturday morning for Kids Club where she helped out every week. She gave them cups of orange cordial in plastic cups and sticky lollipops and sometimes, just occasionally, read them a story if they would sit still long enough (and if she had permission, of course). Her neighbours had children, too, who she would watch play in the garden from her living room window or listen to while she completed a crossword.. She filled the kettle and threw teabags into the mugs, thinking that just because you didn’t have your own children, it didn’t stop you being part of other kid’s lives.
Grabbing a new bag, Isla pulled out a red and white polka dot blouse; pretty really she thought, holding it up to the light. She jumped as the bell above the glass door rang and the hinges gave their predictable squeal. Usually Alick would start chatting as soon as someone even touched the glass, but he remained curiously silent and she couldn’t help but put her head round the door.
Alick stood stock-still, mouth open, arms pressed to his sides, as if he had seen a ghost. The ghost was a young girl in a a pair of black jeans and a short blue anorak who was skulking around the shop like a cat, her head cocked as if listening to a sound no one else could hear.
Isla stepped from one foot to the other, thought about the clothes she had been sorting through, sighed and hurried over. ‘Hullo. Kin ah help ye?’
She decided she looked about twenty three, incredibly thin she noticed, like a twig, clothes filled with unruly creases, stories in the dark shadows beneath her eyes. Her fingernails had been bitten right down, they looked like bloodied stumps. Must hurt she mused.
‘This!’ Isla jumped, her arms almost shooting up in the air with surprise. She smiled self-consciously and looked at the woman. In one hand, a toddlers t-shirt, in the other a pair of bright, blue stripy socks.
‘Ye want these?’ The girl nodded, looked up, but before anything else could be said, she moved off, stealing uneasily around the the racks and crowded shelves of the shop.
Alick took the things, rang them up on the till, whilst they both stared over their respective glasses.
Eventually, other stuff was thrown down on the counter. Old-fashioned plates, three mismatched knives and forks, two mugs, a plastic breaker, a black and white football.
A car alarm let out a wail, fracturing the silence. The girl flung herself to the floor. Her screams competed with the sound coming from the grey Volvo outside. Her arms cradled her own head.
‘Whit’s ra matter?’ Isla rushed around to the front of the counter.‘Whit’s ra matter?’ She took the girl’s thin arm, tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to her feet.
Staying low, this frightened young hen rose, eyes heavy with fear, breath jagged, looking between the window and the door, window and the door, back and forth, back and forth.
‘Kin ah git ye a gless a watter?’ Alick, finally having found his voice offered. His cheeks lit up when his question failed to get a response. Then he watched her try and compose herself which took the sting out of her not wanting his kind offer of cold water.
‘Huv ye goat weans?’ Isla rubbed at her eyes, in that odd way one does when they can’t understand something and moved behind the counter, stroked the cotton t-shirt and the little stripy socks, smiled.
The girl, hearing this question, most likely over the screech of her own heart, waved and pulled out a battered looking phone. He must be dark like his mother Isla thought; the thick black hair and large chocolate brown eyes. Sad eyes she noticed, had she cried when she fell to the floor.
‘Assad,’ she suddenly said, her finger poking at the cracked, dirty screen. It showed a small picture of a dark-haired boy crouching down on a yellow, dusty floor.
Aw he’s beautiful! A right fine boy!’ Isla leaned in for a closer look. ‘Whit’s e’s name again?’
‘Assad. Him Assad.’
‘Ach, just luk at ‘im…..oh, I’m Isla’ She prodded her own chest, then pointed at Alick, and told her new friend his name too.
‘Isla, Alick. Alick, Isla,’ The girl reached out for the counter and rested against it for a moment.
Alick put her things into a plastic bag and told her the cost. She opened a ratty looking purse and showed it to them. Isla slowly took out the money, then gave the exact same amount back.
I, Rashida,’ the woman whispered, looking at the crumpled note in her hand, somewhat quizzically.
‘What a lovely name’ Isla and Alick chirped together.
‘Charity’ Rashida waved her hand around the shop.
Aye. It’s a charity shoap, hen. Wur here tae help folk,’ Alick said, finding his voice once more.
‘No charity like this.’
‘Not in Syria.’
© Copyright Henrietta M Ross