Writing can be lonely, especially if you’re living on your own in a cramped flat, in another country, far away from family and friends. So when I lived in England in the early-1990s, I volunteered to work one afternoon a week at the local Oxfam op shop. I needed to get away from my writing desk, get out of my flat, and meet and mingle with people.

The Oxfam Shop

I had seen the old woman in the shop a few times. She’d forage around among the knick-knacks on the shelves for an hour or so and then walk, slowly, almost reluctantly, to the counter to buy a single teaspoon.

One day she walked straight to the cash register and asked for help to find a frame for a photo of one of her grandchildren. She placed an eight by ten-inch portrait print on the counter and carefully unwrapped the paper that protected it.

The photo revealed her “grandchild” to be a stocky twenty-something bloke with a bronze tanned face and a bushy handlebar moustache.

“My grandson looks just like his grandfather did,” she confided. “He works at a coal mine in Australia,” she went on. “He flies there from Perth. And he works long hours and earns lots of money. He owns a Harley Davidson and big old Valiant. That’s an Australian car, you know.”

I nodded as the grandmother rolled out the details of her grandson’s life, without revealing that, I too, was Australian. We’d never spoken much before, other than the usual cash register patter:

“How much is this teaspoon?” she’d ask.

“Fifty pence,” I’d reply.

“But I’ve only got twenty pence with me today,” she’d say with a sigh.

“That’s okay,” I’d say and top up her twenty pence with thirty from my pocket.

A Family Situation

It was quiet in the shop, so I came out from behind the counter to help her find a photo frame. As we looked, the grandmother continued to talk. Her only son, who lived nearby, had “recently” married his ex-wife’s sister.  And his ex-wife and their children had moved to Australia to escape the unpleasant “family situation”.

The grandmother dearly missed her grandchildren. But at eighty-three years of age, she felt the twenty-four-hour flight to Perth would be too much for her. And she wasn’t sure how her former daughter-in-law would receive her.

To compound the grandmother’s sorrow, her new daughter-in-law’s children were “yobs”: “They lounge about in shorts that leave nothing to the imagination.”

In contrast, she spoke warmly of her distant grandchildren. “There’s my grandson who works at the coal mine and another one who restores antiques and …” We found a frame for her grandson’s photo and walked back to the cash register.

Grandma Zeet

“Did I tell you my name is Zeeta?” she asked. I shook my head. “But my grandchildren call me Grandma Zeet.”

The grandmother, Zeeta, Grandma Zeet said she hoped her grandchildren would visit her soon. “At eighty-three,” she said with another sigh, “it’s best not to plan too much into the future.”

I put her grandson’s photo in the frame for her and rang up the sale on the cash register. It was three pounds. Grandma Zeet only had one pound in her purse, so I topped it up with two pounds from my pocket. She thanked me and left the shop. And I never saw her again.

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Shared Loneliness

As I said, writing can be lonely, especially if you’re on your own, far away from family and friends.

That’s why I volunteered to work at the Oxfam op shop, to meet and mingle with people. It turned out many felt as lonely as I did, and we shared and eased our loneliness in the Oxfam shop.

© 1992 Robert Fairhead

With thanks to Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay for the teaspoons image.

N.B. This post also appears on the Tall And True writers’ website. You might also like my observations on England in this post, English Pubs and Last Orders (January 2018).

I recorded my conversation with Grandma Zeet on a single sheet of notebook paper in 1992 after an afternoon shift at the Oxfam op shop in Brighton, England.

When I uncovered it recently, I thought of crafting our exchange into a short story. But as I typed up the words, I realised it would also shape nicely into this blog post.

The funny thing is, back in 1992, I hadn’t heard of the internet or websites, let alone blog posts!  

This post was proofread by Grammarly
About RobertFairhead.com

About RobertFairhead.com

Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.


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