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 shop, to get away from my writing desk, to get out of my flat, and to meet and mingle with people.
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 her grandchildren. She placed an eight by ten-inch portrait print on the counter and carefully unwrapped the paper that protected it.
The old woman 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 old woman rolled out the details of her grandson’s life. We’d never spoken much before, other 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.
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 old woman continued to talk. Her only son, who lived nearby, had “recently” married his former wife’s sister and his former wife and their children had moved to Australia to escape the “unpleasant family situation”.
The old woman 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 old woman’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 suitable frame for her photo and walked back to the cash register.
“Did I tell you my name is Zeita?” she asked. I shook my head. “But my grandchildren call me Grandma Zeit.” The old woman, Zeita, Grandma Zeit said she hoped her grandchildren would come and visit her — before she got too much older. “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 Zeit 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. I never saw her again.
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, many of whom it turned out felt as lonely as I did.
© 1992 Robert Fairhead
NB: This post also appears on TallAndTrue.com.
I recorded my conversation with Grandma Zeit on a single sheet of notebook paper in 1992 after an afternoon shift at the Oxfam shop in Brighton, England. When I uncovered it recently, I thought of crafting the exchange into a short story, but as started I typing 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!