October 8, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
I bought my first early-eighties Harlequin Romance—actually, it was a Mills & Boon—when I was working at a thrift store in London. This was, without question, the worst job I have ever had. Does it count as a job if it’s volunteer work? Anyway, it was bad, that time with Help the Aged. I was a junior in college, studying in London, and feeling down; I had thought that perhaps helping others would pull me out of the doldrums. And, since my volunteer work in the States had always centered around Meals on Wheels and visits to local nursing homes, an organization so-named seemed like just what the doctor ordered.
It wasn’t. Or at least, the way I managed it wasn’t. In retrospect, I probably should have called some central office or at least gone to the Web site to research volunteer opportunities. What I did instead was walk into the local branch of the thrift shop (“charity shop,” in the UK) and ask if they needed any volunteers. I’d imagined visiting with homebound pensioners, as I had at home (they would regale me with tales of the Blitz, rationing, etc.); I’d been game for paperwork too, if that’s what was needed.
“Could you work in the shop?” asked the girl behind the counter.
I allowed as how I could, if they needed help, and added to the bargain that I had quite a bit of retail experience. Good, she said; I could come back on Thursday. Thursday rolled around and I duly reported for duty. It was then that things became clear.
This was my job: to go through the trash bags of donations people contributed and sort the salable clothes from the dross. This is not in itself such a horrible prospect, but I soon learned there was a reason I had been given latex gloves: the donations were often filthy, and not-so-occasionally mixed amongst them was a piece of rotten food or a dirty diaper.
One of the few perks was being allowed to keep any books I wanted, although most weren’t exactly tempting. The first and last one I ever picked up was a paperback romance called The Road to Forever, by one Jeneth Murrey. This is the plot of The Road to Forever: Lallie has been Owen’s stepsister since she was four. When their parents died, Owen raised her and her younger siblings. They had a contentious relationship. When Lallie was a young woman, she was framed, accused of having an affair with an older married man, in fact a publicity stunt (don’t worry about this plot point too much.) Owen, her stepbrother-guardian, believed the lies, and banished her from the family home. He also forced her to live with some horrible couple in lock-down. She escaped, and hasn’t spoken to him in six years. Got it?
One day, Lallie comes home from work to find Owen waiting for her. He informs her that the beloved family housekeeper has suffered a heart attack and he wants Lallie to come home and care for her. He’s already informed her boss. Oh, and by the way, it’s necessary to the housekeeper’s recovery that the step-siblings pretend to be engaged. And also because Owen’s assistant is trying to trick him into marrying her. They return to the family home, where they fight all the time, and Owen constantly brings up the fact that she’s a woman with a past, and whenever they need to “fool” someone, he manhandles her against her will. Obviously, she realizes that she’s always been in love with him. It turns out Owen’s younger brother is living in sin with some woman. Because said brother was also always in love with Lallie and because they have to set a good example for the unmarried couple, Lallie and Owen have to go through with their sham marriage. They do, he realizes she’s a virgin, and confesses he’s always loved her and just ostracized her and sent her away so his brother wouldn’t marry her instead.
I was usually by myself in the concrete-floored back room, sorting clothes by the light of a naked bulb. But I did get to know the other employees (I was the only volunteer, it developed), Lou, a painfully thin chainsmoker with a surly teenage son who occasionally showed up and a love of Pop Idol (then in its electrifying inaugural season), and Becky, who had just been kicked out of her house and moved in with a much older boyfriend. They thought I was very uptight and talked about me openly and derisively; they weren’t wrong.
In the early days, I entertained fantasies of coming across vintage finery, the discarded couture of great ladies. I quickly learned that not only was I supposed to throw away anything that looked remotely old, but that this was usually the right decision. I would return home in the evenings filthy and more depressed than ever.
Here are some choice quotes from The Road to Forever:
“I’ve the right now and I’ll have you down on that couch and carry out my own inspection. Taste and try before you buy, that’s my motto. Even if the goods are a bit shopsoiled.”
She had marvelled at his good temper; he hardly ever called her a vicious little bitch now, just sometimes it was there in his eyes, that suppressed anger, but she ignored it.
“[I’ve loved you] ever since you were a kid, and I wanted you when you were sixteen, even before that, but you were too young. [The housekeeper] knew about it and she warned me off. You had to be given time, she said, so I backed off and cracked down hard on you. You needed it, you tempestuous little witch … other women were just something to keep my mind off a black-haired little terror who ripped up my peace and had me walking the floor at night wondering if she’d scream blue murder if I went into her room and made love to her.”
I am not sure why I stayed as long as I did at the thrift shop; I am certainly not sure why I felt compelled to volunteer four afternoons a week. Part of it was, it gave me so many reasons to hate myself: that I had stupidly gotten myself into this position; that I was too timid to get out; that I couldn’t get along with my coworkers because I was so uptight; that I resented doing a job that helped the elderly. I would hoard and catalogue my crimes with gusto, castigating myself as I lay in bed in my dorm at night. That, and someone needed to sort the clothes. I didn’t even mention the delivery guy, who liked to say loudly that I just needed to get laid, or some British variation thereof.
I started watching Pop Idol; obviously I did. My dorm had a common room with a TV mounted really high on the wall and I started tuning in weekly with a dorky Scot whose other obsession was the film version of Josie and the Pussycats; he screened it regularly. You had to choose sides, Will or Gareth. Gareth was young and cute and had lots of teeny-bopper followers. But Will’s rendition of “Evergreen” was peerless. “When Will sang ‘Evergreen,’” said Lou, in one of our few conversations, “I got chills up and down my arms.” I fervently agreed.
Will Young, of course, won that season of Pop Idol, and for a while “Evergreen” was a popular choice for first dances at weddings. Not long after winning, Will came out as gay to a tabloid; someone had threatened to go public with some pictures or something and he wanted to preempt it. We talked about this a lot at Help the Aged. Then he released a memoir, Anything Is Possible. This year, I read online that he played the emcee in a revival of Cabaret.
When it was time for me to go home, the manager of the shop gave me a card which everyone had signed. I also got to keep The Road to Forever, which I still own. That period, the late seventies and early eighties, was a weird, infamous time for romance novels: maybe as a regressive response to the women’s movement, maybe in response to some obscure publishing trend, heroes were uniformly autocratic and abusive; not just “alpha,” but manipulative, sinister, and driven by obscure and disturbed motives without having interesting or tortured backstories. I collected them for a while, but one has to make choices after a certain point. When I looked up the book on an online rating site, I was surprised to see that it had earned a respectable three out of a possible five stars. “It was a most interesting read,” said one of the three users conscientious enough to comment. I guess so.