The front of the Half Penny Charity Shop looked like a hoarder’s living room and not a rich hoarder at that. When objects like tea boxes full of ancient tea, old pot pourris that smelt of dust and stained china cups appeared on the shelves, it was time for a clear up. And Susan was the only one who did it. Maisie, the other volunteer, loved mess.

“There is a mountain of lovely coats downstairs,” she told Susan, bringing herself into the shop front from the cluttered stairs. “You should go down and choose one. There must be at least one in your size.”
Susan sighed. Maisie was in the habit of reminding Susan of her soaring weight while she, Maisie, was blind to her own.

“I was thinking of buying a new one this year,” said Susan. “I’m getting old and need some comfort.”

“Old? What happened to your tapes? I thought you believed in positive thinking.”

Maisie straightened the hem of her jumper and passing both hands on it she looked at herself in the mirror of the changing room.

Susan sighed as she moved a bunch of silver dusted plastic flowers from the shop window. “Waste of money. After two weeks of telling myself ‘I love you’ I broke down and smashed the CD player.”
The bells behind the shop door rang to announce a visitor. Forest sneaked in, holding a number of worn out plastic bags. His face, signed by lines like a crumpled up piece of paper, slid slightly to one side as he smiled a toothless smile.

“Good morning to one and all,” he said. Then rummaged in one of the bags, “I have brought you this.” He put a clock on the table. “It’s old, you know. Nineteen twenties I believe. Art Deco.”
The apparatus’ hands stuck up, twisted and worn, as if a madman had tried to yank them off in a fit of rage at being woken yet another time for a job he hated.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to fix,” said Forest, whose plastic bags were full of things like that. “It would fit the mantelpiece of a grand house.”
Susan picked up the object and turned it around in her hands. It was like the story of her life, she thought, that twisted sensation of lost time. It still tick-tocked.

“The owner of a grand house wouldn’t be hanging around here Forest,” said Maisie, putting a box of lavender scented bath foam where the flowers had been. “Susan’ll tell you. Won’t you, my darling?”

“The owners of grand houses don’t even suspect a place like this exists,” said Susan.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Forest pushing his chin forward, rubbing together his toothless gums in a laugh that was half full of tears.

Beyond the window of the shop Camden Town moved under a reddish sky, polluted by the cough of hundreds of cars. Steps, millions of them hit the pavements in a cacophony of sounds, a rhythm of life going on despite the sorrows or because of the joys.

A man across the road was sitting on the pavement like an old warrior who had lost his wages betting.

“Old Tom doesn’t feel the cold,” Susan said. “He must have inflammable blood by now with all that cider.”

“He wanted money from the council because they put a photo of him on the front page of their paper,” said Maisie, placing a telephone for the short-sighted next to the spongy pug- like image. “You wouldn’t think he is so interested in money. Would you?”

Susan was still looking at him as he pulled up his jeans, and leant tiredly against the abandoned phone box. Then the bell rang again and a woman with a pram came in. The pram had big wheels and sensitive suspensions. It was shiny, black, with a removable hood like a sports car. It was the sort of thing that would attract a lot of attention. Susan glanced at the baby. She longed for a grandchild. Those pudgy hands and cheeks. The look of eternity not long lost in their milky eyes. She longed for a pram like that.

The woman went at the back to look at the rags hanging off the racks. Trousers, pyjamas, old duvet covers that still smelt of perfume and a basket full of scarves, some made of silk, most of cheap acrylic.

The bells on the door kept ringing, announcing a rush of customers. Maisie came and went from downstairs bringing coats and boots, complaining about her aching knees. Forest, surrounded by people, was still pouring onto Susan a flow of uninterrupted sentences.

“The world is inside me. Like a sea shell I contain it and mould it according to the state of my soul,” he said.

“The world is a big place that ignores us,” said Susan, bagging an item in a sturdy second hand paper bag with the Gucci logo on it. “Why would the world belong to me and you Forest? We are old and lonely. It’s Fate that has put our name on a list of maybes. Maybe they’ll meet the love of their life. No that didn’t happen. Maybe they’ll have a good job and happy children. No, says Fate, perhaps not.”

Susan pressed numbers on the till that opened and closed with a ring. One of the customers was Stingy Mike. A tall old man with a bike he brought everywhere and now left in the doorway of the shop, encumbering it. He was a regular at all the jumble sales in Camden, making it a point to jump the queue and get to the table first.

“Can I give you fifty pence?” he asked, handing Susan a bottle opener. The tag on it said one pound.

“Do you want it for free?” asked Susan and, from the corner of her eye, she saw the mother hold the baby. The smell of milk and Johnson’s baby oil and. Susan’s son was sailing in Barbados. Said he wouldn’t be home for Christmas.

“There’s no need to be rude,” said Stingy Mike.
Maisie, hanging coats on the racks next to the till, spoke to him with a deep frown on her round face.

“You leave the woman alone,” she said. “When did you ever bring anything here? I bet never.”
Mike’s voice changed to a cantankerous timbre and everyone turned to look at him as he bellowed.

“You mind your own business.”

Maisie wasn’t having it. She grabbed a shoe from the shelves and hit Stingy Mike on the knee with its thick heel. “And this is for all the times that you passed me in the queue you rotten old bore.”
“I will get you locked up you lunatic!” shouted Stingy Mike, holding a fist an inch from Maisie’s face.

“Put down your hand,” she said.

“An eye for an eye ends up only making the world blind,” said Forest still glued to the spot, still talking, letting go of miles of thoughts.

Susan felt her heart thump. She didn’t get much excitement in life and any type of confrontation made her anxious. Stingy Mike made a big step back as Maisie went for him with a lamp.

“Fiat Lux,” she shouted. “Fiat Lux.”

“Watch out for the buggy,” screamed Susan as the shop filled up more and more.

Stingy Mike fell on the pram and sent it sideways on the floor. The baby inside tumbled down on his back but didn’t cry. Susan was waiting for the mother to shout or scream but the voice didn’t come.

Everyone waited around the baby.

“Please let me pass,” said Maisie pushing her way through the crowd.

Susan felt her head shake and she hated it. It was the wine that made her do it. And it gave her red cheeks, like a Siberian farmer, or what she imagined a Siberian farmer looked like.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “You have killed the baby.”

Stingy Mike looked around with his small, flashing eyes then fled the scene before anyone could stop him. Maisie still held the lamp.

“Bloody man,” she said. “I knew he was evil.”

“Where is the mother?” asked Susan.

Maisie bent down and picked up the baby. He had perfectly curved little hands slightly red. His puffy eyes closed and his arms limp.

“Wait,” said Maisie. “This is not a real baby. It’s…it’s a doll.”

“What do you mean?” asked Susan. “How can that be? What is the meaning of this?”

“There is no meaning. It’s just a doll. Look…”

Maisie held it by the leg and shook it. “A doll.” She laughed and everyone laughed with her, apart from Susan who felt the doll deserved better than that. It was, after all, a masterpiece of a doll.

“I’m having it,” said Susan taking him from Maisie’s hands. “And the pram too.”

“You are kidding me?” said Maisie.

“No, I’m not.”

“Synthetic motherhood,” stated Forest, munching peanuts with his iron gums. “How decadent.”

But Susan wasn’t listening. She put the baby in the pram and covered it with its yellow blanket, printed with daffodils and birds. “My shift is finished. I’m going for a stroll.”

“It’s always the staff that gets the bargains,” said an old woman, with her arms crossed like a general on duty. “That doll is a reborn. It costs a fortune.”

Susan was looking in the bag left on the bottom of the pram. It had a bottle with milk in it and a packet of nappies. There were no clothes.

“A reborn?” asked Susan latching onto the conversation after quite a pause.

“Yes. You wouldn’t get that for less than two hundred pounds.”

“Well,” said Maisie. “At least Susan’s finally got the grandson she had wanted. Move on everybody, it’s dark outside and I’m hungry. The shop is officially closed.”

Susan bent down to touch the reborn. His skin, so life–like, had been painted with ten different layers of colour. His hair, real hair, had been created strand by strand. His weight was that of a real child and his chest moved as if he were breathing. He had glistening drool on the side of his mouth and he had something that a real child didn’t have: eternal neediness. He wouldn’t grow up, he wouldn’t disappoint or ask questions that could break the heart. Susan walked away from the shop, through the streets of Camden, crowded with tourists and shoppers. Faces passed by leaving impressions of voices and smiles. Susan got on the C2. People had to move to let her on with her ‘sports’ pram and not everyone looked happy. A young man swore under his breath, fitting his earphones well into his ears. Susan looked at him, arching her eyebrows. She felt as if she had the right to more space in the world. It was high time she stopped being invisible. She elbowed the young man, softly but with determination. And she laughed inside. A group of schoolgirls in blue tartan uniforms mounted the bus, screaming in excitement, free from the bondage of culture that kept them sitting for hours. Their energy filled the air. They called their friends across the street. Some people tut tutted. Susan stroked the face of her reborn and thought of the days when her son was young. He was tall now, with dark features inherited from his Italian father. Her son, Angelo. So far away.

The afternoon was dark. A steel moon fought hard to shine on a town with so much light pollution. London looked wonderful from above, thought Susan, from the airplanes dashing along, coming and going. More pollution, more civilisation and beauty.

The bus passed a road of white mansions with gardens abounding with trees and plants. Susan always wondered what it might be like to live in a place like that, with servants and white leather sofas; with dogs that looked like toys and clothes made by expert hands in Paris and New York. Susan had felt envy at times, something she was ashamed of, but that day with her posh pram and her fake grandson she felt happy, content.

As the bus reached Oxford Street the lights grew stronger like the noise of traffic and the bustle of thousands of people, each one of them with a determined direction in mind, a home to go back to or a shop to visit still. Susan felt the impulse to be part of that crowd, to go to those shops herself, after buying for years only in the providential Half Penny Charity Shop.

In the windows of a big shop mannequins with blank faces, dressed in expensive clothes, looked like de-humanized characters of a dystopian tale. The clothes they wore would never fit Susan, with her plump middle and her rugby player’s calves. But she didn’t mind. It was so good to be out of the charity shop.

Maisie was probably laughing behind her back. Maisie and her common sense permeated Susan’s life like an absynthic lethargy. It was only normal that Susan would run away with a fake grandson and take to central London as to a jungle full of treasure. It was emotional shopping she was after, away from her second- hand existence.

She walked into a large department store full of bright light and was immersed in an intense smell of perfume. A shop assistant with perfect make up complimented her for the baby and offered her a bottle of scent. Susan never wore perfume or jewellery set as she was on a course that led to total de-feminization. Maybe it was time for a change.

“Something milder maybe?” she said.

The young woman lifted her thick hair over her shoulder in a quick gesture and offered Susan another bottle. “This is a scent that will follow you around like a cloud of wellbeing. It is traditional yet flamboyant. Perfect for a woman pushing a pram like yours. It’s wonderful. Did you buy it here?”

“I don’t know. My daughter in law bought it. She is an artist you know. She wanted something that would make a good photograph.”

Susan imagined a woman on her son’s arm, blonde, tall, with a Kodak hanging over her breasts.

“Well she’s surely got a good shot there,” said the shop assistant. She had dyed eyebrows that arched over her blue eyes like rainbows.

“She had her work shown at the Academy of Arts,” continued Susan. Lies came out like surprises from cracked Easter eggs. “She’s there now. That’s why I’m looking after Nathan.”

The shop assistant smiled, passing her tongue over her brilliant teeth. She still held the perfume she wanted to sell and now took the occasion to spray some on a strip of absorbent paper. Susan loved it. She bought it and sprayed her wrists and behind her ears. A cloud of new scents accompanied her to the lift and the children’s department. Up there, all around her were shelves of colourful toys, cars and trucks and small red aeroplanes. Susan didn’t stop to think that Nathan would never play with them. Instead she gasped in front of the soft toys: teddy bears and meerkats and cat –like beings with huge eyes. Susan chose a yellow teddy bear with a big purple bow around its neck and a green waistcoat tight over its round belly.

“Look at this, Nathan,” she said. “Isn’t it cute?”

A man wearing a red jumper and with the face of one who spends much time on his morning shave, came beside her. “We have new arrivals in the clothes section,” he said. “And a wonderful organic range of wools and cottons.”

“That’s good to know, said Susan. “Nathan is very sensitive to chemicals.”

“Follow me Madame. I’ll show you the best clothes in town.”

It wasn’t the first time that Susan had been there. She had come secretly several times in the last two years. Just to dream. Now the man was guiding her, chatting about his own children. He was a young man who looked down at her from a considerable height. He stopped, surrounded by clothes in purple and white; in different shades of yellow and blue.

“It’ll be just what he needs,” said the man. Then he did something that sent Susan’s imagination rushing into a spin of anxiety and near insanity. He touched the baby. His face fell first in a misshaping of bewilderment then in a flat swollen expression of embarrassment. He went red.

“What did you do that for?” said Susan posing her hard gaze onto him like a threat.

“I’m so sorry Madame. So sorry. I didn’t mean to…I mean it’s alright. I know about reborn. They can be of great consolation.”

Susan cursed and, restraining herself from slapping the man, she left the floor. In the lift a mother was leaning over her real child, a toddler in his buggy sipping from his bottle. Susan’s anger turned to humiliation and pain. The scent of posh grandmother’s perfume was still intense. It was difficult to hide as its cloud gave out false messages of tranquillity and a certain wealth. Susan thought of the Half Penny Charity Shop with its smell of rat poison and old flowers. Maisie would laugh if she told her the story, thought Susan. And maybe Susan would laugh too. Tomorrow. Now she felt tears bashing against her eyelids. The mother, a handsome woman with Latin features, asked her with a smile how old her grandchild was.

Susan looked at her with bulging eyes full of frustration.

“He’s dead,” she said and left the lift.

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Josephine is an Irish-Italian born in San Remo in 1962. She has written plays which she staged with giant puppets, including ‘Confetti’, which won the first prize in the National Festival of Puppeteers in Perugia, Italy. Her first short stories in English have been accepted for publication five times this year and she is actively looking for an agent for her completed novel.