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It was 12:39 on Christmas Eve, and I was on my way to buy coffee number three, a pretence allowing me to chat with Agata, the attractive server, in the Wealdstone branch of Wenzel’s.
With her shoulder-length blonde hair and sardonic smile, I had initially found her attractive, but she now appeared faintly ridiculous, in those novelty reindeer antlers, with the bells; a cruel joke from Head Office, alongside the minimum wage and Christmas opening hours.
She’d seemed cute; now, after telling me what she thought of the homeless people hanging around out front, by the benches, the full absurdity of her uniform was apparent.
I was helping to prepare the food bank in the church over the road, in time for the Christmas Eve rush; an act of charity induced by my unsympathetic mother: ‘We’re very busy. I could do with your help. You’ve nothing better on as it is, and you’ve been moping around the house,’ she had said, followed with the conciliatory ‘What do you say, pet?’
I had huffed, and puffed, and joined her at the food bank all the same.
I’d learned a bit about Agata over coffees one and two; she came from Gdynia, in Poland, had been in London for two years, and lived in Wembley. She did not like English bread, but was good at lying, she said, which helped her recommend Wenzel’s varied crusty and non-crusty loaves. Camden was her favourite part of the city, as it was mine, valuable common ground, I told myself, despite Camden’s own variety. I decided not to ask where she liked to go, in case it was the vegan cafés, the Costas, or the street-food markets by the Lock that made me claustrophobic.
She liked Camden, and that would do.
Now, she spoke freely. As I waited for my coffee, the milk steamer whistling so that she had to raise her voice slightly, she informed me that the people out front were lazy, feckless, pests.
—They just stand out there all day. Drinking. Smoking. The police should to get rid of them.
—Should get rid of them.
—No, I said.
—It’s should get rid of them. Not should to get rid of them.
She looked confused.
—You told me that your English was terrible, I said, though it was far from that. —I thought you’d want me to correct your mistakes.
She nodded, with forced gratitude.
—I don’t know them, I said, feeling almost sorry for her. —Maybe they’re homeless. I’d want to be hammered if I were out in this cold.
Although she looked confused, still, I could tell that Agata knew that whatever I was saying was something with which she disagreed, and so she smiled the same sardonic smile that had allowed me to overlook the novelty antlers, as I convinced myself we’d a great deal to talk about.
I shied away from conflict. I was by nature averse to arguments, my displeasures hidden behind a smile, sip or smoke. Now, I was apathetic by nurture, November’s break-up from sort-of girlfriend Flo sort of preying on my mind.
I checked my phone with worrying regularity, under the guise of inspecting my clicks and likes (I had forty-nine thousand followers), knowing full well it was word from Flo I was after, knowing I was too proud to contact her myself.
She would be busy. She always was; her work as a set designer had her forever on burnout’s brink, such that she found hope in the cause celebres of Huck and Broadly, The Guardian and Vice.
Flo cared about things. I did not.
She did not value her free time. I did.
Earlier, I had returned to Wenzel’s at eleven bearing gifts; a jar of ground Illy coffee, Agata having confided that she hated Wenzel’s stuff herself, in a hushed and unnecessary whisper that made me feel important.
—Why are you giving it to me? she said.
—Merry Christmas, I replied, smiling in an unnaturally off-handed manner, adding that we were not ‘allowed to give ground coffee away at the food bank.’
With her hand still on the Illy jar, she looked up at me. —They probably have Nespresso machines at home.
I laughed, needing to like her; weak.
Hence coffee three, when the magic finally died a death, as Agata revealed her thoughts on the homeless people out front, adding that while she admired volunteers like my mother, she was certain they were being taken advantage of.
I had made a career of not arguing. I Instagrammed and I blogged, posting and saying not what needed to be seen or said but what people wanted to see and hear.
I created content.
Agata told me that her parents had grown up during the Communist period. They knew what it was like to have no money, so they didn’t dish it out to people like those out front, beggars.
She said that during Communism, people had known how to work, but was quick to point out that she was no fan of the Communist regime, all the while adding once more that ‘Hard working people got a better deal’ as I sipped on my coffee, pressed my Nationwide bank card to the reader, and simultaneously bit and burned my tongue.
—Mmm, I said, wincing, cooling my tongue against the inside of my mouth. —Well, I have to go.
I turned to leave, and wished her a ‘Merry Christmas’, but turned around once more as I heard her sigh, saying ‘for me today is Christmas.’
Flo told me I was saccharine at heart. ‘It’s pronounced Sagittarius,’ I had replied.
She claimed I used humour to avoid pain. I told her she read too much Refinery 29.
I said goodbye to Agata, and left her standing there with her lonely Christmas, in her silly antler hat.
It was quarter to one. The food bank opened on the hour. The church was big, the volunteers Jewish, Catholic, and various flavours of Protestant too.
Mum had been organising the storehouse – where donations were prepared into packages for those in need – for hours. Although it was cold, I stood outside, restive at the thought of being questioned by the volunteers: about who I was, what I did, where did the money come from with that sort of thing, and how enviable it was, to snap, curate, post, repeat, be paid for it all, and travel the world to boot.
It was enviable, but I was in the midst of the sort-of break up, so was sort-of sad, a sad person with a dream job who, as such, hadn’t the right to be publicly sad.
I stood outside, studying engagement of my latest post; on a blog I’d named Don’t Harry Me I’m Hungry.
Ox Flambeau with a raspberry jus, celeriac mash and a side of Bolsover organic carrot. Divine. #dontharrymeimhungry #foodie #foodporn #nomadica #hautecuisine #organic #london
The vast majority of my followers would never eat ox flambeau with a raspberry jus, nor celeriac mash, less still the Bolsover organic carrot. But it appealed to the senses, only now the senses were eyes, envy currency, yellow faces with hearts for eyes all the affirmation I needed.
I liked being liked, and I liked being paid to be liked too.
I was fully aware it was love I wanted, fully aware that love I had, only it was from my mother, the kind bundled awkwardly – much like her Christmas presents – in a lack of mutual understanding.
—Harry, if you don’t put that phone away, I will crucify you, she said, her threat far more idle than the words might suggest. —Come in. We open soon.
She looked at me as she walked back inside —You’ll freeze out there.
I moaned a ‘sorry’, began to follow her, and gazed right, beyond the homeless people, through the church’s green metal fence, to the bakery over the road.
It was quiet inside the storehouse. The volunteers were cooling and sipping tea, resting before the expected Christmas Eve rush, when they would curate packages all day; pasta and rice, cereals and tinned soup; toothpaste for kids, tampons for some of them too. I looked at the clock above the storehouse doorway. It was coming up on one.
—Harry, said Mum. —When the vouchers come in, bring them here. We put what they ask for on the table, package it, weigh it, and take it over to the clients.
—Righty-oh, I said, nodding.
She had asked me if I was okay that morning, as we drove from the house – where I was now staying – to the church. I said I was fine.
—Have you had any word from Flo? she’d asked, by the roundabout near The Wealdstone Inn.
She dropped it, the following hours spent in quiet labour; stocking the shelves, preparing the tinned and dried goods for the afternoon ahead, not fielding questions from the volunteers because, I assumed, my mother had told them not to ask after her sad, heartbroken daughter, me, Harry, the one with the boyish name, the silently gay child, not because of an outmoded mother but rather a modern me, determined not to offend the market.
It was okay to be gay and beautiful, but better to elide the gay, so as to seem attainable.
I looked at the shelves, all the long-life milk, the unwanted food, the things given with good intentions or little thought. I picked up another jar of coffee.
—Why is it you can’t give them this stuff? I asked.
—Most clients wouldn’t have a cafetiere at home, darling, said Mum. —We stick with instant, so’s not to probe them with questions. Most like to be in and out as quick as they can. No one really wants to be there. Even the piss takers.
—The piss takers?
—There are always piss takers, Harry, she said. —Though they are few and far between.
I nodded again, picked up a Cadbury’s selection from the floor, and asked her if I could give it ‘to the girl over the road?’ quickly.
My mother nodded back.
—Hello, said Agata, surprised to see me walk into Wenzel’s again. —Another coffee?
I held out the Cadbury’s selection, an elf in the top corner holding a Fudge, a reindeer pulling along a sleigh of Curly-Wurlies.
—The Freddos are my favourite, I said.
I believe kindness usually has an ulterior motive. I believe it does good all the same.
I wished her Merry Christmas once again and returned to the food bank.
The clock hit one. Clients started arriving, some with trolleys for the bags, others none. They sat with people from the food bank, going through what it was they wanted, needed, both. Some needed nappies, some only wanted tea as they didn’t drink coffee, some asked for both tea and coffee and were not asked why.
The clients brought vouchers issued to them from the agencies; housing associations, children’s centres, health visitors. What they wanted was written on picklists, which they went through with the volunteers. Amanda, a volunteer, gave me a voucher after a few minutes, for a man in his forties, who had arrived with his teenage daughter.
I went back to the storehouse and handed it to a woman named, and watched as she, Mum, and another lady worked as if life depended on it.
They pulled items from the shelves, shouted ‘do they need pasta’ or ‘toothpaste’ and ‘may as well give them some biscuits’, before checking off allergies for good measure, and putting all the things into Bags for Life.
—Is that for one client or two? said Maria, the other lady.
—Two, said my mother, busily. —No, one.
She seemed unusually flustered.
—Well, said Maria. —Which is it?
I glowered at her.
—One voucher, for two people. Right, Mum?
My mother nodded, giving me a grateful smile.
I picked up the bags and walked outside, putting them in the green trolley, Emmeline written on its base, like the suffragette.
I was distracted by a voice behind me.
I turned around, scrunching my nose involuntarily, as I always did when full-named.
It was Harry, I often said. Harry. I didn’t fight it this time. I turned around.
—Good girl yourself, she said.
I nodded, told my mother she’d ‘best get back to the madhouse’, which she did, and walked myself to the other side of the church with Emmeline and the given goods to give away.
When I got into the church, the man and his daughter were waiting. I asked him if he needed help to his car, and he laughed, looking me up and down, then stopped, when he saw that I intended to help.
He nodded, brittle, and took one of the bags, his daughter another.
We walked outside. I asked him where he was parked. He pointed in the direction of the Chinese restaurant. I walked ahead. —This way?
—Yes, in front of the restaurant, he said, and we walked in silence a few moments, until eventually he asked if we were busy this time of year.
I told him that I didn’t know, to be honest, as I was only ‘helping my mum’, and told him I’d never been to the food bank before. He said neither had he. The ensuing silence lasted a little bit too long, and I said ‘I think this probably is the busiest time of year’ while he opened the boot of his car.
We put the bags in the boot. I told him we were open Tuesdays and Fridays, that he ought to come back whenever he needed. He thanked me, limply, and got back in his car.
Amanda was making tea for two new clients when I got back to the church; a husband and wife in their thirties. She handed me a filled-out voucher with an X beside both tea and coffee, no X beside nappies, but X’s beside cereals and toiletries too.
I returned to the storehouse, where Mum was moving around busily.
—Here’s another voucher, I said, and put it beside the one they were working on.
Soon after, one of the women handed me a bag. I asked if they were for one client or two. When she said one, I nodded and headed back out, with bags of different content and size in my hand, for Emmeline, the pair of us together heading back to the other side of the church.