‘Alright, Sue,’ said Andy, the new, young manager of the shop, as he hoisted a bag of donations into the sorting area. ‘How are you today?’
‘I’m fine, thank you, Andy,’ she said, perhaps a little too quietly to be heard by the blur of a figure - tall, well-built, long-haired - that hovered in the corner of her eye. She could not look at him directly. Not in the eye. You didn’t make eye contact with good people, when you were bad. The good people deserved not to be troubled with the burden of your gaze. Since he'd taken over last month, it was obvious: Andy was very, very good. He cared about everything: the whole world. Things that Sue had been far too self-absorbed to think about even once in her whole evil life. Not in the eye. No one deserved that, least of all Andy.
‘Good, good,’ said Andy. ‘Do you mind watching the till for a bit, Sue? I’ve got a load of stuff do out back.’
‘Of course,’ she said, to the racks of clothes to the side of her, as Andy disappeared from the periphery of her vision.
She shuffled over to the stool behind the till, and pulled herself up on it with all the strength in her bony arms. She knew she didn’t deserve a stool; a despicable person such as herself should be made to stand, but with the pain from her varicose veins, and because she was weak and selfish and bad, she perched herself up there anyway. She must look so hateable, she thought, sat up like she was on a throne as if she were the Queen, or someone of importance, when she was so obviously disgusting and vile…
There was a red mark on her arm. It pleased her to see it, as it meant she had successfully punished herself for a bad, selfish action she had carried out that morning. She had left the tap running while she cleaned her remaining teeth. She had been told by Andy recently - or overheard him saying to a customer in the shop at least, to a good person like him, who cared - that people who left their taps running whilst brushing their teeth were wasting energy, and if people carried on doing things like that, then there would be no energy left for future generations, and the planet would die.
What a nasty, selfish thing to do. All those unborn people suffering, the whole world ending much sooner than it was meant to, just because she couldn’t be bothered to turn off the tap while brushing her teeth. She had tried to make an effort to turn the tap off (a silly feeble effort), but she always forgot. Forgot because she was bad and selfish and too lazy to remember.
And that wasn’t all. She’d compounded her terrible act moments later when she’d put the kettle on, and put far more water in than she needed. This was another thing, she had been told by Andy - or at least, overheard him saying - that would use up valuable energy resources and bring about the end of the world much sooner. She knew this, but she still boiled too much water anyway, as she did not want lime scale from the bottle of the kettle ending up in her cup. All that suffering in the future, and all because she thought of herself so highly that she was above having to endure something so small as a little bit of lime scale in her tea. When people were starving. Disgraceful. She really was beyond all consideration.
Of course, she’d had to punish herself. Going back in to the bathroom, ostensibly to pick up a hairbrush, she had paused, and flung her arm into the side of her medicine cabinet, hard.
It hurt at the time, as it was only right that it should, and then had throbbed for a while after. Now it didn’t hurt that much, but there was a mark. A mark that should stay there forever, warning people of what a worthless, repugnant individual she really was. But she knew now she should have hit it harder, leaving a deeper mark. This one would fade too quickly. Once again, she’d failed.
A customer came in and bought a scarf. She did not look at them throughout the transaction, seeing only the price tag on the item and the coins in their gloved hand. She could tell by the voice and the gloves that it was a woman, but it did not matter. Man, woman: none of them had ever done anything to deserve being looked at by her. SHUFFLE
She was tired, as was right. She did not deserve rest. She had been awake much of the night worrying about the souls of fish. She had long ago removed all other meat out of her diet, but had kept on eating fish, as she had heard someone say, somewhere - on the radio perhaps - that they were not like other animals. They weren’t really aware that they were alive - a bit like plants - so it was ok to eat them. But then she had heard Andy say to someone in the shop that this wasn’t true, and now she wasn’t sure who was right or wrong. What if she had been eating them all this time, and they really were just like other animals, with brains and souls? She would be nothing better than a murderer. Not that it made much difference. She had eaten other kinds of meat for fifty-five years, until after her Raymond had died. While he was around, she could just about tolerate her own despicableness. Her eyes were blinded by his misguided affection. But without him, she at last saw herself for the verminous, parasitical creature she truly was, deserving of nothing but hate and disgust, and certainly not the love of a man such as Raymond. It was only right for fate to take him away from her.
As she tore away the receipt from the till that she had forgotten to give to the customer, possibly causing them untold and unforgivable inconvenience should they decide to return the item, a memory flashed painfully, unbidden. A homeless man she had passed a week before. She hadn’t known what to do. He was asking passers-by for money, but she had heard on the television that it wasn’t good to give them money, as then they would have no incentive not to be homeless. She thought maybe she should buy him food instead, but she remembered Andy telling someone else about how they don’t take food, in case it’s been poisoned. They often discussed ethical issues in the shop, the customers and Andy. It was good for her; made her realise what a pathetic excuse for a person she really was. Then she recalled that the person Andy had been talking to had said that what you should really do is go up to them and have a chat, because that’s what they’d really appreciate. But she couldn’t talk to them. They scared her, and besides, not even a tramp deserved to be made to talk to her. And so she walked on, looking away, giving no response of any kind to the man’s inescapable, damning request for change.
It was all so different when she was young. Back then, there were no homeless, just tramps, and everybody knew that it was no-one’s fault what had happened to them. They just chose to live like that. Now other people were to blame: an inevitable consequence of the selfish actions of those more fortunate. Like Sue. Now the homeless sat in doorways everywhere she looked, telling her with their eyes how they found her audacity in having enough to eat and a roof over her head so utterly obscene. They were right to do this, of course.
Maybe she should have just looked at that man and smiled. After all, as long as she didn’t get too close, he might not have been able to tell how disgusting she was and he would have been all right. Yes, she should have looked at him. That was the right thing to do. But she didn’t do it. Why not? Because she was bad and verminous and despicable, that’s why. Because she was selfish and vile and didn’t care about anybody else and deserved nothing but hatred and bad things. Surely she was the worst person there had ever been. Why didn’t someone punish her? Why was she always allowed to get away with what she did? She didn’t deserve to live: she should be kicked and punched until dead she was so disgusting…
She flung her arm hard against the wall. There was a tiny but satisfying release in the pain.
She did it again. It hurt more this time, the way it needed to. She yelped a little.
A cry escaped spontaneously from her lungs. One more time. It still wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. Had to do it more, until she had been truly punished, although she never could be. She pulled her arm back to swing it again.
She found she could not. It was caught in the grip of a firm, strong hand.
‘Sue, what are you doing to yourself? There’s no need for this!’
She felt Andy’s free arm round her, the thick muscle of his bicep and chest enveloping her in a security that she fought to reject.
‘There, there. Tell me what’s wrong.’
Sue was crying. ‘No, don’t, I don’t deserve it…’ she said between sobs.
‘Look,’ said Andy, ‘I think we should maybe run that under some water and put a bandage round it. It looks like it’s swelling up; you need to get a doctor to look at it. Then maybe you should probably go home, and come back when you’re a bit more yourself.’
‘I… am myself,’ said Sue. ‘That’s the problem.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ said Andy, managing to look into Sue’s eyes despite her best efforts to hide them. ‘But still, go home, yeah? Have some time that’s just about you.’
‘It’s always about me!’ screamed Sue at Andy’s flinching face. ‘But I’ve got to stay here. I’ve got to try and help people…’
‘Well,’ said Andy, as she gave in and let herself be led out of the shop and into the back room, ‘you’re not much help to anyone in this state. Now let me have a look at that arm…’
She did not want his help, nor did she feel she deserved his compassion, but as the arm throbbed with an intensity that no dressing from a simple first aid kit could diminish, she allowed herself a few minutes respite from her persecution of a frail, elderly woman called Sue. But just a few minutes rest, mind. Then it must all begin again. Sue could never be punished enough.