Market day. The town was busy although there were far fewer visitors about now that the school holidays were over and September was more than halfway through. Tourists jostled to examine the contents of the stalls set up on the quay whilst others made for the cafe with its tables placed beneath bright umbrellas. It was quite warm enough to sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee in the sunshine.
Isobel Stangate shifted her weight from one foot to the other and held her collecting tin a little higher. She had positioned herself outside Boots the chemist in a cunning attempt to intercept shoppers as they crossed the road from the car park opposite - and she had not been unsuccessful. She glanced at her watch and fixed her eye meaningly upon a young man who stood on the pavement, waiting to cross. He looked quickly away from her purposeful gaze and, in an attempt to avoid her altogether, sheered off hastily across the road, nearly falling beneath the wheels of a passing car. The driver shouted imprecations and Isobel grinned maliciously as the young man fled, his ears burning with embarrassment.
Years of being dragooned into helping on flag days had given Isobel a cynical outlook. She knew that ladies of a certain age who dressed in navy blue would always put something into the tin. They had stood too often themselves, smiling hopefully and shaking collecting boxes encouragingly, to ignore a fellow sufferer. Young mothers generally allowed their offspring to put a few pennies into the slot and smiled tolerantly as the sticker was placed somewhere upon the child^ person. Expensively dressed visitors stared at her brazenly, either passing by without a qualm - or an offering - or pausing to tell her that they wished someone would start up a charity on their behalf. The locals would sigh and say, 'What is it this time?' as they felt in a pocket or scrabbled for a purse, whilst the lonely ones seized the opportunity for a chat. There were those who would ostentatiously peer at the charity's name on the box and then shake their heads, frowning a little, as if to say, 'Oh, no. I couldn't contribute to that'
Isobel, who was a soft touch and could be relied upon to respond to a cry for help from a busy organiser or committee member, knew them all. She smiled down at a tiny elderly lady, wrinkled and wizened as a nut, who had stopped at her elbow and was peering at the tin whilst struggling to extricate her purse.
'Always someone 'ere,' she said complainingly. 'Ev'ry week. Must think us old age pensioners be made o' money. 'Tis us what should 'ave a collection.'
'Couldn't agree with you more,' agreed Isobel cheerfully. 'You get it organised and I'll come and hold a tin.'
The old woman put ten pence into the box whilst Isobel stuck the paper disc to her ancient jacket.
'Don't forget to take it off when you wash your cardigan,' she said, 'otherwise the glue will make it go all gungy.'
'"Devon against Drugs".' The old woman snorted, squinting down at her newly adorned chest. 'Ow do they afford 'em in the first place? That's what I want to know! I can't 'ardly afford a packet o' tea. 'Ow come these kids can afford drugs?1
'By banging you on the head and stealing your pension,' said Isobel promptly. She smiled at the woman who unexpectedly grinned back at her.
'If you're still 'ere when I come back I'll bring you out a cuppa,' she said.
Isobel laughed. 'I'll hold you to that,' she promised. She watched her pass through the swing door into the chemist and suddenly felt depressed. The poor old thing probably couldn't afford that ten pence. She held the heavy tin invitingly towards a smartly dressed couple who, having parked their brand-new BMW in the car park, had been having coffee at the cafe on the quay. The woman pretended not to see but her companion smiled patronisingly.
'There's too much giving done in this country,' he told Isobel. 'Make people stand on their own two feet, that's what I say. Charity begins at home.'