Finding Love

Irene gazed at the rows of limp clothing, sandals and shoes. It seemed only yesterday she’d left school, full of hope for a future filled with joy and happiness. Now here she was at 36, a shy, unmarried woman, her hopes largely unfulfilled and the future promising only… this?

“Are you okay Irene?”
The manager’s voice cut across her thoughts. After a quick demonstration of how to operate the till, Maneet had bustled away to sort out the latest donations, leaving Irene to tend to the shop alone. She shook her head, not wanting to admit that the reason for her glumness was personal.
“I’m feeling a bit nervous, that’s all. I work in a hospital laundry. I’ve never done anything like this before, meeting the public face to face.”
“You’ll be fine,” Maneet assured her briskly. “Just don’t let anyone persuade you to reduce the prices. Many of our donations are quality items from the big houses on the park. Like this, for example.” She took down a tarnished metal bowl from a shelf. “This is solid silver, possibly of Persian origin.
It’s a snip at ₹4,000. Yet people seem to think that because it’s a donation we should sell it for pennies.”
“How long has it been here?” Irene asked, as Maneet ran a finger around the rim, creating a little grey ball of dust.
“Three months or so. Why?”
“Well, perhaps they have a point. Wouldn’t hundreds in the till be better than thousands gathering dust on a shelf? From what I’ve seen, people donate things all the time; you’re hardly going to run out.”
Maneet looked horrified. “But it’s a collector’s item, antique silver. You can’t just give it away.”
“No, of course not,” Irene agreed hastily, “but if no one’s paid the asking price after this long, perhaps it’s time to… reduce it?”
She’d hesitated to use the ‘r’ word, remembering what Pavan had said about Maneet’s husband being a well-paid lawyer. “She has no conception of what it’s like to live on a small income, Irene. Once she’s priced something, it stays priced.”
“When did you say Pavan will be back?” Maneet asked, a frown creasing her perfect brow.
“He’ll be in hospital for a few more days and then spend another week recuperating at home,” Irene replied. She’d been more than willing to stand in for her brother as a volunteer in the shop while he had his operation, yet already she’d managed to annoy Maneet with a single suggestion. She felt herself shrink inside a little. It was a welcome distraction when the door opened and an elderly man came in. He wore a pale blue linen kurta and pyjama and walked heavily with a stick.
“Watch him,” Maneet murmured, as he shuffled to the far side of the shop. “He’ll plead poverty but I saw him loading shopping bags into the boot of a Jaguar the other day.”
“That doesn’t make him rich,” Irene protested mildly. “He could have inherited it.”
Maneet gave her hand a consoling pat, as though the ten-years-older Irene was somehow less worldy-wise than her. “Time for tea, I think. I’ll go and put the kettle on.”
Maneet swept away, the hem of her sapphire blue saree swishing over the floor. Across the shop, the man was browsing through the shirts and coats, checking each price-tag before moving on to the next. Wondering if she should offer assistance, Irene went closer.
“Would you like to try anything on, sir?” she asked, hands clasped deferentially in front of her. “There’s a cubicle if you’d prefer privacy.”
The man looked at her with shrewd grey eyes. “It’s not privacy I need, dear, it’s a fair price on the clothes. How does that young lady think anyone can afford this?” He showed her the tag on a jacket he was holding.
Irene gasped.
“Oh, goodness, you could get a new one for that.”
“Yes, you could,” the customer agreed. “The fabric is good. I was a tailor by trade so I recognise the quality, but it isn’t new. This is a charity shop and I was brought up to believe that charity begins
at home.”
Irene glanced towards the storeroom door, checking that Maneet was out of earshot.
“Umm, would ₹500 be too much?”
His eyes lit up. “That would be perfect. But won’t your boss be annoyed? You don’t want to get
the sack.”
“She isn’t my boss,” Irene whispered. “I’m a volunteer.”
“Oh, I see.” He smiled. “Yes, that does make a difference. Quite empowering, I would imagine.”
Irene hadn’t seen it that way but, yes, it was quite pleasant not to have to seek anyone’s approval for once. She had worked under Mr. Shah’s short-tempered instructions in the laundry for so long she’d forgotten what that felt like. She slid the jacket from its hanger. “Let’s see how it looks on you,” Irene suggested. Taking off his coat the man laid it on the floor and slid his arms into the sleeves. “Very smart,” Irene said, as he turned to face the mirror.
He smoothed the front with appreciative fingers. “Yes, I like it. I’ll take it, thank you.”
Irene went to ring up the sale on the till. Her hands fumbled as she hurried to get the jacket into the bag before Maneet could return with the tea.
“You’re very kind,” the man said, taking the receipt. “I’m Samir Puri.”
“Irene Khan,” she told him.
“And you’re a volunteer you said? There used to be a man who did that—Pavan. I used to enjoy chatting with him.”
“Pavan is my brother,” she said. “He’s in hospital getting his surgery on…”
“His knee!” Samir exclaimed. “So he’s had it done at last. That’s excellent news, he was in such pain. A street accident, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, his scooter was hit by a car,” she agreed. “It’s been several months, so we’re all very relieved it’s done now.”
The old man nodded. “Well, it’s good of you to step in.”
Hearing the chink of cups on
a tray, Samir took the bag from the counter. A quick goodbye and he was gone, the carrier bumping against his leg.
“Don’t tell me he actually bought something?” Maneet gasped, handing Irene a mug as she watched him hobble across the street, the stick tap-tapping on the ground.
“Yes, a jacket,” Irene said, hoping she wouldn’t be asked how much he’d paid. To her relief, the manager nodded approvingly.
“Well done, Irene, your first sale. Good work. Now, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hold the fort for a little longer. There’s something I want to check online, a painting that I think could be quite valuable.”
“How exciting,” Irene said. “I’ll be interested to hear what you find out.”

Maneet hurried away and Irene took the opportunity to look around. There was a beaded silk evening gown in the window and she wondered if it might be in her price range but when she checked the label, she almost choked—₹19,300! What was Maneet thinking? The people who donated these things didn’t shop here; they went to the swish malls of Mumbai.
She found other items that were similarly expensive. No wonder there were so few customers, she thought, they didn’t dare step inside. She was about to go back to the till when her toe nudged something on the floor. Beneath the men’s coat rack was a mobile phone. This was where Samir had tried on the jacket. It must have fallen from his pocket as he put his coat down. She scrolled through the contact list, wondering who to call. Finally, she found the number of someone called Dev and pressed call. After a couple of rings, it was answered.
“Papa,” said a warm male voice. “How are you?”
“Umm, is that Dev?”
The voice became instantly concerned. “Yes, who’s this? Has something happened?”
“No, everything’s fine,” she assured him. “I just found this phone on the floor of the shop where I’m working and I think it might be Mr Puri’s. Is he your father?”
“That’s him,” the man said after a drawn-out sigh. “Honestly, that phone is becoming a nightmare.
I bought it in case of emergencies but I’m the one having a heart attack every time someone rings to say they’ve found it.”
The grumble was good—natured and Irene chuckled. “Well, I’ve got it safe and sound, and to the best of my knowledge your father is the same.”
“That’s a relief, thanks. I’ll come straight there. Whereabouts are you?”
She told him the location. “And my name’s Irene,” she added impulsively.
“Okay, Irene, I’ll see
you shortly.”
She closed down the phone, thinking that Samir’s son sounded nice… very nice indeed.

Fifteen minutes later a green E-type Jaguar pulled up outside. So the car Maneet had seen Samir loading shopping bags into was his son’s. Of course, it was. She watched as a man of about 40, wearing jeans and a burgundy leather jacket, got out. Not just nice, she decided, Dev Puri was gorgeous.
“Hi,” he said, as he pushed open the door. “I’m guessing you’re Irene. Dev–Dev Puri.”
“Hello,” she said, retrieving the phone from beneath the counter. She handed it to him.
“Thanks, I’ll take it straight round, though how he came to drop it and not even realise it is a mystery.”
“He put his coat down to try on a jacket,” she said. “It must have slipped from his pocket without him noticing. We were having a chat when the manager came back in and he left in a bit of a hurry.” She lowered her voice. “She’s a little unrealistic with her pricing so I, umm… misread the tag. I mean, look what she’s charging for this.” She took the silver bowl from the shelf and handed it to him. Dev examined
it closely.
“You’re right,” he agreed. “It’s definitely wrongly priced. I’d value it closer to ₹7,000.”
Irene’s eyes widened. “Really? How do you know?”
“I’m an auctioneer at Lamba’s,” he said. “It’s my job to evaluate things.”
“What about the dress over there?” She nodded to the beaded silk gown in the window. Dev folded back the neckline, angling his head to read the label.
“It’s designed by Neeta Lulla, a big name in costume design in the film industry. The dress is worth that and more. Your manager isn’t wrong about the prices, Irene, it’s the location that needs changing.”
“But how?” she said. “The shop is here.” He smiled and her heart leapt.
“Okay, so here’s my suggestion.
Let me pick out a few pieces and we can see how they fare at the auction.
We could even waive the commission fee, as it’s for charity.”
Irene was about to explain that Maneet might not agree when the lady herself appeared, holding a picture. “That donation I was telling you about, Irene, I think it could be…” Seeing Dev, she stopped. “Oh, you have a customer.”
“This is Mr Puri, Maneet, the son of the gentleman who came in earlier. He’s been looking at some of our items and says they might do well at the auction.”
Dev nodded. “There’s no guarantee, of course, auctions are notoriously unpredictable, but if you set the reserve at what you’ve already priced them at, at least you won’t lose anything.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Mr Puri,” Maneet enthused. “I’ve never been to an auction. I’d love to see what happens.”
Irene felt a stab of disappointment, picturing the younger woman spending time with the handsome Dev. He gave an apologetic smile.
“Actually, I’ve just asked Irene to join me.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, silently begging her to play along.
“Oh, um, that’s right,” she stumbled. “And I said yes.”
“Excellent,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Now, let’s see this painting, shall we?” Taking the picture, he turned it over.
His brows rose in surprise.
“And this was donated, you say?”
Maneet nodded. “A young man brought it in last night. He said his late aunt had left it to us in her will.”
“Generous auntie,” Dev said. He placed it on the counter, then took a tissue from his pocket and moistened it on the tip of his tongue. Irene watched as he wiped it carefully across a corner of the canvas. As if by magic a name began to emerge through the grime.
“Does that say Bapu?” she gasped.
“I rather think it does, Irene,” he said. “Which means that auction just got a whole lot more interesting.”

“Honestly, Pavan, he was so clever the way he got people to bid. Every time I thought it couldn’t go any higher Dev would make a joke or say something interesting about the lot and off they’d go again.”
It was three days later and Irene was sitting at her brother’s hospital bedside, telling him about the auction. He chuckled, then winced as his newly-repaired knee made its presence felt.
“So how much did you raise altogether?” he asked.
“₹2,06,000! Can you believe it? It just goes to show how little I know about collectibles and how good an eye Maneet has.”
“Mmm… it seems our estimable manager is more knowledgeable than we gave her credit for.”
“As for the painting, Dev’s researched it and it’s definitely
a Bapu. He’s set a reserve on it but the originals so rarely come up that he thinks it could go for much more. The auction’s next week. I hope you’ll be fit enough to come.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Pavan said. Irene’s face lit up as she saw Dev come into the ward.
“Oh, there you are. I was just telling Pavan what a brilliant job you did today.”
“The stuff sold itself really,” he said modestly. “Still, I hope Maneet’s pleased.”
“Two lakh and six thousand for stuff that’s been sitting in the shop for months? She will be walking on air!” Pavan laughed. “And you think the painting’s genuine?”
Dev nodded. “Undoubtedly. I’ve put the details on the internet and there’s been interest already, so it should do well.” He turned to Irene, his eyes twinkling. “Did you tell him yet, about our plans?”
“Don’t say you’ve found a husband at last!” Pavan teased.
“Stop it,” Irene scolded, embarrassed. “No, once you are well enough to go back to work, I’ll be coming in once a week to take photos of any promising new donations and then take them to Dev for assessment.”
“He can’t come in and see them for himself?” he asked innocently.
Dev shook his head. “Too busy, Pavan, sorry.”
“And it’s nothing to do with wanting to see my sister again?”
Dev grinned. “Well…”
Irene smiled and thought back to her first day in the shop. Perhaps life did still have a few surprises in store, after all.

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