View from a Volunteer – Therese Comfort


Therese Comfort

I have never been a planner so when retirement arrived sooner than I thought, I had little idea as to how I was going ‘to live’ this new phase of life.

A lot of friends and family were keen to know how their workaholic friend and relative was going to use her new found free time – another degree, fund-raising for a chosen charity, pursuit of a craft? I began to feel a bit of pressure to launch myself into something that the outside world would see as worthy when in fact I had no idea of what I was going to do. I decided to ‘sit’ in my newly acquired life and see what turned up.

Well I did a lot of sitting but nothing much happened. Life was pleasant if a bit aimless. What I did realise was that it was less of what to do but where to do it. I was restless. Isn’t it a good idea to start a completely new phase in a new place? Should I stay in my Yorkshire village or rekindle my London roots?

Then, out of the blue, I found myself volunteering in a local village shop. Very sad circumstances had made it impossible for the couple who had run a great shop for many years to continue. An astonishingly capable but small group of locals decided set up a community shop at lightening pace.

I volunteered knowing that every pair of hands was needed and involving myself in the community might help me make my location decision. How difficult could it be to work in a shop? I’ve managed quite a large team and budget for goodness sake. That was until I met the very snazzy, all singing and dancing till. What took me aback was my lack of confidence when faced with something completely different. I was hard on myself and attributed my inability to get to grips with things immediately to my advancing years and being ‘past it’. Rubbish. I just had to accept that it would take time to learn about new systems.


This is me in action in Barkers of Huby, North Yorkshire

There were always experienced and patient volunteers who worked alongside me on those first shifts who didn’t seem to mind when I asked for the hundredth time eg the procedure for non-scannable goods.
Despite all this, my first solo shift did not go quite as smoothly as I had hoped. My first customer queried how I had managed to charge them £11 for a box of matches and a newspaper. I was also puzzled and then realised I had read the time displayed on the till – 11 o’clock – rather than the total!

Feeling rather sheepish I decided to stock the cigarette shelves thinking I would have my experience as a Saturday girl in a newsagents to draw on. I remembered all the colourful packets –gold for Benson & Hedges, blue for Gauloises, white and green for Woodbines. How wrong I was. Today all packets have the same packaging with gruesome photos and menacing captions. Quite right too but it made it impossible for me to remember which packs to stock up on during the three metre walk from the cigarette shelves to the stock cupboard. So after not a great start on the till, I couldn’t even manage the ruddy fag cupboard!

Nearly three years on these are distant memories. I can now fill the cigarette shelves with speed and panache and am pretty adept on the till. I also open the shop regularly and close and cash up single-handedly.

We are always short of volunteers at the shop so I have asked local people if they would like to be involve. The reaction of over 50% of women is “Oh no, I wouldn’t be able to work the till” or “I’m useless with technology.” Why is that our default reaction so often? I know these women – they have been incredibly competent in past ventures and yet they are worried about making mistakes on the till.

So what do I like about working in the shop? My favourite shift is the early morning one – opening up, sorting the newspapers, walking round recording the temperatures of the six freezers and fridges (I love a clipboard!). We open to the public about 7.45 and, without exception, I know who the first half a dozen customers will be. They are all quite elderly but maintain their lifetime habit of getting up early. I don’t know these early risers but every week we manage a little conversation and it is always about the weather. There is an interesting chapter on ‘weather-speak’ in Kate Fox’s Watching The English which talks about the many ways we use conversation about the weather – perhaps as a greeting, an ice-breaker or when conversation about other topics dries up or becomes difficult. It comes as second nature to us doesn’t it?

Customer: I think we are in for a bit of rain later?
Me: Yes, I heard that too
Customer: Mind you the garden could do with it
Me: You’re right; our grass is looking very dry.

I enjoy the ritual of these exchanges, perhaps because they replace the rituals I had established on arrival at work which were, more often than not, about the weather!

I also look forward to unpacking the magazine deliveries, marvelling at the huge range. You wouldn’t believe the number of publications for rail enthusiasts. As expected there are a huge variety of women’s magazines Most of them recycle the same topics of supposed interest to women:
• losing weight
• creating a new you
• cheating partners
• embracing the menopause.

I display these magazines on the shelves without opening the front cover.

But one magazine does intrigue me – The Racing Pigeon. Two copies arrive every week. As a Londoner, I can honestly say the only thing I know about racing pigeons is that Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street kept them in a cage in his back yard. How can the writers find enough to write about pigeons to fill a magazine, albeit a thin one, each week? A quick peek inside shows lots of photos of proud winners of trophies – men and women of all ages, famous pigeons past and present, reports on international races, a round up on what’s happening in the regions plus plenty of info and ads on pigeon equipment.

Is this what Jack Duckworth from Coronation Street used to read?

Although I feel comfortable and at home working in the shop, I have not felt the urge to become more involved. I continue because of loyalty to the amazing management team who are so dynamic and dedicated and because I value having a village shop just a couple of miles away.

Very recently, our local primary school sent out a request for volunteers to help children with reading and times tables. I knew instinctively that this was volunteering I really wanted to do. Having spent my working life in education I know this world and want to continue knowing it and to be in a world that feels ‘young’. Other activities bring me into contact with some lovely people but they are all my age and older.

So, after quite a bit of ‘sitting and waiting’ something has come along that fills me with enthusiasm. I knew it would!

So have I resolved the dilemma of whether or not to stay living in a village up north or whether to move back to London? No not really although the very high prices of London properties may make the decision for me.

I wonder if there is money to be made in racing pigeons ………

Therese Comfort
March 2018

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1 comment
  • Wow mum! You write so well..I really enjoyed reading all about this and feel a bit sheepish myself now for ridiculing your shop work. I certainly wouldn’t be able to take on that till! Maybe writing is another avenue to explore, remember the idea for the church avenue book?
    thanks for sharing this with me Anne xx

Written by Therese Comfort