A Real Tear

August 31, 2020 § Leave a comment

It started as a joke.

No, that’s not right. It started as a regular piece of work, the kind of project we discussed every week at our Monday status meeting.

At that time, and I’m talking about the early ‘nineties now, there were three of us in the Donor Development Department of Save the Kids, or S the K, as it was written on our pink and blue headed paper. Jed Norris was our boss. If you’re in the business, you might have heard his name. A total legend. He was real direct marketeer, worked for Sloss, McNally, Rice, who, back in the day, handled all the direct mail for the big catalogues and insurance companies. Then he spent time with, of all people, the Conservative Party, which the top brass at S the K considered enough of a charitable experience to give him full reign over our direct marketing work. Personally, I thought it made him deeply suspect but, over drinks in the pub one night, he claimed his time at Smith Square wasn’t a political decision, just a career move. Bollocks, I said. They’re a bunch of money grabbing leeches and you worked for them. Shame on you. He didn’t care though. Jed was part of a trend, a migration of people from the corporate sector to the charitable one, nobly bringing their finely honed business skills to the not for profit world. Apparently, so these guys argued, charities needed to operate more like companies. They needed to be more professional, whatever the hell that meant. The fact that most charities were picking up the shit created by the failure of the free market to – what was the phrase? – trickle down – was by the by.

I digress. The S the K board loved him, maybe because he wore a suit and played golf, or more likely, because half the board were donors to the Tory Party and just got over-excited when they saw his CV.

Martin and I did all the real work. Martin in particular was a star. To be honest, I was a little in love with him. Just a little. He looked like a young Martin Sheen only taller. When we’d been in Birmingham the year before at the National Fundraising Convention, we’d almost slept together. Well, there was sod all else to do in that stinking Metropolitan Hotel, stuck out in the middle of God knows where, drinks priced through the roof and only a thousand other fundraisers for company. I was certainly game, and so was Martin until, mid snog, he suddenly had an attack of conscience. It wouldn’t be fair on either of us, he’d said, being that he already had a girlfriend. I could have argued the point but I was too drunk and so the moment passed. Probably for the best.

Martin and I were a pretty good work team though. I only needed to glance at him in a meeting and I could tell what was going through his mind, what he made of the work being presented or the state of our donor profile. And we both shared a healthy contempt for Jed and his corporate ideas, even if much of what he said actually made sense. It was our job to obstruct, like Old Labour or the Unions, while Jed was more like Thatcher, that’s to say, he got his way regardless.

To pause for a moment, and for our younger readers, what I’m talking about here is good old fashioned direct mail, sent through the post, envelopes plopping onto doorsteps along with newspapers, bills and a postcard from your mum. No social media or emails. No donating by bank transfer or even credit card. Just a letter from us, pleading our case, convincing you to take a moment of your valuable time to write back, with a cheque and your good wishes. That was fundraising in those days, letters and the Royal Mail.

Before the era of Jed, we’d had a pretty standard approach to our donors, mailing them four times a year, plus the Christmas catalogue. Everyone got the same thing, no matter how much they gave. Jed put a stop to all that. He said that we should be segmenting our lists according to donation levels and mailing people at least ten times a year. That’s too much, we argued. Our donors will protest. They’ll think it’s a waste of our – their – money. No, Jed had countered. They’ll think they don’t like it and some will even complain but, you see, it will bring in more money. And, fair play to him, it did.

The only problem with all this (assuming that we never considered pissing off a large percentage of our donors to be a problem, and apparently we didn’t) was that we needed to keep coming up with new and urgent subjects for our increasing output of appeals. That was a challenge, and why we needed the help of Janice and Carla from Rolf & Mayer

“I’ve brought in a few samples of mail-shots we’ve been working on for other charities,” Janice had said at that Monday meeting, spreading many branded, window envelopes over the table. “Obviously, they are not competing organisations to S the K, but they may give us a few jumping off points.”

“How about another case study?” I said. “We still haven’t used Emma, and I think she’s pretty good.”

Emma wasn’t a real person. She was what our communications team called, ‘a composite.’ Her story was cobbled together from the real life tales our project workers heard on a daily basis: sexual abuse, poverty, a life on the streets. The photograph that accompanied the case study wasn’t genuine either. The soft-eyed teenager in the picture, her face long with sorrow, she was a model made up to look like a victim. We had no choice. It would not have been appropriate to show any of the real children we helped. Plus, many of them, particularly the teenagers, were far too unappealing, wearing the marks of deprivation on their faces, bad skin, poor teeth or, worse, defiance.

“We’ve done case histories, over and over,” said Jed. “We need something new.”

Carla reached for a pack with her long, sharply manicured hands and briskly fanned its contents over the meeting room table. “We did this recently for Dignity in Age Overseas,” she said, tapping an envelope with a plum coloured finger nail. “It contains this piece of plastic, which, when you look through it, gives you an idea of what it’s like to have cataracts. Simple, but effective and the ask was for five pounds to fund a cataract operation, five pounds for the gift of sight.”

We all took turns to hold the plastic square to our eyes and marvel at how little we could see.

“That’s really excellent,” said Jed, peering like a pirate. “D’you have the response rate for this?” he asked, removing the plastic from his eye.

Janice pushed a sheet of figures around the table. “And here’s the same data when we used it with cold donors.” Cold donors are people who have never supported the charity in question before. Usually, we’d acquire their names by swapping with other, similar charities, our donors’ details for theirs. This was before all the data protection stuff we have today, before the prevalence of the little, no I don’t want to receive information from other organisations, tick box which, I might add, has almost brought the great industry of direct marketing to its knees.

Jed studied the figures, rubbing his chin as he took in the data. “This is good stuff,” he said. “Really, impressive.” He looked around the table. “So, come on team, what do we have that could work in the same way?”

Janice and Carla glanced at each other. They’d come armed with an idea. Janice produced a new envelope and unpacked it, placing a mailing piece and a yellow wax crayon on the table.

“Crayons,” she said. “We thought about crayons.”

Martin shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I get it,” he said.

Janice grinned. “We’d put a crayon in each pack, together with a drawing from a child, a picture illustrating their plight. You know, the kind of thing a psychologist might get a child to do. ‘Can you draw how you see your disreputable family?’ or ‘Can you draw how it feels when you are left on your own?’ The picture we’ll actually include will be bleak, dark and angry, very disturbing. Done by one of our creatives. Then the recipient will find the crayon, which will be nice and bright, yellow or orange, and the message will be, ‘Change the colour of a child’s life by making a donation.’” Janice sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She was deeply satisfied.

“It sounds a bit elaborate,” I said. “I’m just not sure the donors will get it.”

Jed nodded. “I agree. It’s ok, but it’s not, ‘This is how it looks when you can’t see.’”

Carla protested. “We think…”

“No,” said Jed. “We need something sharper. Come on, people. What symbolises suffering children? What says ‘abuse’ to our donors?”

Martin and I exchanged a look.

“Did you have a particular kind of abuse in mind?” I asked.

“Something that works,” he said.

We sat in silence for a moment. “It’s not easy to package ‘neglect’,” said Martin eventually.

“No, ok,” said Jed. “But what about physical…”

“Or sexual?” I added. “The mind boggles.”

Janice and Carla exchanged an unhappy glance. They were still sore about their crayon proposal.

“No, but you have something,” said Jed.

I cleared my throat. “Well, what about tears,” I said.

Given all that happened afterwards, over the years, I’ve thought about that moment a good deal and, you know, to this day, I couldn’t say if I was joking or not. The words just popped out and before we knew it, there was no other idea.

“Tears?” Janice didn’t look any happier.

“The tears of a child,” I went on, still smiling.

Martin started to laugh again.

Jed held up his hand. “No, wait. I think you have something.”

Carla and Janice shot each other a look.

“What could be more moving?,” said Jed. “Who could not put their hand in their pocket when faced with the tears of a child? It’s brilliant.” There was an eerie look in Jed’s eyes. I think it unnerved the girls from Rolf & Mayer. The whole tear idea had made their crayon plan look hopelessly innocent.

Martin cleared his throat. “Let’s just run with this for a minute. How would we collect these ‘tears’?”

“We could pinch children until they cry,” I said. “I’m sure if we offered enough money, parents would be volunteering kids left, right and centre. I can name you half dozen members of staff right in this building who’d go for it.”

Carla looked concerned. “But wouldn’t that be abuse in itself? I’m really not sure donors would like that.”

Jed rolled his eyes, although it wasn’t clear whether this was in exasperation at Carla’s failure to get the joke, or in frustration at the prospect of donors and their pesky objections to children being repeatedly pinched.

“Obviously, we can’t hurt real children. That would be totally unacceptable,” he said, eventually.

“We are still joking, aren’t we?” asked Janice. She looked at each of us, a degree of panic in her expression. “Tell me, no one is seriously considering this idea.”

“I’ve said already,” said Jed. “Collecting real tears is not possible.”

“No, I mean…”

“But,” went on Jed, railroading through Janice’s objections, “why couldn’t we used salt water.”

“A composite tear,” Martin said.

“Right. A couple of drops of salt water in a small plastic bag?”

“No,” I said. “A plastic bag wouldn’t work. It would just smear along the sides. It won’t look like a tear. But what about one of those little plastic vials, the kind of thing used for perfume samples?”

“Excellent,” said Jed.

Martin sucked in his breath as if weighing up the pros and cons. “What would the unit cost be on something like that?” he asked, turning to the agency ladies. They looked nervously one to the other.

“I’ve really have no idea,” said Janice.

“Well, more or less than the plastic cataract thing?

“Emm, well, I suppose the vial would be the expensive item. It would need to be airtight to stop the tears, sorry, the salt water, leaking out. And then there’d be the usual art work, copywriting costs.”

“It would be light though,” I added, thinking of mailing prices.

“We might need some new photography,” said Martin. “A picture of a super, ultra-sad child. Followed by shots of the same child now super, ultra-happy as result of S the K’s wonderful and unique help.”

“Never use the word ‘unique’,” I said. “Donors don’t like it. They know perfectly well that very little is truly ‘unique’.”

“I think this bloody well might be,” said Jed, a note of triumph in his voice. “Can you imagine what kind of coverage this will get, not just in the charity press but all over?” He must have sensed hesitancy from Rolf & Mayer. “Oh come on. Janice, Carla, you’re professionals. You know that what we’re about is innovation, eh?” He picked up the piece of cataract plastic, gave it a contemptuous look and threw it across the table. “You guys want to make your name? You’ll need to be a whole lot more daring than fuzzy bits of plastic. Let’s face it, blind old people just don’t kick ass in the same way as sad kids.”

Thinking back, at that point Rolf and Mayer should have gathered together all their packs and, in their high heels and suits, they should all walked out then and there. Or at least raised more of an objection. They were the agency, after all, there to give advice. But those were different times, governed by a different set of rules. Or so it seems now.

To my credit, I did say, “And, of course, this appeal will raise some serious and much needed funds for neglected and abused children,” and everyone in the room nodded gravely, although I suspect we were all really thinking about next year’s Direct Marketing Awards and the coveted silver envelope for best charity-agency partnership.

“Will you get this passed the Senior Management Team?” Martin asked.

Jed waved this away. “You leave them to me. Anyway, it’s an operational decision, and I’m head of this particular operation.” He didn’t need to say anymore. If we guessed that he wouldn’t apprise them of the plan until it was a fate acompli, no one said anything.

There was a moment of conspiratorial silence. I suspect we shared something of the same sick thrill experienced by governments on the eve of war. If just one of us in that room had said no then we would never have gone ahead. I mean, yes, we were all direct marketeers, but we were still people, and, let’s face it, three of us were professionally charitable.

But we didn’t. Instead, we doled out jobs, worked out a mailing schedule and a donor breakdown and even did an initial income forecast. When we left the meeting, it was with thoughts of sourcing tiny plastic vials and drafting appropriate copy.

The funny thing is that when the packs went out I was genuinely proud of them, and, to begin with, there were hardly any complaints. The day the mailing dropped, Martin and I went for a drink to celebrate; three bottles of Californian Chardonnay later we ended up back at my flat and hey ho, it was Birmingham all over again, but this time Martin didn’t mention his girlfriend. Maybe that was symbolic of how far we’d fallen. I don’t know. At the time, it just seemed like we were having fun.

That didn’t last. By the following Monday, the press had got hold of a pack. “Charity Exploits Weeping Kids,” was the headline in one tabloid, which was just lazy journalism. No kids were harmed in the making of this appeal, we responded, but that went by the by. Donors were outraged, as were our celebrity patrons, who resigned in droves, and, more embarrassingly, so were our frontline project workers, who popped up all over the show to decry modern fundraising techniques. That made me cross. They never complained when the money was rolling in, but the minute there was a whiff of a reporter and a chance to get their picture in paper, they were all up on their moral high horses.

Jed had to resign, of course, although he found a new job pretty quickly. While people appeared to disapprove, those in the business admired his balls. He went to work for some finance company. S the K sacked Rolf & Meyer, while Martin and I kept our heads down and hoped for the best, although, in the end, we both moved on too. I heard that Martin married his girlfriend and moved to Birmingham.

I’m no longer in direct marketing, but not because I regret the Real Tear pack. On the contrary, I think it was a landmark piece of work, and not just because of the fundraising legislation it prompted. To be honest, everything I worked on after that seemed horribly dull in comparison. The new agency did something with free pens in the next mailing but really, who wants a cheap biro? It doesn’t get the message across. Maybe people need to be more honest. At the end of the day, it is about children’s tears, and if you can’t face that truth then you’ve no business working for a charity.




Our Fake Nun

August 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Here’s another little story. This is based on a real fake nun I once knew.

We all called her Sister Barbara but despite her thin, creamy blouses, neatly embroidered with insipid daisies, and the wooden cross, which, like an ancient piece of cheese, hung as a holy brick around her neck, she wasn’t a real nun at all.

It seemed she had come with the church itself, like the dusty prayer cushions each sewn in memory of someone now forgotten, or the rot that was eating its way up the west wall. She smelt of candles and used-up incense and sometimes, we thought, as we huddled together during Mass, of loaves and fishes.

We had two reasons for believing her to be a fake. Firstly, she did not spend time with the other Sisters. Even the nice ones hunted in packs but Sister Barbara was always alone. However, it was the way our parents spoke of her that really convinced us. At the mention of her name they would smile sadly and whisper, “Ah, poor Barbara. It’s a shame an’ all, but she’s harmless enough.”

Why anyone would pretend to be a nun was of on-going concern to us. Debbie Shoot, the prettiest girl in our year, said that she’d heard from a boy in the choir over at St Dominic’s, that Sister Barbara was really a man who had once been an actual, real-life monk, but that he/she had renounced God to punish Him for giving her the wrong body.

“Time passed,” Debbie went on, her sing-song voice drawing us all in, “and gradually God came calling again and, as one thing follows another, she/he un-renounced Him.” As if to prove this version, Debbie pointed to Sister Barbara’s feet.

“Those are not the feet of a woman,” she said, doodling hearts in the margin of her Bible, alongside Timothy, Chapter II, verse 15: ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.

But despite her disproportionate feet and shocking taste in shoes, we remained skeptical. It didn’t seem credible and besides, the boys in St Dominic’s choir were famous liars.

It was widely agreed that there were two types of nun. Well, three if you included the young, anorexic virgins with their hamster eyes and cold, translucent hands. Like beings from a parallel world, they baffled us. Why would girls only a year or two older than us choose to leave the world, just when it was becoming ours? We couldn’t fathom it.

The rest, we divided into good or evil. The good ones were wise and soft. Even the thin ones, we viewed as chubby, doughy women who smelt of nothing. They loved forgiveness and, if there was a God, which none of us believed anyway, He sat on their shoulders, smiling indulgently at our youthful sins.

Then there were the rest, the evil Sisters. They were all thin, even the fat ones, with sharp bodies and shutters for eyes. They pretended that they had sacrificed themselves for God and for us, but the truth was they couldn’t quite leave the world or, more importantly, us, alone.

Had Sister Barbara chosen to be a fake doughy nun, no doubt we’d have taken her to our hearts, like a school mascot. Maybe Stephanie Crowley, the best cook in our home economics class, would have baked a Victoria sponge on Sister Barbara’s Saint’s day. Or we might have built a tender and romantic story around her pretence. Man meets woman; they fall in love; man meets someone with smaller feet and leaves woman; woman falls into decline; woman becomes a pretend nun. But Sister Barbara was a vile, bitter viper and we hated her like the devil himself.

However, unlike the other doom-filled sisters, we did not fear her. We held her look when she glared at us for refusing to join in with the responses or, passing her in the aisle, we’d continue to talk, both things we never did with the real nuns.

“Do you think the Lord spent forty days and forty nights being tempted by Satan himself so that you girls don’t have to wipe your feet?” she said one day, after someone had trailed mud into the chapel. “ “I’ll report you to Sister Clare.” But like always, we just shrugged and giggled and carried on.

From time to time, one of us would indeed be summoned to Sister Clare’s office to be reprimanded for this or that misdemeanor but the punishments handed out after a Sister Barbara reporting always lacked real substance. It was as if the proper nuns felt duty bound to keep up appearances with the pretend nun and yet they, like us, were not sure why.

That year, Debbie, Jenny and I were church monitors. It was our duty to keep the chapel clean, clear up sweet wrappers, tidy away Bibles and sort the bags of donated clothes which were dumped in the church porch from time to time. We didn’t mind. It kept us out of the playground and gave us somewhere quiet to talk. For Debbie, the only subject worthy of discussion was boyfriends, and why we didn’t have any. Jenny and I thought ourselves a degree more serious. We wanted to debate “issues” for, in those days, a great many things riled us. Our school bags were covered with small button badges declaring our allegiance to one cause or another. We would rather talk about Debbie’s brother, Jed, who sold Socialist Worker on a Saturday morning, standing outside Woolworths in his donkey jacket and black woolen hat. We saw him there most weekends. He would nod at us, or even shout, “How’s it going, our Deb’s mates,” and we’d feel a little bit sick, but in a good way.

Sometimes, Debbie would bring us old copies of Socialist Worker, which we duly smuggled into the Chapel of the Sacred Heart under our school sweaters, ready to read and dissect. But we were careless of time and often the talk of our non-boyfriends dragged on so that we were left to stuff our unread copies into Bibles, giving them the appearance of tiny accordions. Father MacNeice, our pocket-sized parish priest, seemed to us too small to notice anything in his sacred texts, including communism, but not so Sister Barbara.

One afternoon, she came to us in the chapel, holding a copy of Socialist Worker between her cold, uncaring thumb and forefinger, dangling it before us, like a diseased rag.

“Wait until I show this to Father MacNeice. Just wait. I know it was you girls.”

“God’s a fascist, “ said Jenny. “‘I am the Lord thy God’; ‘Thou shall have no other gods before me’. Only a dictator makes those kind of rules?”

“You girls think you are so clever,” she said, striding away.

She was right. In the last year, we’d come to the conclusion that yes, we were clever. We demonstrated this by shouting at our parents, at the television but most satisfyingly of all, at the Church.

“‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says’,” read Jenny, slamming shut her Bible. “Who are the sodding Corinthians anyway to be telling us to be ‘in submission’?”

We didn’t like it. Not a bit, but we kept our views to ourselves around the real nuns, the ones who would complete our university forms and grade our papers. However, if Sister Barbara heard us complaining, we did not care.

One day in the spring of our duty year, a parishioner dropped four huge suitcases into the porch.

“They are for the poor,” she shouted, as she hurried back to her still running car. Donations of this kind seldom reached the poor directly, but rather were fed into the ongoing cycle of jumble sales and events to raise money for the church roof or to take people in wheel-chairs to Lourdes, some of whom, we hoped, might be poor.

The suitcases were lumpy and bumpy, like cakes that had failed to rise evenly. They smelt stale and vaguely of urine, like the old people’s home where we went each Christmas to sing carols and hand out mince pies.

“Come on girls,” said Sister Barbara, interrupting our talk. “Chop, chop. Remember, ‘All hard work brings profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.’ Bring those cases into the church.”

Rolling our eyes, reluctantly we shuffled into action.

“You can sort here,” said Sister Barbara. “Put the clothes on one side – men’s, women’s and children’s – and bric-a-brac on the other.”

“Who’s she to tell us what to do?” Debbie muttered as Sister Barbara opened the heavy church door to leave, allowing a beam of early spring sunshine to set the winter dust to dancing. For once we wanted to be outside, with our eyes closed and our faces upturned to something warm. Instead, we pulled back the zips and snipped open the clasps to reveal bundles of clothes and small parcels wrapped in tissues.

We sighed and poked at the contents, not eager to begin unpacking. Finally Debbie picked out a package and peeled off the paper. It was a porcelain bird of some kind, with a small chip in its beak and tiny knobs of dust caught where the wing joined the body. In our experience, all bric-a -brac was like that, unloved and slightly broken.

The clothes were clean, but still, we didn’t rush to touch them.

“Do you think they belonged to a dead person?” Jenny asked, cautiously picking up a stiff, mauve skirt.

One case contained baby clothes: small hand knitted cardigans, well worn and frequently washed so that the wool had become stiff and cruel; hats the size of large oranges and a pretty white dress with puffed out sleeves, a tiny ruffled skirt and a shadowy, yellow stain down the front.

The highlight was a plastic bag full of men’s underwear.

“That’s disgusting,” said Debbie. “I mean, really, do they think people are so desperate that they will buy other people’s shitty pants?”

As instructed we piled the contents into organised lots.

Afterwards, as we walked out into the sunlight, Jenny sniffed at her hands. “I need a wash,” she said. “I think I’ve absorbed the stench of abandonment.”

We’d reached the school gates before I remembered my coat.

“I should go back,” I said. “Otherwise they will sell it. I’ll catch you up.”

The church door was still open. Beside the piles of clothes stood the familiar figure of Sister Barbara, her back curved around her shoulders. I wanted to creep away, to avoid her inevitable lecture on our failure to sort with sufficient reverence, but she turned before I could retreat.

Across her chest, she held the tiny white dress, arms locked, almost as if she were cradling a baby. And she was smiling. Or was she crying? Now I think about it, from all this time later, I think she was smiling and crying.

“I forgot my coat,” I said.

“You can’t get rid of this kind of stain.” She held up the dress. “She will have been sick.”

“I suppose so,” I said, edging round her.

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Something so pretty. She would look lovely in this. So much the little lady.”

Laying the dress back down on the pile, she picked up one of the cardigans. “I used to knit,” she said. “I used to be a good knitter, but you have to hand-wash wool, especially for babies. You have to keep it soft. Like this.”

From her skirt pocket, she pulled a small mitten, the colour of white chocolate and round, with no fingers or thumbs.

“Feel this,” she said, handing it to me. “Rub it against your cheek and you’ll see.”

The mitten was no bigger than the palm of my hand and so downy that I barely felt it against my skin. It was a whisper of a thing, hardly there at all.

“It’s lovely,” I said, handing it back.

She nodded. “It is.” For a moment, she ran the wool across her lips, as if to feel whatever was possible.

With her other hand, she reached out and cupped my chin. Her fingers felt dry and warm against my skin and her breath smelt only faintly sour as she whispered, “‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.”

Then remembering who she was, Sister Barbara pushed the mitten back into her pocket and stepped away.

“You girls didn’t sort the men’s clothes properly. The trousers are still mixed up with the sweaters.”

I grabbed my coat. “Sorry, Sister Barbara. Thank you, Sister Barbara.”

I told the others, but only Jenny and Debbie. We still held her look and she continued to scold us. And we minded, but perhaps not quite so much.





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