A Very Purrculiar Practice: Fundraising Blues
Copyright 1997, Sarah Hartwell

'I need someone as anchor for the stall during next week's town centre collection,' threatened our fundraising organiser down the phone, 'Susan told me you're free on the day.'

'I was supposed to be taking my mother shopping ...' I protested weakly, since my mother's idea of shopping was three hours in C&A and another couple of hours in M&S during which time she would find everything was either in the right colour but the wrong size or vice versa, '... but ...'

'Great,' she continued, knowing my views on shopping with mother, 'We set up outside the Co-op at nine and the tin rattlers are on two hour shifts, finishing around five. Can you bring the leaflets? They're in the office filing cabinet. I'll bring the tins and the permit.'

Most cat workers would rather face an entire pen full of ravening ferals than spend two hours braving the elements and the general public in the town centre, never mind spend a whole day manning the information stand dispensing pearls of wisdom on flea control, neutering and toxoplasmosis, offering a behaviour helpline and advertising those three cats that have so far scared off every potential owner to set foot in the shelter. At least it can't be as bad as that jumble sale where someone bought my favourite coat for fifty pence. I wouldn't have minded, but Gorgeous Guy's phone number was in one of the pockets.

The dear old ladies who give fifty pence to every collector, regardless of cause, and the regulars who can't escape because they work in town and we ambush them on shop doorsteps at lunchtime are not so bad except that they want to talk for about half an hour when you're trying to extract money from passers by.

'Cat shelter? Oh, I don't like cats but I'll give you a pound towards neutering them so we don't have more of the bally things. We've got a lot of strays on the Brick Kiln estate - when are you going to do something about them?'

'Cats? I thought you were the leukaemia people - they have the same colour tin. Can I have my money back?'

'Here's a quid. Can I have a receipt?'

'Do you have change of a twenty?'

At the stall there is a woman discussing urinary incontinence when you're busting for a pee and have another fifteen minutes before Sheryl returns from Holland and Barrett with a carrot sandwich and a stack of Denes natural cat food (which, in my opinion, tastes better than the carrot sandwich, but after six hours in the cold even Kitty-Glop looks appetising). One helper once got so hungry on shift that she ate two trial size sachets of dried cat food, courtesy of a local pet shop which gave us a box of the stuff to persuade us to move to the other side of the street in case we intimidated customers, and decided it tasted so good she offered it to the rest of us on a paper plate like a party snack. It wasn't until later that we'd discovered we were eating cat rations and not M&S's alternative to Pretzels.

Then there is the group of spotty oiks from Satanic Towers High Rise, masquerading as pupils from the local secondary school except for the fact that it is ten-thirty and they should be in a French lesson or something (their French is limited to a couple of phrases applicable only when they join up with the gang of girl truants loitering outside Woolworths contemplating a nice day's shoplifting).

One describes in graphic detail his views on cats while a sheepish looking friend, who is obviously only tagging along to look tough, slips a quid into the pot and gives me an apologetic smile. It's only after he's left that I remember he's my neighbour's son and the quid is actually hush money. Besides, he did our cat sitting during the local Scouts' bob-a-job week last year.

A harassed mother gives each of her offspring a twenty pence piece, which the oldest quickly feints into her pocket along with a tube of Smarties liberated from the checkout display of the Co-op. I grit my teeth and smile encouragingly and send each one away with a second hand copy of a cat magazine and a paper bookmark.

'Mummy, mummy ...' squeals the youngest, 'What does this say ..' she asks, flapping an article on castration in mummy's face.

Mummy gives me a hard look and mumbles 'Just look at the cute pictures dear.'

The child looks hard at a picture on sexing cats which depicts a cute but very well endowed tomcat, 'Mummy ...' she protests in a voice that suggests her own cat lacks two mysterious lumps below the tail.

The heaviest collecting tin of the day comes from Elvira's session; but then Elvira's tin always does yield the best take of the day. Elvira always commands attention. Not many men, we have found can walk past the leggy, colour-of-the-week-haired, smiling Elvira in her leather biker's trousers and sleeveless top (plus intriguing shoulder tattoos) and not donate something as they try to engage her in conversation. And the women are equally intrigued.

Not for the first time the rest of us wonder whether the three five pound notes in her tin are donations or whether she has a little moneymaking sideline going. By that, we are not necessarily thinking she is offering pillion rides on her Harley-Davidson though admittedly her best collections have been done while she was perched on the Harley outside Dolcis. Nor is it, necessarily, anything to do with those strange-smelling hand-rolled ciggies she likes to smoke while hiding at the far end of the shelter grounds behind an old apple tree. It just seems that when it comes to collecting for charity, leather trousers, tight top, big motorbike and tattoos score over a shellsuit bought for 25p at a jumble sale and a logo-emblazened cat shelter tabard - at least it does if you're Elvira, we're not too sure that it would work the same way if we had a 16 stone, hairy, tattooed male Hells Angel stationed outside Holland and Barrett.

The minute you pick up a collecting tin you become invisible, we have discovered. That and the fact that suddenly no-one has any change, even though we willingly accept folding money and cheques with bank guarantee card. More extrovert helpers have combatted this phenomenon in various ways. Alan dressed up as Sylvester with a battery operated flashing red nose and yelled 'Help the homeless pussycats' by the defunct fountain in the town centre. Not bad for a self-confessed train-spotter who can normally be found haunting old railway sidings with his notepad and anorak.

At other times helpers simply wish they could become invisible i.e. after handing out a magazine to a small child who immediately quizzes mummy about castration or when answering an in-depth question about some aspect of cat behaviour that no cat behaviourist has so far covered in a book and which is so idiosyncratic that no cat behaviourist is ever likely to cover it a book. Or when confronted by a spotty mob from Satanic Towers High Rise who do not use the word pussy in conjunction with 'cat' and let you know this in no uncertain terms (though even they ran away from an encounter with Elvira with extremely red faces).

'How did it go?' asks our fundraising boss at packing up time.

Well, apart from being baked in the morning, drenched by an unseasonal downpour at lunchtime that turned the leaflets into papier mache and then sun-dried all afternoon so that I smell like a wet cat and have sunburnt goosepimples, and apart from the sore feet, sore calves and sore tin-rattling arm, not to mention indigestion from scoffing half a packet of jaffa cakes and the fact that I am desperate enough for a Marlboro that I would even accept an Elvira home-grown special, it didn't go too badly I suppose.

'You don't fancy collecting outside Tesco in a fortnight's time? Only I'm one person short on the rota ...'

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