One Day in Paradise

Here is the beginning of a short story I wrote today. It is basically an account of my day. The title is a passing reference to Phil Collins’ song, “Another day in Paradise”

The story is not about homelessness, but about my current attitude towards my life, which is to think of where I’m living and the circumstances of my life, as being in paradise, which they are compared to many other people’s lives and also compared to mine in the past. It is a way of trying to appreciate your life.

9.35. None but the dispossessed – or newly repossessed – sit in Town Hall Square at this hour. Horrible euphemism! “Taking back” is what they mean. We are taking back your house. You have paid tens of thousands of pounds and now you have nothing. It’s very like renting after all. What a mortgage sells is hope – the hope that is now deferred almost infinitely – that one day this will be truly yours.

So. Today I am sitting in Town Hall square and I feel for a moment immensely privileged to watch the sun print the momentary outline of the roofs behind me on the buildings in front; a sort of mutual recognition like a bow before a dance. I sit on the bench still spread with frost, pulling my coat under me. It almost covers my legs, but not quite, so that the frost bites gently at the backs of my knees. I watch: a bike wheels slowly past, the rider scarcely seeming to move it, and I think of The Prisoner, wondering if I sit here long enough, whether I will see the same people go past, the same bike wheel by at the same pace. I think of the Truman Show. Did I have this thought before: that The Truman Show is like The Prisoner? It seems an obvious thought to have.

I eat half a cheese roll which is my breakfast: the home made bread rolls round my tongue like breast milk. Today I have made my own food. I do not have a cup of tea just yet: I am waiting for the library to open. When people look at me, what do they see? A pale-faced woman (I am always pale in winter) of uncertain years, wearing a black hat and blue jumper which certainly do not flatter her. Do they see that I am in paradise? Perhaps not – but then, most of the time, neither do I.

9.45. I am in the library now, beside one of the ancient metal windows which no ingenuity can close. Consequently the cold air enters like a thief and slips one hand around my back while the other pats my shoulder. Before I know it, my wallet of heat is gone. I try once more to shut the window, even though I know it is hopeless: an invisible cushion comes between the latch and its home. I can’t see what is preventing it – maybe the stiffness of old age. There are a lot of staff this morning. The postman ambles up the stairs, deposits a package in an off-hand manner, says “thank-you” in response to the library assistant with his face in three-quarter profile, and lopes back down the stairs. Postmen (they are still mostly men) seem to wear trainers these days, something of which my more formal self disapproves.

Discreetly, I get out a plastic bag and take a bite of my cheese roll. My thermos cup is hidden beside my rucksack. I figure, if I’m discreet, even if they notice, they won’t mind. Public staff are generally unassertive, these days, the opposite of in my youth. I make a bargain with this unassertiveness: to Act Responsibly. I expect one day I’ll be found out, but till then… After all, I won’t be in the library for ever.

10.00 On the bottom of that boy’s trainers is written ACOST. I have no idea why. Presumably it means something to someone. I am searching in my pocket for a tissue when suddenly there is an intake of breath close to my ear. I jump, I turn, imagining a librarian like Alice’s grasshopper. But there’s no-one. I must have been breathing under my breath, as the tomes state. The volumes of my lungs – what story would they tell?

Lots of staff on today. But a librarian is after all just a clerk. And to qualify is only to reach the upper echelons of boredom. What is an echelon? A rung on a ladder. (You have rung, m’lord.)

10.30 There’s a man with a huge white beard, stained yellow. The things people will do for their tobacco fix! Freeze their elbows off in the cold, wearing only half-cut office suits down to the elbow, up to the thigh.

I’d better write something. OK. Here’s the first paragraph of the novel.

A man at an airport once told me that guilt shows itself in the back.

– Don’t bother with a person’s face, he said. And never listen to their words. Wait till they walk away. The back always shows it. The back is more truthful than the front.

I pondered his words for a long time, but they did not help me today (was it today?) when I was grabbed without warning from behind, bundled into the boot of a car, driven at high speed, brought out with the hood still over my face, and dumped here. Physically, I have not been harmed, though I feel stiff and sore. I have been aslep, though I don’t feel drugged. I seem to have just woken up and remembered this. There is no sign, at the moment, of my captors.

I open my eyes. The light is dim, given off by a bare lightbulb in the centre of the room.

A man puffs noisily up the stairs, then stands and leans on the balcony, winding his hand urgently as he summons someone out of sight. Summon someone Simon someone simon the summoner. A woman swishes by in a nylon jacket, her arms a rhythimic percussion like one of those pastry-brush things drummers use. Plastic macs and how they used to make me feel: the repellent touch of the plastic, the feeling of being encased in it from top to toe, like packaged meat; the association with being fat. And those rainhats women used to wear – clear plastic that unfolded and tied under the chin, then folded away to nothing. Just like their ambitions. Just like their lives.

Begin a story with this line:

On the worst day of my life, I was out selling double glazing.

12.00 Town Hall Square. Polish women talking loudly – I envy their confidence, their insouciance. They do not smile or laugh. They let their toddlers roam free around the square. I don’t speak a word of Polish, apart from those political words we all learned in the ’80’s.

There’s a man at the library counter with a speech impediment. With his face he follows the movements of the library assistant, as though trying to mirror him. The assistant seems a little bemused by this.

1.30 pm. “Scissors, paper, stone” – good title for a story. Scissors – technology. Paper – art. Stone – primitive people. Could do something with that. The game of evolution.

I take my boots off, tuck up my legs under me, and continue. Suddenly, a woman slides into the seat opposite.

– You’re Miss (I correct myself) Vivienne Bradford, I say.

She beams.

A silk hat upon a Bradford millionaire, I think irrelevantly.

– I’m so happy to see you writing, she says. I knew you had it in you.

– Thank you, I say. I try to remember something about her teaching. “You once read out my Jane Austen essay” I say. She beams again, then vanishes, leaving only an impression of dazzling white hair and yellow teeth.

– I see you still smoke, I say to the empty air.

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