She sits like a painted portrait, flooded in orange light. She’s a beauty alright. A mammoth beauty. Her hulking body comprises bags and flesh in unknown configurations. A lady who lives and travels, who is protected and incarcerated in old sacks and rags. A lady in bags…
This old dear – how old nobody knows – who sits still and peaceful by a streetlamp outside the cloisters at night, is often spotted in and around the city. She walks in slow motion, her face darkened, barely visible. She has a bulbous nose with sprouting at the apex like a sort of empurpled Vitelotte noire. Her eyes are bespectacled in thick-rimmed goggles, wrapped and wrapped in Sellotape. What remains of her coat is made of nylon: an old navy windbreaker anorak. Bags sprout from every opening. There are underlays of vest-style carriers. Recyclable, if not entirely by design.
She was once banned from the local supermarket because customers complained about the stench. Some have suggested that the bag lady had chosen to live on the streets. That help was offered, but she preferred the outdoors. Some believe this could be true, though cannot quite understand how anyone would ever choose this existence. This cold, wintry evening, the bag lady rests.
She shrinks down into her coats and bags and, like a tortoise under its heat light, retreating into its shell, sleeps a good sleep.
Sometimes when all is perfectly still, the rustling sounds are like a harrier jump jet. Through old, translucent skin which crumples and undulates, a globose terrene remains faintly visible. It is a sad sight to behold. Without even the patience to separate items from bags until the second of their use, James removes the solitary copper-skinned potato from its temporary dwelling. He hopes, as with this single tuber he is about to microwave for tea, that he too shall dwell in this way only ad interim or pro tempore. Oh Crickey, he thinks, what a time to remember such somber days of youth; learning Latin at the local grammar school, and not to mention the occasional old Latin rite still a feature then of childhood services.
In the evening, James tosses and turns in his single bed as he thinks about his ‘selfish’ behaviour. Back in his old Bachelor pad – which he fortunately didn’t sell after settling down with Ruth, and which is currently empty – he reels from a quite unexpected profusion of wounding commentary. On Christmas day, no less, and following Ruth’s overdone turkey and congealed strawberry trifle. ‘You’re a selfish pig,’ she cried out, a spoon of her inedible, pre-cast custard quivering lightly in sympathy. ‘I make this glorious Christmas for us, for the whole family, and you speak to my parents as if they are feckless.’ Ruth's timid parents of modest means looked dolefully as James tried to snicker and gibber off his wife’s humiliating accusations.
James, who is a CEO now of a sizeable distribution outfit down south, has no patience, no tact, and dwindling goodwill. He runs a business. He has no time for niceties. Ruth’s parents, who he sees so infrequently he may well have snubbed them outright, are retired teachers. They know nothing of the stresses and strains of the real world. How could they? They don’t have wages to pay and cashflow to manage.
“Can’t be bad, can it John?” he’d turned to Ruth’s dad. “Retired at fifty and a state pension to keep you and Mary in overnight underwear and jars of shredless whisky marmalade. Well, someone has to pay for it all!”
And now James sleeps – or attempts sleep – in a cold, soulless apartment by the river. His wife no longer loves him. Hasn’t loved him for some time. ‘Unlovable’, another adjective thrown his way during the chaos over Christmas.
Tarrying insomnolence, James decides to get into his clothes, and at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve, walks along the edge of the city. The lights reflect in the river and the sounds of youth enjoying themselves seem to travel on an aural trajectory for his ears only. Walking in semi-darkness, around the river, through the Close, he soon arrives at the old Cathedral. A beautiful flint structure with spire soaring into the clouds, piercing the sky like a lance upon which the entire world spins. Along the ambulatory and through to the South Entrance, the cloisters are at right angles. And against the carved stonework, the outer perimeters of labyrinthine walkways, a boss of a different kind. A shadowy rock which, as James gets close, gently expands and contracts, somehow in sync with all that surrounds it. As if a heartbeat for the entire thing; the tower, spire, transepts, cloisters… all of it.
James nears the black object in mild trepidation and as he does so, two white flashes almost startles him off his feet. The unidentified creature has opened its eyes. And for what feels like an entire age, its eyes lock onto his. Indeed, it is only once the hulking organism has blinked that James finds himself able to move. When it is once more blackened, James walks around its bulk, keeping as much distance from it as he possibly can. Lest this creature somehow infect him with all that it means in life to lose. To be a loser.
A year in industry is an event in and of itself. The quarterly reviews, the reporting back to shareholders, the peaks and troughs appertaining to sales, the intake of new staff, the open and closed periods… and, nowadays, charity fundraisers and ‘corporate responsibility’ programmes.
Throughout this whole epic journey, this rollercoaster of a year – which had nevertheless resulted in four percent top line growth and a pretty decent gross performance – James spent most of it alone. Not for wanting or wishing or indeed, trying, for the opposite to be true. The groveling, the attempts at marriage counselling, the wild and unfriendly supplications born of the most intense frustration. James was not a man to fail in reaching his goals. He set them out and the idea of them not being achieved, of all the pieces not falling into place, kept him up at night in cold sweats.
“I can prove I’ve changed,” he told his wife in the middle of November. “Surely you have seen in the local papers? I know I’ve been a selfish man, but I care about charity. I really do, Ruth. This Christmas, I’m working the soup kitchens in the Close.”
Though somehow, Ruth seemed not to believe in his renewed dynamism. Or perhaps it was his motives she failed to trust.
Another Christmas alone, and James, whose parents passed away when he was young, decided to spend it with his younger sister in their house down in Kent. Children not a feature otherwise in his life, James loved seeing his darling niece and nephew. And they, likewise, loved seeing him. But with all his responsibilities, his workload, the business trips, children had not been a feature of James’ own agenda. ‘Think of the holidays, the freedom.’ James had sold it to Ruth. Ruth, not overly maternalistic herself and with her own career in conveyancing keeping her more than occupied, had gone along with it. And so it was not to be. No kids. And now, no wife either. Life for James had never felt so lonely.
Erected a few days before Christmas, there is by New Year’s, a fully operational make-shift soup kitchen and outdoor pantry. Including James, there are two other CEOs from local businesses drafted in as well as a passel of support volunteers. The tables separate staff and the homeless, offering an ‘arms-length service’ as it had been internally sold to the higher ups of commerce. And so it is, on 31st December from 5.30pm onwards, it is James’ shift in the kitchen. It happens to correspond with the Te Deum service going on at the Cathedral, soaring, as always, magnificently in the background, which James knows Ruth will be attending with her parents, John and Mary.
By around 6.15pm that evening, the queues build up predictably enough like a liquid polymer chain of a dozen or so shakier units. Human contours in ragged clothes and obliterated footwear, with pinpoint pupils, scabs and sores, puffiness and the occasional slurred speech. They wait, like feral animals, to be served their grub. Not thankful, nor indifferent. Some are jolly, but in the same way a plebeian might well have found enjoyment in Roman Ludi involving death and sacrifice observed from the spectators’ gallery.
Plate, ladle, slop. Plate, ladle, slop. James carries out his obligations quietly and perfunctorily until, something, he is unsure what, makes him randomly look up. And there in front of him, stands a familiar bulk, its eyes locking onto his own, as if a Bluetooth-esque connection is already established. The bag lady gazes through what may well be, for all its aesthetic appeal, a snorkeling mask made of the thickest neoprene on the market.
“What would you like love?” James is uneasy as the bag lady simply stares ahead blankly. A few moments later, an arm, the left one, slowly lifts, like a bascule bridge. She is pointing, or so it might appear, at the onion soup. ‘The onion soup?’ James asks for clarity. Again, there is no response. Instead this unsightly human sac remains in position, stock still, gazing raptly into the mid-distance.
James ladles the soup into a polystyrene cup. He attempts to pass the contents over the table-top separating the two but, still, she fails to move. Indeed, she remains as still as a spotted fawn in the bushes, who must avoid detection at all costs.
“Come on love,” says James. “Take the soup will ya?”
An agitated susurration begins to augment in the queue behind her, an aural trajectory straight into James’ ears. And the prospect of him not even being able to distribute soup effectively, irks him beyond reason.
“Come on, take the soup love.”
More of the same.
Until, James jumps irritably over the table, and is now head to head with the infamous bag lady. “Here love, your soup!”
She moves her eyes only. First down to James’ hand holding the soup and then up top, examining his face. And before anyone can say or do anything further, the bag lady purses her lips and thrusts her knobby, milk crusted face right into his, planting the thickest, wettest kiss onto his otherwise unspoiled embouchement.
“What the…” James jumps back as if zapped by 80,000 volts. “You…You… stupid bitch! You wretched filthy cow!”
The tirade is just taking full flight when, from behind, a group are leaving the Cathedral, including none other than Ruth, John and Mary. Of course, there are local press dotted about the place too.
“You wench. You… inhuman detritus!”
Ruth witnesses it all. And worse still, so too does an entire crowd, which gathers to see what is making such a din. Snaps are taken. James looks about him and, to his chagrin, is being clocked by revelers, congregants, the press, volunteers and fellow corporate bods alike. If the earth could swallow him whole it would somehow still be insufficient to contain his heavyweight shame.
The bag lady skulks off – onion soup along with her – while James pleads his case with the crowds, to Ruth.
For weeks he calls. For weeks he begs for forgiveness. But it is all too late. Too little and too late.
Shortly into the new year, James had to accept his marriage was over for good. What he hadn’t counted on was being voted out of his role by the shareholders. Reputational damage, so they said. If there was any other way, they assured.
And although his pay out was generous, James was too young to retire. So he found himself a job in retail, selling TVs. Not glamorous and by far and away with the same levels of attendant responsibilities. And at first it was hard, rankling as if potassium chloride coursing through his veins. Later, when time was able to sand down the sharpest edges of his newest pane of existence, he grew to tolerate and even enjoy his job. His colleagues were young and he took an almost mentoring role.
In May, he met a new partner, Penny. Penny was his manager. She had two children already and there too James took on an uncular, even a fatherly role, taking to it in ways he hadn’t believed he would. He wasn’t too hard on them, nor quick to pressurize them in shaping and then realizing their long term goals. Not like his father had put such herculean stresses on him.
Though life wasn’t a bed of roses, for numerous reasons. If his parents had been alive, James knew they would not approve of this second extra marital arrangements. Of his lowly job selling consumer electrics. Of raising another’s children. “As the family goes, so goes the nation and the world,” was a slight twisting of the words of Saint John Paul II. And then there was Ruth. She too had met someone else and it was a terribly hard pill to swallow. Though he swallowed it with little dramatic resistance.
Through all this time, never did a day go by without thinking of the bag lady. The old crow had kissed him. And while the thought of it made him feel sick to his stomach, he no longer regretted the incident. Or at least, not regretted the incident so much as his reaction to it. Not only a source of career-ending embarrassment but a shame as sharp as a knife, plunging daily into his heart as if butter. Could he have been any more self-centered, judgmental, peevish and, yes, cruel? Everything his wife had grown to loathe in him. Had it taken an encounter with the local homeless person to realize what his partner had realized over an entire year earlier?
New Year’s Eve this third and final year, James frolics and prats around with his new brood, in the local supermarket. They’re picking up a few last bits and pieces for a low key party; a gathering just for the four of them.
It has been years since James last stepped foot inside a supermarket. It was only once he became single did he enter these consumer stadiums with anything close to regularity. He had always left the shopping to Ruth. Or else, they did it online, via FaceTime, scheduling their twenty minute lunch breaks, which they each took only once or twice a week for the purposes of putting together a list.
Of course, takeaways were a regularity – Ruth was a lousy cook. Three days a week, the foil boxes containing Indian and Chinese food. The Carltons, the plastic carriers, the waste.
Inside the supermarket, James pushes along the trolley, its wheels threatening always to veer off course as they glide along the silikal MMA flooring. Flecked, industrial. A varnished pastiche. And as he pushes this growing load with one hand, he reaches keenly for the kettle crisps with the other, and suddenly he remembers. He remembers reaching out his hand, holding the cup of onion soup. And, even more keenly, he recalls the frustration bubbling up as the bag lady failed to reach out in response.
Round the corner, on the next aisle, bottles and bottles of lemonade and cola. The kids take fizzy drinks for granted, though James remembers how seldom it was to be given this tangy, aerated treat. Only something on special occasions: New Year’s and birthdays.
“Do you need any help packing?” asks the assistant as she processes all his goodies through the scanner system and begins laying them up perfunctorily, proficiently, into five-pence plastic carrier bags. James helps her and within moment all the items are loaded.
James, Penny and the kids walk in an orderly fashion out the shop’s revolving doors and towards his BMW M6 series – a hangover from affluent days – and as they each start passing the bags from trolley to James; from James to boot, there is, out of seemingly nowhere at all, a puzzling interregnum. Mid-swivel, all twisted along his abdominal wall – and all the while a bag in each mitt –James has stopped stock still. In what must appear to his newest household a prank-in-progress, a somewhat temporized state of chicanery, James has, by some means, left the carpark, left his family, perhaps even exited this temporal plane altogether. Floating as far away as the nearby Cathedral spire upon which the entire universe spins, possibly? He is, if only for mere seconds, sailing in a new existence. Pro tempore.
“James?” Penny puts her hand on James’ shoulder. And just as abruptly as he had frozen, James is back in the carpark. He looks up, and then all around him. And smiles to himself, feverishly. As if in receipt of knowledge he had no access to, no means of comprehending, hitherto.
“Hang on a moment, darling,” James has now placed the final bags into his modestly spacious 460-litre-boot. “Please, please just bear with me.”
James starts frenziedly emptying out the carrier bags of all the items packed by the checkout assistant until the boot is strewn with loose bottles of cola, sharing bags of crisps, dips, wine, and packets of cheese and biscuits. James, meanwhile, is left with six or seven carriers, which he has scrunched up in two clenched fists.
“One minute,” he says, smiling consolingly at the two well-behaved children who are looking rather confused. “Stay in the car. I’ve just got something I need to do.”
“Wha…” Penny turns to the kids and back to James.
“Just bear with me, Penny. I really won’t be long at all.”
James walks across the carpark, upright and proud, heading purposefully towards the Cathedral Close, where he will deposit his small collection of plastic carrier bags to whom it is truly needed most.