Sylvia couldn’t be absolutely whose idea it was, and it certainly wasn’t compulsory, but Thomasina Samson (Call me Tom, she said, more as an order than an invitation) who ran the hostel, was a firm believer in the healing powers of handicrafts, and the improving nature of improvising. True, the hostel was run on a bit of a shoestring, but Sylvie suspected that the construction paper was just proving a point. And all very symbolic.
Harleston Hall Hostel, variously nicknamed Hellstone and Hailstone was a bit of a Heinz 57 when it came to hoovering up the local waifs and strays. It was in the most Easterly town in England, a little seaside town, the kind that politicians called left behind, along with promises to put things right- promises that never seemed to materialise. It was on the edges of the town, by a swing bridge, bordered by a fence separating it from some kind of industrial semi-wasteland where palettes were stacked up, but never seemed to be taken away or to have anything on them. There were some people there who did have criminal records, but it wasn’t a bail hostel and people rarely came to it straight from jail. Some had undoubtedly had their issues with drugs or booze, but it wasn’t a rehab facility, and though drinking alcohol on the premises was supposed, technically, to not be allowed, the doors had locks on, and as long as it didn’t lead to any disorder, even Tom turned a blind eye. Some, in fact, probably the majority, had just fallen on hard times, partly other people’s fault, partly their own, and it was a stopgap of sorts until they could move on to something more permanent, though it did seem to have a couple of permanent residents. Bathroom facilities were shared, but adequate, and the heating worked in winter. Cereals and toast in the morning and one hot meal in the evening were included in the rent for the rooms, and the urn was always on by the jar of instant coffee and the packet of discount teabags. Everyone was there entirely of their own free will. In fact, the only unpleasantness about that kind of thing that Sylvie could remember was when a lady from out of the area had been evicted for overstaying her welcome, and hadn’t even been allowed to sleep on the sofa in the lounge for one more night, despite her pleading. Tom had called the police in, and Sylvia had never been able to see her in quite the same light since.
I liked Delia, she thought, and even Tom couldn’t say she’d put a single foot wrong. At heart she’s just a stickler for the rules, no matter how jolly and concerned she acts. If a woman wears boots all year round, even with a sun dress, it tells you something about her. She wondered how Delia was doing. She was not in the least bit haughty or precious, anything but, but Sylvia thought that sleeping rough would be harder for her than many people. She was totally on her side. But what had she done. Really done? Nothing! True, Tom was in a position of power and she wasn’t, but she hadn’t even really raised stink about it. Not that it would have done any good, but that wasn’t the point.
So why was she playing along with the handicrafts project, meant to cheer up the kitchen? There was no denying that the kitchen needed cheering up, it looked like something out of a 1970s boarding school, but a lick of paint and some curtains that weren’t the colour of slightly rotted mushrooms even when they were scrupulously clean, and even just a couple of posters would have done the job far better than decorations made out of construction paper, and not come with any promises of uplifting the spirits.
Sylvia had never been any good with her hands. Her mother had just about taught her to knit, with a patience the more admirable because it didn’t come naturally. But best not think about her mother, she told herself, blinking and hoping nobody noticed. But that was as far as it went. Other children had looked forward to arts and crafts and what had begun to be called textiles in school, but Sylvia almost thought that maths was preferable.
It was no good. No matter how carefully she folded and creased that paper, it just wasn’t going to end up looking remotely like a lantern, and she’d chosen the one that looked easiest. Lynne and Carol, who normally, whilst not exactly at daggers drawn, didn’t get on that well, were happily cooperating on a complicated project to make a tree complete with autumn leaves. That would delight Tom’s heart, thought Sylvia, to see them building bridges like that over the handicrafts.
Delia had pleaded so desperately. She had said she would cook and clean, though she didn’t like doing either. She had said she would help with literacy and numeracy, because it was plain she was an educated woman. Sylvia had never forgotten her, of course, but she was thinking about her now with an urgency and intensity that took her by surprise. She didn’t know her backstory Well, at least as honest as anyone else was in the real world. She did not claim that she was the victim of any kind of violence or subject to any threat, whether physical or emotional, though perhaps that might have at least bought her some time. She also said that she was not wanted for any crime, and Sylvia believed her.
She did know that after she was thrown out of Hailstone Hall, she spent three days sleeping rough again, on a station platform, in a shop doorway, although by now she had a cold, and felt wretched. She still lived in hope that she might be allowed back in, and not forced to go back. Was it really too much to ask? They had the room!
She would probably have been a good sport and played along with this decorations business, thought Sylvie, though I can’t imagine she’d like it any more than I do, nor see any sense to it. I was always friendly to her, but I wished I’d found out more. I wish I’d stuck up for her even if it had done no good. But she had carried on speaking nicely to Tom and going along with her ideas, and not muddying the waters or rocking the boat, or any of those other aquatic and maritime phrases.
I didn’t used to be like that. Oh, she had never been a rebel for the sake of it, or without a cause, but though she had a friendly nature, she had not gone out of her way to be liked, either, and had not let things she disagreed with or thought unfair pass by to stay in her own comfort zone. She never used to hesitate to call people out if she thought it was justified, to stick up for them or, conversely, to put them in their place. Yet now, bad decisions and having a bolthole had made her docile.
It would have done no good she repeated the mantra. But somehow, that wasn’t the point. A feeling was washing over her that wasn’t exactly self-contempt or self-loathing, but was a million miles away from self respect. It combined with a restlessness that didn’t quite make her feet feel itchy and twitchy, but made her shuffle, and fidget, and pay even less attention to that wretched lantern.
She took it in her hands and decamped to her bedroom. Nobody had said, not even Tom, that they couldn’t do this, but she had the feeling that if Tom had been in the room she might have asked why she was doing it and suggested that it was better to carry on working in the kitchen. As it was she got a couple of strange looks. Even Lynne and Carol briefly looked up from their project. This harmony won’t last, thought Sylvia. They’ll be arguing over the colour of the leaves before very long.
In the early days, relatively speaking, when Sylvia had thought Tom was some kind of strict but fair kindly mentor she had confided in her that she liked to write, and that she’d even had some minor successes before life dealt her blows, and she dealt herself worse ones. Tom had heartily, too heartily, approved, and even made a show of presenting her with what she called a couple of nice notebooks as well as encouraging her to make use of one of Hailstone Hall’s ancient laptops. Sylvia now preferred not to look at the poems she had written in those nice notebooks in the immediate aftermath of the giving. She had written poems about finding a refuge and making a new start that at the time she may even have half-meant, and of course, she had shown them to Tom, and of course, Tom had approved of them. Now she preferred not even to look at those poems, though somehow she hadn’t quite reached the stage of tearing them out of the nice notebooks, which she saw for what they were, made in China and bought at the pound shop. Well, she wasn’t snobbish about that. There was nothing wrong with made in China pound shop notebooks, with covers showing flowers unknown to nature, but she saw them for what they were now, just as she saw the poems for what they were, and was slightly sickened by the element of cynicism in them. Delia had said she liked to write, too, but no matter how many poems, how many utterly sincere and far better poems she had written, it would have done her no good, because Tom had to stick to the rules. She would probably still have called the police to evict her from her refuge on the edge of the town, beside the swing bridge and the palettes, even if she had written poetry that put the Poet Laureate to shame.
I have to get out of here, though Sylvia. It won’t be easy, but I can manage, and there are people who can help me if I swallow my pride, and come to that, nobody is allowed to stay forever, even if they are local, and I know that Tom and I are going to have a row at some point, and she will have the upper hand, at least practically.
She had started doing it even without consciously realising what she was doing, but when she did realise, she did it with a vengeance. She dismantled the construction paper that would never look like a lantern, no matter how had she tried, and she was abandoning the pretence of having any interest in trying. Before long, the strips of paper lay on her little desk, and she would put them to her own use. She got out her pen and she began to write. And what she wrote was nothing like what she wrote in the nice notebooks. It was raw and disjointed and awkwardly phrased, and had nothing about refuges in it. At least for the time being she would show it to nobody. She might tear it up and put it in a bin, or even in a shredder if she had access to one, or she might stow it at the bottom of her shabby holdall after she had packed her second hand clothes and a couple of books in it before she left Hailstone Hall of her own volition to start a new life.