In a city not dissimilar to our own, one made of concrete, rock and human bone, one etched with the lines of eroding time, one that etched itself onto human skin, in that city a little girl got lost. A little girl called Esther.
The bus had not stopped where she thought it would and when she got off the world she’d known had vanished. Now all she saw was this endless city, cracked grey granite, pitted sandstone, flecked paint on red bricks, piled high like the Tetris tower. She wandered through the unfamiliar streets and wondered where she was, trying to stop people for directions. But the people did not see her or chose not to.
So come, I’ll take you to her, down a large road, wide, lined with trees. Trees with big leaves, like pages torn from books, caught somewhere between summer and autumn, bright green like cucumber and amber like the sticky treacle that caught the mosquito that bit the dinosaur that lived quite long ago. There she is, Esther, imagining the dinosaur for herself, the tyrannosaurus rex, thinking that maybe it too once walked this place, and sure enough there stomps the beast, huge and splendid. It rears its head from behind a double-decker and Esther giggles.
It is getting later now and colder, and her jumper is made from polyester, she shivers in the gloaming. An indifferent moon, just a fingernail clipping on a darkening sky, watches her as does the distant setting sun.
But laughter and elevator music trickle from nearby and rounding the corner she sees what she’s been looking for. Refuge. What a marvelous place, a veritable palace, a huge sandstone building, freshly polished. The sign that hangs above the double door entry wears three gold stars and she reads the word Hotel. This place must be special. Through the windows she sees laughing couples and jazz musicians. Women wear pearls, men wear bow ties and waiters balance platters of bloody steaks, thick chips and strawberries with clotted cream. Her stomach rumbles, she’d forgotten how hungry she is. She skips to the swept steps and is about to ascend but then a figure looms, dressed in a long maroon coat, top hat, with drooping black moustaches. He holds up a white-gloved hand and stops her.
She begins to speak but he just shakes his head. She splutters, she mutters but still he shakes his head. The doors open and for a moment the light spills out, bathing the girl in an orange squash glow. A couple appear, sated, chattering, drenched in perfume. They waft straight past her as if she weren’t there and in an instant she isn’t for Esther knows when she’s not welcome.
The next street is lit by the familiar glow of the supermarket sign, reassuring red and friendly blue. But the glass doors do not open, closing time, closed to the likes of her. The neon lit innards of the shop reveal a whole teddy bear’s picnic, if only glass would melt. Esther spies a woman not far from her on the pavement, emblazoned with the insignia of this fine establishment carrying a huge sack on her back. Mother Christmas come early and Esther spots the tops of sandwiches, loaves, mixed salad bags, ready meals, doughnuts. A treat, a feast. She follows her down a back street, hesitates, and watches as the food is flung into a huge wheelie bin, ten times the size of the one her family has at home. She runs forward, about to speak, but the woman just stares with unseeing eyes, and the girl begins to plead. She is not heard as the giant bin acquires a suitably large padlock.
Alone again she tiptoes on between narrow houses, darkened shop fronts and the stage doors of theatres. She passes a church, crammed in with the rest of the buildings. One window ajar, the faint scent of candle wax. She hears the solitary voice of a priest: “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” the man says, his voice echoing among the silent congregation she cannot see, “if it were not so, I would have told you.” Her heart skips, perhaps this is the place she’s been looking for, so she tries the door. It’s locked. She knocks, but no one answers. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.”
The tears begin to well in her eyes, dripping like the leaky kitchen tap at home. She pinches herself. Little girls don’t cry anymore, what would Katniss Everdeen think. Then she hears it, the voice on the breeze, twisting its way through the city. And the voice is singing:
“A long time ago, a million years BC, the best thing’s in life were absolutely free…”
Entranced Esther walks on following with her ears:
“…but no one appreciated a sky that was always blue and no one congratulated a moon that was always new…”
Rounding a corner she finds the source:
“…So it was decided that these things would vanish now and then, and we would have to pay to get them back again…”
A lone busker sings into the night:
“…That’s what storms were made for, so you needn’t be afraid, for every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven…”
Despite the chill Esther takes a seat on the paving slabs, captivated by the magic words of this midnight lady. Her hair streaked blue and silver, her skin glistening with its own light. Chalked creatures gather on the pavement at her feet – wolves, goblins, moshi monsters and ladybirds, all listening to that song. For a brief spell Esther is transported to a world alright, aloft on the simple elegance of the woman’s words, transported to a world of so much more than this.
When the lady finishes she takes a bow for that is the end of her set, and seeing the little girl sitting on the pavement she holds out her slender hand, bracelets jangling on her wrist.
“Hello, my name’s Claudia,” she says, her voice syrup, no honey, no treacle, no, something so much more than those tired clichés, the sort of voice that seeps into your ears and plays upon the neurons in your head like Ariadne plucked her thread.
“I’m Esther,” says Esther.
“And where are you going?” the lady asks.
“I don’t know, I’m lost.”
“Then maybe you’d like to spend the night at mine. The central heating’s working again and I’ve got a nice spare room.”
“I haven’t any money I’m afraid,” Esther bows her head, “I can’t afford a room.”.
“Don’t worry,” smiles the woman, “I’ve always believed that the best things in life are absolutely free.”
Now I wonder if Esther could trust this woman? Could she really go to her home and hope there would be a warm mug of tea waiting and maybe some soup?
Well don’t ask me for I am just a scribe, better that you advise, not for me to prescribe endings. I don’t know if Esther, that little girl, could really trust that singing stranger, for trust is not a written word it is an act of hope, of faith, that we long for others to return, desperately, quietly yearning for reciprocity.
Could Esther trust that woman and eventually find her way home?
I’m not sure I know
but I do hope so.
* * *
A short story performed at The House of the Commons, in Oxford, October 2014. The event explored the housing crisis in the city and inspiring ways to solve it. The story is a response to this and was inspired by the song of the same name.