My paper lady: Part I

By

Accipiter G. Goshawk

Another two-part short story that tells the tale of Edward, a lost homless man and the small wish that changes his life forever...

For most people, Christmas was about shopping, colored lights, rushing into crowded cafés and a flurry of food. For Edward, it was cold, wet but also mean. Living on the streets was harder in winter: food was scarce and in the northern hemisphere, shelter was vital. Usually he would find a hiding place near a warm air vent and survive until spring. But when shopkeepers became concerned with the image of their shop and people became stressed about the smallest things, Edward retreated to the colder parts of the city.

Edward didn’t entirely remember how he had started living on the streets. He felt that it had happened gradually, a slow sliding motion that had progressively derailed an orderly life. It seemed to him that he had lost something and that after that, things became less important. Then, one day he woke up leaning against a trashcan with only his name, a grubby coat and three imperial crowns in his pocket. Once those where spent, he had nothing.

He never looked for a job, nor help. Lost in a forgotten room of his mind there was a feeling; it told him that every day was a test and that looking for help would be cheating. He struggled and suffered. One winter he almost lost his life in a snowstorm; that same summer he had to walk barefoot when the storms carried away his shoes. But he endured, surviving until he was clothed in rags and his hair and beard had grown out past his shoulders.

Even though life was harsh, Edward remained kind. He reeked, he scrounged for food behind restaurants and yet he shared, gave and asked politely. Never once did he raise a hand on another soul. It was maybe because of this that Christmas was a hard time for him. He didn’t understand why such a joyful time should be filled with so much tension, so much anger. Last year, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag had screamed at him and slapped his face for being in her way. Terror-stricken, he had fled to the rooftops. It had taken him three days to make his way back down and longer still to start looking people in the eye again.

This Christmas, something else was bothering him. He felt an emptiness in his stomach and a dark chill along his spine. As he walked along the light-encrusted boulevard, his dark eyes caught the figures of couples warmly embracing, their hands interlocking. The chill worsened and he had to stop to clutch his stomach.

Lonely. He felt lonely.

The realization hit him like a brick to the head. He ducked into an alley and slowly slid to the wet pavement, his bony hands rising up to collect his heavy skull. Memories threatened to surface, but he fought them back, wave after wave. Soon he was calm again, but the feeling remained in his spine.

He needed to find company.

He had encountered many different people during his years sleeping in the forgotten alleyways of the sprawling metropolis. Miggy, the old lady who talked in the third person and who referred to herself as Queen Cat; Joel, the red-haired drunk who always knew the best restaurants to beg from; Charlie, the man who loved animals but scurried away from people. None of them stayed or became his friends; they had their own problems to deal with.

No, Edward thought to himself, he needed somebody else. Someone he could talk with. Maybe grab a bite to eat and laugh at the crazy people with the bulging bags and the furry coats.

The thought gave him warmth. Following its ghostly trace, he set out to find a friend. He crept along the back alleys and the by-ways, the old sewers and the new. He searched, he peered, he looked, he spied, he observed.

Soon, he saw a rat skittering away into the darkness.

If I had cheese…

He hurried onwards. An old wooden board with clever knots that looked like eyes smiled at him from a municipal dustbin in Groshan Park. But it was gone before he could introduce himself, whisked away by a stressed-out gardener. A copper pipe? Too cold. Newspaper? Wouldn’t survive the rain and looked miserable. Poufy looking dog? Unfortunately, it came with a snobbish owner.

He began to lose hope. Was friendship such an odd thing to search for? He vaguely remembered that in his past life, friends were something one made with a click of a button, like in a factory. He didn’t think the same method would work now. Nonetheless he tried turning a forgotten light-switch on and off. Just to be sure.

He was walking along the docks when finally he found her. He was immediately taken by the curve of her neck, the soft light in her eyes, her kind smile. She was leaning against a wall, a forgotten jewel in a dark dreary alley. She wore heels, a long skirt and a practical blouse with a fetching tweed jacket. Her hair floated loosely around her shoulders, a shadowy cloud of curly mystery.

He picked her up. She was light and only two centimeters thick. She appeared to be made of durable material though, a sort of plasticized cardboard. Rain-resistant, portable, beautiful and most important of all, she seemed kind.

Edward made up his mind and propped her over one shoulder. He carried her all the way back to his current haunt in the Blue Quarter. They walked together down crowded streets, drawing the incredulous stares of the bustling shoppers. Edward beamed. She smiled at the passersby and some confusedly smiled back before tripping hurriedly away. Edward sighed happily and led her forward through the crowds, the streets and the odd tunnels.

When they reached his little hollow, he laid her against a nearby wall and quickly tidied up. He put his drinking-can on the old cardboard box, followed by his toothbrush and assorted bottle caps. He folded his bedding neatly and lined it up with the opposite wall so that the vent from the Lebanese takeaway could warm it. Finally, he produced the small red towel he kept in the box and laid it on the ground. He gave it to visiting friends and family so they had a clean place to sit. After they had gone, he would go and wash it carefully in the river.

Gently, he took her in his arms and propped her up on the towel, between the box and the wall.

He cleared his voice.

“He-hell-“ he croaked awkwardly, his throat straining as his vocal cords began to move for the first time in almost a year.

“Hello. I’m-I’m Edward. What is…what is your name?”

She didn’t answer but just smiled encouragingly. Edward continued.

“Well, I-I suppose that doesn’t matter. What’s in a name, right? So, where are you from? I’m from around here…used to be somewhere else, when I was younger, I mean. It was a nice place, lots of green. Fields. I think there were cows too…maybe the occasional goat. It was quite…quite lovely.”

She looked at him questioningly.

“Why did I leave? Well I…I don’t really talk about that. I needed to come here, to be here, to…follow this…career path? It’s a little hard to explain. I couldn’t really stay. What about you? Where do you work?”

She seemed to point at the bold black lettering underneath her feet.

“Arturus Advertising. Wow! That must be a very interesting job. I imagine you see all sorts of different things in your line of work.”

She nodded as a gentle breeze swirled through the alley.

“No, you’ve got to be joking! Advertisement for a goldfish psychiatrist?! That is insane! Tell me more!”

*          *          *

They stayed up late. Edward did most of the talking. His silent companion would nod and smile at the unrelenting stream of words that now seemed to flow from his mouth. She was a fantastic listener. She never interrupted him once and always seemed completely absorbed in whatever he was telling her. He did notice however, that she was quite discreet and seemed reluctant to answer any of his questions. He didn’t insist; he was a gentleman and decided to respect her privacy. After all, she wasn’t the only one with baggage.

“Well, it’s gotten quite late. I was thinking of turning in for the night. Would you…err…would you care to stay? You don’t have to…I’d be more than willing to accompany you back home. I just…I think we share a connection…I’d love it if you stayed,” he murmured bashfully.

She seemed to hesitate for a minute, but then shyly smiled back and moved closer to him.

He picked up the red towel and spread it out to cover more ground. He remained the perfect host and let her have the side closest to the vent; he took the alley. He set her down and carefully wrapped her up in the towel. She didn’t shiver, but he still offered her his spare cover to ward off the cold. She declined with a smile.

After checking that she was going to be okay for the night, Edward brushed his teeth and lay down in a small pile of cardboard. He covered himself with the assorted felt rags he had found behind the fabric store and waited for sleep.

As darkness came over him, he turned and looked at her slumbering figure.

“I wish you were real…” he whispered, his eyes losing their vague mist for a minute.

The stars twinkled high above the busy metropolis. Slowly, lights turned out, frost crept up the windows and smoke-stacks stopped their puffing.

At midnight, a streak of fire flashed across the sky from North to South. The trail of stardust was blown away by the cold breeze coming down from the mountains and every particle was lost to the labyrinths of time. All except one solitary speck, which whirled and danced along a dizzying path of air corridors and misty currents. Down it went, finally streaking like an arrow in flight, straight for a small red towel in an alley. A gold light flashed once. Then, there was silence, broken only by the gentle sound of breathing.-

The story continues in Part II

2 thoughts on “My paper lady: Part I

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