The Stream of our Lives

It’s a hazy grey Tuesday outside and I’m sitting in my pyjamas gazing through the cracked and dusty window. My coffee cools at my elbow and outside the wind is rocking the trees back to sleep like an overbearing nursemaid. Each leaf twists in the breeze, mocking the wind and defying it to tear loose and send the leaves flying into the tepid sky. Further on I can see the clouds bearing down on the horizon like that hunk of layer cake which sits heavily on the digestion after tea at four in the afternoon. My grandmother loved layer cake. Every time I went to visit she insisted on feeding it to me by the plateful, so that when I walked home every step was sweet agony. I remember the shiny damp pavements, reflecting the streetlamps in the twilight, spreading oil and water-colours under my feet as I lurched and hiccupped the two and a half blocks back to the studio flat my father and I called home. And a home it was, though small and dark. The carpet didn’t quite reach the walls, and in the spring the wafting weeds invaded the windowsills, but to us it was a little piece of warmth, separate from the cruel and chilly outdoors. My father’s injury prevented him from holding down a job, but he loved to sit and whittle shapes from the scraps of wood I brought home, and sometimes he would produce things I could sell to supplement our meagre income. He wasn’t the creative sort, but he could make useful things like clothespins and wooden spoons, which sold for a couple of pence at the market on Saturdays. Ah, the market, yes that is truly where our story begins. It famously opened at five in the morning, as the middle-class customers used to murmur to each other when they came to visit for the thrill of slumming it among the cabbages, but of course the true life of the market started before that, when the sellers disgorged their various wares onto the crates and trestles laid out under the iron-girder sky that defined the world of the market. Even at three o’clock, you would already find the most enterprising or insomniac tradesmen shuffling through the fish-smelling laneways in search of a prime pitch. It was in one of those crates that I cut my first teeth, and from a bill of loading I learned my letters. I took my first uneven steps across the cobbles, and more than once my mother found me sitting in a damp gutter chewing on a soft and discarded carrot. Although it is now many years since her passing, I don’t believe I will ever lose the memory of her gentle smile and rough, hardworking hands. My first concept of an angel wore a floral apron and smelled slightly of goose fat. But I digress. My dear departed mother, my injured father and his humble whittlings, and even my fond grandmother, though close to my heart, play no part in this tale. Rather, let’s look more closely at one of these early tradesmen as he comes in search of a prime pitch. See how he turns his collar up against the wind which whistles among the arches as this dark hour. Watch him shuffle in his cracked boots over the uneven stones, and hear as he hums a lively tune under his breath to keep his spirits up against the dark. Mark how he turns his head to note the progress of the small shape who shadows him through the darkness, and how tenderly he extends his hand in encouragement. Here, dear reader, is the true hero of our story.

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