Saturday, October 22

Papergirl

THEY WERE making cuts in the office. I was very concerned for my job but knew that, really, it was out of my hands. There wasn’t much work for the company and it was under great pressure. Some had gone already. Everyone else was worried. All I could do was work hard and keep my head down. In hushed voices people talked about it in the kitchen and ceased when they heard someone approach. The office was a bad place to be during those times.
Christmas was only a couple of months away and there was talk that the company might not be trading by then. No one wanted to be unemployed at Christmas. We were all very scared but I tried not to think about it; as I said, it was out of my hands.
It was mid-October and a month that had begun warmly had very quickly turned cold. Most of the cold was in the morning, on my walk to the train station. It still lingered within the night and, I suppose, it was very much still night on my way to the station. There was no sunlight at all, the world wrapped in this black sheet with only the lampposts emitting anything from a lightly buzzing bulb encircled by moths. The cold was riding on the shoulders on the wind. Once the wind dropped it wasn’t so bad out, but when the wind blew it really blew and it blew right into your bones and made movement difficult. It is not unusual for me, at that time of the morning, to still be half-asleep and my thoughts are particular to that hour, occurring at no other time of the day. What seemed perfectly logical then would seem nonsense hours later.
It was on such a walk that I first bumped into Sylvie.
I guess the local newsagents were doing OK because paperboys and girls made their way around on the streets so early on. People like to read their paper over breakfast. No matter what train I caught in the morning there were paperboys and papergirls going about their business, posting fresh warm newspapers into people’s letterbox.
I was below the house with the clock—a great big clock encircled with Roman numerals that stopped many months ago at a-quarter-to-six—when I saw her approaching me. She solidified out of the mist and grew larger. She was wrapped in a jumper with the hood pulled over her head and long blonde hair dribbling out as if it were melting vanilla ice cream. Her legs were thick with many layers and great boots made a faint sound on the pavement. Her arms were crossed. Her newspaper bag hung by her side, over her shoulder, and it bounced with her steps. She looked very cold. I felt very cold.
At the very last moment, looking up carefully so as not to appear obvious, I saw that she was startling and that is the only word that I might use to describe her, besides cold.
We passed. As her footsteps faded, I wondered how much money she was on. It is not uncommon for me to think about money but I do not think about other people’s money. I don’t know why I thought about her money.
At work she returned to my thoughts a few times. She was not particularly clear in them. If you had asked me to describe what she was wearing I would not have been able to. All I could picture was her head within the hood and the word “startling” shining out at me.
That afternoon the photocopier broke and everyone panicked. They ran about, trying to fix it. I sat at my desk and worked, keeping my head down and when I was not working I did some calculations in my head regarding my money and how much I had left to last the month.
It was at least a week before I saw her again; I cannot be specific because, as it does in autumn, time became flimsy and irrelevant. She did not enter my mind after that day but when I saw her again—almost in exactly the same place—it all came rushing back to me and I stared at her, unabashedly. As I stared the cold felt colder and the night darker.
There are eyes that look out at you, projected from a distance yet illusioned into sockets, and those were her eyes. I decided that the next time I saw her I would stop her and ask her something. That time did not come for another two weeks, when the mercury had sunk even farther.
“Excuse me,” says I, making her jump almost, and feeling guilty for it, “what is your name?”
“Sylvie.”
“I am Gershwin. Tell me, are you cold?”
“Yes. Very.”
When she spoke, she sang.
“I was wondering—sorry for all these questions—but, how much do you get paid for this?”
She did not mind my question—“Fifty-pounds a week.”
I thought it over in my head, very quickly, because silences, when you first meet someone, are more awkward than anything.
She pulled a stick of gum from her pocket, unwrapped it, inspected it on the light from the lamppost, and folded it into her mouth.
“What I think, Sylvie, is that you should quit your job and I will pay you instead.” As I said the words I was unsure how she would respond and I was also unsure about whether I would miss my train, but none of this mattered because in a couple of hours this would all seem like nonsense and I would reel at my nerve! “You do not have to do anything. Meet me here. I will even better your wage from the newsagents. You say they are paying you fifty-quid-a-week. Well, I will better it. Sixty-quid-a-week and you needn’t do a thing except meet me here every week. What day would you like the receive the money?”
She chewed—“Friday morning. I think Friday is as good a day as any to be paid on. Don’t you think?”
“I think that’s an excellent idea.” I really did.
“Why, Gershwin? Why?”
“It is cold. A young lady should be in bed, not working. You have the rest of your life to work. It is dangerous to your health, don’t you know.”
“I didn’t.”
“Well, it is! I should know. I am nearly all worn out and feel like I will collapse at any moment.”
“Can I have sixty-pound now?”
She looked so cold.
I gave her the sixty-pound. She thanked me, kissed my cheek—though I only felt her hood—and walked off. As she did, she threw her newspapers into a nearby garden and I listened as the heels of her boots disappeared down the road.
Not long after, the bosses cut everybody’s money. They called us into the boardroom, provided tea & coffee, and told us that the company was not doing well and that we had to take a twenty-per-cent pay cut. As they told me, I thought of Sylvie. Her face appeared momentarily in my mind, as if I were a slide of film and the shutter was only open on her for a millisecond. Unfortunately she solely occupied my life at half-six in the morning and, as I have told you, my brain is not at its best then.
When we met every Friday I felt like I were in the cotton depths of a dream. She grabbed hold of me, in every sense, and warmed what the autumn morning had made cold. I left the house even earlier so that we could walk slower and I could absorb of much of her as I could. Even though I was giving her money it felt like I were receiving much more, not financially but as something else, something I cannot pinpoint to you. But, when I got to work, my memory of her was fragmented and it was as if we had never met or she didn’t exist.
She offered to pose for a photograph for me—“If you cannot remember me at work, when your mind is not your own, then I will pose for a photograph for you.”
“Do you think that will help?”
“No.”
So I never took a photograph of her.
She began showing me what she was buying me with the money I was giving her. “Let me show you what I bought with the money you gave me.” And she showed me these tall stiletto heels that made her legs look sublime. “This is the first time I’ve worn them.” They were lovely. “What do you think?”
I told her what I thought of them.
Then a few weeks later she came dressed in a new coat. Every time I saw her she was happier and it made me happy but by the time I got on to the train I was tired and sleep draped over me once again so that when I woke up in the City I could not accurately describe her dress. I would not let this trouble me, though. Even for those minutes in the morning it was bliss and it would be greedy of me to want more. Besides, I wasn’t sure if I wanted more or what my feelings toward her were! Was I in love or infatuated? Did I give her money like a generous father? I had no conclusions of where this thing—that started as my attempt to get her out of the cold everyday—was heading. There were no other women in my life that captured my attention. The rest of my life was devoid of anything like that. If someone had asked me, “Are you interested in any women right now?” I would have told them I wasn’t and then, when they had left, I would remember Sylvie and feel foolish for having forgotten her.
Two more of my colleagues lost their jobs but I was not very close to them so it didn’t have much of an effect on me. Many others were upset, especially over this one fellow, but life continued for me. Christmas passed. I had a job. I was paying Sylvie and she gave me fifteen minutes of her week every Friday and I gave her sixty-five-pound—I upped it at Christmas—and I still felt like I was getting more than my money’s worth. On every rendezvous she became more startling. Perhaps I had created some kind of monster. When would she be too much for me?
With Christmas having been and gone, I knew that the mornings were getting earlier by two minutes every day and very soon we would be meeting in the crystal blue of dusk. Seeing her without the aid of lamplight was an appealing prospect.
There was still a deal of uncertainty on my feelings for her. I never asked if she had a boyfriend. She never mentioned having one. What sort of boyfriend would let someone else buy his girl all of her things? My salary had not been returned to its full amount and some months it was difficult to survive while supporting Sylvie. I was scamming her with those sixty-five-pounds and, though it would put me even further into financial difficulties, I increased it to seventy-five. She was overjoyed, swung one foot in the air and kissed me on the lips and her saliva stayed there and cooled in the morning winds that also caught upon the blonde hair that dribbled from inside her hood.
In the end it was inevitable. I lost my job on a very cold March Tuesday morning.
“We are sorry, Gershwin,” they told me. They provided tea and coffee but I wasn’t thirsty. I was provided with one last paypacket. My first thought was “How will I pay Sylvie now?” It was tough. I had to really watch what I spent my money on elsewhere and was often hungry. I soon signed up for unemployment benefits. After I had lost my job and was unemployed I still dressed in my suit on a Friday morning and went to meet her. She showed me her new purchases and asked how I was and we talked about life and how it had its way with us but I never revealed to her that I was out of work and nearing the end of money.
It was the last time I could meet her. It was my last seventy-five-pound and I was getting less than that a week from the unemployment office. I could not give her anymore and it made me very sad. I dressed in my suit with a solemn face and I corrected my tie in the mirror and walked out of the house to meet her in the mid-April morning when it was light enough that the streetlights no longer glowed upon her cheeks.
I held out the money. She took it and, as had recently become customary, kissed me long. She slid her tongue into my mouth and I accepted it and it was worth more than I had given her. Her tongue tasted sweet. She removed a small strand of lint from the shoulder of my suit and asked me what was wrong. I told her nothing was wrong but that I was quite tired.
“You work too hard.”
“I suppose I do.”
“You have kept me going through the winter, you know that? You should not be sad or tired. I could not have done it without you.”
“Are you very sure of that?”
“Very sure.”
We walked to the train station and she giggled a lot as she spoke to me. She told me about a cat that had begun visiting her back garden and was killing every bird in the neighbourhood. She had named the cat Tarpeia and had bought it a collar with some of the money I had given her. “I like the name,” I said.
“It is a good name. There are twenty-six dead birds on my back door mat.”
She waved me off on the train and I watched her as we pulled away. As the train turned she could no longer be seen. I got off at the first stop and waited some time for the next train back. It did not take long to arrive.

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