It’s been a tough week. It’s lonely, stressful, working alone, setting up a business. And I have been in a rush: my computer, my phone and my hard drive all conspired to choose the same week to break down on me so I have spent too many hours in Apple Stores or waiting in cyber limbo while my life floats in the ether or a trash folder or the black hole of deletion. I go for walks to try and regain my balance but end up ruminating on all I’m not and all I’m incapable of doing and how disconnected I am.
‘Can you spare some change?’
‘No, I can’t. I haven’t got any.’ A reflexive lie. Why? I rationalize: I’m in a rush, I’ve got struggles of my own. I moderate with: ‘I’ll be back in a bit.’ I do feel bad. They nod but when I return or look round, prompted by a singed conscience, they’re gone. Where? They were there a second ago. It’s a street. I should still see them. But no. They’re gone. Like they never existed. Just like my files and life, leaving me with a slow burning furnace of guilt and abandonment.
By Wednesday, I’m fed up, stomping back to my flat. A filthy guy, aged by dereliction and neglect, passes by in a turquoise anorak. There’s several of us marching under the scaffolding on the cobbled pavement.
‘Excuse me, can anyone spare some…’
I am bored already, have passed by already, fuming at my publishers and the world of technology. ‘….personal contact?’
I do a double take. The couple behind me look round too. They heard him. But he’s gone. The couple and I look at each other frowning. I go back a couple of yards but he’s gone, not even round the corner.
Puzzled, I walk on. Was that an angel? Did I just rubber an angel? What sort of vile bitch am I? What is more important? The only personal contact I’ve had all week is that which I have had to pay for – a cup of coffee, a delivery. And I can get wash, launder my clothes, put make up on. But if anyone knew I was the type who could dismiss such a request, I really would be worthy of no personal contact.
I can’t rationalise it away. Images chew at the seams of my dreams. An awareness of a universal grace that forever races ahead of my lagging, constipated gratitude.
I have no spare change because I dare not trust myself on the streets. I need to go out with purpose, prepared. So I have a plan. I buy eggs, bread, butter, oil. Saturday morning I get up early, put the oil in the paella pan, write stickers with ‘Hope’ on, cut up squares of foil. Go to the pan to crack the egg. Suddenly, it erupts in fourteen inch yellow flames. I freeze. The flames grow. My impulse, my fear is to throw on water, the tea towel. No smoke alarm goes off because the landlord omitted to fit them. I’ve barely been here three weeks and I am about to set a tower block on fire. I see in slow motion my hand, my arm in flames, the same flames of my conscience, the countertop, the fridge, the sofa, yellow and red flames. And then a still sure voice: Let it burn. Don’t feed the flame. It’ll die if you don’t feed it.
So I wait and consider how my life is forever in the balance. The flame grows taller, defiant, accusing. It will devour me surely. There is terror in the silence. No alarm, just this roar of spit, flame and fury. And then it grows less and less and withers to a trembling wick and finally a charred pan. I put it in the cold water running in the sink. I exhale. And I know I must start again.
I put on the extractor fan. Cool and wash the pan. Butter bread. Put the pan on. No oil. Fry the egg on heat. Put the bread buttered side up on the egg, flip it, toast it and put the other slice, buttered side up, on top, flip it again. Put it in on the foil square. Cut it diagonally. Wrap it in the foil envelope with the Hope sticker to seal it. Do it again. Open the windows. Wash up. Go out in a rush.
Find a guy, worn out by neglect, the October chill and the burden of despair, lifting his rucksack onto his disheveled coat, stumbling under the weight.
‘Excuse me!’ He doesn’t hear me.
‘Excuse me!’ He turns. I give him the foil wrap. He reads it. His eyes prick and he gulps.
‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’
I find another, crouching by the entrance to Boots.
‘This is for you.’
The look of surprise rips me open. ‘Thank you very much.’
That’s sincere. That is the personal contact I needed. And I’ll have to earn it every day and thank the Lord I wasn’t consumed by the flames.
I was given a second chance.