Shed no Tears.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Thought Alice as the fifth complete stranger smiled warmly to her and nodded recognition. The first time it had happened she had been terribly embarrassed because the man had looked at her in such a friendly manner she was sure they must know each other but she had no recollection of ever having seen him before. She was still flushed and uneasy, wondering who it might have been, when a second man, also unknown to her, beamed a greeting and wished her a good day. She smiled back but felt foolish doing it. The third stranger appeared glad to see her again and the fourth seemed ready to embrace her. It was all very curious.
It was mid-morning and a weary, early-winter, sun did its best to warm her but she still retained a core of the night’s chill inside her slender body. It had been cold in the shed and, although the sacks and old jackets made a comfortable bed, she had not slept well. A rake had fallen upon her during the night and startled her awake and it had taken her a very long time to fall asleep again. Hunger kept her company and nudged her back to consciousness each time she approached oblivion. She finally went back to sleep an hour before she got up.
The shed had been her home for more than a month and she had grown used to breathing the smell of dried earth. During the summer it had been pleasant to spend the nights outdoors and most evenings she had walked the few miles out of town in order to sleep on the cliffs overlooking the sea. There had been a bus shelter close by where she could take cover if it rained but most nights she had enjoyed undisturbed sleep and woke up feeling clean and fresh. She had enjoyed listening to the sound of the waves grasping the sand and the wind stroking the rocks but by mid-September it was getting uncomfortably cold and rained too frequently in her open-air bedroom.
She was in the town, going nowhere in particular, one evening after dark, when a towering thunderstorm appeared without warning and threatened to drench her. She was in a residential area and there were no convenient shop doorways where she could take shelter. The first dots of rain started to fall as she looked urgently around for somewhere to hide. Living on the streets she had learned to avoid getting wet. The cold was no problem provided her clothes were dry. As the first clap of thunder shook the night air she saw, off to the side of a small, detached bungalow, a garden shed and, although she didn’t like trespassing, she was desperate to avoid the storm. She hurried down the path beside the house and, with great relief, found the shed unlocked and slid inside. In the damp gloom she found an empty box and sat on it, shivering, while the angry storm raged outside. She leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and fell asleep. From then on, every evening after dark, she went back to the shed to spend the night and every morning, before the sun rose, she left again. She only ever saw her ‘room’ by candlelight.
John Hudson’s wife had died five years earlier. They had no children but it was not for lack of trying. In the early years of their marriage he thought that maybe they had tried too hard but later he accepted that no matter what they did they were fated to remain childless. He retired from his position in the civil service a year before his wife had passed away and spent those twelve months nursing her and dreading the moment when he would be left alone. She needed constant care and he did everything for her from mashing her food to massaging her muscles. He had, after fifty years of marriage, taken her for granted like the sun rising in the morning but now he treated her like a spring day in the middle of winter and fell in love with her all over again. She died happy.
John mourned painfully and deeply for more than two years but gradually learned to take his new circumstances for granted. He read books, did a little gardening, cooked simple meals and listened to the radio. Time passed slowly but his health was good and he enjoyed his retirement. Whenever sadness drove him out of his house he walked around the town until he was happy to return again to the warm comfort of his house. Sometimes he went to the cinema.
He returned one evening, rather later than usual, after seeing a fascinating, yet tragic, film about migrant workers in the southern states of America. The Grapes of Wrath. He had read the book several times but his anger at the treatment of the poor farm-workers never diminished. As he approached the house he thought he saw a light shining from his garden shed. He had little doubt that his eyes were playing tricks but he went to check anyway. He peered through the small window in the door and saw a young girl reading a magazine by the light of a candle. He stood silently for more than a minute watching her thin lips move as she enunciated each word she slowly and laboriously read. A bony finger followed the lines of type across the page as her head moved from side to side. John smiled to himself. He worried just a little about the danger of fire but saw the girl as harmless and no cause for alarm. Resolving to talk to her in the morning he went home to bed.
She was gone before he awoke.
He never did speak to her but, every day, he heard her arriving in the evening and, every morning, he saw her leave again. He put extra jackets in the shed, hanging them casually from nails, and sealed the cracks where the wind could reach in. He got rid of the cob-webs and dusted the shelves but was careful not to make it too obvious that he knew she slept there. He was happy that she had made her home with him.
Alice never suspected that anyone knew she spent the nights huddled up on the floor of the shed. She didn’t know who lived in the house but she had a strong feeling that whoever it was wouldn’t object to her presence. One night when she got home she found a new lock on the inside of the door and wondered why anyone would want to lock themselves into a garden shed but she was glad to be able to draw the bolt and hinder unwanted intrusion. She slept better with the door locked.
There were two bedrooms in John’s bungalow and for many days he thought of offering one to the girl but that is as far as it got. It remained a thought that was never translated into action. On stormy nights he thought of confronting her, letting her know he was aware of her existence, and inviting her into the house but he was too afraid of frightening her away. Sometimes he started writing her a letter telling her that he meant no harm and asking if there was anything he could do to help but he never got beyond the first paragraph. There were many things he thought of doing but he did nothing.
Alice spent her days walking around the town, looking in shop windows and begging for coins. When she had enough money to live for a day she went to the library and sat in the children’s section where it was warm and gentle. One day the librarian read an abridged version of Alice in Wonderland for a group of children from a local play-school and Alice listened and wished she could find a rabbit hole in which to disappear. She went back, day after day, sat on a bean-bag and stared at the pictures in the book and wished she was with the Mad Hatter, the door-mouse and the Queen of Hearts in a land where the sun always shone. In her imagination she ate endless jam tarts and drank cup after cup of sweet tea. In her shed, at night, this wonderland kept her company.
Alice didn’t look a bit like the pictures of Alice in the book. They had the same name and, she liked to think, a similar personality but Carroll’s heroine was a chubby girl with a round face, plump arms and long blond tresses while she was almost skinny with a long, sharp, face, hollow cheeks and short dark hair. In the book, Alice changed according to circumstance; in real life, Alice changed circumstances to suit herself.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” She thought as a woman with the ace of spades embroidered on her sweater smiled sweetly at her. This was her first day as a vendor for the Big Issue and she had already sold ten. This meant she had made about five pounds and she had only been there for about one hour.
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