The trouble is we want so much

We have switched supermarkets. It was because of his fall and his eye and various other things and now we go to one in town. It is always empty. He likes that. And so do I though I’ve had to let go of some of my favourite foodstuffs. What do they say about change? As good as a rest? If I can be flexible with the small things might I become so with the bigger ones? Anyway, despite the length of time it takes to find things in the unfamiliar aisles it is OK. And the people who work there are friendly. There’s our mate, he said aiming the trolley towards his till. He’s a Liverpuddlian. What team? he asked when we first came across him, using sport as a tactic, as usual, a way in. Everton, he said. So now he always asks: How’re they doing? I like him. His voice is like treacle. He let slip that he was a single parent. How many? I asked. Three, he said. The eldest is applying for University. I asked him what it was like as a man, the assumption being that it is usually women who are given sole custody. He is tactful, but hints at legal battles and a need to keep his children safe from ‘her’, their mother. Stories play out in our heads. Both our heads. We almost leave without paying. All three of us, moved, distracted. How does he manage on that wage? I ask him as we manoeuvre our now full trolley down the escalator.

She conned ten pounds out of us. I mean we gave it to her, not willingly, reluctantly, but we gave it nonetheless. But it was under false pretenses. My baby died, she told me her eyes big and imploring in her bruised and pock-marked face. A tiny girl, thin as a rake. I’d seen her in the café, her head in her folded arms seemingly asleep on the table. Then she was outside sitting on her sleeping bag, begging. I need £7.99 for my prescription, she said. So specific. I tried to reason it out. Surely if you are on benefits you don’t have to pay for medication? I said. She had an answer for everything. It was a culmination of things. He’d asked me earlier if he should give another homeless man £10. I’d dissuaded him. I don’t like to give money, directly. It feels wrong (more an assuaging of my discomfort than help for them), I prefer to give food. But I felt guilty. We have so much. And it had been such a lovely day. I sat down next to her on her sleeping bag. It’s hard to trust, I said. She looked big-eyed at me again. Shall we? I asked him. And he gave her the note. Before I’d even got up from the ground she was off. Do you know that girl? said a Community Officer who’d just walked over to us. No, I said. Did you give her any money? Yes, I said. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and boredom before giving me the spiel about never handing over cash. We are aware of her, she said, she has issues. The girl, meanwhile had joined her ‘bloke’ as he called him, and was jumping up and down with glee waving the tenner in her hand. It marred the afternoon. Let it go, he said several times, you were just trying to be kind. What was it that made me feel so grey, so jaded? The Officer’s badly-veiled derision, the girl lies, being duped, or her hug? It was when I was down on the ground beside her, and she knew I’d succumb, she grasped me in a hug. I smelt the sweat on her, the musk of dirt, alcohol and drugs oozing from her pores. She’d had me. It wasn’t the money, she’d got under my skin, my nails. A grim, sordid possession. We saw her the next day in the same position, the same place. Her head was cast down, defeated. Hers was no victory. I felt sorry for her. The joy of the conned note was forgotten. I think of her still. 

Stop still for a moment in any metropolis and you soon see it – poverty, isolation, loneliness, madness. Hunched men with carrier bags stealing an hour’s heat in a café. Like the man in Nero his hair unkempt, his jacket lop-sided and grimy, tearing each page from his newspaper, writing on it, laughing to himself then folding each one up and putting them in his Sainsbury’s bag. Pouring over every sheet, even the back pages. It has to be lived, this life, with all that the seeing gives us. And the hearing. Like the boy, raped to death in that American prison. It has to be lived while holding all that knowing, the pain and the joy. Like the joy of Pierre Bonnard’s red.

The trouble is we want so much, said the economist on the radio after delivering comparative statistics between the way we live now and a hundred years ago (apparently there were 5 loos between 91,000 people in Aberdeen in the early 1900s, 3 of which were in hotels, can I have heard right?) When will we be content with enough? For it is enough. To be sentient –  alert and alive to the elements.

I still cannot write of it. It waits, as do I.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.