Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Compass, a short story by Catherine Ford

We hear her as the moon, blind as an ancient cat, clambers past ranked chimneys – and, at first, we think it might be someone’s idea of a joke. We think, it must just be drunk people taking the piss. Jamaica Street is that sort of street. A place of passage from one dense cluster of pubs to another; a route people take in order to be seen being careless. Yet as Sister Baba draws near and her voice grows louder, we recognise something in it that we haven’t heard for a long time – something protective, almost motherly, something like conviction.

If you are able to get out of bed early enough, before the whistling work-booted men arrive and wake you up, before they hurt your eyes with their orange outfits and the practised way they drag their outdoor brooms behind them, you can count one hundred crumpled cider bottles if you like. You can kick your way through cigarette cartons and takeaway trays pretending they are fallen leaves; look on as a golden-eyed gull descends upon a corpse-cold chip, anticipating a severed finger. Sit awhile on Turbo Island, between patches of grass – the first you’ve seen for ages – and watch the dregs float home, just before the cheap bacon sandwich place opens and everything begins to begin again.

Having lived here for some time, we are acquainted with the noises drunk people make, accustomed to the strip of pavement outside our flat reeling with loose proclamations and staggered footsteps. But Sister Baba sounds different. She sounds purposeful – like she means to bring about change.

Before the Sister arrived, we argued. You told me that I must find another job or sort out somewhere else to live. It had been my choice to resign and now it was my responsibility to get enough money together to pay my half of the rent. Besides, I had to eat. What was I planning to eat? You worried your hands through your hair and asked me whether I was even trying. Of course there were jobs out there for people like me. I had been leaning on you for too long and it was beginning to ache.

“I’m not keeping you,” you sighed, “you’re twenty five. You have to support yourself.”

I said: “Money, money, money – all you care about is fucking money,” because you were being truthful and I hadn’t anything else to throw at you.

It was so hot we rowed with the windows open. I thought, if my old boss walks past now, he’ll be smirking, nodding his head, his wallet so fat and heavy that he’ll have to keep hitching up his trousers.  

We took ourselves away from each another, to either ends of the flat – the farthest apart we could be without one of us actually leaving. I could hear you beating your hands against the bedroom wall but I didn’t go in to stop you. I didn’t care. I googled “how to live with no money” and clicked on the first result. It was an article entitled “No cash? No problem”. The first line read, “Almost all shops accept credit and debit cards.”

I do not touch the computer keyboard for the amount of time it takes for the screen to turn black – I can see my own face, as well the moon’s, reflected in it. The moon smiles a Down’s syndrome smile as Sister Baba’s voice keens gently through the open window. Initially, I cannot make out any individual words but the quavering quality of it brings me to the ledge. I lean out and, when I turn my head, I see that you are leaning out too. We stare at one another, complicit, confused.

When we first moved to Jamaica Street, we spent every evening side by side at the sitting room window.
Delivery vans made the floor boards and the glass inside the window frames tremble. You convinced me that this, coupled with feeling hungry almost all of the time, meant that we had artistic integrity.

So that they wouldn’t trail across the night storage heater and scorch, we tied knots in our inherited curtains and let the street reveal itself to us hour by hour, day after day. It was early spring. Rain flickered on the horizon, turning the crackers gathered on the steps outside the Compass Centre to nuns, their hooded heads bowed as if in prayer. We got to know their voices when they shouted up to one another or asked a passer-by for a lighter, then a cigarette. We listened to them laughing and fighting and pleading to be let in to the hostel late at night. Whenever one of their dogs spilt a litter of puppies beside a mattress or beneath a laurel bush, they’d offer us one. I always wanted to say yes, to make a proper home half-way between Horfield and the Highbury Road, but you insisted we couldn’t afford it, told them we’d get kicked out of the flat if the landlord discovered we’d a dog living with us.

Despite dragging a tartan shopping trolley behind her, Sister Baba is weighted with blue carriers.
Most of her braids are hidden under an enormous brightly-coloured head wrap, which she wears at an angle, orange, black and gold, Nigerian style, but a handful trail down her back reminding me of shoelaces which have come untied. Her loose plaits whip her wide shoulders as she walks her sumptuous, heavy-hipped walk. She swings her cumbersome body over the cracks in the pavement, singing.

“In the name of Jesus I release you from the demon of addiction. In the name of Jesus I release you from the demon of debt.”

Upstairs’ baby starts wailing. Above me, a window clatters open and a pint of water is tossed out of it, whispers past my shoulder and makes a star of itself on the ground.

“I have been sent by the holy spirit to cleanse this street of demons,” Sister Baba yells, pointing at the window from which the missile was launched, “I am here Lord. I am here and I can feel the demons quaking in terror. I can feel them relenting, loosening their grip on these people – these enslaved people. Free these people, Lord. Show these lost people the way. Show them that you have not forsaken them.”

You are smiling.

“Hallelujah!” I shout down to her.

“Amen sister.” Her eyes are dark and ready and righteous. Her crinkled carrier bags make a reverent shushing sound whenever the wind blows.

“She’s mentally ill,” trills a passing cyclist and someone, somewhere, starts to laugh a shot gun laugh.
The Sister begins to quake. Half a dozen more braids tumble out from underneath her headscarf and graze her cheeks. Gracelessly, she falls to her knees, rolls over and lies on her back on the rough ground beside the parking meter, where I know the crackers send their mutts to piss. She begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer – a prayer that we used to say at school. Despite myself, I almost join in, if only to prove that I can still remember all the words.

“Is she speaking in tongues?” A young guy with a can of Tennent’s protruding from his pocket is hollering up at you. You are bent almost all the way over; leaning so far out of the bedroom window that I think you might slip. Maybe I want you to.

“There’s no talking to these people,” you shout back at him and he gives you a thumbs up.
“God monsters, eh? Will you shut it – we don’t need saving.”

The air is so warm that you can smell the bins’ diaperish sweetness from the first floor, couldn’t sleep with so much as a sheet thrown over you last night. A couple of days after I quit my job, we went to stay with your mum in Stroud – “the world’s first bee guardian town” a host of road signs declared. When we returned to the flat, we uncovered handfuls of maggots, which had been existing in a perfect circle underneath a rubbish bag we’d forgotten to dispose of before we left. At first, we’d thought they were seeds.

We moved the bin bag and the maggots began to spread out, like moon coloured sunrays. Not knowing how to kill them and, after a while, feeling guilty about trying so hard, we swept them into a dustpan and threw them out of the window.

“Maggots are a bad omen,” I’d said, half meaning it.

A number of them must have survived because over the next few days the flat filled up with flies. Not the fast, green, darting kind but sluggish cluster flies, which didn’t so much as move a foot when you set about squatting them. Their crisp bodies fell soundlessly on to the carpet. You looked closely at the grey smears left on the wallpaper, brushing away tiny wing fragments with the tip of your finger.

Sister Baba hauls herself up from the ground and gathers her carriers and her trolley around her. There are faces at the windows opposite. The crackers are calling down to her:

“Sister – I’m just putting a shirt on but I’m coming to talk to you.”

“Hiya Sister. You’ve got such a lovely voice.”

“You’re an angel Sister – have you got sandwiches?

“Have you heard from Benny?”

She is beaming and nodding and beckoning them down.

“Of course. I’ve got loads of sandwiches and homemade soup. Why else would I be here?” She’s pointing at her tartan trolley, riffling through the bags piled up around her feet and pulling out wraps and flapjacks and packets of crisps.

“I’m on the phone. Would you save me a pastrami and mustard?”

She’s looking at me.

“Are you hungry?” She asks. “I’ve got about forty of these Pret A Manger sarnies. You’re welcome to take a couple.”

But before I can say yes, I’m starving, I’d like one, I’ve had a horrible day, you’ve shaken your head and told her we don’t need anything, that we’ve plenty of food.

Later that night, there’s a thunderstorm so loud and close that it wakes me up. I left the sitting room window open and water is streaming in, surging into the heater, soaking the back of the sofa black. Another row when you notice, I think. But, since I haven’t work in the morning, I don’t heave the window shut and go back to bed. I sit with my feet hanging over the ledge, rain bouncing off my cheeks, forcing myself to keep my eyes open. I watch daggers of lighting slice through the sky. I stare at the lights still on in the Compass Centre and realise some of those lights never get switched off.

The next day, Sister Baba appears again, much earlier this time. I bump in to her as I am walking to the shop at the end of the road, a ten pound note you said must last me all week burning a hole in my pocket. She is accompanied by a weird-looking group of people who seem to be echoing every remark she makes. A pair of pallid skinny women wearing head wraps a bit like hers but smaller are carrying the sandwiches.

“Hello,” I say.

“God go with you,” she responds without much conviction.

“I don’t believe in God,” I tell her but she just shrugs. A drear puddle of water recoils from her plimsoll.
I buy a scratch card. Not one of the cheapy ones – a five pounder with six individual foil panels. The first five plays produce nothing but on my sixth go, I reveal a hundred pound win.

In the end, I buy shoes – Russell & Bromley, half off. Shoes that I promise you I will wear to job interviews, just as soon as I get some. Shoes that rub my feet to ribbons. Shoes as unlike the Sister’s as I can find.

Catherine Ford is a freelance writer currently living in Bristol. A recent English graduate from the University of Bristol, Catherine is the author of “Damaged Goods”, which was shortlisted for the Telegraph Short Story Prize in 2013, and “Indelible Memories”, an essay concerning Holocaust tattoos, published in volume one of Paper Publication.   


  1. Catherine - this is truly brilliant. You are very gifted. Bex x

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