A week in the metropolis in this strange third millennium. By Singhamanas
Tuesday night back at the soup kitchen. They’ve put me on laundry and showers, and give me the special turtle-skin gloves to protect my fingers from hypodermic needles. I hate needles. Youssef comes in keen and chirpy. He’s Syrian and we speak some French. Normally a laundry load (wash & dry) costs a pound but Youssef doesn’t have anything save a can of Carling, which he wants to trade instead. From his smile he clearly thinks I’ll do well out of the swap. I don’t really drink any more and Carling was never my choice when I did, but I’m won over by the smile and we easily make the deal. He wants to get clean as he has a day’s work lined up for tomorrow and if he does good they’ll keep him on. I say we’ll fix him up no problem. So he hands me a bag of clothes, I pass him some soap and he hops in the shower. An hour later his load is clean and dry. I bag it up for him ready to take home when he bursts back in through the front doors covered in blood. I ask him what’s happened but he’s so upset all he can do is vent an Old Testament rant about an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth. He’s missing a tooth too. What a mess.
I keep waking up at the moment wondering who I am. It’s Wednesday. At the foot of my bed is a large head of the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire sketched by his friend Manet. Apparently it’s the only portrait Baudelaire approved of. He’s in profile wearing his customary top hat propped over watchful eyes, which look out of my bedroom window and over Regent’s Canal. Baudelaire reckoned he was married – ‘in glorious hymen’ – to his beloved Paris, and that he felt the shocks of metropolitan life much like a lover feels the shock of sex. George the ex-demo skeleton hangs by the door. (My sister’s a doctor: perks of the trade.) His frame faces forwards but the skull lolls to the left. Charles looks out the window, and George looks at me.
The next week at the soup kitchen the cooker’s out, so all we have is Pret sandwiches to give away. There is something ironic about watching a host of homeless beggars dining on Wild Crayfish & Rocket Wraps. When we run out of wraps I’m left with Pret Pots (granola and honey desserts) and soon have to weather the wrath of a hungry Russian man shaking his fistful of Pret Pot at me and shouting: “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!” I couldn’t agree more.
The shifts are late so I’m up late the next day. In any case I’ve decided there is no inherent virtue in rising early, despite what many meditators say. The only time in my adult life I have systematically got up early was when I working for Sangharakshita in Birmingham. I used to make him his breakfast: rooibos tea and porridge; then, for the main, one veggie frankfurter, green salad, Ryvita with marmite, one tomato and plenty of water cress. Every day the same thing, and every day he thanked me.
On odd days we bought each other food, smoked and argued about ethics
When I get to the LBC for work on Thursday I find she’s left me a gift after months of quiet. Why? There are chatty, follow-up texts. I don’t know how or even whether to respond and find it all painfully confusing. In fact, I find confusion itself one of the most painful states. The Buddha called it a ‘fetter’, one of the things that binds us to mundane existence. The original word is vicikitsa, which mostly gets translated as ‘doubt’. But in this (pseudo-)sceptical age, ‘doubt’ sounds rather too dignified. ‘Confusion’ gets at it better.
Friday I’m at home as I’ll be in the office on Saturday. So I’m in when Victoria Sinclair comes round. She’s our cleaner from Romania. Is it all right to have a cleaner? I live on minimum wage, so does she I assume, and at £25 a fortnight it seems worth it to me and my flatmate. Growing up in West Africa our house was always full of cleaners and maids and gardeners and the like. I had two nannies. I don’t think we really needed it but my father had a policy of employing as many people as possible, mainly for their sake. This morning Victoria asks me to play the piano for her while she goes to work on the oven. I say sure, what would you like – ‘Mozart, Mozart!’ she replies. I spend the next hour playing sonatas. At the end of each one she hoots with glee, and throws down her mop, or brush, or spray, or towel, and claps her hands like fun-snaps. I play better than I have in ages.
I wonder if I’ll see Youssef again next week, or ever. Then I remember being in Syria with Safiem. I met Safiem on a night train travelling from Turkey – a train flaking with French imperial grandeur. Safiem was French and a Muslim convert. He took me to the old sook and the great mosque of Aleppo. He taught me how to wash my hands and how to bow in prayer. I taught him how to sit cross-legged and how to follow the breath. On odd days we bought each other food, smoked and argued about ethics. We agreed on most things, but not about women and how they should be treated. He thought I was weak, I thought he was weak. I saw the old sook again today – in the Sunday papers. At least the caption said ‘Sook’, but now it’s just another pile of rubble. ■