‘It’s a good bus, is this,’ said Mick the Mick. ‘A bloody good bus.’ Mick the Mick was sitting on a chair by the door of the night shelter. He spoke to everyone as they came in. Tonight he was travelling somewhere by bus. He did not say where. He had no need to say where. It was nobody’s concern, least of all his, where he was going. Soon he would fall asleep. Later they all would be asleep.
From the church close by the bell chimed the hour. As was customary at this hour, the Bishop entered quietly and reverently. He smiled gently at Mick the Mick who only snorted in response. Moving further into the night shelter, the Bishop surveyed the scene for a while, ignoring all comment. His dignity would not be sullied by those wretched creatures who knew no better than to insult a man of pious faith and good intention.
‘I stand before you all in the condition of my impropriety. Of this I may be asked to repent. For I stand before you as one compelled to acts of which a lesser man than I would be ashamed. But I am not ashamed to say I am a better man for believing that good will triumph in my soul. I am not ashamed to proclaim my faith. And by my faith I declare my innocence.’
‘There are no little girls here,’ Lord Nelson tartly observed to the Bishop’s visible chagrin. Someone tried to laugh. The words silenced the Bishop. His moment had passed. He moved toward the counter where tea and sandwiches were served. It was noted by those who cared to note these things that the Bishop ate ravenously, slurping his tea in his haste to drink it. All day he had fasted, he might explain to excuse his crude manners. He fasted regularly, for this scene, like many, was repeated night after night.
‘Where’s Fiona?’ Marigold asked. It was always her first question. One of the shelter volunteers passed by as Marigold spoke. ‘Is she Fiona? Another Fiona?’
Often there was someone new to the shelter. A nervous unfamiliarity – or an aggressive defence – was always evident. It was likely that one of the regulars would greet them. ‘I’m in charge here,’ Bully Billy was likely to boast. Bully Billy fooled no-one with his boasts. ‘What I say goes,’ he would insist. It was Bully Billy’s way. He liked to assert his position in defiance of Mick the Mick, the longest-serving member of the shelter.
Many people passed through the shelter, staying for a night or two. Then they disappeared. No-one knew, no-one cared, where they went. The ones who mattered were the ones who had settled into shelter. ‘Everyone knows me,’ a bearded stranger said to himself. ‘Everyone knows me here. Everyone knows the things I done. I’m known all over the whole world. The things I done have been talked about all around England. I’ve been on television, explaining my point of view.’
‘I'd like to be on television,’ Benefit replied. ‘I’d like to explain my point of view. I’ve thought about politics. But for politics you have to be in London, and I don’t go there much. Haven’t been for years. So I’d be no good for politics, would I? Shame that, because I have a point of view that is the ordinary man’s. The ordinary man’s point of view. I could write a book about it. I could write two books: one about the way I feel about things; and the other about my life. It’s been an ordinary life, but interesting enough in its way.’
‘You might have lived an ordinary life,’ Bully Billy interjected, ‘but I’ve been and done things. And I’ve paid the price, so I have. But I’ve lived a life. What have you done? You can’t get life out of books.’
‘I’ve never read a book,’ said the bearded stranger. ‘Do you know that? I have never read a book. I have a problem with the words. I listen. What I do is I listen. I listen carefully to what people say. That way you learn things. But it’s getting to make sense of what you read, do you see? I can’t somehow do it. I listen, though.’
‘I’m a good listener,’ Benefit concurred. ‘I don’t repeat what I hear. You can tell me, and I’ll not let on. I wouldn’t let on if you was to give me a million dollars. What would I do with a million, anyway? I’d give it away to those less fortunate than myself.’
‘There’s nobody less fortunate than you, you mad bastard,’ Bully Billy said.
‘There’s people starving in Africa,’ Benefit answered defensively.
‘There’s people starving in this country,’ Lord Nelson said. ‘In my country. I have the right to rule this country, do you know that? I have the right that you don’t have. And I say there are subjects of England, my England, who’s starving. I’ve gone days without food myself, many a time. And I’ve a right to rule. I have a right because I have a vote. I can choose the government of my country. And I’m proud of my country.’
‘So who do you vote for, Nelson?’ Benefit asked.
‘The government, of course. Who else is there to vote for? I vote for the government. Bloody stupid question. That’s why you aren’t allowed a vote.’
‘So what’s government done?’
‘I’ll tell you what it’s done. It’s restored the lost dominions of our empire. That’s what the government has done. England is known and feared because we have an empire that they could not take away, not Turk, not Spaniard, not Israelite. They’ve all tried, but England is an empire. And that’s why I vote for the government.’
‘Ah, fuck this!’ Bully Billy shouted in exasperation.
‘It’s a good bus, this, a bloody good bus,’ said Mick the Mick. ‘A bloody good bus, and a bloody good driver.’
‘Ach, an’ fuck you,’ Bully Billy growled, retreating into a corner. He knew another fight was certain to mean permanent exclusion.
‘This used to be quite an exclusive place,’ Benefit observed quite sadly. ‘Not now, though. It’s not now.’
‘I quite agree,’ Lord Nelson said with his customary indignation. ‘I don’t know why I come here.’
‘Where else is there?’ the bearded stranger asked. ‘When I heard about this place I thought my prayers has been answered. That’s all I can say. I’ve seen some places. I seen a few of you in them places. But this is class. Not that I’m a class man myself. I’ve lived. He thinks, that Scotsman, he thinks that he’s the only one who’s lived. I’ve lived. I can tell a few tales. There was one time…’
‘There are worse places,’ Benefit interjected.
‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ Lord Nelson retorted.
‘It’s the only way of looking at it,’ the bearded stranger said. He held out his hand to Benefit. ‘Call me Allan. Everyone does when they know me. You can ask about Allan in quite a few places here and there. Ask at television. They know me. I was on television. I was famous. That must have been four, five year ago. They wanted to know my point of view. So my name is well known. It’ll get you entry, and win you some friends if you says you know me. It’s not easy, is it, when they first let you out? You don’t know people the same way, not after a long stretch. Everything’s not the same now. So that’s why I tell you to tell them you know me. Say you know Allan. You can say you know me very well. I’ll tell you all about me some time.’
Benefit moved away. He was feeling hungry and thirsty now. He was in the shelter out of hunger and thirst and fatigue. All day he had roamed the streets as if in search of something. He was spending the day waiting for the night. That was how he spent his days.
The church bell chimed the half hour. There were more people in the shelter. Dolores made her customary entrance, standing on the threshold, waiting for people to notice her. She liked to make an entrance. About her was the shadow of the glamour she had sought when young. In her mind she was glamorous even now. No longer young, she was attractive in a mature, sophisticated way. A star who remained in the limelight. ‘Would you take my coat, please?’ she asked no-one in particular. Allan stepped forward to take her coat. ‘Thank you. You’re a gentleman. I’ve known gentlemen in my time. I know one when I see one.’
Dolores found herself a chair where she poised. ‘Would anyone be kind enough to bring me a cup of tea? I always have a cup of tea about this time. Of course, when I was younger it was a martini. Now I prefer tea. I must be getting old, although people tell me I don’t look a day above twenty-five. I tell them, ‘You must be joking’, I say. But I must say I’m flattered. And they mean it, dear, they mean it.’
‘Was you ever on television?’ Allan asked. ‘I was’.
‘It was films I wanted. I had a screen test. They said they’d give me parts. I didn’t say anything. But they were grooming me for stardom. It was my agent who let me down. He wasn’t a gentleman. He made us girls work. And it wasn’t much money. But, I thought, if this is the price you pay for being discovered. He cheated me. He lied to me. A typical man. Not a gentleman. Not like you. Why do men lie so much to women? And why do we believe them?’
‘This bus isn’t going nowhere,’ Mick the Mick said. ‘Must be out of petrol or something.’
‘He said he could make me star. He said he was introducing me to men who could help my career. I believed him. I did what he said. I was glamorous. High heels, silk stockings, satin. He paid for it all. I thought it was so kind of him. It helped me to attract men, of course. We had to earn our keep. He made us work. I’ve had broken bones through him. He was a saucy one, though. He’d put money in my stocking tops. Well, that always made things right.’
‘Have you ever thought of a comeback?’ Allan asked. Lord Nelson snorted.
‘I’m seeing about a part next week,’ Dolores replied. ‘You see, I haven’t been well recently. But when you’re in demand, dear, you’re in demand.’
‘Don’t say anything,’ Benefit hissed to Lord Nelson. ‘I’m saying don’t say anything.’
‘I never said a word. As if I would.’
‘I think I’ll get another bus,’ Mick the Mick said.
‘The men,’ Dolores continued. ‘They were devils. They made promises, of course. They all made promises. Funny how you believe them even when you know it’s all dreams. What would we all be without dreams?’
‘You should be in London, Dolores,’ Benefit said kindly. It produced in Dolores a grimace, followed by tears.
‘You men are so cruel. You can be so cruel.’
‘I can’t bear to see a woman cry,’ Benefit said, his voice sadder and colder than before. ‘If anything makes me angry it’s to hear a woman cry.’
‘Now you don’t listen to him, darling,’ Allan said, comforting Dolores. ‘No man is worth your tears.’
‘I had my dreams,’ Dolores explained. ‘But it was all over when I came back here. It’s safe here, out of London. They don’t mean what they say. Ruined my life, it did.’
‘Now, your life isn’t over yet. And you’re safe here, don’t you think?
‘You’ll look after me, won’t you? You’ll look after me?’
‘Course I will, darling. And you can tell me all about it. I’m a good listener. It’s something I do. Something I’m good at. Everyone’s good at maybe just one thing.’
‘You’ve a way with women, I can see,’ Benefit observed. ‘You understand them. I never did. I thought we were happy right up to the day she said goodbye. I still wonder if she’ll come back. She might do. You never know. I could write a book about how much I love her. Love isn’t something that happens to everyone, is it?'
‘Take me away,’ Dolores implored Allan. ‘Take me somewhere, anywhere. I’ll go with you.’
‘I’ll take you wherever you want to go,’ Allan lied. Everyone knew he was lying. Perhaps the only ones who didn’t know it was a lie were Dolores and Allan. The shelter was for people with nowhere to go.
‘You two run away together,’ Lord Nelson said. ‘Let me know where you’re going, and I’ll come with you.’
‘Leave them alone to dream,’ Benefit said. ‘And don’t be so jealous. You’re jealous and cruel. That’s what you are. Has anyone ever told you that? I don’t expect you’d listen.’
‘Where’s Fiona?’ Marigold asked. ‘What have they done with Fiona? F-f-f-f-fat-arsed Fiona.’
‘Now, don’t be rude,’ Benefit reprimanded her. ‘There are rules to this establishment. We try to maintain a sense of decorum even in the most trying circumstances.’
‘That old cow doesn’t fuckin’ know what decorum is,’ Bully Billy said, returning from his corner.
‘So what is it, Billy?’ someone asked.
‘How the fuck should I know?’ It was the time of night when Bully Billy began to break the rules of the shelter.
It was the time of night when in darkened streets people with bundles shuffled towards some hope of refuge for the next few hours. That was all they could expect of life. It was to be another night the same as every other night. That was how life was. It was the same life no matter where you went. The dreams remained dreams. And the hope was that sleep would not bring other dreams, bad ones that were too close to reality to be dreams.
They knew about reality. They lived in reality, and it was always dark even when others were walking in sunlight. Those others, they knew nothing of the life that was lived in darkness. The others knew nothing of those who lived by night. The others were not real. They did not know the way life was, the way it had been from the beginning. Life was dark. That was the truth even in sunlight. Darkness was sure to fall every evening. Night was the natural condition of life. Everyone alive knew that raw, unforgiving certainty.
And the voices continued into the night as residents lay down to sleep. The search always was for oblivion, that ultimate relief from all the hardship of existence. As the night deepened the voices became drowsy and indistinct until at last there was something approaching peace. It would never be wholly undisturbed. But it was as close to peace as could be found in the night city.
The streets were cold and empty. By dawn there was nothing anywhere for anyone on the streets of the night city. But here was shelter. ‘It’s a bloody good bus,’ said Mick the Mick. ‘And a bloody good driver.’