After the fire, she had nowhere to go, so she filled two carrier bags with clothes and blankets from the charity shop and installed herself in the foyer of the bank. The security guards were tolerant, bringing her cardboard cups of strong coffee, its bitterness screened beneath a cap of frothy milk. They drew the line at the dog, however, who whined outside to anyone who’d listen, and extended his paw in exchange for a bite of burger or a lick of ice cream.
Come closing time, they refused to let her linger. “I’ve every right,” she said. “This place was built with my ancestors’ sweat and blood.”
“That’s as maybe,” they said. “But no-one’s allowed on the premises gone five.”
So she decamped to the covered entrance, where she made a nest in the corner for herself and the dog. From there she watched the city speed up and slow down again for bedtime. She wasn’t cold: the sun was never far away in summer, and the portico sheltered her from showers. The revellers disgorged from pubs and clubs were raucous, but good-natured. If she felt scared, she hugged the dog.
She had to admit it was a fine building. Her ancestors had done the city proud. Tourists flashed their phones at it from open-topped buses; students sketched its neoclassical lines from the traffic island in the middle of the road.
It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment she and her dog became the bigger attraction. One by one, taxis beeped their horns and families posed with her for selfies. Everyone smiled.
But there’s a season for everything. As autumn gave way to winter, she and the dog cuddled closer, but the chill of ancient stone numbed their skin. Their bones rattled through the long nights and they coughed themselves awake from fitful sleep. In the short days, people scurried past; no-one wanted to dilly-dally in sleet and hail.
To be fair, when they offered her the job with the chance of a flat, she didn’t accept immediately. But she didn’t hesitate for long. Her forebears, shackled ankle to neck as shit and vomit sloshed from port to starboard, knew real suffering. But she couldn’t honour their memory dead.
Of course, she wasn’t employed as an exhibit. But, locking eyes from behind the Perspex screen as she took their money, she was glad hers was the first face the white folks saw. Even in her crisp blue shirt with the museum logo embroidered on the pocket, she was central to the city’s story. Even with the dog snug in his basket at her feet.
Anne Goodwin writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize.Her second novel, Underneath, appeared in 2017 and her short story collection, Becoming Someone, in 2018. Her new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is inspired by her previous incarnation as a clinical psychologist in a long-stay psychiatric hospital.
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