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Short Story

Homes For All

A short story by Stephen Loveless-Rees.

It is Tuesday and Ruth has arrived for work outside Slade & Summers Estate Agents. She stands solid in her long, green coat, against the rush of passing bodies late for their work. With her back to the office she bends down to the holdall at her feet and dips into its contents.

Like a conjuror producing tricks from a magic bag, Ruth begins to cover the pavement around her. First appears the glass vase her mother gave her as a wedding present over thirty years ago; this she fills with water from a plastic bottle. Into it she drops a bunch of yesterday’s flowers, given by the local florist. Limp daffodils, mimosa, gypsophilia and tulips. Ruth arranges them lovingly with her large hands.

To her left she sits a tall, black ornamental cat, its darkness marred by a chip to one ear. She props a cardboard sign against its front legs; the bright, crayon-coloured legend, reads: ‘Homes For All’.

As if to create balance in her universe with yin and yang, Ruth places to her right a white bear; a loo brush holder without a brush. She hangs over its head a string-held notice in black ink: Mortgage and Rent FREE.

Drawn out last, like a long, flat, red snake, a tie of dubious age, its fabric shiny with wear. Ruth straightens up; an awkward, gradual rise. The pain it brings shows as creases along the permanent lines of her wide face. She forces them away with a smile, gyrates her broad hips slowly to loosen off the backache and then turns to the Estate Agents. Her eyes meet the stare from a man inside. He looks away quickly but Ruth is not interested in a duel of eyes, only in her reflection in the window. She unbuttons the top of her coat, lifts the collar of her white blouse and puts on the tie.

Ruth takes out of her pocket a handful of business cards, small oblongs of brown box cardboard. Printed on them in felt pen is ‘Homes For All’ and a phone number. With a last look at her reflection in the window, she takes a deep breath, turns around and begins to shout to the passing world in a voice as deep as market trader and as clear as a stage actor. Her working day has begun.

“Homes for All. Invest in Homes for All. End homelessness at a stroke. Genuine! Genuine! Genuine business opportunity.”

People pass left and right, people without peripheral vision, men and women with stiff necks, locked to stare only ahead of them. Ruth hands out cards to them, but it is as if their hands have been sewn to their sides. The cards fall to the pavement.

“You sir? And you sir? Madam? Miss?”

More cards fall to the ground. A woman stops, offering a pound piece and a whisper.

“No thank you. Am not selling Big Issue. This is the Big Issue.”

Ruth ignores the woman’s red, flushed face and angry whisper. She shouts her away.

“Homes for all, walls for everyone. Invest in the property of the future. Homes for all. Roof above, floor below.”

The world travels on uninterested; a teenage boy walks by eating chips.

“A bit early for them?”

He stops, grins and offers her one. She accepts with a grateful nod, enjoying the heat of the chip on her tongue and its salty bite into her gums. His passing leaves the bitter scent of vinegar in the air.

As she chews the chip Ruth offers a card to a passing vicar, but his gaze is fixed to the east, as if he only has eyes for the second coming. Not dismayed, she swallows the food and continues her work.

“Homes For All.”

More people pass, all refuse the offer of her cards. Ruth bends down at the knees as if she is about to lift a heavy weight and picks up her fallen cards, half aware of the passing feet, fast, noisy, blurs. No one walks slowly and lightly by her. Then somebody stops. Black shoes, trousers with sharp creases in them. She slowly rises and looks up into a man’s smile. Her heart leaps; perhaps this will be the investor she has waited so long to meet. Ruth’s thoughts pray as he speaks.

“Homes for All?”

The voice is soft, his face seen how she wants it to be, keen and kind looking. Ruth beams with enthusiasm.

“Intrigued? You should be. The whole world should be. This venture could end homelessness and make money for the right entrepreneur.”

Ruth stuffs the cards in one pocket and takes something out of the other, holding it tightly in her hand and lifting it up to his face as if she was going to suddenly reveal a beautiful, jewel. To Ruth it is more than a jewel, it is a brilliant idea.

“Like all major problems the solution is simple; let me show you.” Her thick, long, fingers unfold to reveal a yellowcased Cyber pet.

“Do you know what this is?”

He nods ‘Yes’. Ruth ignores his understanding.

“It’s a Cyber pet, an electronic friend that needs you.” She activates it and a barking, cartoon dog appears.

“See, a pet dog.”

Her brown eyes dampen, bringing a puppy’s gloss to them. She barks.

“Woof – woof. Woof – woof.”

Her bark makes her spittle fly. She does not apologise; he does not wipe his face.

“The pet wants feeding, walking and stroking. But what if it was not a pet? What…what if it was a house…a home?” Her face glows.

“Secreted in this tiny device a whole home, with all the sounds and images of a home.”

Ruth clears her throat, her body suddenly going into a gentle sway, gaining a rhythm; the beat of it coming into her voice.

“Ring – ring or tap – tap. It’s the postman at the door of your Cyber home with a parcel to deliver. Maybe a present, if you’re that lucky. Or, clatter – clatter. Mail coming through the letterbox. Isn’t that marvellous? Letters. People know you live there, you have an address.”

The man quietly says something. Ruth frowns, her face puzzled.

“Junk mail? Is it posted to you in an envelope?”

He nods.

“Well that’s different! People writing to you to buy things. That means they think you can afford to buy things. How wonderful. As for bills?”

Ruth growls.

“You can always get the dog to chew them up.”

She laughs and he smiles.

“But there would be letters from friends and relatives. Birthday cards, Christmas cards, all manner of cards. All the time. Every day until you’re sick of it. Then you have nopost days.”

Ruth closes her hand over the Cyber pet and puts it in her pocket. Her voice becomes more businesslike.

“Your Cyber home is yours. Filled with the sounds of home. My husband’s early morning snore use to wake me. It wasn’t farmyard.” She demonstrates, a soft, muttering sound. “But you could have an alarm clock. Perhaps a purring cat.” Ruth half bends and strokes the head of her cat ornament. What she called a ‘half pain’, stabs in the small of her back. She talks it away. “Whatever you wanted in your pocket house you can have. You just set it to whatever you want. Anything. Sounds galore. The bell of your oven to tell you the Sunday joint is done or the cake cooked. Umm.. delicious. Or…or the whistling of the kettle on the hob.” Ruth lets out a long, shrill whistle which makes the man step back.

“I love that sound.” Ruth pulls a hankie from out of her coat sleeve and blows her nose, then pockets it.

“Of course the home in your hand would need looking after. Drip – drip. Drip – drip. A leaky tap, time to call the plumber.”

The man leans forward and utters something.

“Roof leaks would be a different, drip – drip and not a problem. No problems. You can afford a builder or plumber. No expense spared because you don’t need any money, you just need to love your home. Care for it and it will care for you.”

Someone walks by and tosses a coin at the feet of the bear. Ruth angrily kicks the money into the gutter and shouts after them.

“Am a business, not a charity.”

She turns back to her prospective investor

“You really have to look after your place. The carpets. Your Cyber home would tell you when they needed cleaning.”

Ruth makes the sound of a vacuum cleaner and moves a few feet up and down the pavement, one hand out, holding the imaginary cleaner’s handle. She stops and starts circling her head, as if watching the washing tumble in a front loader as she makes whooshing sounds.

“You have to keep your clothes clean.” She pauses.

“Incredible. Don’t you think?” She gets no answer. Regardless, she continues to pitch. “All the noises and sights of home recorded into something that can sit on your hand. “ The man quietly asks a question. Ruth stares at him intently as if she is lip-reading rather than hearing. “Sharing? Well. Yes you could have someone else there, a whole family if you wish; whatever your age. But I would like it all to myself for a while. Then if someone happens along.” She sighs. “I would have an alarm clock until I met someone who snored like my husband did.” Ruth shrugs her shoulders. “We’ll see. Do you see?”

There is a long silence between them. Ruth stares hard at the man.

“Do you understand the beauty of my idea? Homes for All means that no matter where you are, home is always with you. It’s there for you to care for. It’s there when you want it. If you want to go away ? Stay out all night? Go on holiday? You switch it off – keep it in your pocket. But it is always at your fingertips – you can curl it up in your palm – squeeze it tight – it’s yours forever. Yours to see – hear and hold.”

The man remains silent. He shuffles his feet, his body language showing that he wishes to leave.

“It has reality – it will work. It will make so many people happy. They could be made very cheaply. Free to the homeless. Everyone having a home. If you’re in the rain – cold or out alone, you know home is in your pocket. You only have to reach and it’s there. Of course the housed would have to buy them, to pay for the free ones. It would be fun for them, a second home. Third and fourth if they like. Flats in the city, a cottage in the country, a villa anywhere they like in the world. They can have gardens, add garages and build granny flats. The Cyber home would just need more sounds, more visions. But the homeless first – they must be first.”

Ruth keeps her eyes fixed on the man’s, searching for a clue to his thoughts. He draws a hand across his mouth, perhaps to hide an expression, maybe an unconscious habit or to finally wipe the spittle away. Silence remains. But he cannot ignore the sudden pleading in Ruth’s eyes as she hands him a card. He speaks instead of taking it. His words forcing an expression of deep thought on Ruth’s face. Her answer is a whisper that has travelled from deep within.

“Where does homelessness start? Inside. Homelessness starts in the heart.”

His head drops, he takes the card and turns to walk away.

“The phone number is the Salvation Army charity shop, they take all my calls.”

He nods and leaves her. Ruth stares after him, both hope and disappointment in her eyes. It does not last for long, a deep breath, a smile and she is back in business.

“Homes for All. Invest in Homes for All.”

© Stephen Loveless-Rees 2000

Stephen Loveless-Rees is a scriptwriter.

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