Thursday 13 March 2014

Smoking Kills. Fiction Tells…

This week as I sat at home writing, windows open for the first time this year, the sun wasn’t the only thing drifting in to my room with a view. The words “it is an offence to smoke on New Street Station” occasionally joined the sun, distracting me momentarily from the world of my novel.

“It is an offence to smoke on New Street Station.” New Street Station being the train station outside. On New Street Station, I asked myself (and my social networks.) On. Not in? How strange a message to broadcast. A friend echoed my thoughts, which had centred on a lone figure, standing on the roof of the under-construction complex, smoking in the one place where it is openly forbidden. My imagination filled in the rest rather swiftly.

If you ever wonder why sometimes I seem absent from the real world, or why a task can be lost in a moment, and a moment can stretch to several, this is how my mind works. I see a snapshot and it grows, whether I consciously give it fuel or not. Thus those ten words and the momentary distraction become 800 words of story.

The Secret Rooftop Smoker inhales, not leisurely, but not over rushed. There is still time for him to finish his cigarette before he leaves, still time to overcome the ten minute interior maze that will take him from his rooftop to the platforms below where his train will depart in precisely twelve minutes and forty-five seconds. Still time for a few more drags, a few more precious lungfuls of nicotine and the delicious substances that accompany it. Still time to take those few prized moments of secret freedom and deduct them from the sum of his life.

The day is warm, the sun caressing the back of his neck where he stands atop Grand Central, the workmen and commuters streaming beneath him like ants. Look at them, he thinks. Look at them, wreathed in the smoke of a hundred smokers polluting one another in the confines of the station. Look at them, too scared to break the rules, too cowardly to embrace the rooftop freedom that he so richly enjoys. Too scared to smoke on New Street Station.

A quick glance at his watch checks the countdown. Eleven minutes and eighteen seconds. Still time. He places the cigarette between his lips and breathes in once again, the corners of his mouth ever so slightly turned up in a smug smile. Still time. He need not be one of them.

He should have known it was too good to be true. The crash of a door and the simultaneous flap of wings break his reverie. Ten minutes and fifty-seven seconds. He looks up and his eyes fix on black uniforms, grey eyes, red fire extinguishers. The Smoke Policiers. How they found him, how they knew he was here, he will never know. But found him they have.

Ten minutes and forty-seven seconds. Ten went by as the reality of his situation sank in – just over ten minutes until he had to be on his train and leaving the station. A ten minute maze to journey. Two Smoke Policiers now obstructing his only route to the maze and thus the platforms beyond.

Secret Smoking Man drags on his cancer stick as he has never dragged in his life. No point hiding what he is doing up here on his rooftop. His secret haven will be forever blocked to him after this day. Might as well enjoy it to the last. Nine minutes and two seconds. His window of time has passed.

The Smoke Policiers advance, not leisurely, but not over rushed. They know, as he does, that there is nowhere for him to go. No way out of this and the punishment that will follow. The penalty for smoking on the station is rumoured to be harsh. Of course none have ever broken the rule before… or have not survived to speak of it. Eight minutes and five seconds.

When his last drag is dragged and the red tip of his cancer stick become uncomfortably close to his fingers, he drops it onto the domed top of John-Lewis-under-construction, lifts a booted foot, grinds what is left of his last pleasure onto the gritty surface beneath and exhales his last mouthful of tainted, forbidden smoke. Delicious. Seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds.

There is nowhere for him to go. No way out of this. The Smoke Policiers still block the exit. All around him a drop. To what? To the east and west, platforms. To the north and south, skyscrapers. All around him, as far as he can see, traffic, buildings, hills, and also to the west, two Smoke Policiers, disturbingly close now. Nowhere for him to go. Time ticks on. Six minutes and fifty seconds.

Secret Smoking Man considers for a moment handing himself over. After all, he chose this. He broke the rules… knowingly and willingly. He should face the consequences. Six minutes and forty-two seconds. He could almost reach out and touch the Smoke Policiers, they have drawn so close now.

Instead he turns to the east putting his back to his enemy. One step, then another. Then many in quick succession as he runs… jumps… Six minutes and twenty-four seconds. His aim is true. The train looms below him. All he need to is land, wait for six minutes and seven seconds and he will be gone from the Smoke Policiers, gone from Grand Central, gone from the ants and the cowardly. Elation fills him.

Five minutes and fifty-nine seconds. A rogue seagull takes flight, startled into movement by the Smoke Policiers leaning over John-Lewis-under-construction and watching Secret Smoking Man's fall. The seagull crosses Secret Smoking Man’s flight path, the collision sending him off course.

Five minutes and forty-eight seconds. He makes the platform… but not his train.

The Smoke Policiers nod to one another, a lesson to the ants well taught. Secret Smoking Man heralds their message in blood as the onlookers learn.

Smoking kills. Do not smoke on New Street Station.

Elloise Hopkins.

Saturday 1 March 2014

When Libraries Were…

A library used to be a quiet place; so quiet you were afraid to cough or rustle papers, so peaceful you could lose yourself in there for hours, either in a world within a book or by devoting yourself to study without the fear of distraction or human disturbance. A library used to be a place without interruption, to think and rest and read and be.

The Library of Birmingham – which I have blogged about not entirely favourably before – is a different kettle of fish, one that makes me wonder whether those libraries of the past are dead and gone.

Twice recently, once at lunchtime, once in the evening, have I curled myself up into a chair in the lending library – and here I won’t harp on about the fact that the chairs are too low for the tables so sitting up properly and working/typing is a challenge – and attempted first to read a book and then edit some of my novel.

Now here’s the problem. This library (or should we really call it a tourist attraction?) is not quiet. It is not peaceful. It is not a haven where reading or working are easy things to do. It is loud. It is as busy on the inside as it is on the outside. None of the separate areas of this fantastically designed building are fully enclosed, so the noise from the cafĂ© above and the shrieks and the sound of children charging around in the kids’ section below are a terrible assault on the concentration. It feels so wrong that I’m struggling to explain it. It was as though I was trying to read whilst sitting on the edge of an adventure playground. 

Now I have no doubt that somewhere in this library there must be a quiet section but I’ve not found it yet, and if I do I suspect that like everything else in there it will be less than functional as a library in the way we have always understood a library to be.

Even something so simple as collecting a reserved book now involves a ten minute wait while the staff have to head from the desk to a different floor to collect it.

And did I mention before that there is not enough seating in there? Did I? When that was one of the main selling points of relocating to such a large building without increasing stock? Not enough seating. And what there is is either bulky and awkward to position comfortably, or too low to be able to stand up from easily for those of us unenthusiastically advancing in age.

You can see I still have my issues with the library, and as time goes on and I try more and more to use it as a library, those issues are increasing. I wanted to love this place. I wanted to be proud of it and treasure it always. So I will keep going there, and I will keep trying to use it as a library, in the hope that somehow our current strife will be reconciled.

Elloise Hopkins.