Contributed by Joseph Wolstencroft
My irritatingly cheerful alarm rouses me at 8.30. I sit up and look around my room – a box room no larger than a double bed; the best I can afford on my endless string of zero-hours contracts. The house smells damp (because it is damp) so I leave quickly, walk across Little Hob Moor and out onto Tadcaster Road, where there’s a dense chain of traffic leading all the way down the hill and up the other side. I call Henry to arrange to meet him in town, but have to strain to hear his voice over the cacophony of traffic. Beyond my nostalgic fondness for the smell of exhaust, I contemplate the damage the fumes likely does to my throat and lungs.
Once I reach the junction between Blossom Street and Micklegate, I’m obstructed by a cackling pack of hyperactive men in shiny suits, who seem oblivious to both the size of their group and the disruption they’re causing to the commuters struggling around them. With difficulty, I squirm amongst them and emerge on the other side, cursing them and the whole world of horseracing under my breath. I bob and weave my way down Micklegate and across the bridge, sometimes having to step precariously onto the busy road in order to pass the dense clumps of tourists. From up on the bridge I glance down at the swollen river below – the Ousewaves licking at the doorstep of the marooned King’s Arms.
At the other side of the bridge, leaning against a traffic barrier, I see Jim; a homeless guy I speak to on my commute in and out of town. Ripper, his dog, sits beside him as he explains his recent issues with angina, and the difficulty of getting regular medical attention while living on the streets. I walk with him around the corner to see his friend, another homeless man called Sam, who stares into the distance as we talk. Checking my phone, I realise I’m late to meet Henry. I hurriedly tell them I’ll see them later and dash off.
I wait a while before I can cross the main road – the traffic is even heavier in the centre. The air, here too, feels noxious. Henry is waiting for me beside the fountain in the centre of town, looking a little exasperated. I hug him and ask where he wants to go. He shrugs. I check my pockets and unearth a grand fortune of £3.45. We sit down on the unaccommodatingly-tilted edge of the fountain (the sparse benches are full) to decide where to eat. Being vegan doesn’t help our choices. We eventually relent and go to Sainsbury’s to buy the familiar resignatory choice- a baguette and a tub of houmous.
We walk over to Minster Gardens and sit down to eat in its great shadow but, before long, it starts to rain – I scan my brain for an indoor alternative but can’t think of anything that doesn’t involve spending what meagre money I have. We walk around a little and take shelter down a narrow alley. The rain worsens, forcing us to consider something more permanent. I call around a few people and get hold of Ben, who invites me out of the rain and into his flat. He lives in a modest one-room flat above a cafe. The landlords, with whom he has no formal contract, have just jacked up the price of the room by an extra £100 a month; and unable to muster the extra fortune required to move house, he has accepted his fate stoically. We drink a cheap version of Lambrini and talk intermittently about the Roman Empire. Henry leaves, citing his 6am cleaning job and sighing.
Around midnight, I leave and walk strategically to avoid the thoroughfares of the drunken masses by arcing around the train station. The streets, though mostly vacant now, are strewn with all kinds of alcohol and takeaway waste. A distended kebab box filled with rainwater makes me retch. I pick up some waste – bottles, cans etc, and take them with me, but am burdened for a long while, stunned by the paucity of bins. No wonder there was so much litter. I walk home slowly, smelling the sweet ripeness of the full trees and sensing the imminent arrival of autumn.
My exquisite alarm clock (a Chopin crescendo) gently rouses me at 9.00am. I look around my room, a wood-panelled studio flat – one wall entirely a window. There’s no rush to leave the house (it’s one of my three days off a week), so I listen to the news – a wash of natural disasters in the third-world – and gaze out at the the hypnotic forest of small wind turbines adorning the roofs of my neighbourhood; a charming microcity of new build “eco-homes” I moved into a few years ago.
On my way out of the house, I greet my neighbour de-weeding a patch of onions in his front-garden, which functions as an allotment. In this area, and indeed much of the city, many gardens have been converted to semi-agricultural use through a government incentive scheme. My runner beans are looking scarce, but my kale is thriving, and I can see the beginnings of a raspberry beginning to bulge. The neighbour is laughing and talking about the American election: Kardashian is surging in the polls. I laugh with him, then mount my bike and start cycling towards the centre. On the corner of my street, I stop and throw the previous day’s recycling into its respective chutes in the pavement, then listen to it clunking into the ample containers below.
Re-mounting my bike, I swerve nonchalantly to and fro about the road. It’s a Thursday, which means it’s a no-car day within two miles of the city centre. The success of the Tuesday no-car day prompted its expansion, until the whole mid-week (inc. Wednesday) became almost entirely car free. Of course, some vehicles are still allowed, but a sufficiently useful reason must be provided, and the fines for infringement are deterringly tough. I breathe in the clean air, and the familiar smell of some tree that grew in my garden when I was a child.
I’m planning to meet Henry in the centre, but he’s not around when I arrive at the fountain. I sit on one of the new ergonomic bench-couches that are dotted around the square while I wait. He turns up before long, and we stroll around admiring the plentiful flowerbeds which border most of the buildings. We walk in and out of a few historical and artistic exhibitions that are sprinkled around the centre, particularly enjoying one which is lined with panes of coloured glass. The humidity of midday breaks with an abrupt rain which catalyses our stroll. We deliberate on where to go for some lunch – I’m paralysed by choice. He suggests the community centre on Goodramgate. I haven’t been there in a while, so I agree and we make towards it, following a line of automatic rain shelters which are unfurling themselves out from the sides of the buildings to create a sheltered strip.
The community centre, housed inside a huge and attractively simple building, welcomes us in from a brisk wind that slants the rain. To the right is an open plan food court stocked with a small bar and a community kitchen. The latter is one of my most valued enterprises in the city, and a place I try to work whenever I have spare time. All food is sold at the cheapest possible price, and all profits are thrown back into either expanded food services, or the community centre as a whole. As we make our way between the rows of long tables (designed so that strangers may meet and talk more easily) towards the counter, I meet Jim and Ripper sitting in a group of friends and eating what I assume is paella. He greets me with his distinctive laugh and starts talking excitedly about his reunion with his brother. Jim’s living in one of the rooms upstairs; the community centre accommodates a hundred or so people when they’re hard-up, combined with an optional rehabilitation program and a life/career support programme. I smile as I think of the advances made by Jim and the many of the people who were formerly living destitute on the streets. When I’m done talking to him, I sidle off to check out the options on the menu. It is indeed paella, made from ten or so seasonal vegetables. The portion is massive, but it’s delicious so I demolish it unhesitatingly.
Stuffed, I sit in silence and think about bees. Henry starts humming a familiar tune, and I’m reminded that I intended to rent a keyboard today. One of the major functions of the community centre is a resource library, in which is contained a broad array of items – tools, instruments, media, cameras, kitchen equipment, and of course books. Renting is free of charge (though for some items a deposit is needed), and loans typically last around two or three weeks. I couldn’t reliably estimate how much money I’ve saved over the years on temporarily required items, but I would guess it to be upwards of £1000. I muse gratefully on this as I carry a beautiful (and seemingly brand-new) Casio keyboard under my arm and down the street. I call Ben and swing over to his to show him a strange Bowie-esque riff I hope to develop – he’s living in a large flat a few streets away, where he’s working on a book about animal rights. We chat a little and drink some beers while the sun’s friendly orange glow fades.
Around midnight I leave and meander contentedly towards home. I don’t mind leaving my bike in town; the walk back to my house is flanked with a plethora of tree species. Their diverse leaves are just beginning to proclaim their sublime Autumn spectra.