by Jonathan Taylor

Redundant, divorced, benefit-capped, Eleanor needed a job, and she needed one fast – or she would lose her basement bedsit for good. But no job seemed right; no-one seemed to want her. She spent days wandering up and down the high street, asking in shops, hairdressers and cafés, weaving through great swarms of people. The swarms never stopped moving – and she felt as if everyone except her had someplace they had to be, someplace that wasn’t here, and she wondered where it was.

She wondered too what all these people might be missing – what she could provide that they didn’t already have, what job she could do in this city that wasn’t already taken. For a week, two weeks, three, she had no ideas. The city didn’t seem to need her, and she felt invisible, ghostly, as if the crowds might pass straight through her. So many people, yet none of them seemed to touch her, or touch one another, for that matter – everyone swirling between, around one another in fast-moving, fractalic patterns.

Then, one day, desperate, distracted, she bumped into an abandoned newspaper kiosk, right in the eye of the commuting storm. Everything seemed to go quiet around her, as she opened the plastic door, stepped inside, and hovered there for a moment, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. It was tiny: built for one person to sell newspapers through an aperture at the front. On the floor was a box half-filled with year-old newspapers, out-of-date headlines.

On a whim, Eleanor ripped off a piece of cardboard from the lid, pulled out a lipstick from her handbag, and wrote in large capitals:

HUGS – 2 MINUTES, £2 EACH
KISSES – 2 MINUTES, £5 EACH

She propped the makeshift notice up on the tiny counter. Then she waited.

‘It’ll never work,’ someone shouted to her left.

She looked round: there, in a doorway, was a bearded guy in a faux-Burberry cap, ensconced in a sleeping bag, waving a can of max-strength lager.

‘It’ll never work,’ he repeated – but more softly this time, as though he were blessing the idea, rather than predicting its failure. He grinned and raised the can in salutation, and she turned back to face the oncoming crowds.

She waited. Sleeping-bag guy watched.

She waited – and gradually, ever-so-gradually, they started to come: apologetic questions over the counter, tentative knocks, embarrassed faces coalescing from the blurred crowds, sliding coins towards her. ‘Please may …’ ‘I’m sorry to bother you …’ ‘If you’re serious, I wouldn’t mind …’ ‘Do you really mean …?’

Yes, she did really mean it: she’d open the door, let affection-starved strangers into the tight space of the kiosk, and hold them tightly against her, or kiss them on the cheek, lips – simulating whatever kind of relationship, maternal, paternal, fraternal, erotic, they were missing or had lost.

Sleeping-bag guy looked on open-mouthed, as first a trickle and eventually – over the next few weeks – dozens, even hundreds of lonely people hesitated in front of the kiosk, then queued, knocked, and helped her scrape together enough for rent and a sandwich. It seemed the city was brimful of loneliness – it came down with the rain, puddled underfoot.

There were children who had no attention at home and only tests to look forward to at school, who saved up pocket money for her; there were travelling salespeople who missed their spouses, and needed someone to touch; there were shop assistants on their lunch breaks; there were exhausted nurses who’d watched someone die at work, who stopped off on the way home to empty flats; there were runaway sons, bereaved daughters, divorced husbands who brought her flowers – one who even proposed to her.

And, of course, even though the kiosk was in the middle of a busy street, and everything that happened inside it was visible, there were still a few – but only a few – creepy, unpleasant, or aggressive customers: the men who pressed their erections against her; the men who groped her; the drunks with bad breath; the jealous ex-wife who slapped her; the man who snogged her and then punched her in the stomach – just as her ex-husband had once done, when, for the fourth month in a row, she hadn’t conceived; the teenager who ran off with the day’s profits; the stag party which tried to cram into the kiosk, chanting ‘Get your tits out! We’re having a gangbang!’ – until a policewoman chased them away.

The policewoman herself was a regular customer. Before she came across Eleanor’s kiosk, her only physical contact was with muggers and binge drinkers: pinning back arms, pushing people face down on the pavement. So when she discovered Eleanor, rather than asking her if she was aware that she was trespassing, that she had no right to use this property for commercial purposes – that, though long-abandoned, this property belonged to the bankrupt local newspaper – rather than doing her so-called duty, she slipped £2 across the counter, and stepped inside for the first hug she’d had in a year. It was lovely, the two minutes over all too soon. ‘I’ll come back,’ she said, wiping away tears, and she did.

‘I think she likes you,’ shouted sleeping-bag guy, after one of the policewoman’s many visits. ‘Good move, getting the local pigs on side.’

‘Shut up,’ Eleanor shouted back. But she was smiling, and handed him a tenner at the end of the day. He gave it back to her the next morning. ‘But you need it,’ she said. ‘You look thinner every day.’

‘So do you,’ he said. Then he grinned: ‘You can’t get too thin. No-one’ll want to hug a fucking skeleton. See the ten quid as an investment. Like me buying shares in your company. I’ll expect some fucking amazing dividends at the end of the financial year.’ He looked up, as if into the future: ‘I can see it now: just a few months, and I’ll be moving out of this mansion into something even more palatial. You never know, it might even have walls.’

The months went by: seven days a week, rain slanting through the aperture, ice jamming the door, heat laminating the huggers in sweat, Eleanor was always there, while sleeping-bag guy watched, incredulous. She caught viruses, mouth ulcers, even – once – nits from her customers; every night she went back to her bedsit alone, exhausted, her arms aching, her lips sore. But she kept coming back – as if she felt she deserved these things, as if there was no-one else she could go.

‘You’re amazing,’ sleeping-bag guy shouted at her one evening, as she was shutting up shop. ‘At this rate, you really are going to get rich. I wish I’d fucking thought of the idea first – though I don’t suppose anyone’d want to hug me.’ Eleanor blushed and looked away, didn’t answer.

The next morning, he was gone. His sleeping bag was still there, as were his empty cans of max-strength lager, even his faux-Burberry cap. But he was gone.

Eleanor asked the assistant manager from the shop next door – who popped in every morning on her way to work for a cuddle – if she knew where he was, but she had no idea. Had hardly even noticed him.

Eleanor asked every customer that morning if they’d seen him, but no-one knew him, no-one had given him a second thought, even though he’d been sleeping in the same doorway for months.

By the end of the day, her arms ached, her lips were bleeding from a man who’d bit her – and she was crying for the first time in months. It didn’t seem right, carrying on as normal with the empty doorway to her left. She felt spectral again, while the city crowds were surging up around her kiosk, preparing to swamp her with loneliness.

More than anything, she wished she’d given the man in the doorway one freebie, one hug. She couldn’t believe, now he was gone, that it had never crossed her mind. Maybe that last thing he’d said had been a hint. Maybe now it was too late.

The final customer of the day was the policewoman. ‘Can I come in?’ she asked.

Eleanor opened the door and let her into the tiny space. This time, for a change, the policewoman hugged her, put her arms round Eleanor. Eleanor pressed her head against the policewoman’s chest, cried, told her about sleeping-bag guy.

‘Do you know where he is?’ Eleanor asked. ‘Do you have any idea where he might’ve gone? Please, I know it sounds strange, but I felt he kind of…watched over me. I sort of feel like he was, I don’t know, my manager, my shareholder, even…’

‘I don’t know,’ said the policewoman, ‘but I can try and find out…If you liked, we could try and find out together.’ The policewoman hesitated, looked straight into Eleanor’s eyes. ‘In the meantime, can I give you £5 this time? Would you mind, Ellie, if today I …?’

‘No,’ said Eleanor. ‘I really wouldn’t.’

Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman, 2013). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk