And they spoke until the winds changed. Trade and commerce and common sense and common decency prevailed, and men and women availed themselves of all opportunities. New roads were laid; office blocks shot up. And luxury flats stood on crumbling slums like shining false teeth on rotten gums.
At the top of the building, whose ground floor is occupied by the restaurant, there is a secret garden. It was planted by the two women who share the garret, where the ceilings are slanted and dormer windows jut out. Outside the windows is a ledge, where the roof meets the exterior wall. The windows are large enough to climb through and it is possible to stand on the ledge. The woman called Tabitha discovered this. She is an intermittent smoker and the other woman, Precious, won't allow her to smoke inside. Tabitha found that, along the ledge, there are steps and, if you climb the short flight, you come to a flat terrace, sheltered by the adjacent slanting roofs but exposed enough to trap the midday sun.
Precious and Tabitha have filled the space with life. It began with a cheap chili plant Precious picked up from the supermarket. The chilies did better than expected and Precious bought others, then the generic herbs of a kitchen garden: parsley, rosemary, chives. She bought a rose and ornamental grasses. When the weather is good and Precious and Tabitha have free time, they sit out together.
"Do you know what I find really quite rank?"
"What do you find really quite rank, Tabitha?"
"The fact that you put crushed snail shells around your plants to
stop snails eating them."
"What's wrong with that?"
"It's weird. Don't people use eggshells?"
"Yeah, but I get the used snail shells from the restaurant downstairs. They also give me mussel, and clam and cockle shells. It's what's available."
"I get that. I'm just saying: I don't like it. It would be like someone building a fence to keep out people, and instead of using wire or wood, they built it out of human bones. Do you know what I mean?"
Tabitha has a cigarette in one hand and an e-cigarette in the other, holding both as if they are glasses of expensive wine and she is sampling each in turn. She takes a drag from the real cigarette, holds the smoke between her cheeks, makes a whirling motion with her pursed lips, and exhales, then repeats the process with the e-cigarette. She frowns and pouts, deep in concentration.
"It's not the same," she says.
"It's never going to be. The question isn't whether you can tell the difference but whether you think you could make the switch."
"Well, no, then. The answer is no."
"For god's sake, could you at least give it a proper try?"
"I have done!"
"For longer than, like, five seconds."
"I don't like the way it feels in my mouth. It feels artificial. Like detergent."
"Because the others are one hundred percent natural, organic
"It's real tobacco, at least. Plant-based."
"Give those to me." Precious snatches the packet of cigarettes from the table next to the older woman. She looks down at the grim warnings and harrowing images printed on the side of the carton, pulls back her throwing arm and pelts the cigarettes off the roof. The little box tumbles in a graceful arc over the side of the building and out of sight.
Tabitha's eyes widen, incredulous. "That could seriously injure someone."
"There was hardly anything in it. The most it will give someone is a paper cut."
"Paper cuts can hurt," Tabitha points out. She returns to the lit cigarette still in her hand, and takes a long, ostentatious drag. She blows the smoke towards her friend. "What's it to you, anyway? Me smoking."
"I don't want you to die?"
"Would you miss me?"
"Funerals are expensive."
"Just chuck my corpse in the river."
"It'd scare the tourists. They'd be chugging down the Thames on a sightseeing cruise then see your ugly mug bobbing around in the shallows."
"Simple solution: weigh me down with bricks."
"It might be easier to give up the cigs."
"For you, maybe."
"Well, at least don't do it next to my rose. She doesn't want your exhaust fumes."
"Oh, for god's sake. Not allowed to smoke inside. Not allowed to smoke outside. Is this a totalitarian regime?"