The First Day in Paradise tells the story of a young orphaned family who have been passed on from one set of relations to another, and whose eldest sibling, Adam, becomes enthralled by the impending opening nearby of a gigantic and beautiful shopping-mall by a flamboyant entrepreneur. To the consternation of his aunt and uncle, who run a small business, he joins the staff of one of its stores, and begins a dizzying ascent through the ranks, until circumstances induce him to question whether his entire value-system has become corrupted. Functioning both as social-economic critique, and as a personal moral fable about the conjuration of ambition from present-day consumer culture, The First Day in Paradise is an engrossing and layered tale loosely modelled on Dante's Paradiso, but most of all it's simply a great read.
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About the Author
Stuart Walton has been a journalist and author since 1991, when he began writing about wine and reviewing restaurants. Since then, his work has broadened to encompass philosophical and cultural-historical themes. He lives in Torquay.
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The First Day in Paradise
By Stuart Walton
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Stuart Walton
All rights reserved.
The road to Hell, we are occasionally reminded, is paved with good intentions. But they all are. All roads are built from honest resolve, even those that lead nowhere and those that converge on the gates of Heaven.
We start out in apprehension, stilling our fears by meaning to do well. Failing either makes us revise the intention or disintegrate. Success can be chalked up to our determination, which didn't come up short when the going was rocky and the sun beat down. That at least is the myth. We don't believe it ourselves, but hope that somebody, distracted by his own despair, might believe it for us. Fortune, whom only the fortunate love, commands the wheel, no matter how we try to wrench it, and refuses her favours at least as much from petulance at the lack of love as from having her hands full.
The crucial day may begin like most days, with an awakening to soft light through cream curtains, a good night's sleep inside you and the untroubling hours ahead. There are voices and music, hot water spraying your skin, runnels of it creeping through your hair, something to eat, something to drink, and then a perfectly tolerable entry to the great world, where a pleasant faint haze is melting into the pleasanter warmth of lemony sunlight. Duty calls, but duty isn't onerous. You earn your survival by mildness and modesty, are not dishonourably rewarded, and accept what there is of peace and satisfaction when the working day is done.
Isn't this what we say we want? But the landscape of an undemanding life, in which we seek and find sustenance, can turn arid with habit until the soul calls out of its shelter to the unexpected. Innocent multitudes toil and are heavy-laden, tried in the fire, over-acquainted with grief and then tried again. A ring at the door is what's needed, something thrown at us from the blue, containing the thrill of a decision to be made. It's the decision that matters.
We may wonder whether we want it all to change. There is a snugness to a life without surprise, though nobody feels much inclined to admit it. Surprises can go either way. There is no telling. Who could have warned Agamemnon, tranquil in perfumed bathwater amid the rippling silence of his palace, that stealing among the columns with a roll of netting and a double-headed axe, was his wife? Who save Cassandra, and nobody believed her.
What is so exasperating about chance is that it is distributed according to its own principle. There is neither regularity nor inevitability in it. There may be one chance or two, there may be a hundred. There may be thickets of them all at once, choking one another like weeds, or they may only spot the monotonous earth here and there in little tufts, scarcely noticeable as we continue on the way. Or there may be none at all. Should we not grasp the one in case it is only one? One chance to be saved. One chance to be ruined. To become rich beyond the dreams of depravity, or be broken on Fortune's wheel.
Helped out of the water by his friends, their comradely jeers having died in their throats when he dived after all, a boy of thirteen knew that he was growing into his goose-pimpling skin. His mother came forward along the poolside with a big white towel, his father was suddenly behind him. He shivered into the towel's embrace, laughing with their laughter, letting his teeth chatter, his knees braced, abdomen quivering, hair dripping. He was light-headed with achievement. They clapped his back and held him.
'So proud of you, my love,' said his mother.
'You've shown what you can do,' his father said. 'You've shown everyone.'
He shook his soaked head. He knew that they knew he nearly hadn't left the board. It had taken many months for him to overcome his twin fears, of the height and the sudden immersion. There had been a moment when, as the last boy, he knew that he could just edge back and not follow the others. He wouldn't be interrupting the sequence, only curtailing it. But they were all looking up at him. He knew he had to. So he hadn't earned the praise, not properly, but his parents wouldn't be denied the pleasure of bestowing it.
'Oh yes,' his mother said. 'You can do anything. This is only the start.'
'You'll make us proud,' said his father. 'And we'll be behind you. Every step of the way.'
'Yes we will,' his mother said.
And they would. He knew they would.
* * *
The approach over pristine tiles laid in sweeping scallops, now finished, was good. The access from the first entrance created a sense of entering a forbidden domain, the soaring gilded columns offset with spandrels in turquoise and flame. Daring to follow the eye's ascent, the beholder was met with recessed tiers that seemed to reach into the celestial, the distant atrium roof opalescent with autumn dawn. Could there be clouds somehow, the creator wondered, made to pass in puffs across the face of the firmament, entirely benign, knowing nothing of rain? He filed the thought for later. All around were the illuminating fascias of storefronts, where the displays were still being assembled, or where assembly had scarcely begun. It was gathering. It was happening. The finished vision danced in his head as surely as sugar-plums.
And yet there was a lack. At the centre of it, like a missing tooth, was an absence that gaped and chafed.
Like everything in the civilised world, though, it would be well. All manner of things would be well.
'When will those houses fall down?' said Luke.
Adam came to the end of a sentence in his book, held the spot in the text with his fingertip and looked up. Luke was kneeling on the seat, his forehead pressed against the window. The train was slowing again with a suppressed long squeal of its brakes, and Luke's attention, sorely famished over the past two-and-a-half hours, was hungering for something to fasten on. The latest halt they were coming to was in a dilapidated neighbourhood on the outskirts of somewhere, where a row of Victorian terraced houses, preternaturally red in the wintry sun, offered a view of broken windows and desertion.
'I expect they'll be pulled down before too long, by the looks of it,' Adam replied.
Luke continue to stare out, evidently trying to imagine the final devastation.
'If they didn't fall down soon, we could live there, couldn't we?'
'Would you like to live there?' his sister, Joanne, asked him.
'I would,' he said.
It had been a slow tormenting journey with frequent changes of train, some scheduled, others not, and Luke had held out remarkably well. Joanne was too polite to be tiresome, having reached an age, fourteen, at which it was possible to behave like an adult and be taken seriously, instead of provoking smiles of indulgent amusement. She had discovered somehow that a measure of civility was one of the signs of approaching adulthood, a style of keeping your cards close to your developing chest and not loudly stating your preferences, or asking perversely unanswerable questions. For Luke, at six, that last was still a privilege and a birthright, and he was just growing into it as she was bidding it a none-too-fond farewell.
It was announced over the speakers that the latest delay was regretted, and that, as a token of the rail company's goodwill, a steward would now come through the train with free bottles of water. The trolley, pushed by a woman who came from a little hill-town in the Carpathians, duly trundled into earshot, its approach heralded by advancing mumbles of complaint, as passengers discovered that the bottles of water were not chilled and all fizzy. By the time it reached Adam, he took one of the bottles from her, more from pity than desire, but Luke was happy to try it. Adam encouraged him to think of it as lemonade, only without the taste, as he put the bottle to his lips.
The first cautious gulp produced no reaction whatever, but when he tried to polish off half the bottle at a swig, the bubbles attacked his throat and, with something between a belch and a retch, he brought a quantity of the fizzy water back up again. The man in an Arsenal shirt who was sitting at the fourth place at their table moved, with lightning reflexes, to pull his newspaper out of the path of the gush, but the tabloid supplement got drenched. Adam and he exchanged glances, the man offering a painted-on smile of forbearance.
'Yurk!' Luke shouted.
'Anybody could have seen that coming,' said Joanne.
At the outset of the journey, which now felt like days ago, they had been seen off by ailing Auntie Mary, bidding a final farewell to Adam and the children. Their four years living under her roof had not been easy. She was still mourning the loss of Uncle George, and the sudden billeting of a family on her, even amid grievous circumstances, couldn't have been, and wasn't, the antidote to her own bereavement. George and Mary's house was large enough to accommodate the four of them, and yet the shrieking of children's voices upstairs, the sudden fights, the prolonged sulks, even the habitual daily energies of them all, had all crowded in too close. Luke had been too young to remember Uncle George, and Adam had never got on with him, but Joanne at least was able to talk to her aunt about him. What she remembered of him, though, lacked the fondness the recently bereft need to hear, so that instead of recalling touching incidents of George's generosity, she brought to mind memories that were hurtfully absurd, as when they had all got into the lift in a department-store and George had pressed the alarm-button by mistake, resulting in a hue-and-cry and a stern dressing-down by the security officer.
For the past few months, Mary had been receiving treatment for some respiratory ailment, and the presence of Adam and the children had become a burden. The doctor advised her that stress was an exceptional risk in her condition, and that some other solution for the family must be found. There was only really one, which took the joint form of her sister Mirabelle and brother-in-law Jimmy, and it was to their flat above the shop in Gutford that the three of them had now been packed off.
Joanne had handled the departure from Auntie Mary with sanguine calm, but Luke had been unexpectedly traumatised. On the platform, he had clung fiercely to Mary, his arms around her hips in a gesture of revolt. Once on the train, staring balefully out at his rattled aunt, he had begun to howl, great gobs of wailing wordless misery escaping from him between gasps for woeful breath. Joanne looked on impassively while Adam tried soothing the separation for him, invoking the gorgeous promise of Gutford. When that failed, he resorted to trying to make Luke feel embarrassed at his own behaviour, but if he had been insensible of the lures of Gutford, he nonetheless now sensed the modulation in Adam's tone from sympathy to something harsher, and only howled all the louder. The man at their table, fixing his expression into one of tenderness, asked Joanne gently how long the family was going away for. Her flat reply — 'Forever' — succeeded in raising Luke's despair to tragic hysteria, so that there was no other sound in the carriage, or the world, than his anguished screaming.
'I'll bet he'll have forgotten all about it in five minutes,' offered a woman across the aisle from them.
'I wish,' Adam replied doubtfully, but indeed, five minutes after Auntie Mary had dwindled to an insignificant white smear, Luke's tears dripped dry, and he turned his attention to his crayons.
Now, though, they had reached that point where the elastic of everybody's nerves was being tested. People were beginning to inhale noisily through their nostrils, letting their eyes wander more desolately to the scene beyond the windows, glancing at their watches. The man at their table put both hands over his face as though bathing it in bracing cold water, but left them there, to obliterate the unchanging surroundings. A sudden buzzing in the speakers indicated that another announcement was about to be made. Heads tilted attentively.
'Apologies once again for this continued delay to your service, ladies and gentlemen. This is being caused by a signal failure up ahead. We hope to be on the move again as soon as we can. As soon as we have more information, we'll communicate it to you. Thank you for your cooperation.'
A sharp tut from the man at their table added the full stop.
Every now and then, almost surreptitiously, the train crept forward for what felt like about eighteen inches, before just as furtively stopping again. It was reminiscent, to Adam, of family holidays in the car when, after hours of driving, the coastal town in which they were to spend the next week lay just before them, like the shining city of Oz, with only an immobile mass of traffic, a mighty river not rushing but static, barring their entry to it. All there was for it was to wait in exasperated silence, a silence made the more profound by the clicking of Mum's knitting-needles, while Dad's bare forearms rested heavily on the steering-wheel. It was as though, in these dead times, the promise of happiness, distantly embodied in the architecture of fairgrounds and the dotting of the sparkling grey sea with the vivid colours of bathing-costumes, began to desiccate. The prize bloom was there for the plucking but, rather than withering when touched, it withered for lack of being grasped. Sometimes a stray horn would sound, more in impotent complaint than hope, and the air around them rippled in a sickly miasma of exhaust-fumes and heat. Everything lay in a state of tremendous suspension. Nothing happened, in the ponderous way nothing does when it happens.
Adam would once more take up the Summer Special bumper edition of his weekly comic. It had pages to colour in, puzzles and quizzes, and a big centrefold picture, in which all the regular characters appeared in a single holiday scene, released from their separate worlds into one great union, like a strip-cartoon version of Heaven. Pranksters lay in ambush to trip up pompous waiters carrying trays of ice-cream sundaes. They squirted water-pistols at the well-behaved, and drew comical faces on the exposed bald heads of their dads as they snored in deckchairs. It was a pranksters' world, in which only two facial expressions could be discerned — a manic guffaw of triumph and the red-faced indignation of the victims. Adam didn't want to play these pranks himself, he just wanted to be part of a world in which they went on.
There was a general stirring around them on the train, as people got up and began, with much weary huffing, retrieving bags from overhead racks and from between the seats.
'What's happening?' Adam asked Joanne.
'We're being thrown off at the next station. Do keep up.'
It was true. There followed a mass struggle of disembarkation and, the station being only a small village stop, the platform was soon densely packed with hundreds of passengers. Collisions of luggage threatened to trap small children, and those who had scooped up their belongings in a hurry now battled to make sense of the miscellaneous bundles. The train that had disgorged them sat obstinately by the platform for some time, emitting sharp exhalations of wounded dignity. An announcement told them that it had developed a defect, and that alternative arrangements would be put in place as soon as possible.
Luke looked up into Adam's face for reassurance.
'We'll get there eventually,' Adam told him.
'Yes, one day we'll get there,' Joanne sighed.
Luke's gaze clouded as it passed from Joanne to a woman standing next to her and, on observing the same haunted hopelessness there, began to crumple altogether.
'Now, come on, fella,' Adam coaxed him, scruffling Luke's head. 'We have to be brave soldiers, don't we?' But he was beyond bravery. His face set solidly into a screwed-up picture of pain, which it likely wouldn't relinquish in hours, not even when the wind changed back again.
Adam sat down on the biggest rucksack. Their departure from Auntie Mary felt like another era. It was already late afternoon and getting cold, and the time ahead of them only seemed to stretch ominously away out of sight. He took his phone out of his trouser pocket and called Uncle Jimmy to tell him they were going to be late. Jimmy was sorry to hear of their delay, but warned Adam that he hoped they weren't going to be too late, as he and Mirabelle liked to be in bed by ten.
Excerpted from The First Day in Paradise by Stuart Walton. Copyright © 2015 Stuart Walton. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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