A story of 1,500 words touching on life as a homeless young woman. The story was awarded 2nd prize at the Winchester Writers Conference 2001.
It was the dog that changed everything. He ran off his blanket and tried to bite my shoelaces.
‘Napoleon, ’ere!’ said the girl, huddled in a grey brown cloth against the wall. It was a terrier of some kind, a thick coat of black splodges on white. I don’t know much about dogs.
‘Sorry about that sir. ’E’s never done that before.’
The dog had returned and the girl now had it tight in her arms.
‘’S okay,’ I said and hurried on.
It was a complex business getting past the decrepit forms crouching in the corners and shadows of that passageway each morning. Usually, I lowered my eyes or stared straight ahead. Embarrassment, I guess, and a dose of anger that I felt embarrassed. While I wallowed in suburban comfort they had nothing but a torn coat or a fading blanket. Was that my fault? What convoluted chain of stupidity causes a kid to lose everything?
The passageway widened before it climbed to the road and in the space was a row of boxes made of wood and cardboard. Adjacent was the remnants of a fire that had offered comfort the previous night and surrounding it was the detritus of daily living. Here was a Neanderthal cavern built of concrete inhabited by beings, of whom I knew little and understood nothing, eking out an existence from dry sandwiches and beer. They sat a few feet from me but in my head it was a million miles.
‘Spare some change please?’
A few of them made their diffident daily plea, whispered as though, worn down by rejection, the point of asking had disappeared.
The next morning, she was there again.
‘Your shoe alright, mister?’ she called.
‘What? Oh...er...yes thanks.’
The little dog stared at me. It sat on the blanket the other end of which was draped loosely over the girl’s shoulders. She had a thin pale face. Her blondish hair was parted in the middle and fell casually round her shoulders.
‘Really, it’s alright,’ I said as I gave her a silver coin and walked quickly on.
During the morning I stared out of my office window and picked out a hint of the river as it flowed a few hundred yards from where she sat. What was the point of giving her money if she was going to feed a dog?
We caught each other’s eye on the Monday morning. She smiled.
‘How can you afford a dog?’ I asked.
‘Oh, ’e only eats scraps.’
‘That’s what Charlie called him. They found ’im dead one morning so I got his dog.’ She gave the animal a deep hug. ’E keeps me company, does ol’ Napoleon.’
I gave her another coin and walked on into the rain.
‘’Ave you been ill?’ she asked next time I saw her.
‘No, I had a business trip.’ I gave her a pound.
‘D’you often have business trips?’
‘Not all the time.’
‘Must be nice living in swanky hotels.’
‘You wanna try down here.’
She was a little younger than my sister. Considering she lived in a box on the streets I was surprised how attractive she was.
‘’Ave a nice day,’ she called out.
‘I’ve been talking to one of those homeless women,’ I said to my boss, Andy, over a pint at lunch time. ‘We meet on the way to the office.’
‘What, an old bag lady! You should watch you don’t catch fleas.’
‘She’s no old bag. She’s actually quite nice.’
Andy looked at me. ‘You don’t fancy her do you?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just that I always thought they were feckless no-hopers. But talking to her, you wonder. I dunno.’
I took another swig of lager.
‘She noticed I wasn’t here the last few days.’
‘You giving her money?’
‘No wonder she noticed.’
The next day I took the train that would have got me to the office eight minutes earlier if I’d walked straight there.
‘Hello,’ she said, ‘how are you today?’
‘Very well. And you?’
‘Not so bad. Freezing night though.’
‘Was it? Oh yeah, it must have been.’
I gave her fifty pence. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘How did you get...eh...you know... into this situation?’
‘What’s this then? Some little speech about pulling meself together and getting a job instead of loafing in the gutter?’
‘No. I wasn’t going to say that. I am just interested how it happened.’
She studied me for a short while, her face smudged a little with dirt. Napoleon was tucked up in her lap. A river of faces flowed behind me. I moved closer to the wall.
‘Me mum’s boyfriend threw me out. Bastard.’
‘What did your mum do?’
‘She never liked me much. Said she couldn’t control me. Anyway, her boyfriend wanted sex but I wouldn’t, disgusting animal. How she could do it I’ll never know.’
‘Then what happened?’
‘He got mad, so I told me mum what he wanted and she got even madder. Called me a slut.’ She snorted briefly. ‘Me a slut? That’s a laugh.’
‘Couldn’t you stay with friends?’
‘’Ow long for? They haven’t got spare rooms. You don’t get social if you’re underage so you can’t pay rent. When you do, it’s a pittance.’
‘Did you get a job?’
‘You need an address for a job.’
I was silent for a moment. She had an answer for everything. And no answer to anything.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Julie. What’s yours?’
‘You’re going to be late for work, Pete.’
I’d worked a few things out by the next morning. I could get her a temporary room with some students I knew. After that who knows? At least she’d have an address for job applications. She was bright and assertive. Interviews would be no problem. I got an even earlier train but that was a mistake. She wasn’t there. I got to my desk while the place was still almost deserted.
The day after, her spot had been taken by a greying, untidy man. Each day I searched amongst the torrent of mindless bodies for her special shape but always it was him.
‘What happened to that girl who used to sit here?’ I asked him one morning as I dropped a coin into his lap.
‘She moved on mate. Found herself a nice hotel by all accounts.’
I took the facetious remark to be the stock in trade for those trying to survive on the streets and walked on.
‘Still seeing your girlfriend?’ said Andy one lunchtime.
‘She’s not my girlfriend. Anyway the answer’s no. She’s gone.’
‘Don’t know. Just upped and went.’
‘Well I never,’ tutted Andy. ‘If you can’t trust the homeless who can you trust?’
He studied my face and then said, ‘Maybe she’s gone back home.’
‘I doubt it from what she told me. Anyway, there it is. One day she was there, the next she wasn’t.’
And then, one day, she was.
‘Hello Pete,’ she said with a big grin.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Where’ve you been hiding?’
‘Had a bit o’ luck. Won a thousand quid on the bingo. So I lent Napoleon to someone and booked into an ’otel. Been living like a queen for the last few weeks.’
‘A thousand pounds?’ I said. ‘You’ve spent a thousand pounds?’
‘Never ’ad so much money in all me life.’
‘You could have set yourself up. Got a flat. Maybe a job.’
‘Nah. Been too long on the street. This is where me mates are.’
‘Your one chance to get out of this mess and you blew it.’
‘Hang on. You’re not me dad. How long do you think a thousand quid lasts? I can’t be doing with all that searching for flats and jobs. Deposits and key money would take ’alf of it. What sort of job could I get that pays for rooms in London?’
‘But you could have tried.’
‘Listen. I’ve been living like this for three years now. You’ve got no idea what it’s like scraping for food every day, a place to sleep, somewhere to wash and keep warm. I got a chance to live like a millionaire for a few weeks so I took it. And I don’t regret a minute.’
‘So how long are you going to live like this?’
‘Who knows? What are you offering, Pete?’
Her little dog was staring at me with wide eyes. They looked good together. Domesticity without the wallpaper. I knew then that I would not be standing there if she had been a man.
‘I can’t offer you anything.’
‘Well I don’t need your help anyway. I can look after meself. Off you go before I set Napoleon on to yer shoes.’
I turned and walked away.
‘Have a good day, Pete,’ she called.
I still had a pound in my hand. I heard a faint clink as it hit the other coins in my pocket, and strode into the fresh morning breeze.