Peter wasn’t really homeless, he had a place he could go to if he wanted, it was full of chintz and polish and fluffy stuff. Worse than that it was full of Mum and Dad. This sleeping out thing had started in a strange unrolling sort of way. First of all he had stayed at his mate Kyle’s, that was after yet another shouting match with Mike. He couldn’t think of him as Dad anymore. Dad was tall and proud and smiled and came home from work with jokes and stories. Mike was worn down, out of work, scruffy and depressed.
Peter had tried to understand, he had spent hour after hour listening to the moaning, about fate and life and the government and the bosses at Thatchams Wire. It seemed that everyone else was to blame for the current situation and none of it was to do with repeated absences due to hangovers and ultimately daily drunkenness.
Shit, he chucked the tab end of his cigarette into the canal and scuffing along the dusty path he set off back towards town. He could go and search out some of the others they would be hanging around the shopping centre and maybe someone would have enough money for a bottle of cider and even if they didn’t one of them could just go and nick one from the Indian’s shop.
Slouching along beside the grimy water and floating debris he replayed in his mind what had brought him to this. He knew it wasn’t good, it certainly wasn’t how he had ever intended to end up. Dossing at Kyle’s had worked for a few days, until Mrs Sharman started sighing whenever he walked into a room and he had known it was time to move on. He had gone back to his old home. Mum had been clingy and tearful, Dad sullen and dismissive and so he had just thrown some stuff in a backpack, pinched money from Dad’s wallet, and he had slammed the front door and taken the first step towards a vague, unpromising turn in his road.
The first couple of nights had been dreadful, terrifying, cold, wet, uncomfortable and he had found himself back at the end of their road twice, but he didn’t go down. Then he had met a group of others about his age, sixteen, seventeen. Hanging around in the daytime, they moved from one windy gritty corner to another, playing with the dogs and mainly trying to keep dry and warm and out of the way of the security men. Night times were grim, even now still grim. If their luck was in, someone would find a squat and they would take the cider and sit around all night talking and drinking and eventually dozing on hard dirty floors. More often than not though they would simply push themselves into doorways and corners, under bridges and underpasses and lay in their blankets wakeful listening to the families in cars passing overhead or watching the couples out drinking and laughing.
The passing crowd generally ignored them, some would glance over fear shooting from their eyes as they scuttered away. There were some who would bring them burgers and chips or sandwiches but not many gave them money. There had been so much bad publicity that nobody trusted them any more, everyone assumed that they picked themselves up at the end of the day and drove back to posh flats in cars that they had hidden round the corner. Maybe that was true in some cases but not for them. Miserable, disappointed, sad, and even with a crowd of others, so very lonely. Nobody that he spent his days with knew him from when he was little and they didn’t care. They never talked to each other about their other lives. The stories were so grim; abuse, neglect, violence and sometimes just bad luck had brought them all to this place and this existence.
He shucked up the hood on the grimy grey top and hid his face deep in its warm polyester cocoon. Listening to his breathing, concentrating on the thud thud thud of his trainers on the path, it was hypnotic, mesmerizing and it took him away. Thud, thud, thud on and on empty, endless, pointless and dull.
From deep in his grey haven he heard a yell, “Get lost you idiots, leave me alone.”
“Come here babe, you know you want to. Go round the other way Dobbo, grab her.”
Peter threw back his hood and saw just ahead on the spare ground the slight figure of a girl running from a gang of blokes who were splitting up to surround her. He watched for a couple of moments, should he interfere, could he be bothered, was it worth the agro. The girl was losing ground now and two of the lads were almost on top of her.
“Leave me alone you morons.”
She had spirit that was for sure, oh what the hell, he started to run bending to snatch up a piece of metal pipe that was laying amongst the debris at the edge of the field.
“Leave her alone you zombies, bugger off.”
For a moment they stopped and turned to look at him, glances flew between them, there were six of them bigger than him and just looking for trouble. They regrouped started to swagger over to where he stood, now completely alone and realizing his big mistake. What had he been thinking. His palms were slick on the thin metal pipe his stomach clenching and his throat dry. The gang were almost up to him now and the lad in the blue hoody and droopy jeans stepped in front, Okay this was the one to deal with.
Peter planted his feet firmly apart and hefted the metal rod.
“Hey guys, whatcha doin it’s only a girl, why are you chasin her?”
“That’s your business – because?”
“Hey man, no problem. Is that bitch your sister? What’s the deal?”
“Hey man, that your sister?” The thug mocked. “Yeah sure, she look like my sister, that ugly slut, does she look like my sister?”
The other boys tittered and nudged at each other all slowly stepping forward. Peter knew he was lost, there was no way out of this, he couldn’t take them all on and he sure as hell couldn’t run, well he could but it would haunt him forever.
The first rock caught him on the arm and the sudden pain drew a yell which made the others laugh and come at him even faster.
“What’s matter baby, didums hurt is ickle armee?”
This from a skinny kid at the back. Now all that there was in the world was this gang of thugs, the threat in the ether and the feel of the metal in his slippy hand.
Next second the air around them exploded, a huge plank of wood landed across the shoulders of the boy at the front, bounced off and hit one of the others across the face knocking him to the floor. The others stepped back in confusion, falling over each other and growling and pushing like a pack of panicked dogs. Peter looked in equal confusion over the top of the roiling mess of lads and the girl was waving her arms to him, beckoning him towards her. He didn’t need a second chance jumping over the plank and the arms and legs he ran over and together they bolted for the bridge, crossed the canal and panting and laughing towards the anonymity of the shopping mall.
“Hey, you didn’t need me at all did you?” Peter gasped, as they plonked down in the doorway of a derelict sweetshop.
“Aw, I did, you were great, thanks. I thought they were going to get me this time I really did.”
“Do you have a lot of trouble with them?”
“Yeah a fair bit, they live in my block.” She waved a skinny arm vaguely across the road. “They think I’m fair game since my brother went away. I suppose they’ll get fed up eventually, I just need to keep out of their way if I can. My name’s Candy by the way.” At this a flush rolled up the pale cheeks and she lowered her blue eyes, “Actually it’s Carla but I think Candy’s better, don’t you?”
“No, not really, Carla’s pretty, it’s unusual sounds like a gypsy or something. I’m Pete and that’s borin’, if you want borin’.”
She smiled at him and they pushed to their feet now that they had got their breath back.
“Do you wanna come back with me?” she asked. “I think we should lie low for a bit and you can have a drink if you like.”
“Okay, yeah great.”
The two set off between the shoppers and running kids and buggies, Pete following a bit slowly, a step behind. After ten minutes or so they were in amongst the blocks of flats, picking their steps between the packed earth and the coke cans and daily detritus littering the lives of the inhabitants of these towers of existence. Carla/Candy pushed against a battered wooden door and stepped into the stairwell humming with the smell of urine, littered with cans and papers and other nameless insults, streaked walls graffitied and chipped announced that this area was under the control of The Mogs. The girl set off up the stained concrete stairs. Turning back she smiled a sweet smile back at him, “It’s not too bad only four floors.” And with that she plodded up the foothills.
Stopping before a once blue front door she pushed her hand through the letter box and lassooed the door key hanging on a piece of string. They walked down the dingy hallway which was clothed in uninspiring woodchip a swinging paper shade and faded white painted doors. The lounge was saddened and reduced by a brown suite and small coffee table littered with papers, odds and ends of hair decorations and a couple of empty mugs. There wasn’t much else, an old television sulked in the corner and the windows hid behind limp orange drapes. All in all it was dim, depressing and comfortless.
Carla was watching as Pete examined the surroundings and her eyes had dimmed as he judged her home. “Grim huh.”
“No, no it’s, well it’s oh ya know it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay, it’s not nice and it’s not even really clean but it’s what we’ve got.” With this she shrugged her slim shoulders and turned to walk through a door into an equally uninspiring kitchen. “So, do you want a drink then or what.” The mood of camaraderie had been lost, smothered by the miserable rooms and the stale air in the flat. He tried to ride above it, it had been great to have a bit of a laugh and talk to someone new, he wanted that feeling back, the forgotten lightness of normal.
“Yeah, great a drink. What is there, have you got coke or juice.”
“There’s some coke, it’s just cheap stuff will you have that? I can make tea or coffee if you like, instant but you know it’s no trouble.”
“I’d love a hot drink, that’d be really good, coffee – brilliant.”
She grinned at him, “We’ve got Jaffa Cakes so it’s not all bad.” And with that she started clattering around boiling the kettle and rinsing mugs under the tap and then, once the drink was ready, she took them through with a cardboard packet tucked under her elbow. They plonked onto the couch and sipped at the coffee in silence. Now that they were inside they were embarrassed. A barrier had erupted, they were stiff and unsure.
“So, how long have you lived here?”
“I was born here, my mum and dad have been here forever. They grew up nearby and then moved in when Paul, that’s my brother, was born. He’s eighteen, he’s just joined the army. He was sick to death of it round here, no job, no money – well ya know how it is. Anyway he just came home one day to say he’d decided to be a soldier. ‘Course Mum went mad, panicked ya know, Afghanistan all that stuff. Dad surprised me though, he was just really proud. He doesn’t say much Dad, he works in the shopping centre, just a cleaner, and I sometimes think that he wishes he hadn’t let himself get stuck, with all this.”
She flung out her arm and swung it around glancing at the sad little room and then ending with a shrug and another sip from the mug.
“Anyway, as I said he just looked really proud and he gave Paul a big hug and then they went out that night to the pub for drink. They’d never done that before, not ever so I guess it was a good thing. I miss him though, Paul. He was a pain in the bum when he was here, always messing things up.” She laughed at that and took another look around as if to acknowledge the weakness of the sentiment. “He used to be a lazy bugger as well, always, ‘Make us a drink Candy. Bring us a piece of toast Candy.’ but I do miss him. I think he’ll be back in a week or two, on leave, get that, on leave. It sounds like something out of a war movie not as if it’s something to do with us.” She smiled again now, a sweet lighting of her eyes and a curve of her lips.
“I never thought about the army.” Peter had a moment of interest when she had told him about Paul, the army. Somewhere to live, hot food, an aim in life, but it soon left him. No that wasn’t him.
“So what do you do? Where’s your house? Have you left school? – What?”
“Oh, er, I don’t really live anywhere.”
“You must. Where’s your mum and dad’s?”
“I haven’t, well I mean there isn’t. I’m on the streets. I don’t live anywhere. Look I think I’ll push off now. Thanks for the drink and stuff but I need to get back, I need to find the others or I won’t know where they are going tonight. I’ll see you around yeah.”
She was staring at him, puzzled maybe a little saddened.
“Do you sleep out there then? On the floor? Where?”
“Oh, wherever, sometimes in the Centre if they don’t move us on, sometimes in the park but mostly in doorways and stuff. It’s okay,” he lied.
“God, that’s awful, I mean really gross. How do you have a wash, where do you put on your clothes. What do you sleep on.” She glanced around. “I thought this was bad, grim and dull but you, well I just can’t believe it.”
“Okay, I know. It’s not what I wanted but it’s the way. Anyway I’m going.” He was angry, embarrassed and impatient with her. He had been feeling good until now and she had spoiled it all. He didn’t care what she thought, what did it matter, she didn’t matter and anyway his house was better than this shitty place. They had proper furniture and a nice kitchen. He stopped, he realised that for a moment for the first time in months he had thought of the house in Green Drive as home, their home. Well it wasn’t that was behind him, he didn’t live there any more. He didn’t have to justify himself to this girl, didn’t owe her any excuses. Ah sod it he was outta there.
He got to his feet and grabbed his bag, turning to the door.
“You could stay a bit if you want. Do you want a bath, I mean, not that you need one or anything; I just thought that maybe you’d like to. There’s water – well ya know hot and stuff.”
He turned back to her, she was flushed slightly and looking hopefully at him clutching at the front of her pink top.
“Mum won’t mind, I know she won’t and anyway they won’t be back for a bit yet.”
How had she known, of all the things that she could have suggested, of all of them that was the one thing that could get him. The thought of immersing himself fully in warm water, of feeling really clean was irresistible.
He smiled, “Are you sure, that would be really smashing, you’ve no idea. Can I really?”
She just nodded at him smiling now.
“I’ll go and run it, get you a towel you know, all that. You can take your clothes off in Paul’s room if you like and his dressing gown should be on the hook.” With that she ran back down the hall and he followed slowly. She pushed one of the doors open, “There, in there. It’s even tidy as he’s not here.” She gave a little laugh.
The room was bare but yes it was tidy; a single bed was under the window and covered with a duvet swathed in a blue stripy cover. There was a dresser, cheap, white, a bit chipped and on top were some bits and pieces of boy stuff, a bottle of deodorant, a glass ashtray holding bits and pieces, paper clips, push pins, just stuff but it hit him like a blow to the guts. It had been months since he had been in a proper room. This wasn’t much of a place and it smelled stale and musty but he felt a lump rise up in his throat and to his horror tears prickled at the backs of his eyes. Shit, how had it come to this? Bawling in some other guys empty room.
“Water’s on, bubbles, no bubbles ‘s’up to you?” She was shouting down the little hallway and he could hear the gush of water, smell the steam.
“Oh yeah, bubbles, the lot, bubbles, bath foam anything you’ve got.” His spirit had lifted at the sound of her voice and the thought of the hot water restored his sense of good fortune. He stripped off the dingy clothes, God his socks stank. He pushed them to the bottom of his bag, if he couldn’t find a way to wash them soon they’d have to go. It wasn’t that big a deal he could get some in the pound shop and he did have one other pair that he had washed in the sink at the last squat. They were stiff but at least they didn’t stink. He’d got some pants as well so at least the stuff next to his skin would be cleanish. He grabbed the towelling gown from the back of the door and wrapping it around him, he followed the bathroom noises down to where Carla was glooping bright blue liquid into the gushing water.
Who would have thought being clean was such a big deal? Peter didn’t want to put his jeans back on, he had soaked until the water had been nearly cold, he would have loved to turn the tap back on and warm it up but didn’t have the cheek. Eventually he dragged himself from the bathroom and back to Paul’s little space. He put on the stiff socks and boxers and then he looked down at his grubby jeans and top. Well there was no help for it, his other stuff was hidden in another bag in an empty bin store behind one of the shops. He had wedged the door and pulled bricks and a couple of crates in front of it so that it looked totally undisturbed. His stuff got damp but at least he didn’t have to cart it around with him all the time but now he just pushed his legs into the denim and tried to ignore the slightly rank odour of his hoody top. He went through to the lounge. Carla wasn’t there but he could hear clattering from the kitchen and went on through. She had a pan on the stove top and a couple of cans were opened on the draining board. “Hiya, soup okay? I do this thing where I mix them, chicken and country vegetable and it comes out nice.”
“Proper little Delia you, country vegetable and chicken yum.” He was grinning down at her and she kicked out at him as she went to grab a couple of bowls from the cupboard. She had toast under the grill and he was overwhelmed by a sense of well-being and what, something else, happiness.
They sat at the little table in the kitchen slurping the soup and eating slice after slice of toast and listening to her music on the disc player. She tried to talk to him about music but they found he had nothing to contribute. Life for these last months had no room for music, what place did music fill in a life with no bed. She tried to ask him about his mum and dad, home, she would keep calling it home. Twice he had told her, “I don’t have a home, that’s not what it’s like for me any more. That’s just where I used to be, where they are.”
“But don’t you think that your mum will be miserable, sad and that, with your room empty and your stuff there. She must miss you.”
“I don’t know, she probably knows by now that I’ve gone, for good you know, not going back. I haven’t been in touch.”
“But don’t you miss her? Okay your dad sounds like a pain but what did your mum do.”
“She didn’t do anything did she, that was the point, she didn’t try and help him, she didn’t stop him drinking or try to make him see he was going to lose his job, nothing. She just watched, she used to cry and sometimes she’d shout but that didn’t help did it and then in the end she used to just go to Aunty Janet’s she even stayed over some nights and left me on my own with him.”
“It must have been hard for her though, don’t you think it was awful she must have been worried and scared.”
“Well she just went didn’t she and then in the end so did I so that’s it.”
“My mum and dad, they don’t have much and they row sometimes, especially about money and the bills and stuff but really they’re together. Even though they must want more than this and it probably makes them fed up they still sit at night and watch the telly and they have a cup of tea together every morning before they go to work and they always do Tesco’s on Friday together.”
“Yeah well, your dad doesn’t drink all his wages away does he or puke all down the stairs or fall asleep in the front garden with his pants undone cos he couldn’t even get the zip back up when he’d had a wee.” Shit he didn’t know that stuff was all still there, he thought he had put it all behind him left in Green Drive with the computer and the plans for college.
“No, he doesn’t,” her voice was small subdued and when he glanced up at her he was amazed to see moisture on her cheeks.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t mad with you or anything. Sorry, don’t be upset.”
“It’s just that I feel so bad for you. I know this place,” again she swept her arm around taking in the dingy surroundings, “well it’s trashy and grim but it’s home you know. When I come through the door I feel safe and I have my own room and it’s warm. You though, you don’t even know where you’ll be tonight and you know it’ll probably be cold and it could be dangerous. I mean, what are you doing, you can’t stay like this forever, you’ll have to change it or you’ll just end up like one of those old bag men, smelly and talking to yourself.”
“Course I won’t, don’t be stupid. I’m not going to end up like that.”
“How do you know? How can you stop it? What can you do? When the police ask you where you live you can’t tell them. If you get sick what will you do? There’s nowhere for you to go, you can’t go to college, you can’t get a job.” She stopped and sat simply staring at him her eyes round like a kitten, her lips quivering slightly. A tear built on her lower lid, swelled and cascaded onto her cheek.
“Aw don’t be upset, it’s okay, it’s not that bad.” As he said it he knew that he lied, it was that bad, it was every bit as bad as she said. He had heard of people getting sick and sitting on the pavement shivering and sweating and people just walking past thinking that it was just another druggy. He knew of people whose fingers had fallen off in the winter because of the cold and disease, the stories were all around but they ignored them. That wasn’t them was it, that was the old blokes and the smelly old women in rags with trolleys full of newspapers and old bottles. They weren’t like that, they were marking time, they were cool just going their own way, doing their own thing. But he knew, really quite clearly and not so deeply hidden the truth had always been there, he didn’t know what to do, how to fix this. It wasn’t an old bike, a quick tweak with a spanner and a drop of oil couldn’t fix his life. Suddenly he was crying, he hadn’t realised how close to the surface the tears were until they just washed his face and he couldn’t stop.
Carla came round the table and wrapped her skinny arms around him. She didn’t say anything, she just stood and hugged him until it passed.
“You have to make this right, it’s up to you. Go back Peter, see if you can’t talk to your mum at least.”
They sat silent in the tatty little room for a while longer and then he took a deep breath. “I’ll go and see Mum, I’m not going to promise to stay or anything but I’ll go and see her. She might wash my socks for me anyway.” He grinned up into the peaky little face and the shining eyes and then he stood up and started to get his things together.
As she walked him to the door she took hold of his hand, “Peter, will you come back, here I mean will you, well you know, can we be friends?”
He nodded, “Yeah, I’ll come back.”
He pushed open the wooden gate and trod the path, he felt like a kid again coming home from school. He didn’t feel right just walking in the back door so he rang the bell and stood chewing his fingers as he watched the outline of his mum growing and wavering through the wobbly glass. The door opened and she just stood there, her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes were instantly awash. “Oh.” It was all she could manage.
She reached out towards him, tentative, nervous and unsure of his reaction but he let her reach and then they were in each others arms. He was glad he’d had the bath, at least he wouldn’t smell too bad. She pulled him inside, holding the door and never for a moment taking her other arm from around him. Still she couldn’t speak.
They wobbled awkwardly into the kitchen and she hugged him close again and then embarrassed she grabbed some paper towel and started to try and dry her face. She blew her nose and smiled up at him, absolute wonder lighting her face.
“Oh Peter, I can’t believe it. You’ve no idea, I’ve imagined this so many times, but it’s so much better, I can’t tell you. Oh love, where have you been? Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Don’t cry Mum.”
“No, no, I’m sorry. I’m just so relieved. I sometimes thought it would never happen. Oh love you’ve no idea it’s been so awful. Here sit down, sit down, are you hungry? You’re so thin, have some cheese on toast, do you want tea?”
“Where is he, Mike – is he here?”
She froze for a moment, turned away from the sink where she was filling the kettle. “No, he’s not here, not just now. He’s out.”
“No love, not the pub. He’s in town, he’s looking for you.”
“Me, what do you mean he’s looking for me?”
“He goes every night, straight from work. He’s got another job now, he’s stopped drinking. It’s been very hard, still is, but he’s stopped. Every night he spends two hours on his way home from work walking round town, round and round, everywhere he can think of to go just looking, showing people your picture.” She turned, her lips quivering, “He’s done it every night since a week after you left. That’s what stopped him drinking. He’s been tortured, he loves you so much, he knows it’s his fault and he never missed a night, never. Even when he had flu in January he dragged himself out. I wonder he never found you, where were you? Did you go away? Were you in London, we went up there a couple of times but it was hopeless there are so many places and people, we didn’t know how to start. Oh Peter, stay with us, we’ll sort it out. I know it can never be the same but you can have your own space and we’ll all try hard. Just please come back, stay. Will you stay?”
He was so tired, dead beat, his mind, his body and his spirit all exhausted and here it was home. It was waiting for him, she was waiting for him and all he had to do was nod his head and smile at her.
Read more: Short Story: Homeless | Shortbread