Let Me Tell You A Story
Today is a good day, because it’s free coffee day.
I shuffle along in the queue, hand already reaching in to my coat pocket. I feel the familiar jolt of fear as I search my pocket, fumbling, reaching for it and can’t feel it there.
I reach the counter and the barista - a young girl with long blonde hair in a ponytail smiles. A different smile than she gave the other customers. A cold smile.
“What can I get you?” she says.
“Um…” My skin is prickling all over now and I can feel spots of heat in my cheeks. Please let it be here. I need this. Especially today.
My fingers finally brush the edge of cardboard, and I almost sigh with relief. Thank God it’s here.
I pull out the little card. Nine boxes stamped and the last one emblazoned with the printed word: free.
I show it to the barista. “What can I have?”
She makes a tiny movement, so slight that only I would have ever noticed it. She pulled her head back, away from me. Everybody does, when I move closer. It seems to be an automatic reaction, for most people.
“Anything,” the girl says and glances to the board with the list of hot drinks.
I look over the list and feel my mouth begin to water. The smell of coffee beans, strong and pungent, isn’t helping.
“A latte please.” Then, I add hopefully: “With caramel syrup.”
“The syrup is 60p.”
I unzip my other pocket and dip my hand in, feel the coldness of metal and, slowly, guardedly, lift the coins from my pocket and count them out. I can feel everyone’s irritation, an uncomfortable buzz; it’s all around me, from the people stood in the queue behind me, and the barista is frowning.
I have 30p.
“Just the latte, please,” I say quietly. I feel defeated.
“What’s the name?” the barista demands.
For a moment, I am shocked. It takes a while for her words to sink in.
“Samantha,” I whisper. It feels like a foreign word on my tongue. I don’t get to say my name often. Nobody usually wants to know. Without a name, I am easier to ignore and easier to walk past. It’s easier for others to see me as less than human.
“Sorry?” there’s a definite hint of annoyance in the girl’s voice now.
“Samantha,” I repeat, too loudly. “My name is Samantha.”
The barista gestures to the other side of the counter, a curt nod of her head, where I must go to wait for my drink.
I shuffle over there and wait. My stomach is growling. I watch the coffee being made, leaning over the counter. The young man making the drink gives me an odd look, but it’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen all day.
He places a large cup on the counter and says, though he doesn’t need to, because it’s clearly for me: “Medium latte for Samantha.”
“Thank you,” I say softly, as I take the cup, and he’s giving me that funny look again. It’s not an unkind look, more curious and, I wonder, if he wasn’t on shift, if he would listen to my story.
I carry the cup carefully. It’s burning my hands, but I don’t care, I don’t want to spill a drop. I kneel down slowly in front of the little bookshelf, place the cup gently at my feet, and skim the titles of the books.
I’m disappointed they don’t have any new books. I have read all these. I choose one that I liked and I carry it and my coffee carefully to the most out-of-the-way table I can find.
On the little table, I put my two treasures, then take off my backpack and put it on a chair. I unzip the backpack and take out Ted, my best friend.
Poor Ted has aged even worse than I have. He’s dirty, his fur is no longer soft but matted and slightly greasy. He’s missing an eye and an ear, and has a gaping hole under one of his arms that spews stuffing. But he is mine and I love him.
I sit down and place Ted gently on the table, close to me, and I open my book.
I’m surprised when someone taps me on the shoulder and I jolt, as if waking from a dream. In a way I have, I was in another world, the fictional world of the book I’m halfway through.
The young man from the counter is looking at me. “We’re closing up.” He pauses, then, focuses on my face, which I’m sure is not entirely clean, and then on Ted. “Sorry.”
I shut my book slowly, and place it on the table, drawing out the moment. It’s time to go. Back in to the cold.
“Good book?” he asks. “You’ve been sat there for hours.”
I shrug. Time doesn’t have much meaning to me. I don’t have much to look forward to, only coffee and a book, and Joe. My lifeline: Joe.
I stand and gently place Ted back in my backpack and zip him up safe. I start to trudge to the door, then I have an idea.
I turn back and call to the young man, “Can I borrow some books?”
He looks up from wiping the table.
“I’ll bring them back,” I say quickly. “I just want something to read.”
“Will you really bring them back?” he says.
I storm out, slamming the door hard.
Congratulations, Samantha, you’ve survived another day.
I’m looking for Joe. He’s not in the usual spot. There are two other places he could be.
I walk past the crowds. People part for me like the red sea, deliberately moving out of the way. Sometimes, this makes me feel better: I exist. But most of the time, I am invisible.
I find Joe under the bridge. He’s sat looking at the water, having a fag. There’s a small section you can sit in, or lie down on, but it’s risky; the river laps up beside the concrete. But because it’s risky, it’s quiet. I like the quiet, the sound of the water, and the space only being for me and Joe.
I sit next to him, and he doesn’t say anything for a minute, just puts his free hand over mine. For those few brief moments, I feel like I have come home. Though, of course, this isn’t my home. I don’t have one.
I met Joe here, under this bridge. He’s homeless too. He found me curled up, sheltering from the rain. I was so cold that I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. I could hear people laughing as they walked over the bridge, going back to their warm homes, to a nice hot dinner. I don’t think they could see me, as well hidden as I was, but I still had this crushing feeling that they were laughing at me.
I had thought then that I might finally die from the cold, but Joe saved me. He gave me his McDonalds coffee - still warm - and shared his cigarettes and biscuits and that made me feel better physically, but it was really him being there that saved me. Nobody had spoken to me for so long that I had almost forgotten that I actually exist. Passersby ignored me when I called to them, and I had started to wonder if I had died and I was a ghost. But here was this man asking me who I was and what was my story. Nobody had ever asked me before, about my story. I broke down in tears. For the first time in a very, very long time, I felt human again.
Since then we’ve stuck together. Joe looks after me. Joe protects me.
“I got dinner,” Joe says and opens a plastic bag to show me sandwiches and cream cakes. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was but, now that I could see the food, my stomach was growling like a ferocious lion. I hope it will be enough, that I won’t have to try to sleep through stomach cramps tonight. But it’s never enough. I haven’t had enough food for fifteen years.
“How much did you make today?” I ask.
“Not enough,” he replies flatly.
He stole the food.
Joe is a good person, though he does bad things. Many people would disagree, would say that he’s a bad person. The lines between good and bad are blurred on the streets. If we don’t get enough through begging, we have to steal to survive. What do the shops and their rich owners care? A little bit of food is nothing to them and a lifeline to us.
Let me tell you a story: I never wanted to be a thief. I wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to help people. When I was a teenager, still at home, I used to volunteer to befriend elderly people. You go round their house, help with the cooking and cleaning, have a cup of tea and a chat. I used to help out at the local animal shelter as well. I had a funny little job: socialising the cats. Playing with them, getting them used to being around people again, showing them they could trust. I used to be a good person. Now people call me an animal. You have to be an animal on the streets. People will attack you - other homeless will attack you for a pack of biscuits. Even people with homes and money will attack. They used to kick me in my sleeping bag, before I met Joe, before he looked after me. I had a cracked rib once. Nothing to be done. I was rushed out of the hospital by staff who gave me dirty looks and sent back out in to the cold. I couldn’t even sleep because my ribs hurt, every time I coughed it was agony, and you always have a cough when you sleep in the cold. The person who broke my rib was never caught, and there was no effort made to find them. The police won’t chase the rich, the workers, the ‘good’ people who contribute to society. I want to contribute. I want to have a job, a home, a purpose. Be a normal person. Feel like a human again. I still dream of being a nurse, but I’ve never had that chance.
People say I should be locked up, being locked up is too good for me, I should be put down, throat cut, shot. I haven’t done anything for society except hurt people, make the good people - the people that have homes, families, work for a living - feel scared to walk down their streets at night. Theirs, not mine. I don’t even have a right to the streets, even though it’s my home. Has been my home for fifteen years.
I didn’t choose to live on the streets. Well, I did, but my only other choice was a ‘home’ where I was beaten and abused. My mother used to hit me. I remember the first time. I was clearing plates for dinner. She slapped me. I didn’t know what I did. I was eleven.
My dad died when I was young. Too young to remember him. I feel cheated. I think he was a good man. I’ve seen photos of him. He has a kind smile. I think he would have looked after me.
My mum’s new boyfriend, Rich, was not a good man. He didn’t hit me, but he didn’t help me either. He was on mum’s side. He was a benefits theif, too lazy to have a job though there was nothing wrong with him. He could have worked. He lived off my mum, took all her money for drink and drugs. And she didn’t have much. Some weeks we only ate bread and cheese for every meal. We couldn’t afford anything else. Though that would be a luxury now: to have three meals every day.
I ran away when I was fifteen. I took my mum’s phone to call the police. Her and Rich were having a fight, a nasty one. I was afraid for her. I had the phone, was about to dial, then my mum stormed in and screamed at me to give her the phone. Then she attacked. She tried to claw the phone out of my hands. Scratched my face, slapped me, pushed me to the ground.
I remember looking at her and thinking she was vermin. I couldn’t stay there any longer. I was only trying to protect her and she had attacked me.
We eat our sandwiches in silence. Joe looks just as exhausted as I am. We rarely have anything to say to each other: what is there to say, in lives like ours? But we like each other. We show that we care in other ways.
I do remember something different today. “I had my free coffee,” I say.
“Was it good?”
“Yes.” I go back to my sandwich, only little bites because it hurts to eat. There’s something wrong with my teeth. “And I read a book. Half a book.”
We finish our sandwiches and decide to leave the cream cakes for later. Rationing. We never know when we’ll get to eat again. I unzip my backpack and take out Ted, place him on my lap, then I lean against Joe and he wraps his arms around me. His body heat warms me up. I hold Ted close, dig my frozen fingers in to what’s left of his soft fur.
“Why do you hold on to that old thing?” Joe says, in my ear.
My mum did something kind once. I was crying in my bed and she came in. We had gone to town to buy a little food two days ago and I saw this teddy. Lovely teddy. It was white and soft, and had this bright pink satin bow. I knew I would have nothing for Christmas. Maybe some chocolate. But all the other kids at school had lots. I wanted the teddy. I was too old really, at twelve, to be interested in teddies. But I feel like I’ve never had the chance to be a child. I was always looking after mum.
She whispered, “You wanted one of these,” and gave me the teddy. “Don’t tell Rich,” she added after, quickly, putting a finger to her lips to reinforce that it was our secret. Rich would be furious that she had spent her money on a toy for me. Money that he couldn’t steal for drink and drugs.
My mum was capable of kindness. Maybe once she was a good person, like I was once a good person. But a hard life changed her, like mine has changed me. The person she was is gone. The person I was is gone.
When I left I took a backpack of clothes, the food from our fridge, a bar of soap and the teddy. The teddy was a waste of space. He took up half the backpack. I could have had more food, soon wished I had taken more food, but I couldn’t leave the teddy. My Ted.
“He reminds me of my mum,” I say, my eyes filling with tears. He reminds me that I had a family once and, if for only a short time, in occasional bursts, I was loved.
It has grown dark and cold, and the bridge has become more crowded. The sounds of people laughing, shouting and singing keep us awake while we’re trying to sleep huddled together. You can only get to sleep when you live on the streets when you’re truly exhausted. There is always noise. It is always cold.
We pack up the little we have, I place Ted securely in my backpack again, and we start walking through the streets, to tire us out. We are on the high street, lined with restaurants and bars. The light coming from those places is like a beacon, irresistibly drawing us in, even as we resist. We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves.
I can’t help it. I walk up to the window of one of the restaurants and press my nose against the glass, watch all the people having their posh meals. How lovely the food looks! Delicious smells billow through the open door and wrap me up, like a blanket, and for a moment I close my eyes and I can almost taste the food. I wonder what it would be like to have a meal like that, to go out in a posh dress. I’d feel like Cinderella, but there are no fairy godmothers in real life, no magic wands, no Prince Charmings and no hope. Not for people like me.
Joe is stood beside me. “One day,” he says, “we’ll have a meal like that. We’ll save up the pennies and then one day…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, but I know what he was thinking: we’ll live just like the rest of them, for one night only.
“It would be like a fairy tale. That’s what I was reading: Cinderella.”
“One day,” he repeats, fiercely, fists clenched. I nod, to give him hope. We’ll never be able to afford to save anything, we need all the change we collect just to survive day to day. I’ll never be Cinderella. Her story is one that only happens in fairy tales.
19/5/2022 09:47:10 pm
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Georgie Bull is a freelance writer and published author living in Worcester, England.
Author: Georgie Bull
1. You Can Go Home Again
2. A Beautiful Dream
5. Let Me Tell You A Story
6. The Haunting Of Verno House
7. The C Word
8. A Ghost Story
9. Father's Son
10. Time (poem)
11. Poems - Unheard and Silent Musician
12. The Ultimate Dystopia - part one
13. The Ultimate Dystopia - part two
1. The Desert - Peregrin Jones
2. The Being Verse - Peregrin Jones
3. Who Will Feel The Rain Now? - Leena Batchelor
The Blue Hour by Dreena Collins
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