By Zina Telford © 2018
The young homeless man was running as fast as his cold tired legs would go. Clinging on to his hold-all, wishing the strap was across his body instead of bumping continually against his bruised hip. His legs screaming at him to stop he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep this pace up much longer, but the thundering sound of pursuers wasn’t getting any farther back.
At last Oxford Street came into view, Oz hoped he’d be okay once out in the thinning evening crowds and the CCTV. Before he reached the end of the alley and the apparent safety of the main street, life let him down once more. Tripping over the flapping sole of his ancient trainers he flew as elegantly as any tall man carrying his life’s possessions in a black hold-all can. As he floundered on the flagstones of the little alley yards from safety of people, he turned to look back, panicking. But there was no-one there and no sound of anyone in pursuit either. His heart pounded in his ears, surely that hadn’t been the thundering sound he’d thought was chasing him?
Oz sat up carefully checking for damage as he did, his eyes frequently darting back in the direction he’d come. Satisfied he wasn’t mortally wounded and beginning to think his mind had been playing tricks on him, he picked himself up. His aim now was to find a closed store’s doorway for the night, somewhere normally too risky to sleep for fear of being moved on by the police. He turned back towards Oxford Street and slung the strap of his bag across his shoulder, his mind still distracted and wondering what had just happened.
As the bag settled against him, something crunched within it and he was reminded of the M&S sandwich meal deal, someone had given him at lunchtime. He was saving it to savour later that night, it would stretch to breakfast too, if he wasn’t greedy. Pausing in the alley and opening the zip he found the sandwich had survived, mostly. The bag of ready salted crisps had taken the full force of his ungainly landing, exploding and smashing the crisps into tiny pieces all over the clothes inside the hold-all. His heart sank a little, it had been an age since he’d tasted the simple pleasure of his favourite crisps. Shuffling as much of the splintered remains back into their burst foil bag as possible he closed the zip of the hold-all securely. Sighing, Oz looked around, checking back along the alley once more.
He was no longer alone; a figure was standing so close to him he automatically stepped away, jumping with an almost comical start simultaneously. He turned his face to yell for help from the quietening street, but no-one heard or saw anything as he slid into unconsciousness.
Ewan was shivering with the cold and early stage of withdrawal from alcohol. The thought of spending another night out in London’s streets, made him feel even more miserable than he’d felt when he awoke this morning. But it looked like he was destined to find another wretched corner again tonight. The homeless centre was full, not that they would let him in again; you only got three chances there, and he’d used them all in the summer when begging was easier. Tourists and people enjoying life in general were more generous in the summer, so the beer flowed quicker and that’s where his three chances had gone. Showing up drunk and generally being abusive when the volunteers refused you a bed would get you barred, or at the very least put at the bottom of the list. If you wanted off the streets in a safe warm place, you had to behave. He would, right now he’d behave as if he was in the Queen’s home, if he could just have a warm place to sleep and wash and regain a little dignity.
One of the junkies he usually tried to avoid, was hanging around near the centre’s front entrance that night too. Earlier that summer he’d chatted with her a few times, but she’d fallen in with a rough group of Eastern European druggies and he’d kept away since. She was obviously Jonesing for a fix of whatever drug was her favour. She slowly walked up to Ewan, her grubby fingers scratching at her arm through her hole ridden black sweater. He thought she’d probably have been pretty before the streets had taken their due, her hair was scruffy and tucked behind her ears in a vague attempt to tame the dirty locks. He barked a laugh at himself for the thought, glancing at his own reflection in a nearby window. He didn’t look a picture of health or cleanliness himself. The noise of his short laugh startled the girl; she slowed her approach, and then hesitantly spoke,
‘Hope you weren’t laughing at me? ‘specially since I was gonna tell you about this new shelter, a place that takes in the likes of you and me.’
‘Why aren’t you there then, why hang around here?’ cocking his head to the side like an inquisitive dog. She looked down at the ground in front of his feet, her face twisted as she struggled with her answer,
‘I can’t make it through the night, gotta score, just need a little hit, then I’ll go over there – you got any cas..’ stopping herself short, ‘no ‘course not, sorry pretty ragged here’ a quick forced smile ghosting her lips as she looked up at Ewan. ‘It’s on Noble Street off the Wall, big blue door just out of the passage, the new place. You should go.’
‘That’s miles from here. How do you know about this place? You stayed there then?’ His eyes brightening with hope and thoughts of a warm bed and a shower maybe.
‘Yeah once, they told me to let others know, but quietly,’ she added quickly ‘they can’t take everyone in, but you look worse than I seen you before, thought you could do with it more than most.’ Fidgeting and her eyes beginning to dart all round Ewan could see she was getting towards the peak of need,
‘where you going to score? You got someone lined up?’ a genuine note of concern showing in his voice. Shaking her head, she answered,
‘Need a few quid more, going to try outside that posh bar up top of that shopping centre by St Paul’s. Good luck at the shelter’ she turned and walked quickly away in the direction Ewan assumed was St Paul’s.
Once he had found his way to St Bart’s, using a combination of the tourist street map signs and asking the few people around the cold streets, Ewan managed to locate the small passage off London Wall the girl had indicated. He walked through the narrow entrance and into the small street beyond. He quickly surmised the girl must have been wasted when she was last at this ‘shelter’. Either that or she simply made it all up – there was no blue door in sight – all the front doors were uniform white and glossy. Cursing himself for believing something as far-fetched as a new shelter only she knew about, and even more for trusting the little junkie. Ewan kick the gate nearest him hard, causing it to crash back against the railing, the sound echoing around the narrow street.
‘Arrrrrgh!’ he half yelled to the night, adding to the disturbance. As he walked on he swung another kick towards the next railing but stopped short, staring at the door he was now level with. It was blue.
As if in reaction to the commotion outside, the door was opening, a short soft faced woman leaned out through the doorway and looked both ways up the street before settling on Ewan’s scruffy figure as he stood stock still waiting for the yelling to begin. Instead, the young woman simply asked,
‘Did you want something? Can I help?’ Not knowing quite how to respond to such a gentle line of questioning, Ewan stuttered out,
‘Is this the shelter? A girl told me there was a new shelter here.’
‘Ah, yes. You are left out in the cold, homeless? An odd phrase but accurate enough on a night like this, Ewan responded positively, and the young woman motioned him inside the house.
She closed the street door behind them and stepped through an open door to the side, beckoning him to follow her again. The room, like the corridor before was brightly lit. The direct light source hidden from view, creating a soft brightness. The only furniture a clear table and two egg shaped plastic chairs. Ewan began to feel uncomfortable, this wasn’t like any of the other shelters he’d seen, or heard of. The young woman looked up at him from the egg chair she had sat down in, her smile was somehow familiar and made him relax a little. She asked him to sit if he felt comfortable. How did she know he felt uncomfortable?
‘Just want to get a few details, understand what you need before we get you settled. I’m afraid we have a few ground rules I need to let you know too, would that be okay?’ Sitting down, Ewan nodded, she sounded genuine and it was so nice and warm in there. He sat, wondering why she looked vaguely familiar. She was smartly dressed, as if ready for work in an office. Her dress, lightly fitted plain navy with a white long-sleeved top underneath. Her long dark hair neatly plaited in a single long strand, reached half way down her back. Perhaps she worked around Leather Lane, one of Ewan’s favoured spots.
‘What do you prefer to be called? I’m Nikki.’ Roused from his thoughts, he responded, preoccupied with his name. They continued through mundane background information and the ground rules. He would have to give up his current clothing while he was there, but not being bothered about this, Ewan agreed. With the questions he was more cautious, uncomfortable talking about the fact he didn’t have close family to help him out. The only people who he would call friends now were like him, sleeping rough or hostel hopping and had been steadily moving off the streets – or at least he’d not seen some of them for a while. On this Nikki offered him a glimmer of hope, she said she could see if any of them had been there, see if they had moved on through them. He gave a few names, Oz and Raj being the ones he particularly wondered about. The three of them had been part of a little group Ewan wrote the please help signs for. They had gathered loosely over the summer, the closest thing to actual friends you would find on the streets. Another name he gave was Ben, just a guy he’d heard about going missing from other rough sleepers.
Nikki promised she would have a look at the records, while he showered and shaved. He was shown to a tiled room, with a shower head on one wall and a drain in the floor. The bright but soft light made even the hard tiles seem welcoming. He was given a box containing fresh grey sweats, underwear and various toiletries, including a safety razor. He was told to put his clothes in the box. Once the door was closed Ewan stripped, piling his clothes in a heap by the door. He filled the sink with hot water and shaved. Looking in the mirror, he found his face was pink and dry in patches. He also noticed a ‘before and after line, where the shaving cream had cleaned his lower face, but the rest of him was still caked in dirt. Chuckling to himself, he stepped over to the other wall and turning the shower on, he relaxed under the hot water.
His fingers had started to prune by the time he felt human enough to stop the shower. Once Ewan had dried off and dressed in the provided soft clothing, he gathered the pile of discarded filthy clothes he’d been wearing, his hand starting to shake a little again. A shower and warmth didn’t take away the length of time it had been since he’d had a drink, and his old demons were starting to rise again. Ignoring them, he opened the door and almost ran into Nikki. Unstartled, she asked if he was ready,
‘Ready? For?’ his brows coming together and rising at the same time, suspicion plain on his face.
‘Food?’ she quickly responded, Ewan’s face relaxing in return, ‘I assumed you would be hungry?’ for a split second she appeared unsure, she gestured to a 3rd door across the hall. ‘Everyone else has eaten and gone on already tonight, but there’s food and tea if you’d like?’ Ewan’s stomach rumbled loudly as if on cue, he grinned.
Nikki left him alone in the small dining room while he ate. Like the rest of the place he’d seen so far, it too was mainly white, but it felt more natural. The wooden floor was painted white and there was an oversized framed print of a vase of yellow sunflowers on one wall. The table and chairs were homelier too, wooden and unpainted. Thick full-length yellow curtains covered a large window opposite the door.
Ewan wondered how many others were there that night, there were used dinner plates stacked on a side table near the door, but nothing else to indicate human activity. His mind wandered, memories and thoughts intermingled, and questions floated to the surface. Why wasn’t there anyone else here? And how was he so relaxed around Nikki? He’d told her much more than he’d told anyone for a long time.
As he ate he became sleepy, the food and warmth penetrating beyond the questions and the yearning for a drink.
Nikki returned carrying a blanket, plastic pouch and a key. Ewan stood and stacked his dinner things with the others, and thanked Nikki for the meal. She smiled but said nothing. His mind was beginning to blur,
‘I could sleep for a week…thanks again for…all this,’ Ewan slurred, he swayed slightly as he took a step towards Nikki and the door, reaching out for the wall to steady himself.
‘Oops, I’d better show you your bed quickly, this way please,’ smiling as she turned back into the corridor. Nikki crossed the hall and using the key she held, opened the door opposite. Ewan could have sworn that was the shower room he’d come out of shortly before, but when he looked inside there was a small single bed. He sat down heavily, and Nikki handed him the blanket, which he cast over himself as he swung his legs up on to the bed. He’d missed most of himself, but he didn’t care as he drifted off into darkness. As Ewan’s mind raced into oblivion his thoughts rapidly slotted into place, as his clear subconscious mind took over. He’d seen Nikki before, a couple of times, with Raj a few weeks ago outside Pret on Gray’s Inn Road, she’d sat down next to him talking. Before that even with Oz. A sudden unconscious clarity sparking recognition, the pretty face before the streets had taken their due – the little junkie, who’d told him about this place. She’d been badly in need of a fix, and he’d come straight here, it didn’t make sense. They couldn’t be the same… That was as far as even his subconscious got, before the black took over.
Nikki stood watching as he fell into a deep, drug induced sleep. Before leaving, she placed the pouch on the end of the bed.
Oz gradually rose through the layers of consciousness. As he did the adrenalin leaked back into his system, his body reacting to the last thing it was aware of. Struggling to keep his breathing even, and listen through the sound of his own thumping heart, he could hear – nothing. No, not nothing, a low drone, background noise underlying the silence. He lay there, the effect of the adrenalin waning. Oz realised he was lying on a comfortable surface, a bed he assumed. He was warm, something light weight covering him to his neck. Tuning back into the sounds around him, he could now hear distant muffled voices he thought, but nothing close by. Once he was sure there was no one near, he carefully opened his eyes.
The ceiling above him was smooth and grey, the edges curved down to the walls which were the same. Looking out from his prone position, he found he was in a small room, lit from glowing panels on the wall opposite the bed he was lying on. Raising himself up on his elbows he found he was naked beneath the light cover. Naked but clean, both the smell and the feeling were unfamiliar, but welcome. Swinging his legs off the side of the bed, he noticed the bruising he’d gained from a dramatic fall down a flight of stairs a few days before was gone. The scraped knuckles from the fall in the alley were healed too.
Seeing some clothing and a plastic pouch on a chair across the room, he stood. Reaching out to take the pile, Oz eased out the trousers dropping the pouch on the floor. It slid across and under the bed. Pulling the soft black trousers on, he felt better in a strange place wearing something, he glanced around the room. Absently, he pulled the white long-sleeved t-shirt on too, noticing a pale grey pattern down the sleeve of one arm.
As he moved back across the room to pick up the pouch, he was closer to one end of the bed, and a door slid open. Grabbing the pouch, he leaned through the opening, glancing either way along the corridor. He saw a couple of other faces peering similarly from other openings. One of those he immediately recognised. Ewan.
Ewan had woken in a similar room to Oz, a few metres away. Without the adrenaline rush Oz had felt, freezing him in place, Ewan had been up quicker. He was confused, his subconscious poking reminders into his now conscious mind of the surprising connections he’d made about Nikki. Could she somehow be the same person who’d directed him to the new shelter? The junkie, so obviously in need of a fix. The same person he’d seen with his friends on the streets. As he sat up, finding the sweats he’d put on after his shower gone, he looked around the small room. Like Oz, he too found replacement clothing, lighter than sweats but similar styling.
Ewan recognised the pouch from the night before, Nikki had had it when she came to get him after dinner. Dinner which he now understood had been laced with something. Turning the pouch over he found it had his name in one corner and ‘London leftovers’ written across the centre. Sliding a finger, which he noticed wasn’t as he remembered, cracked and raw from the cold, under a flap, he opened the pouch. Finding a slim tablet like object he flipped it over, it activated as he did so. Text scrolling across the face of it.
‘Welcome to your new life Ewan. You are now clean. All traces of addiction have been eradicated and damage has been repaired.’ He turned his hand over, inspecting the previously cold-cracked skin. He felt… human. No headache, he dug down inside and found no desire for a drink. ‘Feel free to explore.‘ At that moment the door to his room slid open. Peering out Ewan looked to his right, then left and quickly back to the right again. Oz was standing a few metres from him, looking just as confused as he felt.
Across from the small rooms they’d woken in was another opening. Through it Ewan briefly glimpsed what looked like a large window. Before he could say anything or see more of it, other people emerging from nearby rooms crowded into the corridor. Rushing through the unfamiliar faces was Raj, only having got as far as pulling on trousers. Ewan and Oz could both clearly see the scarring he suffered last year from being hit by a car was gone. The three of them stood a little back from each other, taking in the others slightly altered appearances.
‘I feel amazing, my limp has gone too!’ Raj grinned, his eyes lighting up. ‘Where do you reckon we are?’
‘Not sure,’ began Oz, but he stopped short as he saw something. ‘Isn’t that…Ara? Hey, Ara!’ he shouted. But the young man he was yelling to was embracing another, as if they’d not seen each other for a long time.
Ewan had looked in the direction Oz pointed. Beyond the two familiar, similar looking men was the opening he’d glimpsed the window through moments before. Silently he pushed past his friends towards Ara. Raj and Oz, assuming he was heading for Ara, followed. Finding it was the addict they’d known from the street they stopped, greeting Ara enthusiastically. Discovering, for him, clean meant from heroin too. Ewan carried on by, appearing to not even see Ara. He continued towards the room he’d first noticed. Ewan turned back to the group of friends and beckoned them over,
‘I think there’s a window in here, let’s check it out.’ As they entered the larger room the stunning view overwhelmed them. The friends stood together as they stared out at the panoramic view of a vast red and blue curved horizon which half-filled the window. Surrounded by the black of space.
‘Wha…that’s, not…uh? Where are we?’