He was hunched over in a dark green sleeping bag and had a grey hoodie covering his eyes. The clouds were bunched up overhead, as if they were whispering to each other as the wind blew them closer together. Their secrets smelled like rain about to fall and they made plots to block out the sun just before it departed for another day.
Ailsa leaned against the neon orange Iceland sign, watching him from the other side of the road. Every time someone walked past, there was a flash of blue as he looked up, pleading.
Someone gave him 20p. Many others closed their eyes and walked past. A plump woman with mouse brown hair pitied him and bought a reduced ham and cheese sandwich from Sainsbury’s. The woman handed it over with darting eyes; afraid he might prolong a conversation.
This threw Ailsa over the edge. She crossed the street angrily, staring the kind woman down and fiercely barging her out of the way.
‘Come on then,’ Ailsa said.
Her voice cracked and snapped like rice crispies. Years of smoking had worn the chords to a thin growl.
‘You going to follow?’ Ailsa gestured down the street.
The kind woman rocked on her insoles and her nose twitched. Desperate to leave, she thrust change at the man before darting down the street.
‘Fuck that.’ Ailsa said snorting at the sandwich. ‘I’m going to the pub, come along for a proper meal’.
The boy slowly stood up and folded his sleeping bag, stowing his few possessions carefully in the bottom. He started to say his name was Peter but Ailsa was already striding down the road and he didn’t suppose she heard him.
They arrived outside a pub with shiny green and brown subway tiles making a pattern on the outer walls. Hanging baskets filled with bright yellow and purple pansies and a chalkboard sign propped outside showed it was one of Brixton’s new establishments.
‘They won’t let me in here,’ Peter muttered. ‘Tried before’
Ailsa arched her eyebrows and swept in, the confidence of her long posh coat and shiny handbag showed she’d never been turned away from anywhere. Peter imagined she’d never be refused anything or anywhere as she hustled him into a corner table and started asking him questions.
How’s your day been? How old are you? Blimey, you look about seventeen but people always guess I’m a teenager- never think I’m 30- black don’t crack. Where you living? Where you from? You like London? Tough place, I know, but why don’t you go back to Bristol? I see, nothing left there. Got any work here? Hard times.. I don’t have any qualifications either but my looks get me through, sign on? I get JSA and housing benefit, surely you can too? Never judge a book by its cover, but I guess without an address it’s hard to work the system. Peas with your pie? You need some vegetables instead of mouldy old sandwiches. Aren’t you going to ask me any questions? That’s kind of how you have a conversation. Selfish git.
When the food came, Peter was afraid of eating. He made sure to wash his hands in the bathroom (and took the chance to splash his armpits while he was there). He didn’t forget to put his napkin in his lap and held his knife and fork carefully, taking each bite slowly.
‘No need to stand on ceremony for me. Dig in,’ Ailsa said, grabbing her burger by the hands and chomping into it.
Peter just mumbled. He didn’t want to explain to her. Ok, she was buying him dinner but he didn’t have to explain. Tell her not everyone on the streets eats like an animal. We’re not all starving monsters begging and scraping and desperately thankful for anything we can get. He felt like walking out there and then. Telling her to shove her money and her dinner and to just fuck off with her endless fucking questions.
But he was hungry. And tired. And he focused on his food because he really didn’t want to ask her anything because he didn’t really give a shit about her privileged life because he didn’t want to be her charity-work-pat-on-the-head helping the little homeless boy anecdote.
When he finished eating, he stood up to leave. Little bits of dandruff fell down as he ruffled his short brown hair, too sheepish to look her in the eye as he muttered thanks.
‘I haven’t bloody paid yet, or finished my chips!’ Ailsa exclaimed.
The authority in her clipped voice, with long ‘as’, forced him back to his seat. When she was ready she looked at him, sighed and said, ‘come on then.’
‘I need to see if I can get a hostel tonight. I know you’ve been nice but I just need seven quid. Promise I’m not a junkie or nothing. It’s going to rain and I just need enough money for one night’
She stood up to meet him, her eyes locked straight into his. She put her hand on his shoulder, touching him more gently than he imagined she would touch, and she stroked him.
‘It’s all right if you’re a junkie or if you’re not. It’s your life. Just come with me.’
He followed. He didn’t know why. She could’ve been a murder or a rapist or anything. He followed because he didn’t have an alternative and kept following down the streets of Brixton towards a small council estate by Stockwell station. They stopped outside a noughties new build with bricks the colour of Brighton pebbles.
‘We’ve got 4 bedrooms, 8 beds and 9 tenants so well have to squeeze you in,’ said Ailsa.
‘What is this? Are you winding me up?’ Peter asked.
‘You can stay as long as you need but any violence towards anyone in any way and you’re out.’
Peter clutched his sleeping bad to his chest, taking in it’s dirty smell of sewer water and piss.
‘You’re bloody tricking me, aren’t you? What’s your game?’
‘No game. This is my house,’ Ailsa sighed. ‘Got the tenancy when my parents left and I fought like hell so the council didn’t move me somewhere smaller. I’m alone but I kept seeing other people who were alone and now we’re alone together.’
Peter looked up at the plastic windows with greying net curtains. A raindrop plopped on his forehead as he took in wheelie bin with rubbish poking out.
With a key in the front door, Ailsa said, ‘come on then’.