At Waterloo Station
Will Parry stands on the concourse of Waterloo Station. He wears jeans, a sweatshirt and a pair of scuffed trainers and is holding two carrier bags full of clothes. He is excited, fearful, aggressive, tense.
He walks out of the station and down to the river. He uses an A-Z to find the way. This is seen, and noted.
Will looks across the water. This is London, for real. This is where he will live from now on.
The city looks at Will and grins. It eats kids like him for breakfast.
In the café
The skinny girl with the pale blue eyes and the stringy blond hair sits down next to Will in the all-night café. Will stares at her. 'What do you want?' He is a fast learner. The city takes. It rarely gives.
'All right, don't bite my head off.'
Will looks at her again. In his mind he can see the track marks on her arms. He knows they're there.
'I've got no money.'
'I don't want your money.'
'What do you want, then?'
'I want to talk to you.'
'Does there have to be an about?'
'Hoi,' shouts the man behind the counter, 'this ain't a bleedin' dog's home. Buy a tea or fuck off!'
The girl looks at Will. He gets up and goes to the counter. Ninety pence buys a cup of tea and a plastic-wrapped digestive biscuit.
'Thanks.' The girl does not know whom she reminds the boy of. She assumes he fancies her a bit, or maybe he thinks she has a floor he can borrow.
'I seen you.'
'I seen you about. What're you up to?'
'Nothing. None of your business.' He is dark, stocky, intense, wary and scared. He has faced many hostile questions over the past few weeks.
'You got any stuff with you?'
'I don't deal.'
'I don't mean that. I mean clothes, things like that.'
'In my locker. Why do you want to know?'
'Christ, you're so bloody suspicious!'
'Slag like you, I got a right to be suspicious.'
'You're not from London, are you?'
'Yes I am. Lived here all my life.'
'No you're not. I can tell. Anyone can tell.'
'They can spot you a mile off. You want to get your act together. How long have you been here? Really?' The girl's eyes are dilated, glittering. She can't know the effect they have on the boy.
'Three weeks. All right?' Defensive. Defiant.
'Where're you staying?'
'What is this? Fucking Spanish Inquisition?'
'You're sleeping rough, aren't you?'
'What's that to you?' He strokes the cat that has wrapped itself around his left leg.
'I've got a floor you can use if you want. You got a sleeping bag?'
'What are you?' He stands up, banging against the grimy Formica-topped table. 'Salvation Bloody Army?'
'No. Honest. I'm just saying it's all right if you want to sleep on my floor. It's not far. What's your name?'
'I'm Lizzie. Come on.'
Will has two pounds sixty three in his pocket. It is despairing January – cruel, cold and vicious. He follows the girl out of the brightly-lit café. A dark shadow follows them.
In the flat
Three weeks. Long enough to learn the desperation of his position. Long enough to be coarsened and scarred by fear, cold and rejection. Not long enough to pick up any more than the basic rudiments of survival. Will is not a born street kid. He has only lasted this long because he knows how to be inconspicuous. Sooner or later he will be noticed again. This time he will not escape.
London – bleak, unfeeling early twenty-first century London. The city tests its denizens. Often to destruction. Will must learn its ways, or be destroyed.
The beggars returned to London in the 1980s.
Be careful, Will. Many street people keep a dog – as friend, guardian, warmth. Will's cat-daemon is both more and less than this. Without Kirjava, he would already have been dragged beneath the swirling, treacherous currents of the city. She knows why he is following the girl through the sodium-lit streets to the west of Paddington station. She cannot stop him, for she also feels the chill that penetrates his body. Many more nights spent sleeping in doorways, and they will die of cold and starvation.
'You said it wasn't far.'
'No, it's not far now.'
The street they are walking down is lined with high, dark Victorian houses, long since broken up into warrens of studio flats and bedsits. There is a good side of the street and a bad side. The bad side backs onto the railway and its back rooms are harshly lit by the lights from the track and disturbed by the continual rumble of trains. The girl's flat is on the top floor at the back of a house on the good side. She leads Will up the steps over the basement area and lets him into the hallway.
Its floor is tiled in black and white patterns. Once this was common in the better sort of house – now it is the signifier of a certain kind of city dwelling. The walls are coved in cream gloss painted anaglypta wallpaper. This, too, marks Lizzie's home as one of a type which is replicated throughout London. A transient place. An anonymous place.
Will follows her up the stairs. Each landing has a timeswitch-operated lamp, which stays on just long enough for an active person to reach the next storey. They ascend the staircase wrapped in a cocoon of yellow forty-watt light.
The house seems sordid and cheap to Will. It smells of poverty and damp. He does not know how much it costs to live in a place such as this. If he thought about it, and if he considered just how quickly the fifty pounds he brought with him from home was used up, he would know that he could not afford the rent on even the smallest of London flats, and he might start to wonder where the girl got the money to pay for it. And the habit he strongly suspects she has.
Will is too stupefied with hunger and cold to think about these things.
'Here we are, Darren.'
Lizzie clicks on the light. The flat has four rooms; kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and lounge. The front door opens directly into the lounge, which is newly decorated in cheap materials – garish blue vinyl wallpaper; yellow printed polyester curtains and flat-pack pine furniture. There are a small portable television and a stereo on a bookshelf by the door, which is otherwise empty. It all looks comfortable enough to Will, whose own home in Winchester was supported by an army officer's widow's pension. The girl tells him to sit down on the couch and puts on a CD of bright, manufactured, pop music. Will winces inwardly. There is a dormer window behind the couch, overlooking the gardens and the next row of houses to the south. The walls slope in towards the ceiling. This was once an attic room.
Lizzie goes into the kitchen and boils a kettle. If Will had followed her into the kitchen he might have noticed that it, too, is recently and cheaply equipped.
The girl brings a tin tray out from the kitchen. There are two mugs of instant coffee on it; one is labelled World's Greatest Golfer and the other advertises the Wall Street Journal. There is also a packet of Rich Tea biscuits, which Will devours. The coffee is hot and sweet and has a swift reviving effect upon him.
The girl is sitting opposite him, in a white plastic garden chair. Like him, she is dressed in street uniform of jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt and trainers. Her back is to the door. A Charlie Chaplin poster looks mournfully down on them both. It has been hastily fixed to the wall with Blu-Tak and is not quite level.
'You all right now?'
'You looked shattered down there in the café.'
'I'm better now.'
Will! This is all wrong! Why has she taken you in? Kirjava tries to reawaken Will's suspicions, that were so strong in the café. She cannot fight the lure of warmth and food. She cannot prevent him from looking at the girl. Lizzie is disconcerted by the intensity of his stare, but she keeps herself composed.
'I got a few spare blankets and stuff. You can sleep on the sofa. Shower's in there.' She points to a door. Top-floor flats do not run to full-size bathrooms.
Will showers and dries himself on the towel he finds on the rail. He is feeling sleepy, warm and safe. He stretches out on the couch and Lizzie turns off the music and covers him with a duvet. He does not notice that it is brand new, just that it is cosy and comforting.
Lizzie waits until she hears Will's breathing settle into a gentle snore. Then she goes to the bedroom, takes her mobile phone from her pocket and flips it open.