Excerpt: Rough Sleepers

It was freezing cold outside. I was so damned sick of the cold, the way it made every joint in my body ache, the way it made my eyes water and my nose run. The wind punished me when I walked into it. I was sick of it. I longed for summer, for warm nights when sleep could come easy and I wouldn’t be kept awake night after night by the intolerable, gripping pain. It was the pain that made things harder. I was bitter, yes, but I would have at least been a bit more sociable if not for the fact that even the fillings in my teeth hurt. At least I had been able to spend the night somewhere warm, curled up on a hard bed in a room that smelled of piss. The smell was something I had grown immune to over the last couple of months. I could tolerate that. All it gave me was the overwhelming desire to cover it with my own scent.

The police station was quiet; it was fast approaching ten o’clock at night, and in the depth of winter, there were few people about this Thursday evening. Officer Rob—I knew him by name as we had become quite acquainted with each other—took me out of my cell and let me out into the reception area while he went to fetch me my personal belongings, few that they were. I sat down on the creaking seats that lined the wall, wondering if there was some crime I could commit right here that would let me get locked up again. Even being in a cell was better than being out there on the frigid, ice-covered streets. I could go home, if it could still be called that after what had happened, but I wasn’t sure if I could face up to it. The thought of returning after that terrible night filled me with dread and a crushing guilt so cruel that the only way to make myself go on was to banish it to the dark recesses of my mind and forget about it. This was my life now. Or, at least it would be until I figured out how to fix myself. Then maybe I could go back and see if everyone had healed. Maybe they could heal, but I never would. This wound inside me was going to last forever.

I wiped my only hand over my face, pinching the corners of my eyes with finger and thumb. Oh, how I dreaded going outside. Yawning into my palm, I turned my head and looked across at the only other person who wasn’t a police officer, who was sitting opposite me on one of the other cushioned benches. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but a minute or two after I had sat down, I had caught a sniff of an interesting scent, and after breathing it in deeply, I began to realise that it was coming from him. I stared at him, not caring whether he found it rude. He was a scruffy old git anyway; he probably didn’t have manners either. That was another thing I’d learned since becoming homeless; manners only mattered if you had money in your purse. This guy didn’t look like he had a lot of that, either. He noticed me staring and glanced at me sideways as he pulled off his woollen gloves and took a tobacco tin out, removing the lid and examining the meagre contents before replacing it in the sagging pocket of his brown leather jacket. Underneath he wore a thick, grey turtleneck jumper with an equally dull grey scarf over the top, and his legs were clad in black jeans that might have been a size too big, tucked into the tops of his mid-calf Dr Martens. They were boots that looked like they had been walked from here to Australia and back, repaired in places with glue and mismatched laces.

Clothes said a lot about a person, this I’d learned from a young age. That was why it had been so important for me to choose the clothes I wore. It was also why I had got into a lot of trouble refusing to wear school uniform as a teen, but that’s a story for later.

“Why don’t you take a photo,” the man grunted, his voice as rough as a metal gate being dragged across concrete.

I looked up at his face. I had been busy staring at his rough hands, thick and badly marred by dermatitis that had caused deep cracks in his skin. I found his small, beady eyes staring back at me and noticed the scar that caused one of them to squint.

“As if I’d want a photo of someone as ugly as you,” I retorted calmly. I tried to keep the feminine purr from my voice but like a wild cat, it was hard to keep contained.

He chuckled, tilted back his head. The unkempt mop of his chocolate-coloured hair flopped about his ears as he looked up at the ceiling. I was surprised he found my reply so amusing. In a way I was disappointed because I had hoped that if I started a fight with him, they might lock me up again, but instead it seemed he would be harder to provoke.

“You ain’t the first one to tell me that,” he commented, and I heard the jolly lilt of his Welsh accent. It wasn’t unusual to meet a Welshman here on the other side of the River Severn.

“Bet yer mother was,” I murmured, leaning forward and resting my chin in the palm of my hand. I shifted the stump of what remained of my other arm, tucking it away behind my body where he couldn’t see.

“What brings a friendly gentleman such as yourself by yere at this time of night?” he asked, lacing his fingers together as he rested his hands in his lap.

“I’m checking out of the hotel,” I replied curtly. I didn’t like to tell people my business; that implied that I cared what they thought. “And what about you? You checking in?”

“No, actually. I’m just looking for somewhere warm to sit for awhile,” he told me, not seeming put off by what I had said.

“Oh. That’s nice.” I rolled my eyes, not really interested in his response. I sighed, leaning back and shivering as a cold breeze crept under the door and wafted across my legs. The dirty jogging bottoms I wore weren’t enough to keep me warm, and they tended to soak up the snowmelt as they dragged along the ground. My tatty trainers weren’t any better with holes in the soles.

“Are you homeless?” he asked me outright.

I shook my head, not wanting to look at him. I didn’t want to admit it out loud, not even to the policemen that had caught me squatting in someone’s empty house.

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