With a curse and a struggle, Con pulled up the corrugated shutter and peeked out of the storage container she’d spent the day in. She stared into the darkness down the alley, spotted a black cat pounce on something by the bins, and then disappeared back inside to fetch her rucksack. She hauled it onto her back and then crouched by the entrance, holding her hand out towards where the cat had gone.
Here kitty, kitty, kitty.
“Come on, you little sod,” she muttered. The animal appeared from behind the bin, its amber eyes flashed and something – a rat – hung from its jaws. It took a step towards her, tail swishing, and she urged it silently closer.
When it reached her, she ran her hand along its back, making the connection she needed. She sat back on her heels and closed her eyes. Her eyelids flickered.
The cat dropped the rat and trotted down the alley towards the street. It looked one way and then the other, checking the coast was clear. Cars drove down the road, headlights dazzling, but they were unimportant. There was a group of young women across the street, dressed in short skirts and high heels, dressed up for a night out. Heading towards the cat, a man carrying a shopping bag.
Paula picked up her plate of lumpy mashed potato and congealed beans and carried it to the table where her friends sat. Fish fingers today. She hated fish.
She sat down and stared at the food as all around her the other women in the canteen chattered nosily, or hurled insults, or laughed. Chairs scraped across the floor, plastic cutlery scraped against plastic plates. Her head throbbed.
“…roast chicken,” Mia was saying, “with gravy and roast potatoes and peas. Watch this.”
Paula lifted her gaze and watched. Mia lifted a fish finger and it changed into a chicken drumstick in her hand. “It’ll still taste like fish though,” Paula said.
Mia dropped the drumstick onto her plate, where it abruptly turned back into a fish finger. “What the hell’s wrong with you lately?” she asked, flapping a hand. “You’re so damn miserable all the time.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval and picked up her knife and fork. A black curl of hair fell in front of her face.
“I’ve been here ten years,” Paula said. “That’s what’s wrong with me.”
“Yeah, well it’s not our fault you were an early starter.” Mia hacked a fish finger in half and shoved it in her mouth, glaring at Paula with eyes that were almost as dark as her hair.
In Central Park the leaves are just beginning to turn to yellow. The tourists are overdressed, thinking the air will have turned colder here along the Atlantic coast but there is still some time before that happens. I can remember a time when visitors and Manhattan dwellers alike would only venture to the edges of the park. As if touching your toes on the boundary was an invitation to a criminal gang.
It has since been “cleaned up” but not in the way the media claims. Sure the police presence helps but I know the real reason why you will not see the homeless in the park. I know why the drug trade and robberies are down to almost nothing. You see, I was there around twenty years ago when it all went down and I will never forget the face that saved the park. It haunts my nightmares to this day.
You know when you’ve done something stupid and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s how I felt when the water smashed into my face. Also, once I’d calmed down enough to work out which direction the surface was in, a Tweet popped into my head. Really cocked up this time. LOL #GonnaDie.
I guess I was so used to crap happening to me that ending up completely under water with no idea of where I was, didn’t seem so bad. You have to laugh or you go mad.
My lungs screamed at me and although my arms worked frantically, they didn’t seem to be getting me very far. The joke was over, anyway; it was no longer funny. I really was gonna die if I didn’t get air soon.
So, blue sky above me. Promising. Just keep swimming. When I broke the surface I had enough time to suck in a breath before my head went under again. I panicked, flailed a lot – probably looked like an idiot to anybody watching – then my hand touched something soft and I realised I’d reached the bank and there was grass and earth and oh! Life. I was alive.
Yay. I dragged my half-drowned self up onto the bank and coughed until I vomited water. Exhausted, I rolled over onto my back and lay there, soaked and shivering and staring at the sky which, now I looked properly, was more of a weird green colour. Tourmaline. The word popped into my head suddenly. Tourmaline sky. A poet would have a field day.
The bench made my backside ache, but I had to do my good deed for the day and it was the ideal spot for a bit of people watching.
A park lay directly opposite and an old woman walked an equally-as-old-looking dog up to a tree, where it pissed and then kicked grass up at its feet.
Maybe I could help her cross the road…
A young woman wandered past the railings, outside the park. She had bare legs. Long, bare legs. And she was eating a sandwich, licking her fingers in a way that I thought was entirely far too suggestive for that time of day.
I glanced skywards and mouthed a silent prayer. Let her come over here.
The woman, no, she was a girl – seventeen – noticed the bench and she crossed the road to sit by my side. She bit into the sandwich, crisp lettuce crunching between her teeth.
She had to speak to me. She would speak to me. One more mouthful.
“Sometimes,” she said, swallowing, “it would be nice just to… just to go somewhere. You know? Like, somewhere in your head or something. So you didn’t have to deal with all this crap all the time.”
She brushed breadcrumbs off her lap and onto the pavement. Pigeons gobbled them up and then started back as she scrunched up the brown paper bag that had contained her sandwiches.
Perfect. She would do nicely.