I’m never going to forget the smell. This unspeakable blend of stale urine and rotting vegetables. It stings my throat. Clings to the air so thick you think you’ll never get away from it. The street’s uneven. Dirty. Dark as pitch. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet. The day’s debris is strewn everywhere, so you’ve no idea what that squishing on the sole of your shoe might be. The blackness deadens everything, except the smell. The chaos and colour of the market all swallowed up by the night. We speak in whispers, as if we might awaken something unholy. A scrabble and it breaks cover in front of us. Just a rat. The silence is broken though. From the shadows under the abandoned stalls, they emerge. A skinny boy. A girl, the baby on her hip almost as big as she is. Two younger boys. They crowd us. Seize the bread and the coffee, eating as if they’ve not seen food in weeks. They grow louder. The boys jostle and bluster. They flex their muscles and elbow one another aside. The girls hang back and watch the sideshow. A scrap of a girl’s tugging at my coat. She talks in a half-whisper. Rapid. Incoherent. As if our attention’s too brief for her need. She’s drunk. I hear baby. Dead. Anniversary. She can’t be old enough to have a baby, much less to lose one. Her first one died too, someone says as she melts back into the shadows. I feel sick.
Anna hoists her own baby higher on her hip. She offers to show us where she lives. In the shadow of a shuttered shop, a fortress of security grilles, we duck behind a wheelie bin. The torch lights up a brick alcove. There’s a sleeping bag rolled against the back wall, a pink blanket spread on the concrete next to it. Anna sits the baby on the blanket. The baby shuffles and pats at the sleeping bag. She’s thin and none too clean. Her nose is running. Anna uses the sleeve of her jumper to wipe the baby’s face.
I used to go to school once, but then Dad lost his job.
She tells us how she started selling cheap combs and chewing gum at the age of five or six.
Mum couldn’t afford to feed us. Dad started drinking after the steelworks closed. He got mad if I didn’t bring enough money.
The baby begins to grizzle. Anna lifts her jumper and puts it to her scrawny breast.
I worked at the traffic lights. We used to run out and knock on car windows when the lights were red. It was like a game at first. One day a man in a big, dark car opened the door and told me to get in. He took me to the car park. He gave me ten pounds afterwards. I was just turned seven.
How old are you now?
The baby falls asleep. Anna lays her on the blanket and tucks the end of the sleeping bag over her. There’s a fierce chill blowing under the wheelie bin. I shiver. The baby stirs. Anna strokes her head.
Katy’s baby got ill. We went to the hospital, but they wouldn’t help. We didn’t have any money to pay for the medicine. I’m so scared of losing Aleysha.
My eyes are adjusting to the torchlight. Anna’s belongings are stacked in the corner. Some rolled clothes. A half-used pack of nappies. A few cans of food. Sitting against them is a huge, pink-plush rabbit.
The ladies at the Food Bank bought it for Aleysha. Most of the things they gave me got stolen though.
Do you see your parents?
No. Dad went mental when he found out I was pregnant.
She touches a finger to the cigarette burn on her left cheekbone.
Will you use the Night Shelter now it’s getting cold?
Nah. It’s not safe. The men do things to you in the night. They steal everything. They might even take Aleysha. People give you more money if you’ve got a baby.
Is that how you live?
Begging? Mostly. Sometimes Danny looks after Aleysha. He’s little and I can still trust him. The men pay well, but I don’t like it. And I hate leaving her. One man said he’d pay big money if I brought her with me next time.
She shivers and tucks the blanket tighter round the sleeping baby. I wonder how much longer she’ll be able to resist offers like that, once winter sets in.
This brave, new world we’ve chosen. I grew up in a kinder place myself. Once, there were well-trained teachers. Good schools that didn’t run for profit. Hospitals that cared for sick people instead of money. We had social workers who’d have looked after Anna and Aleysha. Places where they could have been housed in safety. We sold the lot for a few shiny baubles. iPhones and Big Macs. We fell for the propaganda. Newspapers told us our teachers weren’t good. Governments told us our Health Service would be safe in their hands. There were child abuse scandals, and we held social workers responsible. We lapped up the myths of welfare scroungers and benefit fraud. Fell in love with austerity. Thus we allowed our rulers to dismantle the net that kept us from falling into destitution. We identified with the bankers and the corporations. The very ones who were bleeding us dry. They farmed us like battery chickens. After all, it couldn’t happen to us, could it? Poverty only happens to bad people.
We crawl out of Anna’s alcove. Our breath hangs on the blackness of the city street. I try to remember how it was when the golden glow of street lamps wasn’t restricted to the gated communities of the super-rich. In the background, Aleysha begins to wail. The sound’s drowned by the roar of a motor approaching far too fast. We’re immobilised in the sudden headlights. There’s the screech of a handbrake turn. Catcalls. Laughter.
Come on then. You know you want it.
A hand beckons through the passenger window. A flame sparks up. Something breaks cover behind us. The flame spreads its wings and flutters to the ground. Anna’s on her knees, pounding at it with her bare hands. She ignores the howls of derision. I’m not sure she even hears. The car screams away in reverse. Anna stands up. She’s shaking. Cradling something in her blistering palm. A shred of paper, printed with the number 50. A few ashes. And a singed portrait of the Queen.