The rain has soaked through my thin hoodie and is chilling me right down to the bones. The freezing winter concrete seep's up through the thin layer of cardboard I'm scrunched up on and sends by ass cheeks feeling painfully numb. My dark tangled hair is plastered to my face in a grimy mix of water and grease and dirt, and the tiny hairs that poke my eye sting and blur my vision. This is the good life, I think to myself and allow a quick condescending smirk to pass my lips, before reverting to plain, relaxed and slightly turned down at the corners. The perfect picture of someone who is sad and miserable, but who doesn't have the fight to do anything about it.
A coin drops in front of me, missing the hat I sacrificed to the wet by a couple of inches. I scrabble for it, not wanting it to fall down into some dank drain. The rats have no use for money, and I'm starving. I scuttle back into my alleyway, and continue staring blankly. How did it come to this, sitting in some stink hole of a world, alone? I pull my knees closer, and hunch myself over for warmth. I try to make myself invisible, because it's almost seven, and soon the pigs will be chasing the vermin from the marbled streets of Londinium, and pushing us back towards the scum bucket that used to be Brixton, but they've renamed since the last devastating war. The streets are not much softer, so I don't really care whether it's Londinium or Hovall (Brixton) or even on the Thames riverbank. As long as I get a good nights kip, I don't mind. My thoughts mock me, that'll be the day. Once you're outside City limits, the place is practically lawless. In the City centre there are pigs on every corner, holding rifles and electrified batons and tear gas in their shiny black uniform, though nothing ever happens. When I go back to my Hovall were lucky to see a pig after a gang war, during the afternoon.
But it's my home and always has been, this place where the dirt and dust of England collects in a forgotten corner. We have to clear out of the City before 7pm and aren't allowed back in until 7am. The luxury, safe places within the limits are only available to those with enough money, or have a prestigious family name. Or they win the lottery, where if you win the top prize, you're rewarded with a nice home in the centre of the City housing, and a yearly money allowance which is very generous. Only the City folk are allowed in there at any hours, to come and go as they please. How do they know, those shiny black pigs, who's one of the elite and who's a dirt bag just trying to get somewhere safe for the night? The tattoos. When a child is born into the lower classes, they're tattooed on their face. Nothing fancy, no pretty swirls or colourful flowers or a meaningful name. A cross between our eyebrows in black. Takes five seconds, remains forever. The uppity lot have clean faces, nothing on them, but if they're ever disgraced or convicted of a crime, they are tattooed too, but it's on their chin, so we, the lowest of the low, know who to beat up when people arrive in the neighbourhood.
I tuck my hands in my pockets and slink away from the pigs who are advancing this way in a steady march, shoving the damp coins in my pocket and putting the cap on under my hood, wrap my sodden arms around my equally sodden torso, and head south. My boots squelch with each step and I can feel the rain saturate my socks, and my toes join my ass in the numb club. But that jangle of coins that resonates from my pocket, seems just about worth it.
Forty years ago, a war ended. The reasons for the start of the fighting were lost in time, but many historians and scientists today put it down to an over populated world leading to food and water shortages, and eventually leading into a mass culling of the human race. No nukes were fired, just so many bombs and guns. The population at the end of the war was 3 Billion, and the governments around the globe, the ones that had survived that is, came together and issued peace for the good of the human race. The earth was divided up into the Western Hemisphere, or Westhem, and the Eastern Hemisphere, Easthem. Both would uphold and adhere to non-negotiable rules on equality and rights, and then allowed to run their hemispheres as they want as long as none of their new regimes harmed a person, and didn't conflict with the rules, known as The Humanitarian Rights Act. But forty years is a long time, and things had gone downhill since THRA. In the first few years, with the freedoms and safety and rationing going on, the world turned into something of a Utopia. People worked hard for what they got and felt good about it. Neighbours supported each other and helped where they could. But then the old ways started to crawl it's ugly ass back in again. Slowly over the space of fifteen years the segregation between rich and poor started again, with the cross tattoo's the newest edition, staring twenty years ago. The emptying of the City streets started happening when the gangs came back. They ruined it for everyone.
I turn a corner down New Oaks street, where most of the homeless I know squat in the abandoned houses left by those who died in the war. I count them out, one, two, three etc. taking note of their size, how small they are compared to the houses in the City Centre, and the concrete grey colours aren't exactly appealing either. I hate them for it, the uppity lot, but I don't blame them, because I'd do the same if I were well-to-do. Seven props up, the windows smashed in, the scruff of grass passing for a front garden is littered with rubbish and industrial waste, mostly car tyres abandoned here without their hubcaps. The bottom windows at the front have been graciously boarded up by another vagrant, they were kicked in last night, but it doesn't matter. For safety from the gang violence and the theft and muggers we change our squat every night, but no. 7 New Oaks is our favourite because some of the hot taps still work.
I cross the battered garden, careful not to step on any glass, and scoot round the back, where I know the back door is open. I shove my shoulder against it roughly, and enter the dark kitchen. Kicking the door to with my foot, I walk into the living room, which hasn't changed much since the last owners died, there's still a fireplace and chimney and sofas, which are now mostly occupied by my vagrant friends, who greet me with a smile. There's seven of us in a little gang, we travel together around the abandoned homes of Old London, looking for somewhere safe to live. They've managed to get a fire going, and it's a welcome sight against the dark, dank outside. I shrug my hoodie off, and my shoes and socks and lay them out against the fire to dry, which I watch my friends play poker with a battered deck of cards and no money. They play it for the fun, and to practice lying.
There's only three of them here at the moment, the stay at home crew. We had to work out a system to protect our stuff and our squats, so four of us go out begging and looking for money every day, and three stay, cleaning, protecting the place with bats, and normally cook for the ones returning. But my stomach growls and I realise no food has been offered to me.
"Marnix? Hey, where's the food?" I say, and he looks up from his cards to me.
"Sorry Ilta, we had no money for a couple of days, you know, winter makes everyone a little less generous. We were hoping when you guys got back you'd have some." His voice is rough with years if smoking addiction, and monotone with the knowledge that things probably won't get any better. He's always been the depressed one.
"I got a few coins, and I keep telling you to call me Tata. Everyone else does." I grin at him. Marnix is so formal, he's only in our group for the safety factor. He doesn't want to let down any emotional barriers for some reason. Liv looks up from her cards with a cheeky smile.
"You're going to have to go down to the shop Tata. I heard the money jingling 'round in your pocket, you got a good haul right?" She looks at me expectantly. I can't believe these guys, I'm out in the freezing cold since 6am, looking miserable and desperate all day while these guys do a bit of dusting, gobble the last of the food and sit around, and they expect me to go out there at this time of the night! It's nearly eight, lazy buggers. When I'm house bound, they expect me to do everything, like I'm their slave.
"Fine!" I say abruptly. "But you got to give me your boots Liv, my trainers are soaked."
Liv sighs, and walks over to where her boots are. She's a small girl, I think she's sixteen or seventeen. When we first met her she was pretty plump, but really short, not a chestnut hair out of place, blue eyes wide and caught in the headlights, clutching her stuff as if it was life. A few weeks with us, she was hungry, definitely hungry, but the nervousness was gone. She became a bit wild looking, getting Ben to dread her hair, wearing long flowing shirts and multicoloured coats we found in skips in the City. She places the boots in front of me, they're pale brown with flowers stitched all over in burgundy. I slip them on my bare feet, and pull the coins out from my pocket. I count them out, £591. Not much, but enough to get us all some dinner.
"What do you guys want?" I call as I head out of the back door.
"Noodles, if there's enough Tata," Aleks calls. I walk back out into the rain, and the mud from the garden stains Liv's boots a darker brown. The shop is the one place where you don't feel as exposed as usual. The guy who owns it, no one knows his name, keeps everything neutral, so he won't be caught up in an street wars. No names, no courtesies, just get what you want and pay for it. And you pay, not even the greatest thief can steal from the shop, there's thousands of cameras, scanners and two guys who stand at the door with electrified bats. I guess they're his sons or something, they look quite similar.
After much of Britain had been destroyed, the government attracted people from northern Europe to come over and help rebuild the country. They would be offered citizenship and paid handsomely. Apparently even before the war started they would come to Britain to have a better life, so it was expected when thousands upon thousands of people, droves of foreigners who spoke no word of English, migrated to the smoking ruins of the country that once held so much power. That was in the beginning of the Utopia, until the last true British people felt they were being stamped out, overwhelmed by foreigners. That's when the segregation started. My parents were some of the last immigrants from Finland, still hoping that they could change their lives for the better. They spent every penny they had on the journey, but when they got there only to be homeless, jobless and not a penny to get them back to their families. They had to stay, begging the uppity true British for money to go home, getting what measly work there was, labouring day and night to scrape money together just to survive. I was an accident, a happy one, they would tell me, but it didn't exactly make their fight for survival any easier.
I keep looking over my shoulder, checking to see that I'm alone on these dangerous streets. I hear a few gun shots in the distance, and a woman screaming before she's quickly silenced, and it makes me a bit jumpy. When a beaten up old car swerves around the corner, I physically jump in the air, and the men inside laugh and turn up the music, which is all drum symbols and screeching guitar. I practically run the rest of the way to the shop, and feel all the more safer once I'm within its walls. I pull down my hood and let my hair drip on the white tiles. I nod to the two guards, who don't nod back, or even register that I exist. The shop keeper is reading a newspaper behind a glass shield that's bullet-proof, and stands on the edge of the counter, and he like his guards, doesn't register me.
The shop is an old warehouse remodelled after the war. It's massive, long and low, walls painted white and hundreds of bright, white lights that burn my eyes a bit when I enter from the darkness. I walk down the aisles, looking at all the glorious food that sits there, neatly packaged and stacked. Whole chickens that are bigger than my head and pale pink, cakes so delicate they're held in metal containers and dusted with precious sugar. Small bags of coffee shipped from the shores of Sicily, apparently. But I keep on walking, doing my best to ignore the tempting food that just screams at me to eat it. My stomach hates me for ignoring it, and growls in resentment. The noodles finally come into my view, right at the back of the shop, and I look at the price. They're on sale today, only £50 each. I count them out, getting seven bags and doing the math as best I can. I only have about £300 left, so I get some milk and a small box of tea bags. I hurry back to the counter and push the items through the hole, where the shop keeper scans them and puts them in a bag for me, I pay and thank him, and I'm gone, back out into the rain. A few streets away I hear a fight going on, there's that tell tale flash of electrified bats and shooting and screaming of profanities, of snappy retorts and of pain. I shudder and speed up my pace.
When I get back to the house, Ben and Flo are back and their faces are sullen until I show them the bag of food.
"Knew we could count on you Tata. We barely got a hundred quid between us."
It's true, I can beg like no other. I've been doing it my whole life, my mother used to take me out on the streets with her from babyhood, and she would send me out on my own by the time I was five. I can force guilt onto people, and guilt pays well. These guys haven't been doing it for as long as me, only a few years and they're inconsistent.
Somebody, I think it's Aleks, has lit a fire on the portable gas cooker, and boiling water in a pan. We wait until it's bubbling, and Flo grabs mugs and we all have tea while the noodles cook in the chicken powder. We force it down our gullets, it's been a slow couple of days and the food hasn't exactly been consistent. As I lick the bowl I notice something. Jens isn't back yet. He'd gone to the most northern part of Londinium, but it's nine now and he should be back. We're close enough to the City for a short walk, it should have only taken him an hour, tops. He should have been back with Ben and Flo.
"Where's Jens?" I ask, only to be met with the sound of forks clanging against the bowl and slurping of tea. It takes a minute for everyone to register what I've said, and I can see their faces change as they realise that Jens is probably not coming back. Just another homeless kid caught in the crossfire of another gang war. I think back to the gun shots I heard earlier, and the screams of pain as flash after flash of electricity filled the air, and bullets punctured innocent bodies. My eyes drop, and I sip my tea slowly. Flo sighs, and everyone just stares straight ahead, or into the fire or in their tea, for a long while.
We sit there for hours, unsure about our next move. We've lost people in the past, people we cared about, who we had known for years and come to love as brothers and sisters. Then one day they'd just disappear, leave in the morning and never come back, no word of goodbye, no last hug. They probably didn't even know it'd be their last day with us, on this god forsaken earth.
I'm the first one to move, slowly shifting my weight until I'm laid down. I grab my now warm hoodie and use it as a pillow. Liv is next, curling up on the sofa holding Aleks and pulling him with her. Marnix stands and grabs blankets, and throws them on me, Ben and Flo, before sliding in himself. I don't sleep for a long time, staring at the fire and thinking of Jens. He was the funny guy, who had been through too much and came out the other end smiling. His parents we're murdered by a gang in crossfire, walking home from the shop. His little sister was shot in the arm, and he couldn't go back for her or he'd die. He talked about it one night, when we couldn't sleep. I saw a side to him, a dark side that gave me so much more respect for him. He blamed himself, for not saving her, for not being brave or valiant or good enough to save her. I told him no, it's not his fault, he was only seven. A child can't make those decisions and shouldn't have to. It didn't help, but the next morning he was as bright and cheery as ever, his usual self. I admired him. We were the same.
I wish all night that I had told him to meet me somewhere in the City before seven, so that we could have walked back to the house in numbers, which is always safer. I was lucky those boys in that car didn't stop and decide to have some fun before killing me. Maybe they thought I was a boy. I guess I don't particularly look like a boy, I have a round face and small nose, grey eyes and dark hair. My eyelashes are so big I cause a gale every time I blink. They're my money makers, a few bats of them and a quiet despairing look has coins dropping from everywhere. But it's luck in this world now, which is the only thing keeping you alive.
When I finally do sleep, morning seems to come before I've even closed my eyes. I wash upstairs, running the hot tap in the bathroom and sponging myself down. I look at myself in the mirror, focusing mainly on how that ugly cross tattoo ruined my face, which could have passed for pretty if was one of the uppity lot. As I scrub myself down I feel my bones jutting from my pale white skin, and sigh. Food was becoming harder to get, the rumours of another war passing from lip to lip in the City, and battles being fought outside our homes right now. I wash my clothes and leave them to dry by the fire that had died down to embers over night, and I bring it back to life with the lazy throw of a log.
I sit by the fire in my hoodie, watching the flames eat hungrily at the log, wishing I could eat wood with such vigour. It's around half past five, and I decide not to wake the others. They are more sensitive than I am, and can't handle the sadness of Jens leaving as well as I can, so a few more hours of peaceful sleep is best. I have lost too much in my life, and know the feeling like an embrace of a familiar friend. I know the stories my homeless friends carry as burdens, some horrific, some misfortunate, some just bad luck. Mine was my own doing.
Once my clothes are dry I slip them on. It's about six now, and the sun is breaking over the horizon. I shake my friends awake. I've always had to wake up early, my body clock is set on early bird mode, and it's quite funny to see their wake up rituals. Liv groans and mumbles about being too ill to go to school. Ben lets out a long breath of air that flips his fringe up and opens his eyes almost straight away. Aleks scrunches himself up into a ball and rolls off the sofa with a loud thump. Flo flicks her pretty green eyes straight open and smiles sleepily and sits up. Marnix shoots straight up, gasping for breath and staring straight ahead with wide eyes. So funny, I think feeling guilty. I've never asked what he dreams about, and don't want to know with that sort of reaction.
We all get dressed, and notice no one has mentioned Jens. I'm glad, I don't think I can really talk about him right now, the wound of his disappearance is still fresh. But we will never talk about him, or anyone else who has disappeared, it's an unspoken rule. I've only got one outfit, faded ripped jeans, a greying hoodie and a pale blue long sleeved shirt under that, grey thick socks and a greying pair of converse I've had for four years. Everything in this war torn world is just a different shade of grey. I haven't eaten enough to grow much. I'm still so small, like a child even though I'm eighteen, I think. Liv is in her floaty gear, and everyone else dresses to be warm. It's October, and starting to get chilly. I don a navy scarf and bright red gloves, and decide to do something with my hair. Flo has long blonde hair, and makes hair bands all the time, out of anything she can find. I ask for one, and she gives me a band with tiny jewels on it the colour of the sky in summer. My hair is so dark and matted it looks like a dog has fallen asleep on my head, but I coax it into a frazzled bun and pull my hood up. The rain is falling slowly, and the ground is still sodden from yesterday's downpour. It's me, Liv and Flo out today, walking swiftly to the City gates, waiting for those big, heavy doors to be opened, along with thousands of other dregs. There's a big digital clock above the gates entrance, and it tells us it's five minutes to seven.
A man bumps in to me, shoving me into poor Flo, and I snap my head around and meet his eyes. He's tall but fat, and there's no cross on his forehead, or chin. A n uppity man, from the City. Why is he out here? Doesn't he know if he's spotted by any gangs he's a dead man? I furrow my brow in confusion. His eyes stare at me, dull and brown, shaded heavily by a cap. His mouth opens into a snarl.
"Wha … why are you here?" I point a red gloved finger at him, and immediately he moves away from me, pulling the brim of his hat down past his eyebrows. He disappears among the crowd, and I turn to Flo and Liv who are looking at me like I'm a little bit mad.
"Did you see that guy?" Flo is rubbing her arm, and shakes her head.
"Yeah I saw him for a second. Do you know him?" Liv sounds worried. The man wasn't exactly someone other than a gangster would associate with, by the look of him, even if he did have the mark of the lower class.
"No. He was on the outside. Why was he outside, didn't you see him?" I ask urgently. No one from inside the City walls ever leaves, it's too dangerous for them especially to walk the streets, they would be the prime target for anyone with a grudge, which is everyone. Just depends on who'd get them first. The girls look at me like I'm crazy still. The gates open and there's a surge in the crowd, knocking us all forward and separating us before I can tell them about the uppity man. As I behave like a wooden log down a cascading river, not pushing but riding the current of people, I think more of the uppity man. How did he make it through the night without getting killed? He must be someone very important, with a hundred guards protecting him. But where were they in the crowd? Hiding as civilians? Or is he just an adrenaline junkie, seeing if he could spend a night on the outside, in the crap heap of the world and live to tell the tale. I've never heard of anyone even coming outside the gates, let alone staying out of their safety.
I weave my way through the crowd now, heading for Link Street, a busy shopping place for all the uppity lot. I squeeze my way through and find a nice doorway. I take my scarf off and wind it around in a circle in front of me, and wait. Around nine the street is cramped with the uppity lot, all dressed in finer and furs, adorned with jewels and pearls, shoes so tight, high and shiny they look ridiculous. Some hold phones to their ears, and I catch partial conversations, about dinner tonight, an important meeting, a new handbag, and lie about where they are, who they're seeing and what they're doing. Others hold tiny pets either by hand or in a handbag. They feed them treats, I see it, of bacon and tiny pieces of steak that I would happily demean myself for a bite. I see this every day, and think this everyday and my stomach growls at the thought of being a well fed pet. The saliva builds up in my mouth and I almost shout at a woman sitting on a bench opposite me. She's feeding a pale yellow puppy chunks of chicken. My favourite meat. And the dog, it eats a few slithers then plainly refuses another bite! What I would give for her to walk over here and start feeding me chicken, I would never refuse another bite.
But the clink of a coin on the street brings me back to attention, and I slap my hand over it before it has time to roll away. Even if I put a ten foot long box in front of me people would still throw the money so it wouldn't land in it. But I pick up the coin without a single word about their aim, my mother always said beggars can't be choosers. The coin feels heavy in my hand, and I clutch it close to me before turning it over and over in the light of the morning. I focus on the golden coin colour, but behind it the fuzzy images of sparkling tall buildings, so tall they reach towards the heavens and scrape the ceiling of the world. The glass windows reflect the late autumn sun that brings harsh light but not much warmth. I see trees, a strange sort of green, so green that it's not natural, and pruned into geometric shapes. A hundred thousand people walk past in all their fancy clothing, warm clothing that they change daily, most don't even notice I'm there. I get a few glances, some in disgust, some in pity. One or two in guilt. All I can work with, but everyone seems too busy, walking too fast to stop and think about saving this poor wretch. Apart from one person, who looks at me from the shade of a square tree on the other side of the street, staring with dull brown eyes at my hunched figure. The uppity man. Is he following me? Why would he be following someone from Hovall? Well he had just been there I guess. Maybe he's a reporter, wanting to know how we poor souls survive in the wastes that lie beyond the City walls. We've had a few, and all of them ask that question in one way or another. The reply is always 'piss off you nourished little git', then a flash of your middle finger and walk away. Maybe he's a pig in disguise. I haven't done anything illegal, I take special care not to. That's another way to permanently disappear.
I decide to move a few roads away, Dicer Street, where all the fresh food gets sold in an open market, all the fish caught fresh, the meat butchered that day, vegetables plucked from the earth so early this morning, cheese and milk squeezed straight from the cow.
The smells are slightly more tempting, but it doesn't usually get busy until later in the day, so there's less people and it'll be easier to see if I'm being followed. I plonk my ass in the mouth of an alley, still clutching the coin in my hand, and curl up my scarf again. The rain is really pouring down now, the sun has disappeared behind grey clouds and the world has gotten a few shades darker.
It's about five minutes before the man walks past again, just strolling by as if browsing the vendors and their wares, but I watch his eyes flicker to me more than enough times to be considered just in passing. He's watching me intently, leaning against a bridge, cap pulled down far below his eyes. I watch him casually, picking up the coins that fall my way, never hitting the scarf. He just stands there, waiting for me to make a move. But I don't, and I see him getting fidgety by four. He keeps roaming up and down the street. He doesn't know how to wait patiently, and by that fact I see he's a foreigner. Not like me, a second gen, but someone who's flown in from somewhere today, because he's in a rumpled suit with dark patches under the arms. He's not dressed for the cold either, his suit is too light and the socks that poke out from his shiny black shoes are thin.
What is he doing here, and why is he following me? Panic rises as bile in my throat. But I can't afford to let anything escape my stomach, or show this man my weakened state. I ate yesterday, but now that seems so far away. My head swims and the world spins, and for the first time in a long time I fear. I run, grabbing my scarf as I launch myself. I turn corners, bumping into uppity people and the lowers equally, sights and sounds and smell are but a fleeting distraction. I chance a look around after about five minutes. He not there. I jog to a stop, and pass some pigs who eye me suspiciously. But I walk past them, strolling even without looking them in the eye. I haven't done anything wrong officer, just went for a quick run, you know, warm up the blood on a cold day like today. Perfect. Just paranoia after Jens disappeared, and the shots and everything coupled together.
I look behind me again, giving in to the little niggling feeling that whispers 'just one for time, for safety', and spin in a quick circle. There he is, pushing his fat form through the wave of bodies, heading straight for me. My body goes into overdrive before I even realise my legs are moving. I should stop, find out what he wants, he's only chasing me because I'm running. But my body won't stop, my feet hitting the damp floor as fast as they'll go, energy surfacing from a place I never knew existed. Until the slightly raised pavement trips me, and I splatter on the floor in a bloody mess.
"Ow." I whimper. Passersby skirt around me, doing their best to ignore my broken body. I sit myself up, and assess the damage. My lips are bleeding and tiny stones are caught in them. My palms are grazed, and droplets of dark blood drip from them. My brain pounds in my skull trying to explode, and there's a gash on my forehead. I see him coming and he's almost on me, an arm's reach away before I'm scrabbling for purchase on the marble pavement, and my shoes get grip and I'm off. But a sharp yank on my scarf by his thick sausage fingered hand pulls me down on my ass, smashing my tailbone heard. I stifle a cry of help, knowing that no one will help a girl like me when there's a man like him trying to apprehend her. Bugger, my mind speaks over and over as he steps in front of me, like a tower to an ant.
"Sir," I speak like a coward. I'm good at pretending, it's the only way I survived. "I didn't do nothing, I swear, I only ran 'coz you was chasing me I swears it."
I can speak perfectly good English, I am English, but when your speaking to an uppity exactly like they do they don't like it. Make yourself seem simple, cowardly and thankful for everything until your lower class voice goes hoarse.
He's holding my scarf tightly in his fat hand, the material still choking me a bit. His face is stern, his lips pushed together so tightly it's like he's pouting, and his eyebrows are knitted together tighter than a jumper. He definitely got the intimidating look down.
"You look hungry girl. You want a hot meal?"