January 2nd, Saturday
A thin figure stepped out of the taxi, pulling with it a small satchel held together with multiple safety pins. A crisp note was passed through the window to the driver, who nodded his thanks then turned the car around and drove away, tyres spitting water from the thin layer of rain that coated the tarmac. The figure was left alone, standing in the small, dim circle of yellow dropped from the streetlamp that loomed above, to watch the car swing around the corner and out of sight. On the ground, reflected in the wet surface, glittered tiny shards of light. Three lamps away from the figure, a bulb flickered.
After a moment of perfect stillness, the figure's shoulders briefly lifted and slumped as he heaved a sigh, then he turned and raised his head to peer up at his new home. The building was dark and had the look of having been uninhabited for years, with the large windows on the ground floor dulled by dust and grime and, painted above them, a word so faded with age that it could not be deciphered unless the reader already knew what it said. The figure strode slowly around to the side of the building where a set of iron stairs led up to a door, and placed a thin-fingered hand on the cold, wet banister, smiling ruefully to himself. If they could see him now…but, of course, they would not. Never again, if he could help it. They'd be gone by the end of the next month and he had no intention of following them. He began to climb, each footstep echoing as the metal of his soles hit the metal of the stairs. Six steps, a landing, six more steps, the second landing. He pulled the small key out of his pocket. How marvellous it was that one single tarnished silver key hanging off a grubby length of string could be the key to an entirely new life. He untangled the string from the teeth of the key and stuffed it into the lock.
The room was bare. The only furnishings were the surfaces that stuck out from the wall in an L shape, marking where a kitchenette should be, and a wooden chair with only three and a half legs. The figure crossed slowly over the bare floorboards to the door to his right, his boots leaving prints in the dust. Loose handle. He pushed at the door and winced as the hinges creaked, despising the painful cliché of the sound as it echoed its way around the cold apartment. He stood, peering into the empty darkness. This room was even more depressing than the first, without so much as a built-in wardrobe to indicate that it might have the potential to turn into a comforting bedroom. He pulled the door closed again and turned down the dim passageway, only two metres long and finishing in a dead end of disintegrating brick. The only purpose the passage seemed to serve was to try and fail in convincing any inhabitants that the loft was larger than it appeared. He reached for the handle of the door in the passage's wall and braced himself.
One small, limescale-caked shower; one sink containing the hot tap which had become, for whatever reason, detached from its position next to the cold one; one unpleasant toilet with no seat; one large, bath-shaped patch of yellowing plaster on the wall to serve as a memorial stone for the tub that had long since been ripped unceremoniously from the wall; one dead rat coated in dust.
Shuddering, the figure snapped the door shut and retreated back to the main room. He sighed heavily, dumped his bag on the floor, and slid down the wall. He mentally surveyed his situation: he had virtually no money, having spent most of his inheritance on an empty wreck of a loft that was only fractionally more comfortable than a cardboard box on a street corner; he had only the clothes he wore and the contents of his broken satchel, most of which was unhelpful books; he was within a few metres of a rat carcass which he would have great difficulty removing due to an irrational phobia; and he was completely and utterly alone. On the plus side – he reached into his pocket and pulled out a foil packet – he had two packets of cigarettes and six squares of white chocolate. He slid one square into his mouth and leaned his head back against the wall.
Much later, in the dark hours of the morning, a crow landed on the windowsill of an apartment above an antiques shop and peered inside with one beady eye. It saw, alone on the floor, face hidden by long, honey-blond hair, the sleeping figure of a teenage boy.
January 3rd, Sunday
At twenty past six, the boy woke up to the sound of the frail windows rattling in the wind with a crick in his neck and dust clinging to his black jeans.
"Cento di questi giorni," he muttered to himself.
Sixteen years old. Just legally old enough to be in his current situation. He scowled. That took away any drop of fun than he may have been able to squeeze out of it.
The day passed agonisingly slowly. For the first few hours, the boy sat in his corner and attempted to convince himself to remove the rat. The very thought of it sent an involuntary shudder through his skinny frame as the grotesque image of the carcass fixed itself firmly in his mind, growing larger and closer with every second, forcing him to shiver once more and becoming so unbearable that he stood up quite suddenly, zipped up the jacket he had been huddled in, pulled on his boots and left the hideous residence. By the time the wind had died down a little, the boy had found a relatively busy street corner several miles from the loft and had lit up a cigarette, gaining a mild sense of self-satisfaction from the fact that this was still illegal. At around midday, some passing youths tossed a few unimaginative insults in his direction, to which he responded with his middle finger. At half passed four, he treated himself to three squares of chocolate. By quarter to seven, he was bored and cold. At ten past, he made his way back to the miserable loft.
Later that evening, having wasted his birthday in an entirely unproductive way, the boy checked his timetable and pulled a crumpled school uniform out of his bag, wondering as he did so how his peers had passed the time over their Christmas holidays. He bet no one else had spent the time removing extortionate amounts of inherited money from their bank accounts to rent an apartment that they were now only just legally old enough to live in alone, while their parents packed up and left the City without them. He bet no one else had spent the penultimate night of the holidays sleeping on a dusty floor and using their jacket alternately as a pillow or blanket, depending on what seemed to be most beneficial at that one out of the many times they'd been woken by the cold and discomfort. He bet no one else's insides were crying out desperately for food but could not be satisfied because they did not know how long their small stash of remaining money would have to be stretched out for.
He hung the shirt and trousers over the radiator – a radiator which, needless to say, did not work – in the hope that they might be flatter in time for tomorrow. It was going to be a long journey to the school. Ah, if only his parents had sent him to the central City school rather than insisting he attended one so much further away. Maybe he would switch schools for sixth form next year. If he bothered with sixth form at all.
He fingered the beads around his neck and subconsciously started to speak.
"Io credo in Dio, Padre onnipotente, creatore del cielo e – stop it!" He smacked the heel of his palm hard into his forehead, annoyed that the words were so deeply engrained on his soul. His bony hand grappled with the bead, wrenched them from his neck and hurled them across the room. As he watched them slap against the wall and drop down into a miserable, shapeless lump that could easily be lost amongst the clods of dust, he felt a curious sensation akin to sympathy for them. The pitiful pile of elegantly carved, unwanted wooden beads looked rather like he felt.
January 4th, Monday
The boy checked his watch. It was five to seven. With a hissed curse, he huddled deeper into his leather jacket against the frosty air. Was it part of a bus driver's job description, he wondered, that they must on no account be capable of keeping to a schedule? He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, wishing he'd thought to shove some gloves in his bag before leaving his parents' house. He flicked his long fringe out of his eyes and peered up the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dark blue of the bus emerging from the grey fog, but saw only the misty shadows of apartment blocks and the odd early walker. He swore again, resigned himself to the inevitable fact that the bus, being a bus, was probably never going to turn up, and began to walk.
It was nice to have the streets to himself. He knew this side of the City like an old friend, even though he'd lived Uptown with his parents all his life. Since he was a mere three foot tall he'd been coming Downtown for the freedom and escape, away from the clipped lawns and painted fences, away from the families who had made their fortunes through clever investment, management or by other respectable means, away from the people who looked at him with unhidden judgements and impressed upon him their restrictive expectations.
The City could be a confusing place for one who did not know the rules. So many microcosms of culture with their own ways, their own laws, their own forms of morality, had grown up around the City over the decades that the City outsiders saw – one split down the centre by a canal into Uptown and Downtown – was very much an oversimplification of reality.
Downtown was split hundreds of ways. On the simplest level, it was split into East Side and West Side, with East Side generally considered safer, kinder, more forgiving. East Side held most of an area known as Haven, so called because it was home to the hospitals, schools and shopping precincts and was ruled by the type of order that outsiders would understand. Those who lived in Haven were essentially outsiders themselves, trapped in their bubble of normality and never truly understanding the rest of the City. West Side held the Red Light District, close to the canal, governed by a man known to most only by the name Masama, with few knowing even if that was supposed to be a surname or first name, or if it had any relation whatsoever to any name on his birth certificate, or indeed if such a man even had a birth certificate. Nobody cared much for such formalities in the City; if it could be faked, what was the need for genuine paperwork? In his territory, Masama defined the ever changing rules to suit himself, and one who could not keep up with the laws was well and truly on his or her own.
Beyond the District, there were endless smaller patches that gangs of varying degrees of power held claims to; there were streets that looked safe but weren't and those that look sordid but were perfectly friendly; each pub or restaurant or club had its own unspoken rules about who was or wasn't welcome, about what business was allowed to be discussed there, about what level of dispute was permitted. The City spoke its own silent language, and was not forgiving to those who did not understand.
As the boy walked, he began to warm up. The nip of the cold at his ears and nose became oddly pleasant rather than painful. He dawdled across the common, postponing the moment when he'd have to reach the beginnings of Uptown, then sped up as he was forced to pass by the immaculate houses inhabited by the people who used to be his neighbours.
Uptown was perhaps more simplistic than Downtown in that the same rules applied everywhere, though in this half of the City everything was swept under the rug and ignored in a way things never would have been Downtown. Despite the unspoken segregation, everyone Uptown had a front of civility and respectability. In fact, almost every inhabitant of Uptown genuinely believed themselves to be civil and respectable. Only the youth could use open brutality to enforce the segregation, and should a youth wander into the wrong street and return home rather worse for wear it would never go reported. In the adult world, things were usually settled sneakily by dragging opponents through the courts on unrelated charges designed to cause maximum public humiliation for the longest possible time. Occasionally a Downie might be hired to permanently silence someone, but no-one would ever take credit for footing the bill and Heaven help anyone who threw around accusations about it.
The boy was just moody enough to consider walking through the Asian streets or maybe taking a quick detour round the Hispanic block, just to annoy them by being white, but decided he wasn't quite angry enough to want to vent his emotions in a fight. Instead, he stuck to the streets he knew he was safe in, disgusted with himself for accepting the segregation. Although, he consoled himself, there's only so much one can do to protest against racism when one is in danger of being late for school.
The morning dragged by in a haze of mind-numbingly easy lessons full of idiots asking stupid questions, allowing the boy's mind to wander while his hand strung notes or essays or sums down the page without needing his brain to help. As soon as the bell rang for lunch, he pushed his way through the crowded corridors towards the technology rooms where he dropped his bag onto one of the wide wooden tables and lifted his rosary from his neck. With a quick glance around to make sure he was entirely alone he set to work, twisting the desk clamp tightly shut around the bottom of the cross and proceeding to select a small hacksaw from the range of tools that hung from the side of the wooden workbench. As he placed the blade atop the cross, just above the hole through which the string was threaded, someone called his name. He jumped, unaware that anyone had entered, and looked up to see his technology teacher: clean shaven, between forty-five and fifty, owned at least two cats, liked to cook for his wife, mild caffeine addiction. Had the boy seen the world in more emotional terms, he might have said he was fond of this teacher.
"Working on your coursework?" the teacher asked. The boy shook his head.
"No. I'm altering my rosary."
The man frowned and came over to him.
"Why are you sawing off the cross? If you want to replace it can't you just thread it off?"
"No. It's on a loop. I'd have to undo the whole thing and thread off all the beads and it isn't worth the effort."
The teacher stood back with his hands warming on his steaming mug of coffee and watched the boy as he worked methodically, sawing until the thinnest of cuts had been made in the cross, just large enough to squeeze the loop of thread out of. He undid the clamp and pulled the cross out, then made his way to the cupboard across the room and took out a drill, choosing the smallest bit.
"Has the new cross not already got a hole?" asked his teacher.
"No," said the boy shortly, the old cross still in his fist. The teacher, intrigued though he was by the perfectly meticulous work, made no reply; he only watched as the boy turned his back on him, clamped the same small wooden cross again and drilled a quick little hole. He then set about his sawing process again to fit the thread into its new hole. As he rummaged in the scrap wood box for a thin piece of hardboard of a similar colour that was thin enough to plug the gap, his teacher moved closer and looked at the altered piece.
"Oh dear. Why would you do this?" he asked softly. The boy didn't speak but his lips thinned a little. He was now sawing away at a tiny strip of wood to fill the gap.
"Look, I may teach here but I myself am not a Catholic. I can understand if you've decided that this faith is not for you, but why would you want to change your rosary like this? Do you not care how offensive a symbol like this can be?"
Again there was no reply from the boy, no acknowledgement that his teacher had spoken, as he squeezed a careful dot of glue onto the wood and slid it into the gap. The teacher pulled up a stool at the bench the boy was working on and sat down.
"Is everything okay at home?"
"No," the boy curtly replied. "Can I leave this in here to dry this afternoon? I'll collect it at the end of the day."
"Of course you can, but – "
Without another word he quit the room, leaving his teacher to stare at the upside down cross and wonder why the calm, quiet student would want that to hang around his neck.
He hoped there would be no-one in the technology room as he pushed his way through the hoards of year sevens in the reception area on his way there at the end of the day. When he reached the closed door, he peered in through the glass. His view was mostly obscured by a white overcoat that was hung on the inside, but from what he could see the room was empty. As quickly and quietly as he could, in case his teacher was lying in wait in the little staff cubbyhole, the boy pushed the door open, hurried over to the shelf he'd left the rosary on, grabbed it and was almost back at the door when a voice called him back.
"Wait! I think you should talk to me." The boy closed his eyes and did not turn around. "You're not a Satanist. You're a sensible, straight-A student. Why do you suddenly hate your faith so much?"
"Come now, I know you like to do things by yourself, but maybe you should ask for help just this once. If there are things you can't discuss with your parents, there are plenty of people here at school who can help you. If you don't want to speak to me you can always visit the counsellor."
The boy stepped forwards, but instead of leaving the room as he had considered doing for a split second, he simply closed the door. Still not turning around, he said,
"I hate my religion because it says I'm going to Hell and I haven't done anything wrong."
"If you haven't done anything, why would you go to hell?"
"They say I'm confused," he spat.
"Yes. And I'm sick of being told I'm confused about myself when I know exactly who I am. And I hate that my parents still refuse to accept that I am who I am and they can't change me. They don't love me. They love the son they want me to be, but not the son that I am. This," he held up his newly altered rosary, "is to remind me not to give them another chance."
"Everyone deserves a second chance. I'm sure if you talk to your parents – "
"I have. I've given them several chances and they still think I'm a sinner. But I've done nothing. Nothing."
The silence stretched as the boy, still facing the door, forced his anger down and waited for a reply. None came.
"Can I go now, sir?"
The teacher could think of nothing else to say.
"Yes. Yes, I suppose you can."