In the City where I work, there’s a bridge where people cross the river, one of many.
Each morning and every evening, I join the tide and walk with them. Children skip, hand over hand, their voices chattering and churning. Adults march in single file, with covered ears and muffled voices, their steps are not for turning.
Most days I’d take my time, I’d wander, I’d watch. That day, it was raining, I was late.
I’d hurried past the station, through the street, up the stairs, across the bridge and down again, still had two more streets to go. If I was lucky, I’d make it. They’d still be sipping coffees from porcelain mugs, as I burst through the door. I had all the empty moments they’d while away, exchanging numbers, business smiles, and ‘fill-a-gap’ words.
I saw her then, lying there, tucked away as small as she could make herself, hiding in plain view.
She was young, late teens maybe, but no more than that. She had short cropped hair, blonde but faded, caked with the kind of dirt that only grows on someone who doesn’t change for days. The rain came down softly over her, covering her as she lay curled across the step. She had hauled herself up the doorway of an old building. It had been there for years and had the scars to prove it. Smoke stained walls, carved pillars and arched windows, a home of many ago yesterdays, an empty office today.
We were not alone.
I stopped and watched a stream of people walk, talk, and pass on by. A man dressed in blue, umbrella in one hand and phone in another. Two women walked side by side but not together, carriage to carriage, one in leopard skin, the other in something fluffy and white. I saw a man in a hat and waistcoat, his jacket flapped behind him. A multitude, black, brown, pink and white, and all shades in between, young and not so young. They walked past the blonde haired girl, and they did not notice her and she did not notice them.
I felt a coin in my pocket and looked for a hat, a cup, something to leave it in.
When I was young, no more than ten, I remember my parents took me to the city. We were walking somewhere, from a restaurant to a hotel I think, maybe shopping, I don’t really remember. I remember the man in rags with the leather worn hat. I remember how he held out his hands, cupped, and tipped forward to catch things, anything. He cried out to us, to my mother, ‘Madamme’, with a voice heavy with need, a body empty with cold. We, my mother and I, had exchanged no words, no glances; the man in the hat wasn’t there. I was taught, later in a different place, that there are some people that are at the bottom of a hole, that even if you tried to help them then they would use your help to stay in the hole, even dig themselves in deeper. The only thing, the kindest thing in fact, was to walk on. Only that’s a lie, of course, but we all pretend it isn’t; how else do you sleep at night?
I didn’t see a cup, a hat, or blanket, nothing to throw the coin into, nothing.
When I was eight I played a holy man, one of the traditional ones, in a school play. I was very proud at the time. We acted out one of the stories where the holy man said something simple and true, like the world would be a much nicer place if people were nice to each other. Everyone laughed at him. He then did a magic trick, or a miracle if you prefer, and the wicked repented and promised to do better with their lives, for as long as he kept doing magic tricks.
I felt the rain get heavier and pulled my coat around me. It’s an old coat, older than I am, cracked brown leather lined with fake fur, it’s wonderful to have in the cold. I felt the coin in my pocket, next to several folds of paper that could mean a warm bed, food, a bath. She was asleep, there was no way to wake her, and I was late. The coffee cups would be empty by now.
I walked past her, promising myself that if she had stopped me, if she had actually asked me for my help, I would have stopped. I would have helped a little at least.
The next day I decided if I saw her again, then I would give her something, something to help her stay warm, that I would wake her, even if she slept. I held my coin in my pocket and as I walked past the station again, through the streets, up and across the bridge and down again. I walked past her door in record time, I had time to stop. She wasn’t there.
She wasn’t there the day after that either, nor the day after that. I will keep looking, I might try another bridge. There are lots of bridges where people cross the river, in the City where I work. I will stop if I find her.
I have a coin in my pocket.
Hashim Hassan lives in Aldershot, which is most definitely not London but it isn’t 100 miles away. He spends his working days reluctantly playing with numbers in a spreadsheet and his nights dreaming of abandoning numbers for words and letters. So far he has written only short stories and flash fiction, but he disappears into a room with blue walls to work on his ‘secret’ book project from time to time. His dream is to convince his partner Bekki to play a Dungeons and Dragons game with him which she has agreed to do only if he ever gets a book published.