The words make her jump. She is surprised. Is it that obvious?
Again a shock.
I’m not actually homeless.
Well you’re not going to be sleeping rough, granted. But you don’t have a home do you, you’re going to stay with a friend on their floor, or in a room? So technically you are homeless. Have you a job?
Three. Sometimes over 50 hours a week. Why are you so interested? Who do you work for? Or are you doing research for some Government Think Tank?
I’m retired actually. Or rather I resigned.
He sighs, forgetting her for a moment and remembering the endless question time assemblies. The evasion from the Mayor.
Mayor, can you please confirm that the cap in housing benefits is forcing an increasing amount of families into B&Bs and youngsters out onto the streets or onto the floors of their friends? And the woman in his own borough who even followed him on Twitter, convinced he could turn things around; convinced he wielded power and could reverse the benefit changes. She was one of the first victims, thrown out by her landlord who was convinced she’d be unable to pay the rent without benefit help. So she caught him outside City Hall. Betrayed and angry and desperate with her toddler in tow. Throwing eggs at him and he protesting- what more can I do except lobby the government? It was the beginning of the end for him in local politics.
Did your landlord throw you out?
I used to work in local government. Used to- he grins- I got disillusioned.
Her accusation shocks him.
So you copped out because you were disillusioned, instead of hanging in there and fighting for the likes of me and thousands of others?
Hang on. No steady on. You don’t know what it’s like.
Not on your wage no.
He bites his lip at that.
Wife, children, four bedroomed house?
He doesn’t give her anything.
Does she know you hang around on buses targeting homeless women?
Look let me help you get to where you’re going at least? Let me take you in a taxi.
He wants to see where she will live. See what kind of a dive she might have got herself into. Have his expectations fulfilled, get a curious kind of satisfaction that what he said would happen to people is doing. She looks at him mockingly.
How do I know you’re not a sex trafficker and will whizz me off to some brothel?
Do I look like a sex trafficker?
I don’t know, do they have a specific look?
He bursts out laughing. She doesn’t.
I know someone that happened to. Or nearly did. And her kid.
He stops laughing.
I was living for a week in a B&B. Been in one of those? No thought not. Bet you’ve seen the pictures though? Well they really are as bad as they look. But I won’t bore you with the details of that. Only this girl. She seemed Kurdish or something- don’t ask me how she ended up in this place although you might know- she had a kid, could speak basic English but wasn’t streetwise you know? Well a fella picked her up- said he had a spare room in his house and that he needed a cleaner and that she could be his cleaner so she needn’t pay rent. A live in domestic. He asked her to go and see the room with him only he wanted to take her to a bar first for a ‘few drinks’. They stopped him as he was leaving the B&B with her. These kind of men hang around all the time. But sometimes they are not males but females. They can get to the women better.
He doesn’t know what to say.
I’m sorry. Truly. Look tell me your address and let me call a taxi and come with you.
How about you just give me the money and call for the taxi?
She gets up to go to the loo. He sees her look hesitantly over her belongings. She looks at him again. He holds up his hands, shrugs.
It’s not all my stuff. I’ve got tonnes of books.
She doesn’t know why she said that. She goes.
When she’s gone a niggling little voice makes itself a little louder. In his heart of hearts he knew she was right, he had copped out. Or it seemed like it. But it was because he was weary. He was only human after all. And weary of the same answers and not being able to change anything. He was a humanist and a member if the Fabian Society but was seeking more fulfilment. And she. She wasn’t stupid. Had a degree he’d bet. Though everyone had a degree these days. She just hadn’t made it. He knew from his brother’s oldest son that the world didn’t want characters anymore or people who didn’t fit the status quo. They couldn’t even be artists anymore. They were labelled Aspergic or mentally ill. They were dysfunctional human beings if they couldn’t survive daily life unscathed, have careers, children and flash cars. Gone were the beat up Volvos and excursions to the countryside. Now it was 4x4s and rented sport cars and trips to Madrid or Rome for the weekend. These were the aspirations of the must haves. He once read a Yahoo advert on his inbox- ‘dressing like Royalty will set you back’. For a moment he really thought they meant spiritually. This was the world now- the perceived false world which celebrities somehow inhabited and ruled. Or so everyone was meant to believe. At least in London, where people lived in insanity. He rings for the taxi.
Want to check it’s all there?
She says nothing.
It’ll be here soon.
When it comes he helps her in. She tells the address to the driver quietly, not wanting to him to hear. But she says
I’m going to a really nice house.
She gets into the back. He wants her to say goodbye. May be ask for an email address so they can keep in touch. He’d like to see how she does. But she doesn’t.
She nods. The taxi drives away. Suddenly she turns round and mouths
sorry and thanks.
He watches the taxi climb the hill and go out of sight and then walks back to the bus stop. He has to go home and tell his pregnant wife what he has done. He thinks he might get work with a charity. Suddenly realises he can claim for housing benefit and thinks- we could not be far ourselves, from a B&B. He gets on the bus, his eye out for other homeless people.