Unintentional Hermits- Not far away

She got off the bus heaving a huge ruck sack, carrier bags and a small flight case. People rushed past, some pushed. Mothers with prams tutted and steered round her.

Miss got any money?

No sorry, I haven’t any cash on me.

Not even a credit card to buy me something to eat?

Nothing, I am sorry I have nothing.

But she watched the homeless man in a peculiar fashion as he shuffled away. Not because she had the thought that how the way we buy things now means we don’t often carry cash around  to give to the homeless – although it crossed her mind. But because she had the thought- I’m not that far away from it. I’m not that far.

She picked up her bags and fought to get to a corner between two vegetable shops so she could rest.

She looked for a street sign. None. She felt to ask someone but people stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact. Although she seemed more visible here in Camberwell than she did in the Isle of Dogs. At least men and women looked at her, even if it was briefly.

 She knew it was right and up a long hill if only this was the correct road. She became aware of someone watching. A well dressed man in a chunky sweater looking like he’d like to approach. She thinks she remembers him from the bus. She turns away but too late.

Let me help you?

What?

I saw you struggling. Let me help with your things.

I’m fine, I don’t need help.

Looking into his face. Brown eyes,  fine wavy brown hair. Washed daily she can tell. And very well spoken. Obviously well educated.
Well let me take you for a coffee then. You look like you need one. Over there?
Because she looks very unsure. He gestures to a coffee shop across the road.

Why would I?

Because I think you need it. It’s cold.  And you look like you’re travelling far.

She falters. It’s true, it really is very cold and she knows it is a long road walk and she can’t afford a taxi. There are no buses. And he seems nice.

She shrugs, alright. He helps her across the road, gracefully holding up a hand to the aggressive traffic not wanting to stop for the down and out looking young woman.

In the cafe they sit in the window. He orders coffee and cake from the French sounding waiter. She stares out into the street. The homeless guy presses his nose up against the window, jealous. Why was she chosen and not him?

You’re moving house aren’t you?
The words make her jump. She is surprised.  Is it that obvious?

I see it all the time. People moving in stages on the bus because they can’t do it any other way.

She slowly stirs her coffee.

What do you want from me?

Nothing. You’re the first I’ve managed to talk to properly, that’s all.

The first??

Homeless person.

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?

She nods.

Benefit cuts?

Why do you care?

I used to work in local government. Used to- he grins- I got disillusioned.

So you copped out?

What?

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?

I only resigned today.

Ah.

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?

Ok. That’s ok.

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.

She comes back.

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.

Bye then.
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.
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