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He couldn’t help but notice her. She sat with her legs straight out in front, sleeping bag unzipped and laid flat across the top. Her dirty trainers stuck out the bottom. He couldn’t help but notice her, because he had to practically step over her to get out of the alleyway and onto the street. He was surprised that no one had lost their rag and made her move out of the way.
Was he the only person who took this shortcut?
He doubted it.
She didn’t speak. Just held out the McDonald’s paper cup with the smattering of coins in the bottom. Barely even gave it a shake.
He threw in a pound and gave her a smile.
Poor cow. She looked about the same age as him. Just showed you how lives can take such very different paths…
She was there again the next day. Same position, same paper cup. Fewer coins in the bottom, but he assumed she spent them as she got them. She was hardly saving up for anything, was she?
He threw in a pound. Said: ‘Hope you’re okay?’ Ran off before she could answer.
She was hardly okay. She needed someone to save her. Someone to take her away from this life. Someone to give her another one.
He didn’t speak to her again.
On the tenth day, there was a sleeping bag and a crushed up paper cup. No trainers sticking out from underneath.
The girl was gone.
He’d no idea why he felt so sad. She was homeless, down on her luck. Maybe she’d run away from a boyfriend who hit her. Maybe she’d lost her money in a poker game.
He kept picturing her eyes. Big brown eyes. And her hair, blonde once, but dirty and matted and tangled from the winds that whipped up and down the city streets.
London was no place for a girl like that. In amongst the winos and weirdos and goodness knows what.
He hoped she’d gone home. Hoped she’d found what she needed.
Yet he missed her.
The next day, the sleeping bag was gone; feathering another’s nest.
The cup was still there. Crushed and dirty, discarded.
He picked it up.
He phoned work, told them he was sick.
Maybe he was sick, he thought. Something wasn’t right.
He walked to the river, under the bridges. Bodies lay squeezed tight, clothes and sleeping bags and boxes. The air smelled of stale alcohol and dirty skin. He could taste the despair.
‘I’m looking for a girl,’ he said. ‘Blonde. White trainers. Twenty, maybe. Blue hooded top.’
He was met with grunts. Groans. No one cared. No one would tell him.
He walked along the river path looking for more camps. He found none.
He was still carrying the cup.
He felt like crying.
What’s wrong with me? He thought. What am I doing? I’ve got money. I’ve got work. I’ve got a girlfriend. I’ve got friends. Family. A warm bed. A life.
He turned back, dejected. Time to go home. A hot bath. A hot drink.
He was coming down with something, that was all.
He left the river path and headed back into the little park, with the swanky wine bars down the side and the benches in the middle with the people having lunch.
He threw the cup into the bin. Rubbed his hands on his trousers.
‘Hey,’ the voice said, somewhere behind him. ‘I was coming back for that.’
He turned to meet her. Blonde, white trainers. Blue hooded top.
She was smiling, and she had a hand outstretched. A single gold coin glistened in the sun.
‘I had to move,’ she said. ‘They moved me. But I’ve been in a shelter. I’ve enough money for a week. Thanks to you…’
‘It’s nothing,’ he said. But it was everything. He knew.
‘Let’s go for a coffee,’ she said. ‘I know a lovely warm place with bright golden arches.’
He took her hand and found it small and soft. She pressed the coin into his palm.
‘Take it,’ she said. ‘Someone needs to save you.’