I think that was the last train. The motor noise slowly dies down and lets the ventilators take over the night. A little black dot runs around the opposite end of the platform – a mouse. I don’t think that I ever saw this mouse before, but I feel an instant connection: it’s the only thing in the world that understands me in its desperate, hopeless roam.
I stare at the white tiles; I can’t even remember which station I am at, but I can’t read the title on the wall because I don’t want to. I sit here for thirty minutes. I don’t know how many lives happened in front of me during this time, but my life doesn’t happen anymore – I’m just a statue that had its chance of turning into someone – now I blew it.
“Hey. How about you go home, dear?” a female voice on my right, new and unknown.
“I don’t have a home,” I stare down.
“You sure? I’ve seen some orphans back in my days, you surely don’t look like one.”
I raise my chin, “Yeah, I’m positive.”
“Well, you have thirty seconds to find yourself one, ‘cause I’m closing the gates,” she lightly pats me on my shoulder.
I stand up; I avoid her eyes, I avoid looking at her. She has the same skin color as me, but that’s the only similarity we have.
The night is cold – November is near. I sit on a bench by the station, exposed to the wind of the emptiest street in London. The streetlights paint the brick walls, swaying, clunking.
“Still homeless?” it’s her, again.
I nod to the indifference of the darkness.
“My eldest son lives on campus, you can take his room for the night.”
“I… no, thanks.”
“You can sleep anywhere you want tomorrow and every other day, but not tonight. I don’t care that much, but my God cannot allow it.”
She pulls me out of my own thoughts and makes me stare down again, “I’ll sleep… somewhere.”
“You’ll end up nicked or something of that sort. I can call the police for you if that’s your thing. But no one will let a schoolboy sleep on the street.”
We move past the rows of identical houses as our footsteps dilute the wind howl. I still avoid her gaze, but she’s not trying to invade mine.
“What’s your name?”
I really want to come up with something fake, but I just tell her my real name. She tells me hers.
“So, how long have you been living… on the streets?” she emphasizes the word “streets”.
“I don’t count the time… long enough.”
“Look at you, hard as nails. I’m a softy – won’t trade my cozy home for anything on this Earth.”
I don’t answer.
“No parents, no cousins, no friends?”
Her words amplify the autumn chill.
“I never had anyone.”
“Even Jesus had a mother! And he’s quite an exception.”
“Huh. Maybe I’m the upgraded version,” I laugh at the terraced houses.
“Not sure if he was that black. But you can turn my water into wine, my husband will appreciate it.”
I stop, “I’m sorry, I’ll go somewhere else… I don’t want to bother your husband.”
Her smile shines disregarding the ink colors of the sleeping city, “He works the night shift. And he’s a sweetie! You won’t bother him, he won’t bother you.”
We enter the ground floor flat. Her fingers turn the light in the tiny hall. I look at her face for the first time – she must be around forty-five or so. It’s past midnight but she looks quite collected for such a late hour.
“The loo,” she points at the door by a small arch. “I’ll dig up some nosh. Try to not wake up my kids… you’re not much of a talker, though. And the phone is in the living room if you care to use it.”
“Thanks, but I don’t have anyone to call,” I crouch down to untie my shoes.
A warm orange light fills the living room. I hold a teacup with both hands. The rain waited for me to come inside and now it finally unleashed itself outside. I stare at the resting houses on the opposite side of the street, hidden in the midnight haze.
“You sure you don’t want to eat something?”
“I don’t. Thank you.”
“And you sure you don’t want to tell me what happened to you?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Then let me tell you a story,” a cup of tea is never free – now I had to listen to an old woman’s parable, “I was fifteen, I lived in Ethiopia. About your age, I guess?”
“The civil war just started. Not going to dive into the sides involved, but we lived in a hot spot. First few weeks, first months, you’re constantly scared. You hear the shots from time to time, sometimes distant, sometimes close. Sometimes it’s just a muffler that went off or a blown tire. But you are always on alert. Imagine me, being a kid growing up – I need to go to school, to help my parents. And I want to have a life, hang out with my friends, go dancing with the boys,” she pushes the teacup away from her and puts her arms on the table. I glance at her face. She’s looking at me, straight into my eyes. I don’t know why, but I can’t keep eye contact. “It’s an unbearable stress. Life here – it’s nothing. Any problems you have, any troubles you get in – it’s a child play, dear. When your head can catch a piece of shrapnel on a daily basis, that’s the real trouble. Boom,” she imitates a tiny explosion with her hand, “somewhere behind the hills, where my school stands. Is it where anymore? Are my teachers dead? Boom. Near the church. Boom. By the cowshed.”
She smiles and takes a short sip, “But you know what? After a few months, you’re getting used to it. The war is just a background to your life now, and you think that you can live with it.” Her smile disappears as she shakes her head in a constant, robotic motion, “But it’s a lie: you can’t live with it. This stress, it builds up, this scratching worry in your heart, that ages you faster than you should, it just waits for a moment to explode. And one day it overflowed. I wanted to go dancing with my friends in a nearby town. My parents warned me that the reds are roaming there looking for an easy prey. But I didn’t listen.”
The light in the room starts flickering as the rain intensifies.
“I called my mother names, I got her into tears, but I went dancing anyway. Boy, did I have my fun that night. I came back home early in the morning... to witness my hometown being massacred. Bodies, tortured, mutilated, without limbs, lying all over the place. The horror inside, you can’t imagine that feeling.”
She stops for a second.
“I never saw my parents again. Two chunks of burned flesh, that’s all that was left of them. The only thing in this life I still wish for, is to go back to that day and to say ‘sorry’, say ‘I love you’, “ she closes her face. Is she crying? I don’t think so. “I can’t do it anymore. But you can.“ She stands up, “Take the phone and call your mother.”
“I told you that I don’t–“
“I saw you arguing on the platform today! I’m a mother myself, dum-dum! Grab the dog and call home! She is as mad with herself as you are, trust me. And she’s really worried.” She puts the telephone on the table and leaves.
I face the grey box in front of me. I guess it’s time. The shame, the disgust. It’s all that I feel. I’m stupid. I’m small. Just a kid who tried to prove something to someone. To my mother? To myself? My eyes are itching. My fingers reach for the buttons and press them one by one.
Two beeps. A worried “hello”. Of course she’s not sleeping.
“Mom, it’s me. I’m fine. Listen… I’m sorry for all the things I said to you today…” I’m just glad that I can hear her voice again.
I’m eating a cold steak. There’s nothing better than a piece of grilled meat at one A.M; even if it’s cold.
“You have a great mother. The only reason she acts like this is ‘cause she wants a better future for you, she wants you to be the best person you can be. She’s not right all the time, but she saw life, she knows a thing or two about it.”
My eyes are still a little bit wet. I held it inside like a man… and wept only twice.
“Yeah… I know... And, you know… thank you for taking care of me. And,” I’m trying to look at her, but my shame gets the better of me, “I’m sorry about your parents.”
“Don’t worry, dear,” she waves her hand at me and laughs. “They live in Hackney. I made that whole story up. It doesn’t even make sense if you think about it. I’m Caribbean. Never been to Africa in my life.”
My jaw drops, “That… that’s just cruel!”
“I’m as full of shit as you are!” she smiles and goes out of the room. “I’ll ask my husband to drive you home tomorrow,” she comes back with a towel a few seconds later and gives it to me.
I stare at the white fabric as if it was a flag to signify my surrender, “Do you even have a family?”
“Of course I do! I’m not that full of shit.”
I cover myself with a blanket. I toss and turn a little bit to get myself comfortable. It’s good to have a place to sleep, even if it’s not your own home, and though your pillow is only as soft as the people who fluff it up are – mine is pretty soft tonight.
“They should call you ‘Wisdom’, ” I pull the blanket up to my chin.
“I don’t know about that, but I can tell you one ‘wise’ thing, dear,“ she shows me the air quotes. “Teenagers think that they’re saying the coolest stuff. Students think that they’re saying the most important stuff.”
Her hand moves towards the switch.
“Really? And what do the ‘proper’ adults think that they’re saying?” I show her my own air quotes.
“They say, ‘Lights out!’ ”
My borrowed bedroom surrenders to the night.