by Susan Alison
Roger pulled his collar up as far as it would go and checked that no one looked in his direction.
He gazed downwards. This one was male. That was no good. He moved on. This one was female, but too old.
Thank heaven this wasn't his patch. He could just imagine what would happen if he was recognized by any of his customers, or any of the lads from work. He'd never live it down. That was partly why he'd come here after dark. The damp, cold weather was a bonus. It kept other people off the street.
This one was young enough, but she wasn't the one he wanted.
In the office there would be endless half-finished conversations which all included the phrase: ‘Why, Rog, you old dog you!' Endless nudge-nudges and wink-winks, along with manly slaps on the back.
This was the one.
She stared at him defiantly through a tangle of straw-coloured hair, and pulled her rags more closely around herself.
The salesman in him admired her presentation – her cleanly cut square of cardboard said, ‘I'm Mandy and I'm homeless. Please help.' Somehow this made it more personal. He bet she got more money than the others. But he didn't want to just give her money.
‘Come with me to the café,' he said, nodding towards steamed-up windows across the road. ‘Let me buy you a meal.'
She looked up at him, her lip curled in contempt. He knew he looked what he was: a lonely, middle-aged man with a slightly pronounced gut and a none-too-clean raincoat. ‘Please,' he added, trying not to flinch at the gleam of stone set in her nose – an earring in the wrong place.
‘Why should I? Why can't you give me the money instead?' she asked, her voice softer than he'd expected.
‘I want to make sure you get a good meal,' he said. ‘If I just give you the money you might not spend it on food and it's a cold night.' Why did she have to argue? Why couldn't she just say yes or no?
‘You think I'd spend it on drugs, don't you?'
He stared at her. The thought hadn't crossed his mind and he didn't know how to answer. He felt the tremor of nerves and was sorry he'd started this now. He'd rather pick up some fish and chips and go home to his empty house, home to his telly. He backed off from her, his hands up as if in surrender.
‘Hold on,' Mandy said. She jumped to her feet, her blanket, baccy and small coins falling to the pavement. ‘Hold on. I didn't say no, did I? I'm coming. I'm coming.' Hastily she picked up her things and set off across the road. Roger went after her, hope blossoming in his chest.
She seemed oblivious to the sudden hush in the café as they entered. She strode to a table and settled herself expectantly, snatching up the menu before Roger was seated and indicating almost immediately what she wanted.
Roger was conscious of the disapproving stares coming his way, but determined to ignore them. This was his gamble, his risk and his life. They could mind their own business. Emboldened, his voice was crisp as he ordered tea, steak pie, chips and beans twice from the girl who appeared by their table, a grubby notepad on a string at her waist.
‘So,' Mandy said. ‘What's with you, then?'
‘I beg your pardon,' he said, his surge of confidence fleeing before the open curiosity in her gaze.
‘Oh, you know,' she said. ‘You with anyone?'
‘I, I was married,' he said. He could feel heat building up his neck and reddening his face. She must have guessed what he wanted. ‘But not any more.'
‘Oh? She die?'
‘No. We split up. Family reasons. I'm divorcing her.' He sighed and twisted his watch around his wrist and back again. ‘And you,' he said. ‘What happened to you?'
‘That old story. Wicked stepmother. Didn't get on. Left home.'
‘What about your father - didn't he try to stop you?'
The question hung in the air as the waitress placed heaped plates and steaming mugs in front of them.
‘I don't suppose he knew until too late. He was too busy doing his I'm-a-good-provider bit. He was completely wrapped up in his work. Family stuff was women's business.'
Roger winced at the bitterness in her voice, but felt the need to argue even though it might jeopardise his proposition.
‘Hang on a minute,' he said. ‘He was probably trying to do his best for his family. He probably thought that if he spent his entire life working to keep them comfortable then they could sort out everything else. Did you ever try to say anything to him?'
A flush gathered strength under her pale skin. ‘He was my father. He should have known.' Her eyes dropped and she concentrated hard on emptying her plate.
‘Pudding?' he said, a few minutes later, and was rewarded with a brief flash of white, even teeth.
He watched her put away chocolate sponge and custard. He wanted to ask her now before he completely lost his nerve. The need in him was so great he was amazed he could just sit there as he tried to work out how to phrase his wanting.
It was terrifying to think that she might look him up and down contemptuously. Worse, she might scream her outrage at his suggestion. She might throw back her chair and point at him and tell the world what she thought of him. He pushed his finger between his neck and his collar and tried to relieve the feeling of being throttled.
She'd finished her pudding and drained her mug. If he didn't say it now she would be gone. He had to chance it now.
He leant forward and trapped her hand between his own and the table. ‘Mandy', he said, as freezing doubt poured into his heart and scalding sweat blurred his vision. ‘Mandy, will you come home with me?'
‘Yes, Dad,' she said. ‘I'd like that.'
©2005 Susan Alison
Susan would love to hear what you think of her writing - email her now