The dusty platforms and strong stench of urine had come to feel like home, perhaps because I had spent too many nights in the tunnels of train stations or perhaps it was the only feeling of homeliness I would allow myself. The mud ridden floor had become the only bed I felt I deserved and even that may have been too good for me. Even then the cracks seemed to run away from me, like they knew.
I coughed, spluttering a small amount of blood onto my jacket, but it was already stained with all sorts of unrecognisable things so I didn’t even bother to wipe it away. I just watched the blood sink into the thick material. The sad thing is that it was the most exciting thing I had witnessed all month. Though, I did see some old tramps fighting over a sandwich after a mere few days of leaving home, and I laughed at them, thinking how stupid they were to fight over something that they could easily share, and yet now I would happily fight them both for just a bite of that sandwich.
In the distance, I could hear the muffled sounds of laughter. I heard this most mornings. Those few people who were awake bright and early in order to catch a train to where ever it is they wanted to go, usually accompanied by some friends or a partner. They always seemed to be laughing though. I always used to think that people would be grumpy at 5am but maybe that’s just me.
The laughter approached me, along with a few faint footsteps, and I knew that this was my queue to get up and find the nearest public toilet in order to wash myself so I at least didn’t make all the other homeless people gag when I went into the soup kitchen later on, and so I stood up from the floor and made my way towards the nearest staircase to take me up to the roads above.
I must have walked for around 30 minutes until I found a public restroom, the entire time listening to the sound of people mutter about how bad I looked or how much I stank. The women always held their children a little closer when I walked by. I wanted to tell them that there were a lot worse people than me out there but I’ve found that is it hard enough to get people to listen to you when you’re a teenager, never mind a homeless one.
The restroom was narrow, should’ve been white but was grey and green from age and mould and from other people like me, after all, no self respecting person would enter these toilets in fear of catching something.
The water gushed down from the sink and I splashed it against my arms, my face, removing my jacket and top in order to wash properly. Only once had anybody walked in on me washing and they didn’t exactly stick around long enough to found out what I was doing. But of course I didn’t blame them.
The thing is, every day I come to one of these places and clean myself, try to rid myself of that horrible stench and the filth that clings to me but I never do feel clean. I always feel like I am still mucky and horrible.
I scrubbed underarms briskly, moving over my shoulders and down my neck. I felt like I was treating a burn, the way the water cascaded over me and ran down my body.
There was a mirror on the wall beside me. I could see it in the corner of my eye – a mirror with an unknown boy in it, washing his pale body, his bones almost cutting through the thin skin that just about held him together. I didn’t need to look at him to know what he looked like. I didn’t want to look at him because of what he looked like.
I closed my eyes and sent one last splash of warm water to my face, letting it drip from my face and onto the already sodden floor, before I grabbed my t-shirt and pulled back over my head, letting it cling to my wet body. I slung my jacket over my shoulder and headed out the restroom.
I had no idea what time it was exactly but I knew that as soon as the sun began to rise I could go and find Ronny Robinson down by the homeless shelter and talk to him about the adventures he’d been up to that week. Adventures that I told him would one day become famous.
Ronny was perched on the curb when I found him. He was still in his large parker and tatty black pants, kept up around his hips by a thin piece of rope. His beard had grown a noticeable amount in the past few days since I had last seen him but it was still well kept, which I never understood. He never spoke about cleaning himself and yet he always smelt that slight bit better than all the other homeless people.
“You again,” came his rugged voice as I approached him.
“Me again,” I confirmed, sitting down beside him. “I was wondering if I could hear another story. I quite like listening to you, Ronny.”
Ronny’s eyes flicked to mine. They were faded and discoloured, perhaps with age, though I’d never had it in me to ask exactly how old he was. I doubted he would even know himself. “I don’t have any stories today,” he muttered, picking up a paper cup from beside him and slowly counting through the few coins that were in it.
“You always have a story to tell.”
“Everybody has a story to tell, kid.” He paused. “Just some days it’s harder to talk about them than others.” I cast my eyes down to my fingers as they knotted together, scanning my red knuckles with great intrigue. I sighed. I longed to hear another story about Ronny’s life, the stories of his riches and the wonderful things he had and his beautiful wife and the piece of art he used to paint. He told all his stories with such passion that you could feel what he felt, smell what he smelt, and it made me feel alive. And lately that had been a rare feeling.
“Spare some change, Madam.” Ronny took his cup at a lady as she past us, but he didn’t so much as glance down. Nobody ever looks at us. We might as well not exist, and I guess that’s because they like to pretend we don’t. We aren’t part of their world.
Ronny frowned. “God bless, Madam,” he said more sincerely than I could ever have managed. “You hungry, kid?”
I rubbed my empty stomach and grinned at Ronny, though by this point I had forgotten what a real grin felt like. “I’m always hungry, old man.”
Ronny smirked, “Less of the old.”
Suddenly, my stomach rumbled, the mere thought of food making my belly ache for something to eat. I closed my eyes to fight through the pain and slowly shook my head. I felt like crying. The hunger sometimes just took over me and I felt so weak and helpless – like I was ready to fade away.
“I used to walk past people like us.” Ronny glanced at me sympathetically as he spoke. “I used to think that people could do something about being homeless. I used to think it was their fault but no. It’s not, kid. It’s really not.”
“How did you become homeless, Ronny?” I asked. “You’ve never said.”
“Neither have you,” he said and I just shook my head at him as it to indicate that I didn’t want to talk about it. I think he understood. “Well, you’ve lasted out here longer than I expected you to,” he continued, “I thought you’d have caved by now. Gone crazy like the rest of them.”
“Maybe I am crazy.”
“Maybe,” Ronny chuckled lightly. “Or maybe you’re stronger than you look.”
I shook my head. “I’m so very weak,” I said because it was true. Not just physically, but mentally too. My head was a mash of happy memories combined with the thoughts that that’s all they would ever be. Those moments would never get a chance to happen again and that was killing me on the inside. “But tomorrow’s a new day, Ronny, and anything could happen.”
“Tomorrow, kid, is a new life.”
“I sure hope so.”
“I know so, and I’m afraid I may never see you again.”
I turned to him in shock. “Why?”
“It’s a new life. The first day of every month is time to go and meet some more people, find some new places to sit and beg. There’s a whole world out there and I am not going to miss it.”
“Ronny-” His words ran through my mind. “Hang on. Did you say a new month?”
“March 1st, kid.”
The world around me started to move slowly, the lights blending together and the cold air seemingly colder. “It’s been two months,” I said, to which Ronny replied though I didn’t hear what he said.
It had been 2 months. Exactly 59 days since the New Year came in as last year went off with a bang. That was the worst day of my life, the day I had run away from home. It had been a month without Johnny. Two long, treacherous months of agonising pain and sleepless nights of wondering what went wrong.
Johnny was my best friend since as long as I could remember and boy was he extraordinary. No, he wasn’t very smart or funny or even overly handsome but he had this charisma about him and an undeniable charm that drew you in and made you feel good, I guess. Like a warm kind of good that you don’t easily find. That's why he was my best friend - just because he was who he was.
I lay back onto the side walk, allowing myself to relax for the first time in a while, and closed my eyes. This was my first mistake. Ever since the incident I couldn't close my eyes without seeing it happening over and over again. I could play out the news reel in my head knowing every line and every movement and every scream, like it was a movie and I had front row seats.
There Johnny was, stood on the highest point of the building with his lanky arms spread wide and his jacket flapping briskly in the wind, his eyes tight and his shoulders hunched. Then he jumped and, at first, it almost looked like he was flying.
Oh lord, how I hoped he was flying.
I forced my eyes open, unable to watch the part where he hit the ground. Hearing that noise in my head of the gasps and the screams was bad enough.
“Kid!” Ronny yelled at me and I shot back up to face him. “I think you need some food. You’ve gone pale.”
“We both need food, Ronny, but that’s not it.”
Ronny stared at me intensely. “We’ve all got our demons.”
“I know,” I said, though I wasn’t too sure I believed him. I remember those other boys at school that these perfect families and perfect lives and perfect girlfriends and perfect everything. If they did have demons, they hid them well.
“I’ve told you many stories,” Ronny muttered. “Today, I want you to tell me a story.”
“Tell me why you’re here. You must have some place you can be.”
“I do,” I said truthfully.
“You have a home?”
“Why aren’t you there?”
I lead back on the path once again in order to gaze up at the sky – so bleak and mild. “Have you ever been some place where you feel you don’t belong? Where everybody is so different and they don’t understand you at all because how could they possibly understand what you’ve been through or how much pain you are feeling.”
“No,” he said, lying down to join me. “I’ve never had anyone. I’d sure love to be in a place full of people that don’t understand me, as long as they love and care for me then it wouldn’t matter.”
“They don’t love or care for me.”
“But do they put a roof over your head and give you food and clothes?”
“Then you belong there a hell of a lot more than you belong here, because trust me when I say that nobody belongs here.” Ronny turned to face me, his eyes filled more despair and loath than I had ever seen before. “I never know where my next meals coming from, whether or not there will be a next meal. Even if there will be a tomorrow. I’d do anything to have a home, kid.”
“You don’t know what it is like.” I shook my head and watched Ronny carefully, when suddenly I saw something change inside him. His eyes were no longer filled with despair but anger, his mouth firmly pressed in a line and his cheek were red with rage.
“Don’t know what it’s like,” he said so calmly that it send a shiver down my spine, then he exploded, sitting up again as his shoulders moved up and down, his breathing heavy.
“Ronny,” I whispered, sitting up. I moved to put my hand on his shoulder but he moved too quickly. Before I knew it he was stood up and towering above me.
“Don’t know what it’s like!” He shouted so loudly that the entire street should have turned their heads, but strangely enough, still nobody acknowledged us. “Kid, I would do anything to have a home. Anything to have a place to go! Imagine all the food and the warmth and the nice clothing and everything! Kid, you could have everything but you sit here and you complain like it was so bad. Look at me! Just look at me! If you stay here then I am your future!” He allowed himself a moment to calm down before continuing, “And you don’t want to end up like me, kid.”
“I’ll be glad when I move on from here,” he said and the sadness in his eyes returned. He looked at me, for just a second too long, and his eyes filled with tears. “Do an old man a favour,” he continued as he reached into his parker pocket, pulling out a handful of pound coins, wrapped in an old hanky. “Just go home.” He reached down and placed the money in my hand before closing my finger around it.
“I can’t accept this,” I replied hurriedly, scrambling to my feet.
“Go home,” he smiled and it was the most heart-warming smile I had ever seen. It had a sense of hope. “Live life the way I never could.”
That was the last time I ever heard Ronny’s voice and truth be told I miss it. I have many regrets from this life time but not telling Ronny how much he changed my life or how much that old man actually meant to me, that was definitely up there with the rest of them.
And so, with a few pound coins in my pocket I headed back to the train station I had awoken in, breathing in the smell of urine for the last time, and bought myself a one way ticket home.
I would be lying if I said that I was ready to go home because I really wasn’t. I hadn’t spoken to my parents since the day I ran away. The last time I saw them was when we were sat on the coach, watching the news like we did every day, mainly because my dad wouldn’t let us watch anything else. That was when Johnny’s name flashed on screen and I saw him alive for the last time. I ran out the house, going as fast as my feet could carry me.
But we all know there wouldn’t be a story to tell if I’d have made it in time.