Rowan put on her coat and her hat, swaddling herself in protection; scarf, gloves, pulling the hood of the coat over her head and doing up the collar tight around her neck.
It wasn't just because of the cold, although it was cold, in the depths of December and in the grip of a sparkling, deadly frost, riming all the surfaces with deceptive beauty. It was because she was going to visit her grandma, and her grandma was in the old, run-down Mission which was the only place that would take her which they trusted in the slightest. The reports from the cheaper end of the "care" home sector seemed to become more lurid and unreal by the day: the callous staff who seemed to take the jobs simply to indulge in their own derangements, and those who genuinely did care being unable to work within the constraints of budgetary realities and psychopathic business practices coming down from on high.
So it was the Mission, which mostly catered to drug addicts, and for them was ideally placed; not so much for a young - young-ish - okay, twenty-something - girl to go visiting, one who was possibly as far from streetwise as possible, whitebread and suburb-born.
Checking her several layers of precautions, she wondered again if any of them would possibly do any good. She wasn't stupid enough to carry a knife - 'knives just get you hurt' was the mantra she had been brought up with - but she had the can of pepper spray, the thing that made a really loud noise, the hiding places for her keys and phone and enough money to pay a taxi, the cheaper decoy phone and a couple of notes and some fake keys in her coat pockets... everything she could think of, and order off the internet. And her good running shoes. She wasn't quite paranoid enough to wear a bulky, heavy stab vest, but she figured that the heavy coat and the double layer of jumpers should at least slow them down.
She'd considered wearing a silk blouse because she'd heard it helped seal gunshot wounds, but she figured that if she was getting shot, everything had already gone more wrong than she could reasonably plan for. She still wasn't quite used to the idea that people had guns in the real world, rather than just on the television, but she knew from the news that they were surprisingly plentiful in the area.
Well, there was nothing more that she could do, and it was getting very warm standing around in her flat, in this get-up. She headed outside, suppressing a brief moment of panic as the door locked behind her and she couldn't do her usual quick check of her keys because she'd buried them several layers deep to hide them. Down the stairs and out the front, stepping carefully in the icy forecourt; it shouldn't hurt that much to fall over in all this, but it would be embarrassing and she might squash the card, which wasn't designed to fit in a hidden money belt.
She tried to tell herself that she'd done this before, that she'd scarcely see anyone else on a day like this, let alone anyone who was a threat; but she'd seen too much news to believe it.
Can you see me
Up on the building
From down on the pavement
Or out in the crowd?
There was once a poor widow who lived in a lonely bedsit.
Behind one of the houses in the row was a garden that somehow hadn't been built on yet; junkies like to shoot up there, but that didn't seem to harm the out-of-control, straggling roses, which bloomed every year in a profusion of white and red. She had two children who loved to sneak into the garden when it was light and eat the rose-petals, even though they had that undeniable tang of motor exhaust and sometimes the ground smelled of urine. "Lil Whitey", as the guys called her affectionately, was brown haired and blue eyed, your traditional British mongrel; "Rosie Redcheeks" was a slightly browner shade, dark eyes and dark hair, but still pale enough to blush quite stunningly. They were as good and happy, as busy and cheerful, as ever a child in the world was; only Lil Whitey was more quiet and gentle than Rosie.
Rosie liked better to run about in the streets and gutters, seeking flowers and catching beetles; but Whitey would rather have sat at home with her mother, and helped her with her house-work, or read to her when there was nothing to do. But she was so loyal to her sister that they always went out together, and when Whitey said, "We will not leave each other," Rosie answered, "Never so long as we live."
It was just as well, because they had to share a bedroom, and a television, and the few old, broken toys that their mother had rescued from a dumpster somewhere, and a bed. They often ran about the streets alone and headed up to the town to beg on street corners; avoiding the wrong areas by instinct, red ribbons in their hair. The predators never did them any harm, having rather adopted them as a mascot after the death of their father in prison. The urban wildlife loved them too; little foxes would eat a cabbage-leaf out of their hands, the badgers grazed by their side, the stray dogs bounded merrily beside them, and the birds sat still upon the street-lamps and sang whatever they knew.
No mishap overtook them; if they had stayed too late in the city and night came on, they knew a wide network of 'friends' and 'uncles' they could doss at, and slept until morning came; and their mother knew this and had no distress on their account.
Can you see me
In the glare of the lamppost?
'Cause I am walking a tightrope
Into the moon
She already felt like she had a target painted on the back of her neck, huddled in the bus seat on the way into the Area, trying not to make eye contact.
The bus was sparsely populated, just a scattering of old people and a coterie of working-class men lurking in the back, in tatty leather and hand-me-downs. They'd probably been out at the factories, the last few skilled labourers who weren't reliant on the agencies, on public transport now that the company minibus had finally broken down for the last time. The seats rattled as the bus moved onto the poorly maintained roads deeper into the residential area of the city, and soon enough they pulled up at the last stop. Busses didn't run into the Area, the roads were too bad, and the drivers didn't feel safe.
She didn't exactly feel safe either, but the driver was calling all-change, probably heading back to the depot - she could stay on if she wanted to, she was sure he wouldn't begrudge a sudden change of heart and would drop her somewhere safer - but she was here now and she was going to do this.
The old people waited in their seats for the men to clear the bus, so she did too; shuffling along the aisle after them made her more confident, or at least more impatient with her own insecurities. If these people could live here, people that couldn't even run, much less defend themselves, how could she be scared of it? But this was their home; they had history here, they knew the streets, they knew what they were doing and people knew them. And they had their own safe territory to head back to. As she left the bus, she noticed that they were pretty much all turning back towards town and heading to the slightly cheap and slightly run-down outskirts; not the Area itself.
Mentally orienting herself with the map she had been staring at for at least half an hour before setting out, she turned and headed down the main street, towards the Mission.
I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant, and I
Don't know how to see the same things different
They had spent the night in a hiding-place, just some mattresses under the stairs of a condemned building, and the angle of the sun getting in through the cracks had roused them. Hungry, they headed out onto the streets, and that's when they saw her; a frightened figure all bundled up in coat and gloves and hat, the hood of the coat up, with blue gloves.
She was startled to see them peering out of the building at her, but looked quite kindly at them. It was obvious she wanted to say nothing and bustle away on whatever errand she was on, but they knew something wasn't right. They looked round the building they'd been sleeping in, and found that they had been sleeping quite close to a fresh patch of graffiti, rearranging the border of their territory, and would certainly have headed into the darkness if they had gone only a few paces further.
Shyly, they headed out of the building, and tailed the girl for a while; she didn't look like a native at all. They whispered to each other that it must have been the angel who watches over good children, but they weren't convinced, and they were worried that if she didn't know what she was doing, she was going to get into a lot of trouble.
"Hey - what are you about there?" called Rosie.
"You stupid, prying goose!" hissed Whitey; but it was too late.
"Oh, hi there," said the girl, uncertainly. She didn't stop walking; her hand went into her pocket for something, but she didn't pull it out. Anxiously, the girls flanked her, which seemed to just make things worse; she started walking faster, but they were used to roaming and could easily match her. "I was just going up to see my grandmother at the Mission. I know you kids probably don't understand how it's dangerous here, for someone like me, but I'm really sorry I can't stop to talk, I mean, you might be an ambush or something! Or a distraction..." she looked about nervously, "or maybe you're going to mug me yourselves!"
"You shouldn't be wearing those gloves," said Rosie, worriedly. "You'll get in trouble. Do you know anyone round here?"
Obvious indecision crawled across the girl's face, and the hand in the pocket twitched; Rosie dodged back, in case the girl really was going to pull a knife on them, and made a squeaking sound that was the muffled start of a shout for help. She suppressed it, though. She didn't want to get their warning, their guardian angel, into trouble herself!
Whitey was so nervous she sidled up to the girl and started trying to pull the visible glove off. "C'mon, just give them here," she mumbled.
"Hey, stop that!" cried the girl, snatching her hand back; but the glove came off suddenly, causing Whitey to slide backwards on her arse in the dirty frost.
The girl was really scared now; she ripped off the other glove and threw it at Whitey. "Take them! Take them! Just leave me alone!" she begged, attempting to speed up even further and skidding dangerously on the ice. Bemused, Whitey and Rosie watched her stumble off down the road; they took a glove each and hid them carefully, so that no sign of the colour was showing.
Whitey and Rosie looked at each other, then Whitey shrugged and Rosie whispered, "time to go get breakfast."
Oh can you see me?
I am one in a million
Yeah, I'm Icarus falling
Out of the sun
Stumbling and fleeing away from the children, she cursed herself for her stupidity, shoving her hands in her pockets to keep them warm.
Of course they were just opportunists, the little ones; they hadn't had gloves and coats and hats of their own, and what clothes they did have looked crumpled and worn. If she'd been so cold and seen a stranger heading through her territory with all the warm clothes in the world, wouldn't she have seen if she could pinch something? If she didn't need it to keep herself feeling hidden, never mind about warm, she should have offered them her scarf and her hat too; it would have been the charitable thing to do.
She tried to keep a wary eye on the alleys and doorways and rooflines, but the coat and hat restricted her peripheral vision as well as feeling safe and warm.
Maybe she shouldn't have loaded up so much on 'protective' equipment; it wasn't that cold while she was walking. She was beginning to get quite stuffy in here, actually. But the thought of being exposed to the air, of her face being exposed to the lurking Other that she could feel staring out of every window, was too much to let her take the hood down, or even take her hands out of her pockets.
She knew it was all in her head really, that no-one was watching her, that they all had better things to be doing; but she couldn't quite believe in her own reassurances.
Could you see me fall in the light of spotlights and jackknife
Through night as black as a bedroom
And white as a lie?
Whitey and Rosie tried to keep their mother's little bedsit so neat that it was always lovely to come home to, like a little haven of peace and order in the middle of the rambling chaos outside. Even Rosie took care of the house, and whenever they could find something she liked to set a pot of flowers by her mother’s bed before she awoke, especially when they could get a rose or two from the garden. In the winter Whitey coaxed the old storage heaters into life and put the kettle on to make them tea. The kettle was painted in a copper tone and parts of it shone like gold where the sun had bleached the paint a little, although bits of the handle showed the black plastic underneath where countless fingers had polished right through to the under-layer.
That afternoon, when the snowflakes fell, they collapsed through the door and the mother told Whitey to check that it was properly bolted; and then they sat round the gradually cooling storage heater, and the mother took her spectacles and read aloud out of a large book, and the two girls listened as they ate their out-of-date cereal. And close by them lay a lambskin rug upon the floor, and behind them upon a perch sat a stuffed cockatoo with its head missing.
One evening, as they were thus sitting comfortably together, some-one had knocked at the door, as if he wished to be let in. The mother said, "Quick, Rosie, open the door, it might be an uncle who's looking for shelter." Rosie went and pushed back the bolt, thinking that it was one of their people, but it was not; it was a bear - one of the gang's non-white muscle, not one of the ordinary run of lookouts or drug pushers that would come by - that stretched his broad, black head within the door.
Rosie screamed and sprang back, the television bleated, the makeshift lampshades fluttered, and Whitey hid herself behind her mother’s bed. But the bear began to speak and said, "Do not be afraid, I will do you no harm! I am half-frozen, and only want to warm myself a little."
"Poor bear," said the mother, warily, "come down by the heater, only take care that you do not burn your coat." Then she cried, "Whitey, Rosie, come out, the bear will do you no harm, he means well." So they both came out, and by-and-by they came nearer, and were not afraid of him. The bear said, "Here, children, knock the snow off of my coat a little;" so they took the sturdy leather jacket with its metal studs and shook it nervously; and he stretched himself by the heater and growled contentedly and comfortably. It was not long before they grew quite at home, and played tricks with their clumsy guest. They tugged his handkerchief out of a pocket, and snuggled up on the lambskin beside him; Rosie started stealthily approaching the knife on his belt, and when he growled they laughed. But the bear took it all in good part, only, when they were after his weapons, he called out, “Leave me alive, children, you never know when you might need me with that."
When it was bed-time, and the others went to bed, the mother said to the bear, "You can sleep there on the lambskin, and then you will be safe from the cold and the bad weather." As soon as day dawned the two children let him out, and he swaggered down the stairs into the city streets.
Henceforth the bear came every evening at the same time, laid himself down by the heater, and let the children amuse themselves with him as much as they liked; and they got so used to him that the doors were never fastened until their black friend had arrived.
When spring had come and all outside was green, the bear said one morning to Whitey, "Now I must go away, and cannot come back while it's summer."
"Where are you going, then, dear bear?" asked Whitey.
"I must go into the forest and guard my treasures from the wicked dwarfs. In the winter, when the earth is frozen hard, they are obliged to stay below and cannot work their way through; but now, when the sun has thawed and warmed the earth, they break through it, and come out to pry and steal; and what once gets into their hands, and in their caves, does not easily see daylight again," he joked.
Whitey was quite sorry for his going away, and as she unbolted the door for him, and the bear was hurrying out, he caught against the bolt and a piece of his handkerchief was torn off, and it seemed to Whitey as if she had seen gold shining in his pocket, but she was not sure about that. The bear ran away quickly, and was soon out of sight around the bend in the staircase.
I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant, and I
Don't know how to see the same things different
Finally, she made it down to the door of the Mission. Hardly anyone had been out and about on the icy roads, as she had expected, and she felt foolish for ever worrying about it.
She pressed the buzzer and spoke into the intercom. "Hey," she said, "it's Rowan, Rowan Caperucita, I'm here to see my grandmother, Ivy?" There was a tense moment, and then the door buzzed, the magnetic lock disengaging to let her inside. That wasn't usual; she tried to peer through the frosty glass, but it had ice on the outside and was steamed up inside. Usually someone greeted her cheerily and came to the door to meet her.
But she was here now, and she was going to make the best of it; she leaned gently on the door before it stopped buzzing, opening it a crack, ready to spring back if there was trouble on the other side. (Really, now, how did she expect to know what was trouble and what wasn't? She hadn't even understood the approach of those children; what use would she be in a real dangerous situation?)
Nothing immediately happened, so she put her shoulder to the door to open it; to keep her hands free, kind of, although they were in her pockets, and if she was being honest, it was mostly to avoid touching the door that so many of the less salubrious inmates would have had their dirty hands on.
Diving through the dark
While the night turns blue
Are you aware of your intentions?
Because I wear my intentions
After their breakfast, Whitey and Rosie headed out to check out which fish and chip shops were open and which would be a good place to haunt for possible sympathy food. As they headed down the road by the Mission, they saw a bundled-up figure putting her shoulder to the door, as if she were going to break in. They ran to it and found it was the girl.
"Where are you going?" called Rosie. "You surely don’t want to go into the Mission?"
There was a new sign on the Mission, too; not as new as the one they had been saved from, but one that had sprung up a few weeks ago and had marked it out as a place only the initiated should enter. And from her behaviour so far, they were pretty sure this girl wasn't. How much more did they have to save her from herself? Whitey and Rosie grabbed her by the back of the coat as she tried to enter.
Losing her footing, the girl slid backwards onto the ground, the children darting out of the way just in time. She scrambled to her feet and looked around wildly, trying to work out where to run; the children edged around in front of her and tried their best to look innocent and helpful, hands out where she could see them.
"You again?" asked the girl, on the edge of tears, looking for an exit. They circled her warily, trying to block off any stupid attempts to run in a random direction that might otherwise happen. "What do you want from me this time? Haven't you got enough of me? Do you want money? My scarf? My shoes?"
"No, no, calm down," begged Whitey. "We just didn't want you to go into the Mission. It's not safe in there now."
They hadn't thought that the girl's eyes could widen any further, but they could; and filled with such pain that they were glad they'd stopped, that they felt they were doing the right thing.
"Not safe in there?" quailed the girl. "But what... what about my grandmother?"
Rosie and Whitey exchanged worried looks. Then Rosie shuffled closer, and put a comforting hand on the girl's arm. To her credit, the girl didn't immediately whisk it away, although she did stiffen rather at the touch. She couldn't seem to decide whether she should be looking at them or her surroundings.
"You'd probably best forget about your grandmother," Rosie advised her.
If you see me
Wading through water
Come drown in the river
Right in front of the world
They were still frozen in this tableau, Rosie attempting to be comforting, the girl looking like the bottom had just dropped out of her world, when Whitey made a low whistling noise.
Rosie immediately stopped looking at the girl and started looking for the source of the threat; but even as she spotted the figure, she recognised that was no threat. "Whitey, it's okay," she said, with wonder in her tone. "That's our bear!"
Squinting down the street, Whitey tried to make out whether the figure was indeed the visitor that had been with them last winter. He had obviously spotted them, whoever it was, and had picked up his pace. Shrinking away behind the girl, Whitey looked at her sister fiercely, as if to say, "shouldn't we run?"
"No, I'm sure it's him," hissed Rosie. "He'll know what to do," she continued, a little louder. She noticed the girl was looking in the same direction and tensing up again, so she shifted from having a flat hand on her coat to having a fistful of the material. "You don't go anywhere," she admonished, "it'll only make it worse."
The girl was practically rigid, possibly shaking with terror; her hand clenched around something in her pocket, probably something she thought she could defend herself with. "Hey," said Whitey, moving up to flank her and generally mirror her sister, "you don't want to do anything with that. It's okay, we're not going to hurt you."
"I don't think he's going to hurt you, either," contributed Rosie, possibly unhelpfully. The bear loped towards them, eating up the street with his confident stride, clearly concerned now.
You can wash your face and hands
In the stream of my anger
It's as bright as white paper
And as dark as a girl
"Hey kids," he said, warily, when he was in range. "You shouldn't be here. And who've you got there? A Christmas present?"
The girl panicked; they could feel her go, feel her start to twist and shake them off, and retreated to a safe distance before she could throw them from her arms. She probably wasn't that strong, but she was better fed than them and the footing was treacherous still. One of her hands twitched; the most godawful racket started up, like the ghosts of all forgotten electronic devices were being dipped in acid, screeching their terrible pain across the quiet streets.
Her other hand brought out a cannister of something unpleasant, pointed it at their bear, and fired.
He was quicker than her; he picked up into a sprint, dodged to one side to spoil her aim, holding his breath as he registered what kind of weapon it was. Then he was on her and knocking the cannister out of her hand, sliding both of them along the ice to pin her against the wall before she could draw any other nasty tricks, picking up her other wrist with his other hand, glancing back to make sure the two children were well out of the cloud of pepper-spray.
"What the fuck do you think you're playing at, missy?" he yelled in her face. "Sauntering up here, getting involved, fucking with the kids?"
"Aah," she panted, going very still and loose, trying to work out what direction to struggle in. An old reflex said, Headbutt him in the face, so she gave it a go; he pulled back very slightly and glared at her contemptuously. "Goddamn it, stop struggling, we're trying to fucking help you, motherfucker," he said, with a tone of mild despair. "If these fucking kids weren't here I'd let you go in there and face the motherfucking jackals, but it looks like they've taken a fancy to you and no-one's fucking hurting them on my watch."
She turned her face away, sniffled, attempted to get her breath back. Attempted to compose herself. He waited, cautiously, for her to get it together, ready for another escape attempt - or for her to display surprising competence all of a sudden, it wouldn't be the first time he'd been gulled like that, and twice bitten was just stupid. That noise was fucking killing him; he neatly transferred both of her hands to one of his arms, picked the attack alarm out of her pocket, and stamped on it decisively.
It stuttered into silence, reproachfully.
"I..." she murmurred, still not looking at him. "I just wanted to visit my grandmother..."
He sighed, and relaxed his grip very slightly.
"Girl," he said. "If I let you go, and I really wanna let you go, because I hain't got pinning girls against any walls on my agenda today, you gotta promise not to run. You know I can catch you, but I hate running on ice and I already got away with it once today."
"I promise," she said, her voice very small and very distant, like she was trying to pretend she was somewhere else, anywhere else.
He released his grip, watching her warily; her arms almost fell to her sides, then she seemed to realise that might look like an aggressive action given the previous contents of her pockets, and wrapped them around herself, hugging her elbows.
"Now," he said. "I know you want a fuckload of explaining. This ain't the place to do it. You want to go somewhere warmer?"
He could see the panic in her eyes.
"Or, fuck it, you can just run right off now; I'm not stopping you any more. Head back out of the Area and never darken our doors again. But I think you aren't going to do that. I think you want to know what happened to your grandmother."
He turned; beckoned to the children, who were cowering in an alleyway; and headed off towards their mother's house, not looking back to see if she's following.
I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant, and I
Don't know how to see the same things different
You might be thinking, where's my happily ever after, and I didn't want to disappoint you.
But the real world doesn't work like that, not always. The bear sits them all down in the mother's house with a nice cup of tea, and explains to the girl that at least it was quick. They weren't interested in any of the old people or druggies in the building, they just wanted the place and the medicines and the beds, and the interfering staff out of their hair. They didn't kill anyone who could run, but, well, grandma couldn't run.
Then in the warm Rowan's recovered her nerve a bit and she says things about the police and he tells her she doesn't mean that, and they come to a settlement; he'll get them the body so they can have a funeral, he knows where they stacked them, and the dogs can't get to it because diseased dogs are in nobody's interest - and they pull bits of the body off that can be identified, you know - and she'll not get involved in anything that's over her head.
She takes out the card and she cries a bit, and he lends her what's left of his handkerchief.
And then he escorts her out of his world, back to the bus stop which will take her out of the Area and back into the nice suburban world where everything makes sense. She leaves the money for the children, gives them her hat and scarf in exchange for the gloves they'll never be able to wear.
And I suppose they all live, if not happily, and not exactly ever after: just like the rest of us.