by Andrew Foote
From which ever direction you approach Birmingham, you have go up hill. Not by much but it made a serious difference temperature-wise and I was bloody cold!
I had taken myself out of school that lunchtime. My life had become like so much shit and then some, but whilst it seemed like a good idea then, it definitely didn't right now, not that I wasn't relieved to get away from home, I was but like most kids, I'd done what I had done on a whim without thinking strategy.
I had spent the afternoon wandering the streets not really bothered that I was still in school uniform, actually as it turned out, it had done me a favour as I was quizzed by a police officer asking why I was out of school.
An easy question to lie to as I told him I had a dental appointment.
Well, he seemed satisfied enough.
As dusk fell and the temperature dropped, I realised that I had to find some place to sleep and stay out of sight.
I had watched programs on TV that showed men dossing in alleyways with only a cardboard box for shelter so I went on the lookout for somewhere / something suitable.
I got chased away from the busy places, something about being jail bait, a problem waiting to happen and so I ventured deeper into the shit that is inner city England, places occupied by rats and vermin like the rear entrances of iffy fast-food outlets and massage parlours, but then I noticed a hole in a wall, not that big but big enough for me to get through and once I'd wriggled my way inside, I lit a match hoping that it was enclosed, not open to the elements.
In the event, the roof was intact, it was dry and bonus! I found a large cardboard box partially filled with expanded polystyrene chips, so peeling off the outer layers of my clothing, I settled down for the night.
"Hey you? What you at? That's my pissing box you're in so get the fuck out!"
I scrubbed at my eyes only to see a weak torch aimed at me but then whoever was holding it spoke again.
"Fuck me! You're a kid!"
"Yes well, I'm sorry, but I was knackered and needed somewhere to be. I didn't mean to trespass, honestly. I'll go and find somewhere else."
"What? At this time of night? Get real sunshine, the Bill will be all over you in seconds flat.
You look like shit, are you okay?"
"Em……..I'm not sure to be honest. Who are you anyway?"
"My place so I do the questions but my name, for what it's worth is Callum……..just Callum, right?
"Edward. Edward Ander…….."
"Edward's enough. The least we know about each other the better.
When was the last time you ate?"
"Breakfast, I had a couple of slices of toast."
"Jesus Edward? You thinking of living on the streets on an empty stomach? Dumb move, dumb move! Got to keep up your energy levels or sure as shit, the cold will get to you so bugger off and get fed. Ronny's place just down the road is alright and before you leave there, take a piss, a crap if you need one 'cos I don't need you messing up this place…… I have to live here, you as well if you behave."
"I'm okay. I'm not hungry. Thanks anyway."
"You mean you're skint more like. Here's a fiver, go and fill yourself up and you can pay me back some other time. While you're gone I'll see if I can find something half decent for you to sleep in. Now fuck off!"
I found Ronny's, not difficult to clock what with the number of black cabs outside and a flashing neon sign saying 'Open 24 Hours'.
I stepped inside turning heads as I made my way to the counter.
"Well son? What can I do for you then?"
"Em……..I'm starved. What's good?"
"All my food is good. Who sent you?"
"Yeah sent you! This here's whore town, we don't get many chickens round here so……?"
"I don't understand. Chickens?"
"Yeah well never mind. Was it Callum?"
"Yes…… do you know him?"
"Nah, never heard of him…… of course I know him!!"
"Sorry. Anyhow he said you served decent food."
"You got money?"
"Um…… only what he lent me."
"Well, well! He's taken a shine to you! I've got the remains of today's roast, good enough for you?"
"How much is it? He only gave me five quid?"
"A mate of Callum's is a mate of mine so no charge, eat and enjoy."
"Are you sure?"
"No I'm not bloody sure so eat it before I change my mind."
He turned away shaking his head before disappearing behind a bead curtain muttering "There better be a God up there…… fucking rent boys eating me out of house and home……"
The meal was pretty good actually, and I said as much.
"Pleased you think so. The toilet's round the back, just mind the rats, okay? I'll get some coffee's to take back with you and by the way…… take it steady out there. Not everyone is as nice as me so keep your wits about you."
I found Callum kneeling beside a second cardboard box busy breaking up some polystyrene.
"Found it then? Not all bad grub and Ronny's an okay bloke."
"Yes he seemed friendly enough and by the way. Here's your fiver. He didn't let me pay, gave us some coffee as well."
"Remind me to thank him.
Got you your own box so take care of it 'cos they're like rocking horse shit round here, and keep the dosh. Always good to have summat in your pocket. When we go out tomorrow, keep your eyes open for old newspapers…… good insulation against the cold."
He stood up and obviously pleased with his work, gestured to me to climb in.
Hey, it was comfortable and surprisingly warm.
"Thanks Callum, that was very nice of you."
"Yeah I'm a nice person!"
"Ronny said as much as well."
"Well he would being my business manager an' all."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Look Edward. I'm bushed so let's talk in the morning huh? Try and get some sleep but before you do, are you like, alright? It's pretty obvious that you're new to all this and I just wondered……?"
"Last night I slept in a comfy bed in a centrally heated house…… tonight? Okay I'm homesick but I'm happy enough because life was crap there. Warm and comfortable but all the time being used as a punch bag and worse…… much worse, versus being away from all that abuse then yeah, I'm okay."
Get some shut-eye, we've all day tomorrow to talk. Nite."
I woke late to the noise of traffic and the bin men going about their business.
I glanced at my watch…… nine fifteen and late for school.
That thought made me laugh. What sodding school?
Callum turned over and for the first time I could see his face sort of clearly.
He wasn't as old as I'd first thought, probably not that much older than me. Jet black hair which immediately made me assume he was of Indian decent but as he opened his eyes, this definitely wasn't the case as his eyes had the almond shape I'd always associated with Chinese or at least those of oriental persuasion.
He was good-looking…… very attractive actually. He had nice lips, nice long eyelashes and…… I liked what I saw.
"Hey Edward? What's the time?"
"Almost half nine. Did you get a good night's sleep?"
"No it was rubbish. Some fucking kid kept me awake most of the night with his snoring!"
"Oh God? I'm sorry?"
"Just kidding you! I slept for England and so far as I'm aware, you don't snore, okay?
Are you hungry?"
"Actually I am a bit. Do you go to Ronny's?"
"Fucking-hell no! First rule of living on the streets is that you only move around at times outside of school hours. Before nine in the morning, between twelve and one-thirty then after three-thirty in the afternoon. Work outside of those hours and you run the risk of being lifted by the cops or the truancy people so no, we eat in house so to speak."
"I almost got fingered yesterday but I was in my school uniform and told him I had a dentist appointment.
Lucky me I guess!"
"Got to get them dry cleaned. Those might prove to be a massive asset. Anyhow, breakfast. Walk this way."
Callum took me through into a sort of passageway which stank of diesel then through a door which opened onto a concreted area which backed on to a canal.
"Your own garden terrace complete with a water vista, a barbeque breakfast and then we can talk.
Behind that tarpaulin you'll find a fridge. Give me some bacon, sausages and eggs and I'll cook while you butter some bread. You'll find a couple of plates in the shed but make sure they're clean, knives and forks as well."
A barbequed breakfast, definitely a first for me and not all bad either.
We ate in silence and then once we'd finished, Callum put the plates and cutlery into a carrier bag.
"Want some coffee?"
"Yes thank you. Coffee would be good."
"You haven't tasted it yet. I've got no sugar and the milk's gone off so I hope you take it black and bitter…… one other thing, it's not decaf."
We sat around watching the boats and drinking coffee by the bucket full. Callum produced a tobacco tin and offered me a roll-up before lighting one for himself.
"I don't smoke thanks."
Okay then. Tell me about Edward."
"What do you want to know?"
"Walk me through your life. I need to understand why a nice, polite and educated kid ends up dossing on the streets."
I'm nudging sixteen years old and up until yesterday I lived with my mother and her man friend in Solihull."
"Posh kid then?"
"We used to be, that is until my father took it upon himself to leave.
Do you want me to carry on?"
"Yeah. Do that."
"Okay. I went to Hatton Grammar School as a day pupil. I was lucky as I got a scholarship so they didn't have to pay any fees but you're not interested in that."
"No, not really."
"Everything was fine until my father left us. I still don't fully understand why he did what he did, my mother won't talk about it. He still pays the mortgage on the house and provides for my mother and me, but these days she spends most of it on drink and drugs. I'm telling you, she's a real mess.
Anyway. Next she finds herself a bloke, a serious head-case. I mean who on earth drinks vodka for breakfast? Well he does.
The thing is, from there on in they both just slide into a drunken mess and I've even seen my mother attempting to shoot up but she's so pissed, she can't see what she's doing so she takes it out on me, screaming and shouting, throwing furniture at me which in turn causes her bloke to get all worked up and joins in the fray.
Here. Take a look at this."
I lifted my shirt.
"Shit Edward? They did that to you?"
"Yeah and this isn't the worst it's been either."
"But didn't your school pick up on it? I mean didn't you have to get changed for sports, shower or whatever?"
"Yes but I got pretty good at hiding it and skipping showers was easy enough."
"You could've gone to Social Services? Why didn't you do that?"
"Difficult to explain. I thought that they might straighten themselves out? Stupid 'cos that was never going to happen and also, blood's thicker than water. I loved my mum and if I had reported stuff then I'd be taken into care and never see her again."
What happened next?"
"The night before last, I got back from school only to find both of them totally out of it. I mean, like they were unconscious so my immediate instinct was to leave them to it, but when I went up to my room, the entire contents, and I do mean EVERYTHING, had been trashed. My laptop, my games consul, my bed, most of my clothes had been shredded, my bank book was missing, I mean the list goes on. All the windows had been smashed, the curtains ripped. My fucking room looked worse than where we slept last night!"
"So that's when you upped and left?"
"No not straight away. I still had my phone so I called the police and ambulance, then I legged it."
"Where did you stay that night?"
"I hid in the shed! Once the police left and my mother and her bloke carted off to hospital, I went back inside, but then the next morning I packed what I could into my backpack and did a runner. The rest you know."
"I never saw a backpack? Did you lose it?"
"No. I took the train from Solihull to Moor Street Station where I rented a storage locker. It's still there."
"What's in it?"
"What clothes I could find that were still in one piece, a toilet bag, my passport and MP3 and what cash I could lay my hands on which didn't amount to much.
Oh yeah. I found my bank book, but that arsehole had withdrawn everything presumably to fund his addiction."
"Okay then. Here's what we do.
We go and retrieve your backpack at lunchtime. How much time did you pay on the locker?"
"Okay, so that means you should be able to get a refund for four of them which will give you another twenty quid in your pocket, plus you can get out of that uniform so we can get it cleaned. Then I reckon you should get yourself looked at. You got pretty badly worked over so it's better to ere on the side of caution."
"I can't just go wandering into a hospital or to a doctor's surgery?"
"No need. I'll take you to see the dodgy doc. He'll sort you out."
"The what doc?"
"Dodgy as in iffy. He got himself struck off after he served time for tinkering around with little boys. He knows what he's at so you've nothing to worry about."
"Haven't I? You're telling me he's a paedophile yet I've nothing to be worried about?"
"Nah! I'll tell him I'll give him a freebee if he keeps his hands off you. That should do the trick!"
" Freebee?? You mean like you're……"
"Yeah, I'm on the rent. Everybody had to earn a crust."
"I hope you don't expect me to……"
"Calm down Edward. It's cool. I don't expect anything from you!"
"Thanks, but I can't expect you to keep feeding me for nothing."
"You're right there, I've no idea what, but we'll find something to occupy your time"
"So what's your story then?"
"You wanna know about me?
Yeah well, why not. There's not much to tell really but here goes.
My parents came to England when I was about two I think. They later told me that actually I wasn't their son and looking back, they were too old to have been but no matter.
They originally came from Vietnam…… both of us are too young to remember the Vietnam war, but it split the country in two and lots of people had to leave or face all sorts of shit and my folks were amongst them, Vietnamese boat people they called them but anyway, they fled the country and settled in Korea which was okay but the Commies took over the north, which is where they were and they got kicked over the border into the south.
The problem was that they weren't welcome there either, so to escape deportation, they hid, running from village to village, sometimes getting some work, sometimes not…… most of the time not.
They did eventually find a place that accepted them and this is where I come into the picture.
A farming accident happened and, so I'm told, killed both my natural parents so I was taken in by the people who raised me, those I call my parents.
Then came the redevelopment of the area, factories and so on and so came more police. My parents spoke Korean but with a different dialect so they were sussed out pretty quick. They had little choice but to do another runner taking me with them.
They ended up in Taipei, then my father managed to pay some ship's Captain to give us passage to Europe, but the tub we had sailed in went aground off the Minkies. Rescuers came from mainland France and most were picked up, but not us. We were adrift on a life raft for forty-eight hours before an English fishing trawler spotted us and took us back to their home port.
The Skipper of that trawler took pity on us and gave my father some money telling him to head for a big city where we could lose ourselves…… he chose Brum!
Anyway? Obviously they didn't hide very well because one night the immigration people came calling, they were arrested and later deported, and me?
I was much better at hiding!"
"Oh my God! That's awful? Not much of a story you say? For Christ's sake Callum??"
"Yeah but you've got to remember, most of this I don't remember. My earliest memories are of living in Birmingham."
"Ha! Alum Rock…… the public toilet of all humanity, the Dignitas of the fucking world!
Fuck it Edward? You think here's bad?"
NOTE: Dignitas is a clinic in Switzerland that assists people to commit suicide.
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