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Authors: Kevin Lewis


BOOK: Frankie
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Kevin Lewis

The Groovy Gang
with love

‘Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.'

Josephine Hart


London, November

The bottle was less than half full. She had been rationing herself carefully – the strong, sweet alcohol would have to last her the rest of the night – but it wasn't going to be enough. Not that it really mattered. The air seemed to bite her skin, and the light dusting of snow turned to water the instant it fell on her dirty, tangled hair. She was going to need more than a few mouthfuls of booze to keep her warm during the bitter night ahead.

The snow had come early this year, but she didn't let it get to her. It was just another thing to deal with if you were going to survive on the streets of London. Her boots were sodden, her hands numb. Beside her the cars churned the snow to a mushy sludge, occasionally spattering icy water from a puddle onto the pavement, soaking the lower half of her beat-up jeans. She did her best to put this from her mind as she walked purposefully down the street.

It had been a bad day. She had woken up in a shop doorway in Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, to the sound of somebody urinating not two metres away, and that was just the start. Everybody had been too cold and busy hurrying to get off the streets to pay any attention to a down-and-out nineteen-year-old woman begging for loose change outside Starbucks. Normally it was a good
spot – Hamleys toy shop was just across the road, packed with excited children and shoppers preparing early for Christmas. Normally she could rely on parents wanting to instil a charitable nature in their kids by giving them a few coins to drop into the empty polystyrene coffee cup of the bedraggled homeless girl, but today it was too cold even for that. Her cup practically empty, she had just stared at the festive display in the window across the road and thought of a happier time: her father had taken her there once, promising her that she could have one toy, whatever she wanted. But it seemed like a lifetime ago.

Those thoughts had been wiped from her mind when she had been forced to move on by the shop manager. Where now? The usual Christian volunteers with their charitable handouts were nowhere to be seen because of the snow; but for the soup kitchens it was their busiest time. They meant that people like her didn't have to spend the few precious coins they had earned that day on food. But now the kitchens were closed for the night, and the hostels were full, just as she knew they would be in weather like this. They were the last place on earth she wanted to be, in any case. She still needed to find somewhere with a little warmth, though, somewhere she wouldn't be moved on every hour by the police who, she thought, had nothing better to do with their time. Shivering, she hurried on.

To her left, a derelict warehouse rose towards the sky, its brown Victorian bricks and broken windows protected by a criss-crossed wire fence; ahead of her, she knew the concrete monolith of the Elephant and Castle would still be bustling with life. But her destination was neither of these places – she was heading for a small park nestled
between the two that ordinary people seldom set foot in, especially after dark. And with good reason. For the homeless unfortunates who congregated there it offered comfort of a sort, companionship even. But anyone entering into this circle did so on its terms, and those terms were fierce. After all, these people had nothing to lose.

She pushed open the iron gate and took in the scene. Half a dozen fires smouldered in bins, flames occasionally licking above the rims. They had been placed under trees, in an attempt to protect them from the snow; but the trees were bare anyway, so they did nothing to stop the silent flakes drifting in. Around each bin were small groups of ragged-looking souls, their bodies silhouetted against the flames, their faces half illuminated by the meagre light of the fires. Some of them sat hunched on old crates, others leaned against the trunks of trees, and a few just sat on the ground.

Other groups of down-and-outs huddled together away from the bins. Clearly they had not been part of this community long enough to earn themselves a coveted place by a fire. It was an unspoken rule, and they knew better than to approach without being asked. This was a vulnerable community, full of drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill – frowned upon by society as the lowest of the low. But like any other community it had its ranks and power struggles. The strongest overruled the young, the weak and the elderly, and it paid to know your place.

As she walked further into the park, she could see a crowd gathering on the other side. From this distance she couldn't tell what was going on, but it was most probably just another drunken fight. Nothing unusual. Not here.

‘You got anything for me, love?'

The woman turned in surprise. She hadn't seen the gnarled figure of an old man approach her from the darkness. He had a threadbare blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and wore an old woolly hat that could have been any colour once upon a time, but was now grey. His face was grizzled and lined, his eyes pale and watery. He eyed the bottle of Thunderbird in the woman's hand meaningfully. ‘It's been a slow day,' he continued, before abandoning his attempts at subtlety. ‘Just a couple of pulls, love. It's a cold night.'

She looked at him for a moment. He was a pitiful sight. She took one last swig, then handed him the bottle. ‘Take it, old man,' she told him, her voice emotionless. He greedily snatched it, fumbled at the cap, put the bottle to his lips and drank deeply, stopping only to cough wretchedly. With difficulty he replaced the top and secreted the bottle under his blanket. There was no word of thanks.

‘What's happening over there?' She nodded in the direction of the disturbance.

The old man sniffed. ‘Bob Strut. Looking for new girls.'

Her eyes narrowed.

‘Stay out of it, love,' the old man advised. ‘At least they get a bit of money.'

She barely acknowledged him – her gaze was fixed on the scene ahead of her. The old man shrugged as he shuffled off towards one of the fires.

She'd heard of Strut, of course. They all had. And so far she had managed to ignore him, as she knew she must. He was the worst kind of scum. Strut liked it when new faces arrived in these miserable communities. Where other people saw just another wasted life, he saw an opportunity. He had a special knack for finding people's
weaknesses, and he would supply them with small quantities of whatever substance – drugs usually, or sometimes alcohol – they needed to bring themselves a little piece of oblivion; but he always expected something in return. The younger men and women were more able, and would sometimes be forced to carry out acts of petty theft or drug running. But Strut was mainly interested in them because they offered a more lucrative commodity: their bodies. Pimping was his trade, abusing the fear and vulnerability of both boys and girls, and he would take the lion's share of any money they earned on the streets. And the pittance that was left to them normally went his way too – the small packets of chemicals or bottles of spirits he sold would become more important to his employees than what shred of dignity they had before he entered their lives.

The noise was becoming louder now as the crowd grew bigger and bigger. Not the old-timers – they knew better than to get involved, and Strut had no interest in them anyway. They were too elderly or too weak to be of use to him. But gradually the younger ones, high on whatever substances they could get their hands on – crack if they could afford it; more likely stolen glue – were gathering round like a pack of hyenas, jeering and screaming at the sight in front of them. They had no reason to avoid Strut. He already had them in his pocket.

As she made her way through the crowd, she saw Strut standing there in a heavy overcoat, his bald head uncovered. He was a tall, strong-looking man with two unkempt henchmen, one on either side. At his feet a girl was crouched on the ground, a look of horror in her eyes.

She knew that girl. She had met her somewhere before.

It couldn't have been more than two weeks ago. She had been walking across Westminster Bridge when she had come across the pitiful sight of a young girl staring over the side, a vacant look in her eyes. She had stopped alongside her. ‘You're not thinking of doing anything stupid, are you?'

The girl didn't reply, so she tried again. ‘What's your name?'

The girl hesitated before stuttering, ‘M-Mary.'

‘Why don't you go home, Mary?'

‘I can't.' Mary answered forcefully and turned to look at her. Her face was dirty, but the grime could not hide the fact that she was young. Barely a teenager. ‘I can't,' she repeated, more quietly this time, her eyes welling up.

She understood. God knows she understood better than most. ‘When did you last have anything to eat?' Mary shrugged her shoulders as she turned back to look down at the fast-flowing current of the river. It was clear what she was thinking: with one jump the Thames would take her away and all her problems would be solved. ‘Do you know where the soup kitchens are?'

The young girl slowly shook her head.

‘Come on. I'll show you. There's no point staying hungry, and it's that or the bins.' She took Mary by the arm and marched her away. The last time she had seen her, Mary was hungrily sipping at hot soup from a polystyrene cup. It had been all she could do for her, really …

Tonight she looked different. Two weeks on the streets had changed her almost beyond recognition. You could tell she was young but she had lost that clear, fresh look in her face that had revealed she was a newcomer to the streets. Now she was dirtier, her face leaner and hungrier.
Around her lips and chin were the red pimples that told of a body that was undernourished and underwashed, and there was a soreness around her nose that suggested she too had been tempted by the sickly high of cheap glue.

One of the teenage boys who had congregated around the scene shouted out an obscenity, his voice high-pitched and wired. A few others laughed, and Mary turned to look at them in panic. Strut just ignored them.

‘One of this lot gave you a toke on her pipe last night.' His voice was hoarse, his accent south London. ‘And you haven't even thanked me.' He leaned over to meet her face to face and almost whispered, ‘I've had my eye on you for a few days.'

Mary stared at him with fear in her wide-open eyes. She didn't reply.

‘Better than a tube of glue, darling, and lots more where that came from. But you
going to come with me. I've got plenty of gentlemen clients who'll fall for
charms …'

Mary shook her head. Her body was shivering, but not from the cold. Strut breathed out heavily, impatiently. Then, with a deft movement, he put his hand in his coat pocket and removed a large flick knife. With one click, the point of the five-inch blade was resting gently on the underside of her chin. Mary gasped. ‘Get on your fucking feet,' he told her in a voice that wouldn't be argued with, ‘and stop pissing me about. I haven't got all night.'

Slowly she stood up, the cold blade resting on her skin as she did so. ‘Good girl,' Strut muttered, his voice less menacing now, but only just. He closed the knife, put it back in his pocket and grabbed hold of her arm. ‘Come on.'

Just as he was about to turn, Mary pulled away and
ran. It was a hopeless attempt, but the anger in Strut's eyes was violent nevertheless. ‘Get her,' he barked at his heavies.

It didn't take long for them to catch her. She couldn't get out of the human circle that surrounded them.

As one of them grabbed her shoulder, she fell on the hard path. Her face scraped along the concrete, but she didn't have time to put her hand to her cheek and feel the wetness of the graze before her hair was grabbed once more and she was pulled, struggling, back towards Bob Strut.

The two men each held one of her arms. ‘Get off me!' she screamed through her tears. ‘Let me go.' But they had no intention of doing that. Strut walked up to her, his face emotionless. He stood there for what seemed like ever to Mary, and gradually she stopped struggling, exhausted and aware that it was useless.

It was not until her screams became drawn-out whimpers that he hit her. The back of his hand suddenly lashed out and thumped the side of her face that was bleeding from the fall. He looked with distaste at the blood smeared on his hand, before wiping it on the unwounded side of Mary's face. Again, he removed his flick knife from his pocket.

Mary was too scared to cry out. As Strut pointed the knife towards her she could do little more than gasp for breath, until she found the words she was trying to say. ‘Please,' she wept, ‘please leave me alone. Please. I want to go home to my mum.'

Her wide eyes watched the blade as Strut slowly moved it towards her, relishing her fear before he inflicted his violence on her.

‘I just want my mum …' Her voice was quieter now, almost as if she was talking to herself.

‘Well, she doesn't want you, you little fucking bitch,' Strut whispered.

Nobody else spoke. Even the group of teenage junkies had fallen silent at the violence of the scene, and the noise of the traffic on the main road seemed to fade into the background.

And then the silence was broken.

The woman couldn't watch this any longer. ‘Leave her alone!' Her voice cracked as she spoke, so she repeated herself, more firmly this time but still with a faint tremor. ‘Leave her alone!'

Strut's knife stopped just millimetres from Mary's face.

‘She's fourteen years old,' the woman insisted. ‘Just leave her alone.'

Bob Strut turned round to see who dared talk to him like this, but her features were half obscured in the dim light. As she stepped forward, however, he saw that she had long, matted hair that had once been blonde, tied back into a ponytail that was frizzy with knots. She had black jeans, ripped in places, neatly patched in others, but filthy nevertheless, and she wore a beaten-up woollen coat that was done up to the top to protect her from the cold. Her face was thin, but her piercing blue eyes were bright and alert, and she held her chin high – everything about her body language spoke of a woman doing her best to hide her fear.

BOOK: Frankie
7.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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