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This is a shortlisted story for the 2011 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
I wait in the queue. With functional formica tables and a blue acrylic carpet dark enough to conceal stains, it is like the other adoption agencies: bleak, barren and inauspicious. ‘Robert Bale? Robert Bale?’ calls a receptionist. I rise, chair creaking in complaint, and am directed into an office. The silence, such a blatant contrast to the cacophonous children’s home, only adds to the wan, ashen setting, interrupted solely by the susurration of an aged air-conditioning unit. A woman with unnaturally black hair pinned into a pleat, wearing magenta lipstick to match her spectacles, a grey blouse, charcoal skirt and ‘flesh’-coloured tights on her fleshy legs, appears behind the desk. She passes me a sheaf of papers without comment, and the atmosphere oozes discomfort: yet another rejection. Even the paper sags in disappointment.
Mrs Jonson explains that on my sixteenth birthday I will no longer be legally eligible to stay at Honeytree Children’s Home. I am fifteen, my birthday just two months away in October. A sense of impending doom floods my system; my body visibly stiffens. Yet there is reassurance; the local Somerfield, she proffers, gives children from the Home work, and the agency will fund a rented room for me until I have experienced a year’s employment.
The caterwauling of monotonous machinery floods the checkout. In a scratchy, turquoise-green T-shirt and too-long, starch-stiffened apron, I stand, already weary of the discordant sounds, my arm aching mercilessly from scanning myriad barcodes. During the lunch hour, Andy and Garcia join me on the wooden park bench in front of the store. It being my first week, I ask questions, they answer, and by the end of our break Andy and myself have discovered a surprising amount in common: we are both partial to Marmite sandwiches, Top Gear and Jimmy Carr. After three more hours of barcode ordeal, I return to the bedsit above the betting shop, ravenously consume an insubstantial dinner, and, finally alone, ask myself the same unanswerable questions that dog my waking hours: Why was I abandoned? Might there have been a couple willing to take me in – if only I’d found them? Who were my parents and where are they now? Empty and exhausted, I sleep fitfully.
Over the months, I find family in colleagues. Andy moves to the till beside me with the permission of the manager, Mr Belson, and we develop a kind of friendship. We never discuss our upbringing. We spend breaks between laborious shifts together and on a whim sign up for the Somerfield Community Service Team, devoting the odd day off to walking dogs for arthritic old ladies and clearing litter from the adventure playground on the estate. Emboldened by our selfless endeavours, we decide to start a youth football club, and our shared devotion to the mighty West Ham, coupled with some rusty ball skills, further binds us together. Remembering my birthday, Andy organises a surprise party for staff to celebrate my seventeeth. I return home grinning with pride, full of cider and a growing sense of security.
The following morning brings a letter. Crisp, white, stamped first class – surely from the adoption agency. Mrs Jonson regrets to inform me that they have, in accordance with regulations, withdrawn their funding but wish me all the best.
Despite the agency’s eagerness for me to prosper, I cannot help but flounder without their financial assistance. Within weeks, my bank account is empty. I leave the flat and, that night, sleep rough in my bedding. The South Bank: a homeless ghetto. Grey concrete skyscrapers mirror the gaunt, sallow faces. Successful businessmen, well-fed in too-tight tailored suits, consulting ostentatious watches, stride purposefully past the poorest of the poor without sparing so much as a glance or the price of a cup of tea. As I prepare my makeshift bed in a tenebrous alley, I discover I have unwittingly encroached upon the territory of another homeless group; they gesticulate and swear, words asphyxiated by bedraggled beards, confiscate my envied pillow malevolently and banish me with all-too-believable threats. I flee, find shelter elsewhere and finally sleep. I wake without a sheet as it begins to drizzle and my nostrils flare in recognition of the pungent stench of urine.
I trudge to work, my uniform a little more creased than before. Customers seem unusually silent at my checkout and seize their bags impatiently; in the street during the lunch break, workers hurriedly divert their paths. These actions seem to me enigmatic, incomprehensible. Finally, a child loudly asks her harassed mother why I smell of ‘wee’, and all becomes clear. Andy, half in jest, offers me a bath at his; I accept, explaining that a pipe has burst at my bedsit. He proposes that I stay the night in the spare bedroom. Initially hesitant, I reason with myself and conclude that a bed and running water more than make up for any loss of dignity.
I ponder Robert’s disquieting behaviour as my scum-surfaced mug of tea cools; the new odour that clings to him is unmistakable, his once-shiny hair is grimy with grease and his filthy clothes reek of neglect. Concerned and suspicious, I drink until the tea-stained, ceramic bottom is visible, then pour the stewed remains from the teapot into my now empty mug. It is a longstanding family joke that I am a glass-half-empty sort of person, but a powerful instinct is telling me that something is wrong. Something has happened to Robert. I clear away the china and make my way to bed, where I wait for sleep, trying to make sense of the day’s events.
I set the breakfast table for two, reminding myself that my parents are away in the Algarve. Glancing at the postcard they sent, with its vivid colours, smiling, tanned people and the glorious, too-good-to-be-true sun, I call Robert, wishing Mum and Dad were back. He seems refreshed, genuinely touched that I have washed and ironed his clothes – my friend seems to have travelled back two years, to the day I first saw him; a little more confident perhaps, a little less vulnerable. This morning’s stark contrast to the Robert who arrived last night only intensifies my confusion and anxiety, and I am suddenly compelled to ask him exactly where he lives. A pause engulfs the room; he asks if perhaps he could stay for two more days, until Saturday.
Saturday comes and Robert announces that he has a proposal: he will pay half the rent and bills if I will let him stay as my flatmate. With difficulty, I explain that the flat is owned by my parents, who I live with. There is no spare bed, just the room they have vacated in search of a little winter sun. He asks about the going rate for rent and I volunteer that the lowest is around £600 a month – too much for a Somerfield checkout assistant. His face contorted by disappointment and a suggestion of jealousy, he thanks me in a choked voice, opens the door and ambles, disheartened, down the stairs.
By the following Friday, Robert’s situation has clearly deteriorated and I decide I must go to see the store manager, Mr Belson. He is sitting at his desk, discussing sales figures with a sullen, spotty girl from Accounts. I wait at the door until he notices me, then knock.
‘Good morning, Mr Belson.’ A hiatus ensues as I clear my throat.
‘Mr Belson, I’m worried about Robert Bale. He’s not looking after himself; his uniform’s not been washed in weeks and he looks terrible. He stayed at my flat last week and all he would say is that a pipe had burst at his bedsit.’
‘And you don’t believe him?’ infers Mr Belson. I stutter, pause, then respond.
‘I don’t know why he’d lie, but it seems far more serious than that. Maybe he’s ill – depressed perhaps. Or something’s wrong at home.’
‘You may not be aware, Mr Wright, but Robert was placed here by Honeytree Children’s Home, who always withdraw funding of a charge’s accommodation after he or she has been employed by a local company for a year. Mr Bale must have been struggling with his rent for quite some time now. Do you think he could have been sleeping rough?’
At a loss for words, I nod, then walk to the door modelling an awkward smile.
‘Andrew, I would prefer it if you didn’t mention this conversation to Robert.’
‘Of course not, Mr Belson, I understand.’
I leave the room, closing the aluminium door soundlessly with a quivering left hand. Robert had seemed so stable, an ordinary boy who had left school without the qualifications necessary to get a better job. a sixteen-year-old who liked football, fast cars and going to the pub on Friday night. In fact, someone just like me. Except that he couldn’t be more different.
I had expected too much, been given too little in return.
Why had I been rejected by my parents, left to struggle alone, when Andy lived so easily, was loved, admired, destined one day to become manager with his charisma and calm capability?
As I wait outside Mr Belson’s office, with its unvarnished aluminium door, I sense finality. Promotion seems unlikely, yet surely appropriate – for everything I have been through that they haven’t, that Andy hasn’t. Babied by his parents, doted on, dependent. I deserve the flat, the bed, the pay rise. The Manager ushers me in and his blank expression suggests that the conversation is not to be positive. In a low, steady voice he explains.
‘Mr Bale, it has come to my attention that you may have been sleeping rough recently. Is this true?’
‘Well, sir -‘
‘True or false, Robert?’ he asks sternly but with sympathy.
‘Mr Belson, the children’s home has withdrawn its funding. I have been thrown out onto the streets.’
He stares with curiosity rather than pity.
‘I am so sorry. The rules, however, are as follows: Somerfield employs no homeless people. I will double your final pay packet as a gesture of goodwill; there is nothing else I am legally able to do, unfortunately.’
My voice suddenly hoarse, I quiz: ‘Did Andy inform you?’
‘Robert, it would be unprofessional to answer that question. It was, however, in your best interests – and I respect the concern he has for you.’
I leave the supermarket in the driving rain, without a coat, a home or parents. A pair of pigeons roosts above an advertisement hoarding, calling softly and huddling together. As bruised, livid clouds unleash steely, frigid sorrow upon the city, I understand that there is nothing left in life for me.
Rain becomes sleet, and I sleep, unsheltered, from exhaustion, toes and fingers numb and senseless and a heart as frozen as the ice that falls insidiously around my slumbering form.
Robert’s email, like all the others, reads:
How are Mummy and Daddy?
Safe and sound at home?
You live with your parents at almost 20 – what can I say?
The Internet C@fe, South Bank
Since I had moved out, the letters had stopped coming but the online taunting was inescapable. The sense of calculated confrontation was unbearable, my feelings of regret overpowering. Robert refused to see that I had been trying to help him – that I could not have known how it would backfire. Had I foreseen the ominous future, I would have contacted Social Services rather than Mr Belson.
On an ill-timed visit to my parents’ house, I noticed among the double-glazing flyers and takeaway menus that arrive on the doormat daily in a steady, unwanted stream, a scrap of paper imitating an envelope, addressed to me. Robert’s note was full of the usual bile and bitterness. As so many had done before, it warned me of his suicidal mood, but this time it was alarmingly specific. He intended to end his miserable life by West Reservoir, a mile or so from my parents’ flat, at 3pm precisely.
Traffic halts all hope of saving Robert. Cars half-covered in flaking paint screech as they round the corner almost as loudly as their obese, skin-headed drivers, who, in obsolete anger, grope for every expletive that has ever been hurled at them. My watch reads 2:56; abandoning the car, I rush towards the bridge, the most likely – if clichéd- place to end a blighted life.
As the heavy rain darkens the industrial concrete, its texture and shade metamorphosing simultaneously, it appears that Robert has not carried out his threat. Exhaling, I return to my vehicle, then park on the pavement before sitting on a graffitied bench to wait for my troubled friend. Piercing the clouds is a single, burnished shaft, and as the clouds dissipate into the dazed atmosphere, there is a disturbed silence. It seems everything has paused to listen to the faint creak echoing in the cavernous space beneath the bridge. Fearing what must be, I retch involuntarily and, clutching my mobile, peer over the rail.
The roar of the rush hour and the pelting of the relentless rain had camouflaged his muffled cries, smothered a life unlived. I phone the police, battling the tide of emotion. In response to my shock and instinctive disgust, raindrops hurl themselves, like Robert, at the ground, leaving stains that will never truly dry. Almost without thinking, I drive to Somerfield, enter the manager’s office, inform him of the news, and with all my will focus on remaining conscious. I return to the flat silently and fall upon my old bed, smothering the sobs.
Why didn’t he tell me? Why did I never ask about his family? Why didn’t I let him share mine?
Robert Bale, the boy who lost his life twice. The most unfortunate 17-year-old I ever knew. The brother I never had.
Chester Felix Finbar Pylkkanen is 13 years old and has just started at St Paul’s School in West London. For as long as he can remember, he has been obsessed with reading anything and everything and in his spare time enjoys writing both prose and poetry. Favourite authors include Dickens, Hardy, Hemingway, William Blake and Carol Ann Duffy. When he is not reading or writing, Chester can be found strumming his guitar, singing, playing rugby or eating Asian food. He lives in South London with his English mother, his Finnish father and his younger sister Scarlett.