Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Jo.


She had her place outside the station. She told me her name was Jo, and I knew it was true 'cause I'd once heard one of her friends call to her from across the street.

The friend was equally as ragged, pale-faced and skinny as Jo was. Once, I’d seen the friend sitting, legs sprawled out right on the trodden ground, shrieking with joy at a puppy jumping up and down beside her. She had a half bottle of drink tucked under one armpit, and looked like pure joy; like a child unaware of her surroundings, shielded from the suspicious glances of passers-by.

I’d never seen Jo look that happy. She seemed to lose a day of life with each repetition of the same six words; ‘spare a bit of change please’. Not even as a question either - she’d repeat it like a mantra upon which her survival rested.

She might have looked a bit like me once. Mousy hair, average build, light eyes. She might have passed people like her on the street and shuddered with fear at the prospect of an existence so raw. She might’ve had a great appetite for food, a thirst for living, for being alive. Now she sat sullen, in her spot outside the station, and when food came it was joyless, and when life came – a glimmer of hope – it was fleeting.

When I talked to her one day, her speech jarred me. In my mind, she'd been muted by the six words I had heard so many times. They rung inside my head as I ascended the station steps each evening, knowing I’d find her in her usual place. Maybe I finally approached her after all that time just because I wanted to see if she could talk. And when she did, I was shaken into the reality of a real person reduced to a shadow.

She said she needed money to sleep somewhere that night. I said I could give her some. She said things were stressful, and that if she could rustle up enough for a flat, maybe things would get better. I knew I couldn’t save her. She knew that too, but it didn't stop her from asking. No trace of gratitude; at first I was shocked, almost hurt, by her nagging pursuit of more, of whatever she could get from me - the intrigued stranger.

But there is no place for courtesy in a loveless world, one where you take whatever you can, one where exhausting, persistent hardship requires you to grasp at anything and everything.

I was a friendly face when she told me her name and showed me the scars on her arms. One face in a sea of faces, or half faces, as they cowered away each day in their hundreds. I knew she wouldn't remember mine.