‘They’re angry because they’re frightened. They don’t know what else to do.’
The silver-haired man in the patched and faded jeans is speaking up close to Sarah’s ear. He is careful not to look at her face but instead stares over her shoulder so that his gaze skims over the frail old lady who is restlessly waving stick. It comes to rest, finally, on the face of her companion, slightly younger and vaguely androgynous. Every so often, she bends over her friend, smoothing the confusion of her hair.
There are no young people here. The mean age is probably seventy. But most of those who appear to be younger bear the outward signs of illness or handicap. Some people are confined to wheelchairs, others are partially-sighted; there are those who can barely breathe and some who are crippled and wasted. The effects of osteoporosis and vitamin deficiency are also much in evidence. People do not eat like they used to now the cost of foodstuffs has soared.
Fuel, too, has gone up and up so people have to make choices. It is better to be hungry than to perish from the cold.
The unvarnished truth is that, like it or not, there are just too many people. All of them are uncomfortable and some of them are utterly bemused. Probably, they would be mill about if they only had the space to do so. One can tell from their faces that they are both frightened and confused. As it is, they are pressed back to back and fragile shoulder to shoulder, crammed together in this tiny space for hours at a time.
It is impossible to guess whose turn will come next. There is no discernible system. There is nothing for it but to watch and wait and hope for the best.
First thing every morning, the noise is oppressive. Everyone is talking very loudly. There is pushing and shoving; sometimes screaming. People fall over in the crush. Eventually, however, the hubbub subsides and settles down to a kind of hum. Occasionally, someone coughs or farts or, worse, somebody weeps.
The air is thick with the stink of fear, rank BO, and urine. Sarah tries not to think about this. She knows she will need to go soon. How long, she wonders, can she cross her legs before the strain of it is just too much for her? The last time she wet herself she was eleven years old. It was half-way through evensong in the church of St Michael and St Andrew. It was winter time and the unheated church was unbelievably cold. She should have gone before she left home. Her mother was always reminding her. Such was her anguish and humiliation she hid behind a grave stone. Later, she sat in a shallow bath and sobbed till she thought her chest would burst.
Sarah doesn’t know the man at her side but his voice is reassuring. Once or twice, he has reached out his hand on her arm and laid it down lightly on her arm. It is an odd feeling, a man’s hand, those pale, slender fingers. Connor’s hands were big and strong. It seems to her a long time ago.
‘I know,’ she whispers, ‘and they’re all so young. Part of me wants to feel sorry for them.’
She does not turn towards the man but stares steadily ahead. ‘Look at that one over there by the fence. She can’t be more than twenty. What makes a pretty girl like that get involved in something like this?’
The man smiles a quick, tight smile and raises one overgrown eyebrow. Why does the fact that the girl is so pretty somehow make it worse? Sarah doesn’t know but it does make it worse – and then she is suddenly exhausted. She wants nothing so much as to rest her cheek against this stranger’s chest.
‘What is your name? ’ she asks him softly.
She turns her face towards him. His grey eyes seem to glow with kindness and the smallest hint of a smile. This, she thinks, may be the last time, the very last time she does this. But, just as she thinks it, the barricade lifts and she hears the tell-tale click.
‘You, you, you and you.’
The words come spitting like bullets. The speaker is blond with the kind of beard a young man grows because he can. Sarah feels the bolt-t nuzzle her ribs, persuading her nearer her comforter. It seems that, after all, the time has passed for the giving and receiving of names.
Too late, she thinks. It is always too late.But she takes the trembling hand he offers. The years fall away like flesh from the bone as she follows him into the light.
(First published by Word Gumbo in October, 2011