FICTION: Love on the Streets

‘Yuk, that’s bogging.’

     Willie is the love of my life, the light in my eyes, but his Gregg’s choices are dodgy.

     ‘You’re havering Sal. This is my kingdom,’

     Willie extends his arm, sweeping across the view of the end of

Edinburgh’s Rose Street, hamming it up, like an old actor in a play,

     ‘and this is food fit fer a king.’

     He bites into it, with more uncalled for overacting. Mashed potato and baked beans piled on top of a Scotch pie. The whole thing deftly balanced in the baker’s paper bag.

     ‘It’s no, it’s bogging. Just watching you eat it makes me wantae puke.’

     He grins at me, the smile that gets me every time, the complete stomach flip.

     ‘Well I minded that you dinnae appreciate king’s food, and so my queen, I got ye a sausage roll.’

     He offers a Gregg’s bag; the greasy shape of the sausage roll, shining through, confirms the contents. I can feel the warmth of the pastry through the paper, and my mouth fills with saliva. We hadnae any spare money fer breakfast, hungers hovers in my stomach above yesterday’s too sweet cider.

     ‘Thanks Willie, that’s magic. I’m starving.’

     I retreat back to the shelter of my usual doorway; a cardboard box folded on the ground, is meant to protect me from the damp pavement chill, but I’m still cold. I cup both hands round the warm sausage roll and sniff the familiar smell, before biting through the hot, flaky pastry, catching the first edge of the soft and slightly salty meat between my teeth. I eat it slowly to make the pleasure last.

     I always sit here. It allows me to watch his performance, but I’m far enough away not to cramp his style. Willie has a grand way with women.

     A woman is coming along Rose Street towards us now. Her high heels ring out on the pavement. As she gets closer to Willie she ducks her head and clamps her arm across her chest to her shoulder, I can see the knuckles of her left hand whiten, as she clenches tightly on the handle of her expensive bag, as if she expects it to be wrenched away.

     I’m know I’m supposed to keep well out of Willie’s performance, but anger rises through me like heat. It takes all my self-control to keep my words muttered under my breath,

     ‘We’re no thieves ye stupid bitch.’

     Willie hears me and glares.

     ‘Shoosh you,’ he hisses, before stepping out to begin his act.

     ‘Big Issue lovely lady? My first sale ae the day and you look like yer feeling generous.’

     He anticipates her side swerve around him, and steps back to give her more room, ushering her past, with a theatrical bow. The woman never raises her head but the loud tut reverberates up the high walls of Rose Street.

     Willie just shrugs. It breaks my heart when they’re rude tae him.

     ‘Told ye she was a bitch. Ye shouldnae have wasted yer breath on her.’

     ‘No hen, a ken that type, that’s a Morningside lady, all fur coat and nae knickers.’

     ‘Thon’s no a fur coat, it’s blue fer a start.’

     ‘You ken fine what I mean,’ he replies.

     ‘Well, whatever her coat, she’s a bitch.’

     He’s already walking away, ready to ambush the next person. This time a girl of maybe twenty, dressed from head to toe in black. Big heavy boots with black laces all the way up over her ankles. Black skinny jeans, black tights visible through the horizontal tears in the fabric. A leather jacket covered in studs. The glint of the metal also from the rings in both her nostrils and the many rings fringing her ears, in my head she tinkles and chinks. Her hair is dyed black and gelled to stick up like a crown, and her face is blanked white with make-up, except her lips and eyebrows that are painted black. It’s a really cool look. I ken this lassie, she’s one ae Willie’s favourite customers.

     ‘What a bonny sight fer sair een. Here comes my Princess, looking as gorgeous as ever.’

     She’s already digging in her jacket pocket for money.

     ‘Hiya, Willie, how’re ye doing.’

     She gives him the coins and he catches her hand as she reached for the magazine, her fingernails were gnawed short and painted black.

     ‘I’m doing pure dead brilliant darling.’ He blows her a kiss before releasing her hand, and she gives him a small wave from her wrist, then she takes the magazine. Willie’s maybe as old as her grandfather, and I love her fer humouring him.

     ‘See ye, Willie,’ she says with another smile.

     Willie’s patter has been on top form, and within two hours all the magazines are gone. I budge up to give him room on the cardboard and he hugs me. I know his breath smells ae cider and his coat’s a bit rank, but I love that he’s my man, and expect I dinnae smell that marvellous either.

     ‘Another lovely day ae freedom, whaur will I whisk ye tae theday my pet? Howzabout a wee dander through Princes Street Gardens? Let’s grab some cider and hike over tae oor favourite bench.’

     ‘That’d be grand.’

     I smile, and wriggle my arm to loop through his. I have to concentrate to match his stride. My boots; lifted from outside a charity shop, are too big for me, and my toes are so cold I cannae grip wi’ them. Using a kindae scuffling skip, I manage to keep up. We cross the confusion of tram rails and kerbs on Princes Street, before reaching the Gardens. I look and smile into his grimy, happy face. Willie makes me feel safe.

It’s taken all the way into June this year, but finally, a sunny day has turned up. I celebrated by binning my socks. My feet were too hot in boots and somehow my grubby socks seemed determined to crawl down around my heels. But this was a crap idea, the boots rubbed my bare feet and now every step is torture.

     ‘Willie, can we no turn in? My feet are killing me.’

     ‘Sorry, hen, no yet.’ The path’ll be mobbed wi’ people, first wee blink ae sun and they all think they’re in Spain.’

     Our new sleeping spot is a secret. We inherited it fae Wee Eric, who doesnae need it on account of being housed in Saughton Prison for three months. We’re careful to make sure that no one sees us go in or out.

     It’s after ten before Willie eventually relents. He has to take my hand to steady me, as I limp down the cobbled wynd that curves round below Dean Bridge. We make our way under its huge arches and sit on the wall, waiting for the path to be empty. The next bit is even more difficult than normal, I simply cannae climb the steep slope in my boots. Kicking them off, it’s a relief tae feel the cool earth under my toes, as Willie takes my hand and hauls me up the slope. Eventually we reach the top and retrieve our sleeping bags from their hiding place, then we crawl under the shelter ae the bridge overhang.

     ‘Listen to me peching. I think maybe Eric forgot that I’m no that young anymore.’

     ‘I think yer fitter than Eric, he’s that busy sticking stuff in his arm he forgets to eat.’ I tell him.

     I’m relieved tae coorie into my sleeping bag right up against Willie. Warm happiness trickles through me, as we share a litre ae cider, and we watch the last of the pink light drain out ae the sky behind the grand houses on the high bank opposite. This place is beautiful. Soon, the noise of the traffic diminishes to the occasional car over the bridge, leaving only the sound of the rushing stream below.

     There are only a few hours of wakeful darkness, before the light starts tae come back and the birds go crazy with singing. I wriggle out of my sleeping bag to inspect my sore feet, they dinnae look too clever. Blisters have burst on both my heels and little toes, and my feet are extra filthy from the walk up the bank. I exchange a glance with Willie, nothing’s said, but we both remember, that Molly died of blood poisoning the year before, after letting her dirty feet get infected.

     ‘Come on Sal, I’ve got just the thing,’ Willie says.

     He scoops up the poly bag he’s been trailing about all the day before, and helps me back down the hill to the path.

     ‘Wait here on me,’ he says.

     I wait. What daftness is he up tae now?

     He comes back hauling a wooden pallet we passed yesterday, propped against the bins at the top of the hill.

     ‘This is just the job,’ he says triumphantly.

     ‘What are you on about?’ I ask.

     ‘Come and ye’ll see. Ye’ll need to put yer boots on fer the next bit.’

     He leads me through a gate, and down a path through the undergrowth, until we reach a wall, beyond which, is a five-foot drop to the riverbank.

     ‘I’ve thought aboot this afore, but I couldnae work oot how we’d get back up again, watch this.’

     Willie lowers the pallet down to the river bank until it is propped against the wall, then he hoists himself onto it before helping me follow, we use the pallet slats like a ladder to get down to ground level.

     ‘First of all breakfast.’ He pulls out a handful of biscuit wrappers; each holds a single shortbread finger, where there had once been two.

     ‘Katya,’ I say.

     The sweet biscuits are my favourite, just perfect. Willie has befriended this Polish chambermaid fae the Caley Hotel. He used to doss in the graveyard opposite before he got moved on. She would chat to him when she left work. Now she sometimes gives him things from the rooms that are heading for the bin.

     We’re sitting on two boulders, and from this angle it’s as if we’re alone in the middle ae the countryside. A wee yellow bird flits between the stones, bobbing its tail up and down, above the rush of the noisy river.

     ‘This is braw.’

     ‘It’s mair than just braw,’ Willie replies, ‘it’s your personal spa.’

     Then he produces a couple of tiny cakes of soap from the bag.

     ‘Coz I’m afraid tae tell ye that yer feet are maukit.’

     I laugh but he’s right, my feet are disgusting.

     ‘Chuck me the soap then.’ Walking on all the wee jaggy stones isnae easy, I stick my arms out for balance like an aging and wobbly gymnast. The cold shock when I dip my foot in makes me shout.

     ‘It’s fucking freezing!’

     ‘Shoosh you, ye dinnae want tae wake oor posh neighbours.’

     The streets nearby on either side of the river, but out of sight from here, are some of the poshest and dearest in Edinburgh. My legs are soon clean but also numb. I decide to go the whole hog and pull off my jumper to scrub my face, neck and even my oxters.

     ‘I feel like one ae they Norwegians,’ I tell him, with a grin.

     ‘Whatever floats yer boat,’ he replies with a laugh, face all covered in soap.

     I have a lot of trouble, clambering back to the bank over the green slippery stones. I feel so clean and fresh, my boots now look even less attractive.

     ‘Gie me those, I’ll carry them.’

     Then Willie reaches into his bag and pulls out a pair of white hotel slippers.

     ‘You’re bloody brilliant,’ I tell him.

     Then we climb over the pallet and back up to the path. We sit on a bench beside the old millstones and polish off the rest of the biscuits, while we wait for my feet to dry off. For a while we’re just quiet together, with the birds and the noisy river, and the smell of trees and earth. Our life is often uncertain, sometimes even dangerous, but Willie’s taught me how to appreciate a lovely moment when it comes along. Most of my lovely moments are found outside like this, and usually delivered by him.

     Willie picks up the wrappers and passes me my boots.

     ‘Now that yer smelling like a lily, we’ll go down Stockbridge and find ye some better shoes fer the summer, there’s hunners ae charity shops down there and I ken a couple that’ll gie us a good deal. Oh, and I’ve got one mair trick.’

     He dives in his carrier again and tosses me a wee packet. ‘It’s one ae they free bags fae a plane.’ Inside is a toothbrush and paste, plus a pair of socks.

     I kiss his stubbly cheek, ‘I love you,’

Jane Anderson is a writer based in Edinburgh. This extract comes from her first novel, Love on the Streets, which was finished in early 2017. Jane is interested in authentic Scots rhythm, and explores human emotion as a backdrop to the terrible hardship of homelessness.