The City Never Sleeps – Part 1

York, UK

Present day

————– Zoe Cargill————————— (by Edwin H Rydberg)

The night was cold with a bitter wind blowing through the streets of Walmgate. Zoe lay on the sidewalk, curled into a tight ball beneath a worn blanket that smelled of old food and body odour, and struggled to position herself for maximum warmth near the sewer grating. Several regulars were in the area with Old Charlie around the corner and Anne just down the block. She’d gotten lucky with the hot bench — not too comfortable, but it sat over a warm sewer grating and was off the ground.

Zoe was restless. The moon was full tonight and it shone straight into her eyes, nullifying any chance of sleep. Maybe she’d have better luck by the bridge nearer town. The risk of police and thugs was higher, but she knew a few dark places to hide which should be relatively safe. It was also surprisingly warm there since the water from the river gave off heat during the night.

Her blanket fell off as she sat up and Zoe shivered in the chill wind. Gathering the pack that held all her worldly possessions, and cramming the blanket into the top, she stood and began to make her way slowly up the street, working the kinks out of her joints.

As best she could recollect, tomorrow was her birthday. Or close — it was easy to lose track on the streets. Seventeen, going on forty. Hard to believe one year ago she was getting pissed with friends and gorging on cake. She’d grown up a lot in that time. She already felt like a veteran of life. Not the celebrated kind of veteran, but the kind who came home with PTS. The kind that everyone ignored until they completely lost it and shot up a small town.

Well, she wasn’t about to do that. No gun, she thought with a sardonic chuckle. Anyway, even if she found one, the first thing she’d do was trade it in for money to buy food.

As if in response, her stomach growled.

Damn, all this thinking about food had make her hungry. She wouldn’t be able to sleep until she’d found something and pickings were slim this time of night.

Zoe changed course. Staying in the shadows, she headed north into the city, closer to the clusters of restaurants — they’d been closed for hours and would be safer than the pubs, which only had very drunk patrons at this time of night.

It wasn’t long before she neared the large restaurants of the centre, and their back alley bins. The shadows were thick and deep and she strained to see and hear into the dark unknown, willing any predators visible. All seemed quiet and she continued down the dark gap between buildings.

It wasn’t long ago that she would have retched at the thought of eating from a bin. However, once she’d learned what to eat and what not to, it became a buffet. Zoe never ceased to be amazed at how much perfectly good food was thrown away.

She turned a corner and froze at a sudden sound. In the distance, a black form rose up from behind a bin. Heavy footfalls lumbered toward her. Zoe wanted to run but her muscles seemed petrified and she could only watch as the creature shuffled forward.

Then it paused, a shadowy arm reaching for her before a recognizable form toppled into the faint lamplight.

‘Charlie? Oh my god, Charlie! What’s wrong?’

 

————–Natasha————————— (by Margaret Evans)

It was one day in April that Natasha had most need of her special gift.

The north-easterly wind produced a chill on the Rowntree Park courts. But the sun in the cloudless sky dazzled her as she tossed the tennis ball high before powering it across the net. Her opponent just clipped it. The ball soared over the fence into the nearby shrubs and scrub.

‘I’ll go,’ Natasha called over her shoulder. She’d become expert at digging out fluffy yellow proverbial needles from the haystack of vegetation.

Using her racquet as a rake, experience telling her that bare hands were unwise, she delved through the undergrowth. In the past the detritus had ranged from the mundane crisp wrappers, plastic bottles, and empty cigarette packets to the more unexpected coat hanger, flip-flop and copy of The Communist Manifesto.

‘How are you doing?’ Natasha tuned into her tennis partner’s voice amid the squeals of playing children and someone calling with increasing annoyance after a dog.

‘Hang on. I think I see it.’ Then after some further scrabbling Natasha added, ‘Found it.’

As she stood up she dislodged from a branch a flimsy black cloth which brushed past her cheek. She shivered. And not due to the sun’s inability to penetrate the foliage. She picked up the shiny fabric with its strange zig-zag edge, and felt a tingle in her fingers like a small electric shock. That familiar feeling. Grandma used to say it was both a blessing and a curse. A strange emotional mix of happiness and apprehension spread through her emanating from the cloth’s owner.

‘Come on Tash. We’re getting cold waiting.’

She shoved the scrap into her shorts’ pocket. ‘Coming.’

‘Charlie, Charlie!’ the woman shouting her dog’s name was no longer exasperated but anxious.

Natasha started. The calling woman wasn’t a random stranger, but her neighbour Kelly. And more disturbingly she wasn’t calling for a dog.

Kelly rushed up and grabbed Natasha’s arm. ‘Thank God you’re here. You’ve got to help. Charlie’s disappeared.’

Natasha looked at Kelly’s drawn face and said, ‘I’m sure it’ll be ok. He can’t have gone far.’ He wasn’t the kind of three-year-old to wander off, she knew. More of a cling to his mother’s skirts type.

‘Is everything alright?’ Natasha’s tennis partner again.

‘I’m not sure. Can you come here for a moment?’ Natasha turned back to Kelly. ‘How long has he been missing?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve looked everywhere. We were watching some model boats, someone asked me for directions, the next thing I knew Charlie was gone.’ Kelly eyes’ teared up and she dabbed her cuffs at them.

Natasha laid her arm across Kelly’s shoulders. ‘I’ll get my friends to help. With all of us looking, we’ll find him in no time.

‘What’s up?’ asked one of the approaching tennis group.

‘Kelly’s son Charlie’s gone walkabout.’

‘Let’s help search. Have you got a photo of him?’ said another.

Kelly showed them the picture on her phone.

‘What’s he wearing?’

‘The Batman outfit in the photo,’ replied Kelly. ‘He got it for his birthday and refuses to wear anything else.’

Natasha’s stomach tensed. Batman’s cape. She grasped the fabric again without removing it from her pocket. The mood, Charlie’s mood, had changed. More apprehensive. And a strong sense of water.

 

 ————–Arthur’s little sister——— (by Gay Marris)

The therapist’s office was stuffy. A ceiling fan whirred, stirring the hot air. Cooling nothing.

‘Are you sitting comfortably, Louisa? May I get you a drink? Juice? Glass of water?’

Louisa remained silent. Her chair was too big. She was conscious of her feet dangling just above the floor. Without lifting her face to look at the lady opposite, she shook her head.

‘No? Oooookay, well if you’re ready, lets begin. Are you quite clear on why we’re having this chat?’

Louisa nodded. Still without making eye contact. ‘You want me to tell you what happened.’

‘Correct! Well done… tell me in your own words.’

‘Its really, really hard to explain.’

‘I know, sweetheart. I’m sure it is. But I really, really need to understand. You don’t have to tell me everything at once. You can have breaks. Say when you need to stop… Why don’t you begin by telling me what you were doing that day? Where were you? What were you doing?’

‘We were in the back garden of our house in Fishergate. It was springtime; the first day warm enough to play outside. Arthur and I had such a happy morning! We were trapping bumblebees to keep as pets. There’s a real knack to that, you know. You’ve to stand in wait by the flowering currant bush, ready with a jam jar.   I always hold the jar in my left hand and the lid in my right. Arthur’s left handed, so it’s the other way round for him. You have to be patient. No good going for bees when they’re flying about; you’ll just scare ‘em off. You have to wait until one’s actually properly on a flower. Then it stops paying attention to what’s going on around and pretty much concentrates on gathering pollen. That’s when to put the jar over and seal it quickly with a firm twist of the lid. Chops off the flowerhead and traps the bee! Job done!’

‘What a game! Poor old bumblebees. Did you and your brother catch many that morning?’

‘Yup. Got eleven! Lined ‘em up on the top step. But then we ran out of jars. That’s why Arthur went back into the house, to get more.’

Louisa stopped talking. She remembered seeing Arthur step from the dazzling bright outdoors and disappear, swallowed up by the dark indoors.….. She didn’t want to talk any more. She wanted to leave him inside the kitchen with Mother, waiting for fresh jam jars and leave herself, cross-legged on the lawn, receiving the sunshine on her face, hearing sparrows. Louisa closed her eyes and studied the insides of her eyelids. Bloody red and marmalade orange. Warm, safe colours.

‘Please go on, Louisa.’

‘I’m already a bit tired of this.’

‘How long was Arthur in the kitchen?

‘Don’t know… Long enough that the jars steamed up. The bumblebees’ wings got wet and stuck to the glass.’

‘He must have been gone for at some minutes then?’

‘S’pose so.’

‘What did you do while you were waiting? Did you go inside too?’

‘No. I picked daisies and made a chain, just like Aunt Miriam showed me. There’s a knack to that too, you know. You’ve got to pick ‘em with as long a stem as possible. You use your fingernails to nick a hole in the end of the stem.   Then you pass the stem of the next daisy through the hole, like threading a needle. You can get a decent chain quite quickly when you know the knack.’

‘How long was your chain?’

‘Five flowers.’

‘So you didn’t spend long on the chain?’

Louisa remembered the feeling of the damp grass. The wet soaked into her knickers making her tights itchy. Mother’ll be cross if ….

‘I’m tired of this story! You promised we could stop! I’m not talking to you anymore!!’

 

————– Gustavo————————— (by Jane Austin)

Gustavo was sitting on the bus on his way to an early shift at the hospital, when he overheard a disturbing conversation between two women in the row behind him.

‘Poor little lad, only six years old. He was wearing a batman outfit, the paper said.’

‘They live across the road from us; his mother hardly looks old enough to have kids, let alone four of them. I don’t know how she copes. The police are interviewing all the men in the street – it’s terrible.’

Gustavo felt a shiver run down his spine. He’d seen the posters calling for witnesses and had felt a stab of sorrow, followed by a fierce protectiveness for his own daughter. Now, a memory dislodged itself from a corner of his mind. It must have been last week, Thursday, when he’d covered for Maria, who had to leave early because her kid was sick.

The bus had been very full by the time he got on. When the doors opened at the first stop, he’d caught sight of a man pulling along a little boy in a colourful suit. He’d only seen them for a few seconds, as his view was blocked when the bus disgorged a load of passengers. If he had seen something he must report it, but how to explain he’d waited till now? The Missing poster showed a child in school uniform, but he hadn’t read the small print underneath. The last thing he needed was to be involved in a police investigation in a country he knew so little about. He was lucky to have this nursing job. He’d been out of work for a year, answered an advert to work in England, and within three months moved from sunny Madeira to medieval York.

Gustavo’s shift was more hectic than usual due to the horse races that day. There were a dozen sprained ankles as a result of wearing perilous heels, and any number of smartly dressed drunks to add to the usual tally. He’d been to the police station before going home and was exhausted by the time he got off the bus. He cut through to Walmgate and pulled up his collar against the rain, half expecting to see the girl he often saw huddled in a doorway. Sure enough, there she was, and tonight he gave her five pounds. He imagined what his wife would say.

‘Has that country made you go crazy, Gustavo? We need every penny so little Lina and I can join you.’

Sometimes, you just have to do the right thing.

The girl smiled up at him in recognition, and said, ‘Thanks a lot. I’ll buy food, I promise.’

‘Good girl,’ he said, nodding encouragement, hoping she wouldn’t become one of the hopeless cases that turned up in Accident and Emergency.

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