The city was empty. She wandered through silent streets, strangely lonely without the press of bodies, the sound of engines and the smell of exhaust fumes hanging over every intersection. She passed by shops and cafés, their doors open, their signs lit, but with no one inside. As she walked, her fingertips traced a pattern on the walls and railings that she followed at each turning; a thin line of rust, like a trail laid out for her. She wondered who could have left it there, seeming so natural, yet so purposeful. The trail passed over iron, stone and wood alike, not seeming to care for its own impossibility. It simply was, almost as if it had sprung into being for her alone to find.
She followed the trail as the sky above turned ashen grey with clouds and the wind picked up. She heard a lone bird’s distant cries, but apart from the wind they were the only sound. One tiny voice in the empty city.
She walked on, following the trail of rust. Somewhere in the back of her head she felt sure that the streets she followed weren’t quite connected up right. One moment she was on a road in Tottenham, then she turned a corner into Elephant & Castle, then another side-street that lead her out onto Tuffnell Park Road. The London in her dream was not the London she knew, but it was familiar all the same, and she became increasingly sure that her impossible path was leading her inexorably closer to the heart of the city.
At last she turned a corner and found herself faced with an ancient red-brick archway, stained black with a century of smoke and covered by a pair of heavy wrought-iron gates. The trail lead past the gates and into the deep shadow of the tunnel.
Again she heard a bird’s cry, this time quite close. She looked up and saw a raven perched atop a low wall. It cawed again and cocked its head to peer at her with one glossy black bead of an eye. She saw herself reflected there; a tiny figure, lost in her tattered white hooded jacket and patchwork jeans. A slim face, with the skin pale and pulled tight to the bones, peered out at her from under a nest of tangled blonde hair that spilled out over her shoulders.
The raven danced back a step and turned to look at the gate. She looked as well, reaching out to feel the rough texture of the iron. As her fingers brushed the metal she saw tiny patches of rust form. They began to grow, eating into the metal, spreading like frost on a window-pane. The heavy iron began to shrivel, staining red and crumbling away into tiny flakes, with a sound like dry paper, or dead leaves crunching underfoot. Instead of falling, the flakes of rust wafted gently upwards as if on a warm breeze, though the air was cold and still. The gate continued to dissolve, flaking away a few inches at a time, the cloud of rusted metal drifting upward into the grey sky.
With a loud cry the raven abandoned its wall and landed heavily on her shoulder. Talons dug into her jacket, but to her surprise she felt no pain. She had the curious impression that it had come to protect her, though from what, she wasn’t sure.
The last fragments of the gateway dissolved and she descended into the darkness of the tunnel, only the touch of her fingers against the wall to guide her through the gloom. She seemed to walk for a long time without any sound other than the slight ruffling of the bird’s feathers against her hair.
She emerged onto a street she did not know, but a glance upwards told her exactly where she was. The gleaming sharpness of the Shard Building rose above her. It was like a perfect blade of glass thrusting into the sky, as if it had somehow pierced the heart of the city and pushed out through the other side.
As she stared up at the tower of glass and steel, she saw lines of rust begin to crawl up the edges of the angular shape, dark red streaks that rose to the very tip of the blade. Against the shining mirror of the glass, the rust looked like dried blood. All around her the buildings that lined the streets began to dissolve into flakes of rust. Clouds of rusted metal drifted upwards into the sky as brick and concrete crumbled. Cracks lined the pavement, and twisting oak roots began to push up between the slabs. Only the Shard remained, the panes of glass crumbling away to reveal bright shining steel underneath, a knife blade poised to carve open the grey clouds overhead.
A steady drum roll brought Rachael to her senses. Rain hammered against the roof of the cardboard box which had sheltered her, as the chill of the morning air worked its way into her bones. She pulled her jacket tighter around herself and tucked her knees to her chin. Breathing hard into the small space that she had made between her legs and her belly, she tried to curl herself around the pocket of warm air that formed there. Her thoughts were a jumble, the fading ghosts of the dream still dancing through her head like scraps of paper caught on a breeze. Hammered down to nothing by the rain, the sides of the box gave way and her shelter collapsed around her. She pushed aside the sodden cardboard and shook off the rainwater. Digging into the trash pile by her bed, she pulled out a threadbare old backpack and slung it across her shoulders. She brought her hood up, pulled the drawstrings tight and hunched up against the sharp chill in the wind as she stepped out of the alleyway.
A flock of umbrellas drifted through the streets. Rain hammered at the fabric in a constant rhythm, adding another layer to the swelling sound of the city awakening. Her fingers itched and her muscles ached with the night’s sleep and the cold air. Glancing up at the buildings around her, keen eyes began to pick out a line. Then she tightened the straps on her backpack, set her head down and started to run.
She wove between the crowd, vaulted the railing that bordered the road and darted out through the traffic as horns blared and brakes squealed. The far railing vanished beneath her feet, and then she was leaping up to catch the lip of a windowsill. Toes dug into cracks in the brickwork, pushed her up to swing across to a drainpipe, and then she was scrambling upwards, ignoring the upturned faces below, ignoring the shouted complaints and muttered curses. She pulled herself up onto an open rooftop and fell into a sprint. Rain hammered down, but on the tar paper roofs her grip was sure. The air always seemed clearer up above the streets as she moved from rooftop to rooftop, dropping down into narrow roads, mantling low walls, and scrambling up buildings to reach the hidden routes that kept her free of the crush and the press of London.
She didn’t know where she was going to. She never did when she ran. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was running, the thrill of every jump nearly missed, the terror in every slippery step. The feel of the wind, as if she might take flight. When she ran, nothing mattered. When she ran, she was free.
When the coldness had finally left her body and her legs began to tire, she settled down on a low wall over-looking the entrance to a subway station. Her stomach was a knot of pain, twisted tight around nothing. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning.
Barely ten yards away a ragged man with a filthy beard, dressed in the remains of a blue puffer-jacket, had rolled out a mat of damp cardboard and laid a hat down for loose change. For a moment she thought of joining him. She’d heard from some of the vagrants that you could make good money in the right places. But then the police would come, as they always did. For men like him it meant little enough. They made their carefully prepared excuses as they hid their carefully prepared signs. Then they packed up, moved on, and found another spot to beg. Outsmarting the law began to look like an elaborate game, raw desperation hidden away beneath a kind of ragged pride.
She could never do that. A fourteen year old girl wasn’t the same thing as a wretched old alcoholic hoping for his next fix. For her, the police would pay attention. For her, there would be forms and procedures, and people in suits sitting in glass offices.
She couldn’t beg, any more than she could risk the shelters or the soup kitchens. She felt sure that the moment a teenage girl walked in, thin as a rail and shivering with the cold, there would be phone calls and policies to follow. There would be social services, and foster homes. Better the open sky and a rooftop where she could hear the pigeons fighting for roosting space. Even the hunger wasn’t so bad, when she thought about the alternatives.
She dropped down from the wall, pulling her hood down to conceal her face. Another wave of passengers emerged from the tunnels and she slipped between the press of bodies. She began to move faster, holding tight to the straps of her backpack with one hand, racing towards the platform below. A middle-aged man with a sharp haircut and a sharp suit was too busy looking at his phone to notice her. The man was solidly built, and when they collided she was thrown against the wall, slipping down three steps before she was able to steady herself. As the man staggered his phone tumbled from his hands, bouncing down the steps. Rachael saw a spiderweb of cracks fill the tiny screen.
Swearing at her, the man dashed back through the crowd, elbowing a young woman aside as he scrambled to pick up his shattered phone. Rachael didn’t wait for him to turn and look up. Leaping to her feet, she dashed back up the steps and out onto the street again. At the next underpass she took the steps down and sprinted through the narrow tunnel to the far side of the road.
Secluded in a side-street, she leaned back against the wall and struggled to breathe. With shaking hands she reached into her pocket and pulled out the fat leather wallet that she had lifted from the man’s jacket. The trembling in her fingers was so bad that the first time she tried to open the wallet it fell on the ground, scattering credit cards. She scooped it up quickly and sifted through the contents. Accusing eyes stared up at her from a driver’s license; a hard, scowling face. The man couldn’t even manage to smile for a photo booth. She flipped through the debit and credit cards, discarding them all until she found one in bright blue, with the word ‘Oyster’ emblazoned across the front. That one she pocketed. Prepaid rail cards were always a good find. At the back of the wallet she found a crisp twenty pound note, and a fiver that had been folded up behind the driver’s license. Tucking the money into her sock, she wiped the wallet on her sleeves and dropped it into a sewer grating. Her heart was still pounding in her chest as she walked away.
The MacDonald’s by Kings Cross Station was a narrow, L shaped space, wrapped around the corner of a building. It was a little past one by the time she got there, and the place was packed with tourists, teens, clean cut suits and yellow jacketed workmen. She slipped into the crowd and stayed quiet.
As the queue moved forward she was jostled and elbowed, squeezed between the taller men and women around her. She caught glimpses of wrinkled noses and disgusted or pitying glances. She mumbled her order to boy behind the counter, trying not to meet his eyes, and a minute later she was squeezing through the crowded doorway with a greasy paper bag clutched to her chest.
It was hard to keep herself from cramming whole handfuls of food into her mouth right there and then. She forced herself to be patient, tucking the paper bag away in her backpack. Better to find somewhere quiet, somewhere safe. From across the street she caught a heavyset man staring at her. He was leaning against the wall with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of a brown leather jacket. By his heels sat a large brown mastiff, rippling with muscle under mangy fur. Just like his dog, the man had an ugly look about him, his shaved scalp revealing a long and jagged scar. She shivered, and chose a different way.
She kept moving, following weaving paths across the streets and buildings, moving up high when she could. The rain was still coming down heavily, soaking through her jacket and into her backpack. The craving for food was made worse by having it so close, growing damp in the pouring rain as she ran. Finally she arrived at a familiar back-street between an office building and a hair salon, with a wooden fence across one end. Some empty rubbish bins made an easy step up to the top of the fence, and from there she could swing across to the sill of a bricked up window at the back of the salon. Holes in the crumbling brickwork formed hand and foot holds, until she could grip the edge of the sloped roof and pull herself up. Then it was just a matter of bracing herself on the sharply angled black slates and kicking off across the gap to land on the roof of the office building.
She almost missed the jump. The worn down soles of her trainers, all the grip long since gone from the rubber, skidded on the soaking wet slates. She tumbled, flailing, and her fingers barely snagged the edge of the office roof. Gripping tight, she tucked her legs up in front of herself and only just managed to soak up the impact with the wall. For a moment she just held on, the stone parapet tearing at her fingers. She felt paralysed, unable to make any movement for fear of falling, but sure that any moment now her grip would fail. At the last moment she kicked out with all the strength her legs had, hauling herself upwards, oblivious to the pain in her hands. Muscles burning, she dragged her body over the edge of the rooftop and collapsed onto the other side.
She stared at the sky, drawing ragged breaths, feeling every muscle burn with the strain. The cold air tore at her lungs as the rain washed over her face. She flexed her fingers experimentally, and tried to move her arms a little. Blinking, she shook the water from her eyes. The rain was finally easing off.
She rolled over onto her knees and stood up. It had been a while since she’d missed that jump. She’d been so distracted by the hunger that she hadn’t even considered the wet slates. Feeling like kicking herself, she trudged across the rooftop to a familiar hidey-hole beneath a ventilation duct. The duct was warm, and tucked away beneath it she felt her clothes begin to dry a little. She undid the hood of her jacket and let her hair spill out.
Unzipping her backpack, she pulled out the now sodden paper bag. Her burger was damp, the bread all mushy on one side, but she hardly cared. She forced down mouthful after mouthful, any other thought obliterated by the simple ecstasy of food. She devoured a box of fries just as quickly, washing it all down with sips of water from a plastic bottle. Finally she eyed the second burger she’d bought. Fighting temptation, she tucked it away for later.
Delving into her pack once more, she produced a bundle of plastic bags which she carefully unwrapped. Inside was a large pad of stiff white paper, somewhat wrinkled with damp despite the plastic, and a small bundle of pencils. Resting the pad on one knee, she picked out a soft pencil and began to sketch. Bold lines swept across the page, picking out the rough shape of the river, bulbous and grey, the North Bank skyline rising like crooked teeth above it.
Hours passed as she lost herself in the movements of the pencil on the paper. When the sun finally showed itself from behind the thick blanket of cloud, it was long past noon. Her legs were numb, pins and needles sparking as she moved them for the first time in hours.
She looked down at the page again, seeing the whole drawing for the first time. She had half a mind just to scrap it, but instead she closed the sketchbook and carefully wrapped it up again. The battered pages were filled with abandoned pieces, never quite as good as she wished they could be. In the plastic bag lay another four sketchbooks, their pages all filled with the results of an endless succession of empty days. They were warped by the damp and mostly falling apart, but she kept them all the same.
She crawled out from the space under the vent and stood up to stretch her sore muscles. As she stood, her eyes took in the rooftop and she stopped dead, clutching her bag to her chest in alarm.
The boy was perched on the far edge of the roof, crouched low, his feet balanced on the parapet. There were holes in his jeans and he wore boots that must have come from an army surplus store. The tails of a long black coat were bunched around his heels. The way he perched, he looked a little like a bird.
His look of astonishment mirrored her own. For a moment they both stared at each other, not moving, not breathing. Then, unable to help herself, she glanced away. It was only for an instant, her eyes searching for a way down, wanting to be sure of an escape. When she looked back to the boy, her breath caught in her throat. He had vanished. It had only been an instant that she had looked away, but already he was gone. She heard a flutter of wings. Startled pigeons taking flight.
She ran to the edge of the roof and looked down, sure he must have jumped off. It was three stories, a hard drop even with a hang from the edge; she’d done it herself, once or twice, but it had frightened the life out of her every time.
The street was empty. There was no sign of him at all.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.