“Can you spare any change please?” They walked past her without stopping for what seemed like the umpteenth time today. She picked up her bin bag of items and hobbled on. It was getting dark; the shops were closing up and the last of the suited commuters were leaving town. She pulled out a pair of unravelling gloves and an old woollen scarf, and sat down in the doorway of Blanchard’s Bakery. The warmth from the ovens still hung around the door like hungry spirits, and the smell of bread, and biscuits, and cakes permeated the street, filling her empty stomach. She rifled through her pockets to see how much change she had managed to collect through the day. 73p. That might be enough to buy a bun in the morning. Or a Gregg’s sausage roll, but she hated the flaky pastry shards that stuck to every fibre, and the greasy residue that covered her fingers.
The streetlights lit the streets with their bright, sterile light. Not like the romantic glow of her youth. Well, she remembers well before electricity, and gas and oil lights. She could create her own light if she wanted, but she might get some dodgy glances from passers-by. As the final lights of the bakery were being turned off, she lay on her back, ignoring the bitter chill of the ground seeping into her bones. Something in her gut told her she would be needed tomorrow so stay she must.
She was moved on four times that night. The police were kinder to her because she was just a harmless old woman, but they just would not listen to her when she tried to explain that there was no point in moving her; she would just end up back there again. They tried to take her to a shelter but she couldn’t stay there. The boisterous voice in her head would not be quiet until she was where she needed to be.
She was back outside the bakery, trusty bin bag in her hand. She peered at the faces of the droves walking past her. It must be a Saturday, judging by the amount of under-eighteens. They were colourful birds in amongst the pigeon grey of the buildings. The town centre was packed full of them. She stood waiting, waiting. She could have been a statue. It didn’t matter if she was in anyone’s way; they simply stepped round her, or over her, depending on their mood. But largely, no one took notice of the mad old woman who stared.
The town hall clock had just chimed quarter to twelve when her head was filled with silence. There was a slight tingle in her fingers and her heart started to pound. She took a step away from the bakery, only to be forced back by the voice. She was to stay put. Whoever was her charge was obviously coming to her.
The minutes ticked by. Every time she tried to move away, her head would scream. No one appeared. Her stomach started to grumble again. No one appeared. She took a small sideways step towards the bakery. Nothing happened. Another step. Still silence. The warmth was calling her.
Inside, the warmth rolled over her like a blanket. It steamed up her glasses. The pounding subsided enough for her to hear again. Someone was already trying to talk to her.
“Are you alright there, love?”
“Oh. Yes, thank you. Just looking.” They moved away from her. She was just looking. But not for the reason they thought. At last, the conversation she had been waiting for wafted over on the scent of gingerbread.
“God, I’m so fucking tired. These exams are sucking all the life from me. I stay up late revising and get up early in the morning to start again. All I want is a decent night’s sleep.” The woman behind the counter was speaking to another beside her. She had a goth aesthetic going on – lip pierced, heavy black eyeliner and dark purple lipstick. But the important thing was the string of light which followed her wherever she went.
She looked quickly through her bin bag and smiled as her hand closed round the small rectangle she was knew was in there. She then pulled the 73p from the day before and strode up to the counter.
“Just this please, love.” She plucked a gingerbread man from the stand and slid over a twenty pence piece and the rectangle to the sleepless woman on the other side.
Her task was complete. She turned and left the shop knowing she had done her duty and feeling much happier for it.
“I’m not letting you get away this time.” She said to her gingerbread man and promptly bit his legs off over the calls of “excuse me, you’ve left your cassette. Who the hell listens to cassettes anymore?”
It was time for her to move on. There were plenty of gifts that still needed to be given to those in dire straits and she was just the person to bestow them. She trekked through towns and cities, over hills and fields, until the voice in her head started to speak again.
She heard its cry just outside of Barnsley. She stood waiting at a bus stop. At least she wouldn’t look too weird waiting here. That was what its main purpose is anyway, she supposed. Though she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long.
She went through the same motions – hands tingling, heart pounding – until a school bus pulled up. The familiar string of light followed a girl and her friend off the bus. They walked past her without looking but she picked up her bag and followed behind them.
“What do you mean you’re not going to go? Its prom! It’s the only chance we get to get glammed up.”
“I just can’t afford a dress. And I won’t look half as glamourous as everyone else going.”
“You could buy a ten pound dress from Primark and you would look twice as glamourous than those bitches.”
Their conversation carried on like this until her charge finally broke away and entered a house. If it was a dress she wanted, then a dress she could have. She shall go to the ball!
The next day, upon leaving her house, the girl found a crumbled bin bag and shoes two sizes too big for her on the doorstep, with the note, “For your ball.”