Jim left the house and sauntered along the road with one aim – to get as far away as possible from his aunt. His breath came in heavy pants of cold air, which came out his nostrils as smoke. His head spiralled out of control with lingering doubts and uncertainties. But amid the cold and confusion, a reassuring thought in the back of his head spelled out the words “freedom”. On the other hand, a twinge of fear lay adamant among the newly found freedom and managed to threaten him persistently.
By noon, Jim had covered about ten miles of land and with a few more ended up in the historical parts of Greenwich. Walking past the university and the central market, he headed straight for the Thames River. It was late afternoon, and whatever was left of the sun had started to plummet down the horizon leaving behind trails of magnificent colours. The sky looked like an artist’s flamboyant display of watercolours. The setting sun had left behind its imprints – a layer of orange formed an undercoat for a spellbinding image with several other layers of clouds ranging from dark grey to lighter shades of red dancing across the sky majestically. Standing at the banks of the Thames, Jim gazed at the horizon with admiration and his worries had started to lessen. He watched as an aeroplane swam effortlessly through the clouds, disappearing in the thicker, darker grey clouds one moment, then reappearing in the lighter shades, leaving behind a blazing trail of bright orange.
The serene water reflected the bright conspicuous clouds and enclosed him in a cloak of tranquillity. There wasn’t a tide or any disturbance, but a gentle breeze caressed the surface of the water giving it a ripple effect. He stood there until the last few rays of the sun had plunged deeper and deeper into the horizon and darkness stealthily enveloped him. Even the people striding along the promenade have retreated to the warmth of their home and the burning logs of fire. With this thought and the darkness, the tense fear returned as he sat on the flight of steps by the Cutty Sark. It was in that moment that he realised his lonesomeness and his needs. Suddenly, on an impulse, he conjured up images of his small but cosy attic. At least there, he had a roof over his head, despite the never-ending agony he suffered at the hand of his only relation.
Distraught with self-pity, his throat thickened with anger. He wanted to do something, scream, shout or even break something, but he resisted the urge and unzipped a backpack that he brought along with him. He took out a towel, spread it in a dark corner of a passage by the Thames, and curled up on it. With a few sheets covering him, he hugged his knees and placed his hands between them. He shivered a little and clutched his teeth to keep from clicking.
He had cleared his mind and entered another realm when distant noises caught his attention. It was late at night and unlikely for anyone to be around at such times. The noises came closer and closer until he could clearly hear them. He made out three distinct voices coupled by a few others.
“Should we jack ‘im?” said one of them in a hoarse voice.
“Nah, allow it man. Its cold less go!” said another in a lively voice. Jim took it that he was younger than the other.
A few others interrupted by talking at once, arguing whether to rob Jim’s only possession or to go about their way.
“Fuck it; we made our money tonight, less go” Said a slightly older person in a stern voice. At this point, the loud voices diminished to a murmur and they walked away, their steps fading with the distance. Night after night, Jim heard them walk past him, shouting, arguing and fighting. One night, as Jim sat on his towel ready to sleep at his usual time, the group came by. They had come earlier than usual and Jim was sure he would be hassled.
They approached him striding confidently, wearing multiple sweaters, one on top of the other and hoods obscuring their faces.
“oi, wha’ u doin’ here?” enquired the first of the bunch who came close to him.
Jim didn’t answer, but looked up at him to see his face.
Soon the others joined him and intently stared at him, as if unable to understand his sleeping rough.
“How old are you?” came a voice from his left.
Jim immediately recognized it as the stern voice that he heard a few nights before. He strained to see in the dark, his eyes blurred as he looked at the direction the voice came from.
“Thirteen” he softly replied
“Fuck! And what da fuck are you doin’ here?” screamed the one at the front, standing at the brim of Jim’s towel-marked territory. They started muttering all together.
“Shut the fuck up” said the guy with the stern voice and there was silence all at once. Jim understood it that he was the one in charge. With his finger, he beckoned them to move away, which they did immediately and he kneeled down beside Jim. Taking his hood off to reveal his dark face, he talked calmly to him upon which Jim revealed his reasons for being where he was. The guy introduced himself to as James and offered to give Jim a place to stay.
“You won somewhere ta stay?” He said.
Jim dreaded the company of these nocturnal wanderers and whatever they were up to, but for a warm place to stay he was inclined to follow them. Besides, he didn’t find the calm tone of James, and his self-possessed disposition objectionable. He packed his bag, stood up firmly, broadened his shoulders and, along with the group, disappeared into darkness.
There was complete silence among the group as they walked, and none dared question James as to why he had brought Jim along, even though some seemed to pity him with their welcoming glance. One of them even offered to carry Jim’s rucksack for him while another patted him on the shoulder compassionately. Jim wondered what he had got himself into and their dubious fondness towards him accompanied by their over eagerness made him a little suspicious. They led him through a maze of streets, many twists and turns, dark alleys and abandoned garages, and then finally into a dimly lit street. They marched with one single pace and Jim was finding it hard to keep up. Observing his surroundings, just in case anything happens, he noticed a signboard – “Steephill Road”. The name in fact described the street, which was somewhat steep and the houses descended down the hill. Further down, at the bottom of the street was a block of shabby flats. They boys made their way straight into one of the blocks. Graffiti was painted on every reachable wall of the flat. Some were names, some insults and on a corner, in enormous writing, was the word “Peckham”. It was then that Jim realised that he was in Peckham. He made a mental note of that and went in the flat, up a series of stairs that reeked of urine and vomit, through some claustrophobic corridors, then into a wooden door at the end. Jim memorized the house number, 56, and went in.
Contrary to the condition of the flat on the outside, the inside of their rooms was immaculate, and, with expensive furnishing. They went into a spacious living room, where an extraordinarily large Plasma Screen Television was mounted on the wall adjacent to a portrait of a pleasant-faced black man with dreadlocks. Beneath it, an ornamental desk accommodated a bulky Hi-Fi system and some trophies. They reclined on a set of huge brown leather sofas that took up the majority of the room. Positioned in the middle of the wooden floor room, was a square glass-table that sat on a costly rug. Jim started to feel the warmness of the house and had relaxed a little when he noticed the boys huddled up by a shiny silver chest at a corner. On opening it they waited for James to empty the contents which he promptly did. He took out four large bags of money, bundles of twenty-pound notes, and laid them on the glass table. He put his hand in the chest once again and with it came back another three bags of what looked like powder and another bag of dried, crushed leaves. Jim was perplexed, his mind started to invent all sorts of justifications to make sense of what he had just seen. At that very instant, Jim clearly figured out what he had got himself into, and the prospect, of which getting out of, is very improbable.
…To be Continued