It was cold, bitterly cold, and Stefan seriously wondered if he would survive the night. The night before Christmas. He shivered involuntarily as he surveyed the ruins of his Christmas dream. It hadn't been much - just a day or two off the streets with his one true friend, Dino, a bottle or two of wine and something else, more serene, to take the pain away. But Dino had gone, and so had everything else. Stefan didn't give a damn about the few personal possessions he had lost - they were of little or no importance to him. But he did care about his sleeping bag. That had been his passport to a Christmas on his terms - not some faceless stranger's. How was he to stay warm now?
Dejected beyond belief he shuffled across the shabby, dirty room with its bare wooden floorboards, its gaping ceiling and its cracked, pockmarked walls. Freezing gusts of fetid air whistled relentlessly through the broken, partially boarded-up windows. His sudden presence disturbed a pair of large rats foraging in one corner. They lazily scampered off through one of the many holes providing a gateway from their dank, secluded world into that of these strange creatures they had found so friendly, warm and . . . generous. Instinct compelled Stefan to investigate what it was they had been so intent upon. Despite the failing light he immediately knew what it was. An icy hand of fear gripped his heart. It was blood. Dino's blood - of that he was certain. He had been caught by persons unknown who, it seemed, had ways of making vulnerable people talk - Christmas or no Christmas. With a heavy heart Stefan sank to his knees, his hand frantically probed their special hiding place but it was empty - just as he knew it would be. His money, his stash, his temporary tranquillity, gone.
And now he, too, must also go. He still had no idea why Dino had disappeared so suddenly. It was extremely unlikely he had just taken off - with the money - to start a new life. It just didn't happen that way, and Stefan and Dino needed each other far too much for either of them to betray their one oasis of sanity in a world gone horribly wrong. Then there was the blood. Someone had discovered their secret refuge, in spite of all their elaborate precautions to keep it hidden, and Dino had paid the price. God knows who had him now - The Police? The 'gestapo'? (Social Services) The pimps? A cold shiver ran down his spine and he cursed bitterly; he had lost his only friend. Worse, he had lost his sanctuary and finding another would not be easy.
Without a backward glance, Stefan left the deserted ruin he'd gratefully called 'home' for the past few months - but by a different route. Fear lent urgency to his movements as he escaped the frigid, hostile shadows surrounding him. He didn't even begin to relax until he emerged onto Oxford Street, for once grateful for the throngs of last-minute Christmas shoppers crowding the all-too familiar pavements. As his frantic heart settled into a more sedate rhythm, he gradually took in his surroundings noticing things he'd recently just taken for granted. The bright, colourful illuminations and garish decorations slung across the famous street; the ubiquitous Christmas tree bedecked with twinkling lights and glittering tinsel, with the inevitable heaps of mysterious, irresistible presents piled haphazardly beneath. Not one of them for him. Pity, he mused, the empty box could have been useful and it would have been nice to pretend, even for just a moment, that the box wasn't empty after all.
Somewhere nearby an antiquated street organ was belting out Christmas carols, a group of breathless, excited children crowded around, enraptured by the wheezing, melodious relic of Christmases past. They shamelessly started to sing along, but their piping voices soon faded as they realised how few of the words they could remember, Christmas coming but once a year for them. Not that it seemed to spoil their fun - if their gleeful giggles and shining eyes were anything to go by. One thing was certain though, they weren't likely to feel the biting cold, dressed as they were by doting parents who were never far away from their precious offspring, revelling in the festive ambience as they feasted together on hot, aromatic roast chestnuts.
Stirred into melancholy by the exuberant children's glowing faces, his hands and feet numb with cold, Stefan hurried on, seeking more familiar territory that had not been desecrated by the commercial spectre of Christmas. He knew the streets of Soho better than any taxi driver or seasoned policeman ever would. He knew all the pubs, clubs, cafes and hang-outs. He also knew all the rat-runs, the places to hide from tenacious pursuing police or punters he had successfully 'clipped'. He knew all the intimate nooks and crannies where favours were hastily, but mechanically exchanged for hard cash - the lifeblood of Soho.
But Stefan had no money and he ached with hunger. This was not how he had planned things but shit happened in his world and Christmas wasn't about to change that. He decided to chance his arm at a select few addresses because anything was better than the freezing alleys and doorways that were now his only realistic hope. Right now he would settle for just a mug of hot tea and an old sandwich that had become too dried-up to give to anyone else.
Christmas, it seemed, had, at least partially, infected Soho. Stefan had not only had several mugs of steaming-hot, sugary tea, but also, by his standards at least, been treated to a veritable feast. But no bed to sleep alone in. No spare floor space to gratefully crash on. No empty storeroom in which to waste the night. Several hours had by now passed and Stefan gave up on Soho which was now coming to life but he didn't want to be part of it, not tonight. For Christmas, he'd promised himself an unsullied two days and despite Dino's sudden, and mysterious disappearance, along with his money and belongings, he was determined not to break that promise - it was far too important to him.
He reluctantly left the comforting warmth and familiarity of Soho's sordid streets and struck out for Leicester Square. The pitiless cold ate into his bones as a bitter wind blustered and moaned amongst the grimy buildings that glistened and sparkled as the chaotic riot of light reflected off the seasonal dusting of frost that lovingly embraced them. As he hurried on, trying to beat the chill that clung to him like a malignant shadow, Stefan recognised several familiar faces cruising the streets, no doubt looking for a personal Christmas treat of their own to savour. For a moment, Stefan was tempted by the promise of precious warmth but then remembered his Christmas promise and deliberately avoided their lascivious. predatory eyes. Not that they needed him particularly, there were enough other kids for whom it was business as usual - the only difference Christmas made for them was that it brought the promise of a festive tip. Stefan decided that if he was reduced to spending Christmas alone, then the very least he wanted was to be able to stomach his own company.
He was heading for Leicester Square for a specific reason but decided against going via Chinatown because the sight and smell of succulent crispy duck adorning the numerous restaurant windows would, he felt, only send him scurrying back to Soho where there was easy money to be had. He wanted, he needed, to see his friend Rufus before it was too late. He almost wept with relief when, at last, he heard the haunting, lilting voice piercing the frigid atmosphere and a warm flood of nostalgia flushed his cheeks as hot tears stung his lifeless eyes.
Rufus, he knew instinctively, would be in his usual spot, caressing his trusty 12 string guitar with vibrant fingers consumed with the passionate fire of genius. He once had a promising career ahead of him, but the cost of an introduction into the seductive pop industry had been too high and Rufus had sought refuge in drugs in a futile attempt to forget the harrowing ordeal. Somewhere along the way he had contracted Aids which had now all but killed him. He was well known on the streets, and adored by the homeless, because his music was so edifying but then prolonged suffering has a renowned tendency to lend itself to profound creative genius.
There was, as always, a sizeable crowd gathered round, mesmerised by the extraordinary talent of the wasted youth huddled on the frozen ground before them. This had always been a lucrative spot for Rufus, even more so at Christmas when guilt tugged unmercifully at the purse strings of contented passers-by who found it all but impossible to resist the Siren song that seduced their bigoted minds. Stefan wondered how many, if any of them, with their superficial, condescending smiles, truly appreciated the superhuman effort it took for Rufus to be able to share his extraordinary gift of music with them, and this was surely his swansong. There would be no more Yuletide extravaganzas for Rufus, and Old London Town would be the poorer for his passing. Stefan wanted this night to last forever. He wanted to savour every perfect chord, every exquisite note, because he felt warm. He felt wanted. He felt... alive. It couldn't last, of course, and it didn't. Rufus, finely tuned as he was to his audience's mood, switched smoothly into 'Streets of London' and from experience Stefan knew that he'd added a few extra verses of his own with words Stefan did not want to hear. Not tonight.
'And have you seen the children who 'troll the streets of London?'
Stefan felt a rush of adrenaline and began to panic
'Pickin' up the fallout of a cruel an' vicious world'
he began to fight his way back through the oppressive crowd
'In their eyes you see no light, no happiness, no spark of life...'
a lump formed in Stefan's throat, tears threatened to publicly humiliate him
'in these forgotten children of a world that doesn't care.'
Stefan broke free of the claustrophobic crowd and then ran, and ran, and ran.
When he finally stopped running, exhausted but at least warmer than he'd been all evening, Stefan slid gracelessly to the ground, hugging his knees. He could no longer contain the emotions besieging his vulnerable, adolescent mind and sobbed uncontrollably. Several onlookers stopped momentarily to survey the pathetic sight before them but, it seemed, the festive spirit of goodwill to all men did not extend to mere children, and they quickly hurried on, anxious to be rid of the disturbing image that somehow threatened to spoil their Christmas.
Streetwise kids don't cry - or at least not in public they don't. It is regarded as a sign of weakness, so Stefan struggled to regain his composure. He looked furtively about him but thankfully, no-one seemed to have witnessed his breakdown. No-one that mattered, anyway. He glanced up to see the inflated image of a man leering down at him. The face seemed vaguely familiar. Apparently it was the Prime Minister, but that meant nothing to Stefan. The grinning effigy that mocked his misery so brazenly was merely an object, a nothing, a nobody, a thing of no importance or relevance as far as he was concerned. The poster boldly promised a 'Better Britain', but Stefan had his own ideas about that.
The Prime Minister was not alone that brisk, freezing evening. Alongside him a billboard of equal proportions proudly exhorted the latest monument to Great British achievement and progress. Stefan wondered bitterly just how many homeless kids could squeeze in together under the vast, anaemic shield of the Millennium Dome. Warmth, shelter, and safety - now and forever. In a moment of mad self-indulgence, Stefan imagined himself heroically leading a crusade of bedraggled, emaciated children marching boldly to Greenwich demanding sanctuary. . . His dream died rapidly; The Dome was intended to be an icon of success, not failure. There would never be any room for them there.
Stefan contemplated trudging along to the nearest of the two refuges in London for homeless children, but with only thirteen beds between them, he knew it would be futile. An adult refuge was also out the question; kids are not welcome there either. He was at his wits end when he suddenly remembered a good hiding place, not too far away, that Dino had shown him ages ago. A place that might still be available. He decided to head there via Tottenham Court Road where he could lose himself in all the flickering television images along the way.
Stefan stood rooted to the spot. He stared in spellbound disbelief at the image on the television screen casting bright shadows in the electrical store window. He saw the boy with the designer woollen hat pulled low over his forehead. He anxiously scrutinised the stark, pallid face, deeply disturbed by the cold, lifeless eyes that stared back. He barely recognised himself anymore.
He had always wanted to be on television, but not like this - a homeless, starving boy selling his body on the streets of London just to survive, and then only just. He remembered the camcorder his father had proudly bought the family to celebrate Christmas not so very long ago. But that was in another lifetime, a child's lifetime, before his father had been made redundant as a result of something called 'downsizing'. How easily he could recall the ranting and raving, the countless references to a foreign conspiracy designed to undermine our economy. Stefan didn't know anything about that, but he knew it had destroyed his father, his family, and now him.
He could remember, as if it was just yesterday, his beloved father drinking more and more.
He could remember, as if it was just yesterday, his doting father beating his mother incessantly.
He could remember, as if it was just yesterday, his insensible father beating him unmercifully.
It didn't get better, only worse, and there was only one means of escape. Anything had to be better than your own dad beating you senseless time and time and time again. Even now, Stefan occasionally wondered what had become of his parents, particularly his fallen idol. The boy in the TV began to cry. Silent tears slid unnoticed down his cold, pale cheeks causing them to glisten in the flickering light; tears that dripped silently onto the freezing pavement, forever surrendered to the frozen void.
Behind him, a car stopped. In trepidation he slowly turned round. He recognised the man immediately. It was one of the Old Bill who'd taken him back home once, questioned him in front of both his parents, and then promptly left. Stefan's reward for his silence had been another brutal beating that had immediately sent him scurrying back to safer environs. He was not afraid of the police, not tonight. There was an unofficial Christmas amnesty in place because, after all, it was bad PR to lock up kids for Christmas even if they were criminals by virtue of their prostitution. Without a single word being said, the car sped off. Stefan watched it disappear through bitter tears that blurred his vision so that everything once again became reassuringly surreal. He wasn't interested in a world that wasn't interested in him.
Tiny snowflakes began to fall and settle around Stefan and he cursed. Snow was the final straw. It would advertise his diminutive footprints and lead some bastard or another right to him. With not far to go he quickened his pace, praying that no-one else would be there, but as he forced his way past the loose corrugated steel sheet, he could just about discern a heap of rags in the far corner. In response to his sudden intrusion, the rags erupted into a bout of cacophonous coughing. A match flared in the diffused sodium-orange gloom and a pair of bloodshot eyes stared myopically at him. Stefan carefully examined the filthy face that was adorned with a matted, straggly beard, but saw no signs of danger there. For just a fraction of a second though, something sparkled in those squinting, bloodshot eyes. It could almost have been a glint of recognition, a brief glimpse of another world long since obliterated by alcohol.
The relic began fumbling around amongst the rags that somehow thwarted a forlorn death at Winter's implacable whim. A filthy, calloused hand re-appeared clutching a bottle which he thrust at the boy before him. As the match flickered and died, a voice ravaged by drink broke the sepulchral silence.
"Hello, son, fancy a quick nip - to celebrate Christmas?"
©Rupert de Cesaris 2000