‘Please help me sir’
She stretched her hand towards the stranger. He stopped and frowned at her. Hoping, she gently rocked the baby in her other arm, possibly to draw the man’s attention to the little one and evoke pity enough to make him generous. It did not work. He scowled even deeper to remove any doubts she may have had that he was mad at her for daring to stop him and ask for aid.
At any other time before Lami was born she might have been deeply embarrassed. Her daughter’s survival however depended on her boldness.
‘Please sir, one pound or two and God will bless you.’
‘Well, go to your bloody god and leave me alone!’ He walked off.
She looked around for another target, and her heart sank as passersby avoided her eyes and slunk away as she approached. Being avoided was sometimes worse than being insulted – at least one was acknowledged if spoken to. She wished there was some way to let them know she was more than what they saw of her, that she had lived a good life, complete with her own house and cars back in Zimbabwe. Before her husband had dabbled in politics and she has been made a young widow and had to flee to the Europe in search of refuge. She wished she could tell them that their system had failed her and refused her asylum, setting a date for her deportation and likely to her death. She wished she could tell them she had escaped to the streets solely for the sake of little Lami.
But no one would give her a chance. She did not need their pity, but how she needed their money. Lami had not had a proper meal for two days. She looked around for a potential target that would give her something to buy baby food. The baby wailed in her arms. Dear God there had to be someone.
With guilt gnawing gently on her insides, Anita stood in turn at the cash machine, watching the beggar woman in the distance as a means of distraction. It was easy to decipher what was happening. She zigzagged from side to side towards people that sauntered away as soon as they sniffed that she was about to approach them. Sad. It was easy to see she was unkempt, with a jacket too big for her lithe body and jeans trousers most likely gotten from charity, to fight the summer winds with. Her baby was wrapped in a large roll of old cloth. Something about the woman did not quite fit with regular women beggars that used their babies as leverage when trying to extort money from people. Her carriage suggested she had seen better times.
Havent we all.
Anita thought back to how long it had been since she stood in front of a cash machine. Her bank account had been near red for the better part of a year and she had exhausted every source of aid and lost a few friends in the process.
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
The woman was determined, taking more insults from more passersby. With the queue moving Anita took her eyes off her to move a place closer to the machine.
After John Kinky (why did she still think of him with that nickname?) died in the car crash that nearly killed her as well, she had not quite been ready to face the world. It had been his fault. An engineer with an oil company did not need his wife to work, he insisted, and so she stayed home and made herself beautiful, churning out short stories in her spare time and indulging Mika, the little whining angel they had both created, now cuddle up in the buggy.
She had had to move from their lovely apartment into her sister’s, then into a council home. She sold their car and now had to search for a job that would let her look after Mika properly. There was so much to learn again and life did not give her time.
Soon enough the squeeze came and the bills overtook her. Friends she once gave money to for fun became benefactors. They probably saw her as pesky now. But most times she had no choice. It was simply unfair. Mika depended on her and she was going to be strong for her little girl. She fought.
The light at the end of the tunnel came last week – someone from the Cosmo magazine had called. They liked her portfolio and would she come for a job interview? It was the best piece of news since John’s death. But she had run out of resources to hang in. There were no supplies for the week. Mentally she had done a check on who among her friends had not yet contributed to her welfare.
Tunde! One of the many guys that had lost out to John. He had called her to say he was in town and could they meet up? She rang him back and agreed. It went well enough. He was on holidays, was married now and had his family holed up in Switzerland. She did not mince words. She needed money for her daughter. If he had anything untoward planned, that request killed it. It would take a man without conscience to demand sex in return from a close friend that needed his help.
‘I don’t travel with cash Nita, but I do have about eighty pounds on me.’
‘That will do just fine.’
He settled for a kiss on the cheek. And she rushed to put the money in the bank.
Finally it was her turn. Card in. Please enter your pin number. Dah dah dah and dah. Mika’s birthday so she would never forget it. Show balance. 80.58. She smiled. She had had just fifty eight pence in there before Tunde. Withdraw cash please. Other. Eight and zero. She pulled out the notes and planted them in her back pocket along with the card.
‘Oh Mika.’ Her daughter had kicked off her shoes and one sock. She bent over, put them back on and was straightening back up when she saw the bus pulling in. She would have to run to catch it.
‘Mika, our bus!’ She ran, pushing the buggy. The baby screeched with delight. It was a rare treat to move at that speed with the wind in her face. They whizzed past the beggar lady and both ladies shared a brief moment when their eyes locked. There was no time though. Those waiting at the bus stop had all gotten in and Anita had only seconds.
‘Wait, wait!’ She reached the bus just as the driver shut the doors. Nine times out of ten the driver, in that situation, would ignore her calls and keep going. This, luckily, was one of the rare ones. He opened the doors again. She heaved the buggy in, panting.
‘Day ticket please.’
‘Three pounds love.’ He even had a smile for her.
There had been a tenner among her bank notes. She reached into her back pocket and felt a sickening chill. The money was not there. She rummaged all her pockets, checked the buggy, searched Mika. No money. No, no, no, no, no.
‘Listen love, just take a seat.’ Most drivers would kick her out.
‘I will walk, I will walk.’ She whimpered, shaking all over and still batting her pockets in disbelief. How? She had come straight to the bus from the cash point. She watched the bus that was to take her home, drive away. Mika was laughing, craning her neck to catch her attention. People moved about their business. She was alone.
She retraced her steps, looking this way then that like a hawk searching for prey. She was soon standing in front of the cash machine having covered all the ground she had passed before. No money idly lying about. There were more than a handful of people milling around though. The money could now be resting safe in any one of their pockets. No familiar face. The beggar woman had left. What use was that anyways?
Eighty pounds! It was unbelievable. An answer to her prayers. it had been lying idly on the ground, looking like a plant in the low grass when she spotted it. Now Lami would have good food for a long time and she would not subject herself to humiliation for some time. She held the money to her breast and as the tears rolled down her eyes, she prayed for who had brought her a bit of good fortune. It was someone’s loss but she prayed for abundance, for happiness for the person. As she walked towards the nearest shops to silence her crying baby with food, she was still praying.
Anita gave it up. She did not know how she lost the money, would never know how. She was in for a long walk having turned down the good driver’s offer. She did not know where the next meal would come from or what she had to do next. She made her way home, pushing the buggy slowly in the windy evening. Cars zoomed past, shopkeepers hung up CLOSED signs, walking out of their shops in their large coats. She walked.
Half way there, while Mika laughed, she began whistling.