“Did you know him?” asked the nurse as we looked down at the dead man, seventyish Harry. In the grey early-morning light, the hospital ward with its bed-fuls of weary suffering patients, looked as dismal as I felt. I really didn’t want to be here.
“Oh yes, I knew him alright,” I answered, feeling a surge of emotion. “When I was fifteen, he took a huge interest in me. In fact he completely altered my life.”
I shivered miserably as I remembered. Then I looked down at the dead man in bed, and remembered the disquieting look in his eyes when he’d seen me for the first time: interested, curious, keen to get to know me, plus that undeniable glint of lasciviousness I’d already seen too many times.
Of course now I was a completely different person. I’d become tough, hardened by all my gritty, life-changing experiences, all the things that had been facilitated by Harry’s efforts. I looked down at him, wondering if after all the things he’d done in his life, whether he was finally at peace. I knew that I hadn’t been the only young girl who’d come under his spell.
* * *
Fourteen years ago, when I’d first met him, I had been scared, tired and desperate, having been living on the London streets for three months. In the autumn it hadn’t been so bad, but now in the freezing misery of January, I just longed for warmth and food. Harry, a pleasant looking, well-dressed man, was passing and he looked down at me.
“Would you like me to take you somewhere for a good meal?” he asked me.
I looked back at him warily. In the twelve weeks of living rough, even though I had encountered a lot of kindness, I had soon realised that nothing is for nothing, especially when it’s an older, horny man who clearly fancies his chances with young girls. After all, if all he’d wanted was to help me, he’d just have given me a fiver and gone on his way, wouldn’t he?
No, I realised, wriggling uncomfortably. It was my company he wanted. . .
But, I hesitated, and that had been my downfall. I was colder than I’d ever been before and I hadn’t eaten all day. Would it be so bad? I’d already been tempted to do things with men for money, something I’d never have dreamed of doing before. And at least Harry looked clean.
“Okay,” I told him.
He didn’t talk as we walked along the road to the burger shop and we settled down at the table and he watched me eat the huge burger, fries and coke. After I’d finished eating, I told him about leaving my home in Sheffield, about my mother not believing that my stepfather was sexually molesting me, and how living there had been completely impossible, and how terrified I was of them finding me and having to go back there. Until I was sixteen, the police could take me back there at any time, and I’d be back in his clutches.
“Please let me help you,” Harry had said, putting his hand over mine on the table. “Let me find you a place to stay. Let me look after you.”
Of course I was repelled, snatching my hand away as if it was being burned. An old man like that, looking after me? I’d spoken to a few girls, and I knew the score. Pimps were all over the London streets, trying to find the youngest girls, the ones who hadn’t been ruined by drink or drugs or aids, the ones who could attract a lot of punters.
“Do you really want to go back out there?” he’d asked me.
It had begun to snow again. And I’d only just got warm from the restaurant’s heat. My limbs were tired, my headache was bad, and the sudden large meal I’d eaten was making me feel sleepy.
I just wanted to cry and sleep in a warm bed. I just wanted to go back to being a child again, to feel loved and cared for.
“I’ve got no money. Can’t get a job. I’m bloody desperate.” I began to cry uncontrollably.
He was obviously either some kind of old perv, or else a pimp looking for recruits, and I didn’t know which.
Nevertheless, the question was right there in front of me.
Was I really going to sell my soul?
“You don’t have to go back out there,” he went on, wearing down my reserves. “I know a nice hotel near here. A decent clean place. You could get a good night’s sleep, have a bath. . .”
It was the mention of the bath that did it. I decided to go for it, there and then.
“Good.” He smiled for the first time. “Believe me, you won’t regret it.”
And that was how my new life had begun.
As I say, after that I did a lot of growing up. I saw the raw ugliness of humanity first hand, I saw lots of illness, suffering and death and struggle. And I learnt a lot about myself.
I learnt that above everything else I am a survivor and I always will be.
That first night I wallowed in the hot bath for hours, then plunged into the warm lovely bed with the clean sheets. I slept all night, solidly, forgetting about the likelihood that Harry, and maybe other men with him, might arrive at any time.
And then I woke up in the morning, and my heart sank. Sure enough, Harry was there. Sitting quietly in the chair beside my bed, watching me sleep, no doubt fantasising about what he would do to me.
“Listen,” Harry had said. “I’m very sorry. But I betrayed you. I betrayed your trust.”
“You betrayed me?”
Then I had a moment of panic. I realised that maybe this was his convoluted way of telling me that it was payback time right at this moment! That I would have to be ‘nice’ to him.
“I know that Rebecca isn’t your real name. When you went to the toilet in the cafe, I went through your coat pockets and found an old letter with your real name and address. You’re Sally Stephens, not Rebecca. I drove to your house in Sheffield during the night and explained to your mum why you’d run away. She realises you were telling her the truth and I’ve bought her here. She’s waiting outside.”
“Mum?” I said in amazement as she same through the door.
We were hugging each other like there was no tomorrow.
“Oh Sally, I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’ve thrown the bastard out. It’ll just be the two of us from now on, I promise. I really promise I’ll never let you down again. . .”
* * *
I came back down to earth in the harsh lighting of the hospital ward in the present day, as tears stung my eyes. I remembered overhearing Harry chatting to Mum later, about how he’d helped other homeless children in the same way.
“I’m sorry to have called you, Dr Stephens,” Sister Patel said, misreading the dampness of my eyes for my usual, desperate tiredness from my relentless work schedule. “I know you’ve been on duty in A & E all night, but there’s no one else. Will you register the death?”
“Of course, Sister.”
As I looked down at Harry, I thought of being a bit older than the others at my sixth-form college, my astoundingly good A-level results and everything else that had followed in my life.
And as I put my stethoscope onto Harry’s chest I listened for the heartbeat that had gone forever.