Fionnoula and the Seven Homeless People
Richard glanced up from the culture supplement of The Daily Telegraph.
Light as thistle down Fionnoula floated across to sit on his knee and wrapped her slender arms around his neck. A roaring fire had already been lit and it chased the chill from her cheek and her long dark hair.
“Good morning darling. How’s my favourite daughter?”
“Oh Daddy, please don’t make me go to Leeds today.” She looked up at him with wide eyes, pouting her full red lips. “Can’t I stay here with you? I don’t need new school shoes yet. I don’t know why Ursula thinks I do, she isn’t usually bothered.”
The ring of stiletto heels on stone sent a shudder through Fionnoula. Her father drew breath, kissed the top of the girl’s head and pushed her gently off his knee.
Ursula stood, hands on hips in the doorway. Her shirt collar stood to attention and large cultivated pearls constellated around her neck.
“There you are you ungrateful urchin. Hurry up, Anna is waiting for you. She has other work to do today besides running around after you.” Fionnoula ran from the room, careful not to touch her step-mother as she slipped past.
“Wretched little fairy, think you have got your father under your spell, making his eyes melt like that.”
Fionnoula pulled her jacket tighter around her. Clipped yews and vast lawns sparkled in mid-winter magic. Her stepmother’s maid was warming the car up on the gravel drive and Fionnoula got in beside her.
“Hi Fi.” Anna said. Her smile, like the sun, was present but powerless.
“Are you okay Anna?”
Anna didn’t reply. They drove. Fionnoula, with her feet pressed up on the glove box, listened to her IPod. With each turn the road got wider, the distance between dwellings shrank and the flow of traffic grew. A silent hour and they were merging and weaving their way past the tower block apartments, long shadows casting gloom across the bus station and markets. People bustled, shoulders hunched and heads down as they picked their way tentatively across the slippery pavements. Anna carried on around the ring road and pulled up in the small canal basin car park below the railway station.
“Well, come on. Let’s get on with it.” Fionnoula unclipped her seatbelt.
“Fi, there is something I have to tell you.” Fionnoula looked at Anna.
“It’s not good, is it? I can tell by your voice.”
“No, it isn’t good.” Anna stared out of the windscreen at the soupy canal.
“You know my family have always been in service for Ursula’s.”
“Yep.” Confusion crossed Fionnoula’s face. What did this have to do with school shoes?
At last Anna turned to look at Fionnoula. A train whooshed into the station, the sound vibrating off the brick walls of the dark Victorian arches below.
“Anna, what’s going on?”
“Fi, you have got to listen to me. You are in such terrible danger. Ursula’s jealousy is overwhelming. She wants me to kill you. She thinks I will do as she has asked. But I cannot.”
“Okay, you are frightening me now. And you are being ridiculous. You can’t just go around killing people these days.”
“People are murdered every day. Don’t you listen to the news? Kids go missing, people hurt each other. Ursula is the granddaughter of an exiled prince. That doesn’t come without hard lessons learnt. If I don’t agree to kill you, she will find someone else who will do the job properly. But I have a plan Fi. We are going to pretend you have fallen into the canal.”
Fionnoula glanced at the sullen canal. Anna continued. “I have got a bag in the boot for you with clothes, sleeping bag and money.”
“What am I going to do?” Fionnoula whispered.
“You are going to disappear. But remember, if you are found we are both dead.”
Suitcase in tow, Fionnoula headed for the ugly shopping centre with its escalators and cheap shops. Standing on the stairs leading to the complex was a shabby man. He had taken the trouble to comb his greasy hair. His trainers were filthy and worn through in places. A tatty coat hung off him. He bent down to pick up a magazine from a bundle, then stood and held it out like an invitation.
“Oh my god. Isn’t that a magazine for homeless people?”
“It’s for vulnerably housed people to sell. You don’t have to be homeless to buy it. The cost is two pounds. Would you like one?” Pigeons skittered about at the bottom of the stairs as a passer-by missed the bin with the remainder of an apple.
“Actually, maybe you could help me?” Fionnoula pulled her suitcase up the couple of steps towards the man. She took a quick step back. His odour melted the frozen air around him. “Where do you live if you are homeless?”
“Where ever you can love. Do you ask out of curiosity or are you planning on running away from home?”
“I can’t go home. She is going to kill me.”
“Nothing is ever that bad in the end. That’s the thing with families. The streets are not a good place for you to be.”
“Seriously, I can’t go home. I need some tips on how to be homeless. Please?”
The man closed his eyes and shook his head slowley. “All right. I am living with some people down the road. You can stop with us for a night or two until things blow over and you can go home. But that’s it.”
They left the shops behind them. The sun had started to melt the frost on the grass verge. A couple of hooded teenage boys sauntered towards them, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, hands in pockets. The man led her back out to a major road junction and stopped at a derelict pub. Weeds had taken up residence here and there amongst the cracks of neglected tarmac. “Here it is. The March Hare.”
“Oh my god, you’re joking. You sleep next to all this traffic? You would have to be mad.”
“Beggars can’t be chooses.” The man prised a piece of battered ply wood far enough away from the wall for him to squeeze through and disappeared into the gloom.
Fionnoula found it difficult to draw the bad air into her lungs. Small chinks of light wheedled their way in through the battened windows. “Where is everyone?”
“Keeping warm. Come back at six and I will introduce you to them. I’m John, by the way.” John left.
Fionnoula looked about in dismay. There was no electricity and no water. Seven mattresses lay in the few rooms that still had glass left in the windows. She kicked one of the mattresses and bit her lip. She needed to concentrate and focused on taking a deep breath. She unzipped the suitcase and found the money Anna had left her, then went shopping.
Fionnoula was delighted with how inexpensive things were in musty little charity shops. She found some bright cushions, scented candles and a couple of picnic sets. After arranging her acquisitions in the lounge back at The March Hare, Fionnoula decided a welcoming meal and a cosy fire would increase her chances of winning over the people who lived here. She busied herself with these tasks for the rest of the day then awaited the return of the other homeless people. They drifted into the pub.
John arrived first. “Wow, what have you done with this place? This is amazing.”
Mary was next, Darting into the lounge like a mouse trying to avoid detection. She stopped in the middle of the room, and looked around her.
“Something is different.” She said and looked about her.
“Hi Mary, I’m Fi Fiona.” Fionnoula got up off her cushion and stretched out her hand. Mary shuffled around Fionnoula to stand by the fire.
Jason was tall and skinny. “Fooking Hell, the coppers’ll be round in a jiff with all this smoke ‘n what-not. What the blazers d’yers think yer playin at?” He sloped off to another room.
Matt entered; he looked like a moth eaten woolly blanket. He glanced briefly at Fionnoula then stood next to Mary beside the fire. Each time he shifted position piercings glinted in the flickering light.
Rick was older than the others. He pointed at Fionnoula with a tatty black umbrella and on bandy legs stagger marched up to her. She tried to remain composed as the smell of Rick engulfed her. His filthy face broke into a wide gappy grin and he said “Welcome to my humble abode. I do hope you have made yourself at home?”
“Oh yes, I hope you don’t mind. Thank you for letting me stay – that is, if you will let me stay I mean.”
Jock was a Scotsman. He quickly divulged that he was only here temporarily, passing through on his way to London from Edinburgh. “I won’t be any bother, just a couple more nights madam.” Jason ranged back through to join the party. “Give over, she’s not the fooking landlady Jock.”
Finally Carina arrived, short skirt, teased hair and fake fur coat. The remains of her red lipstick smudged off the edge of her lips. She staggered across the room holding a bottle of vodka out in front of her.
“I just stop for shopping, been very busy day. My darling, who you running from little one? I running from very bad man.”
“Oh, hi, I’m um Fiona.”
There was a knock on the plywood door. Carina shrieked and jumped behind the bar. The others glanced nervously at each other, and then Fiona remembered.
“Oh! It is okay, sorry; I have ordered an Indian for us all.”
They sat down together on the cushions and ate. The seven homeless people enjoyed the food tremendously and agreed that Fiona could stay with them for as long as she liked. That night Fiona shared Carina’s mattress. With the fire died down, candles out and the others asleep she lay and listened to the constant swirling dance of the traffic outside.
And so the days passed. Fiona became a hit with them all. They began to look forward to getting back to the pub and sharing their evenings around the fire. Even Jason found things to break up for fuel, and a supply of wood grew behind the bar.
Then one day, as Fiona was out shopping in Morrison’s, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She froze.
“Excuse me, don’t I know you?” the voice was familiar. Fiona didn’t turn around. She started to walk quickly down the aisle. “Yes, it is. It’s Fionnoula. I live in your village. But I thought you …” Fiona run. “Hold on, wait!” Fiona dropped her shopping and fled. She needed to get outside. She was clammy and couldn’t breathe. Glancing back Fiona could see the teenage girl standing in the entrance to the supermarket, talking on her mobile phone.
Fiona didn’t stop again until she got back to the pub. She got into her sleeping bag and curled up on a mattress with her eyes shut tight.
She became much more careful, caught busses away from the city centre to do her daily shopping. One particularly windy afternoon Fiona hurried back to the shelter of the pub and was relieved to slip behind the plywood. She set down her plastic carrier bag and removed her coat. In fact, she thought as she pulled up her sleeves and started laying the fire; it was beginning to feel almost like home here. It even smelt familiar coming back today. Actually, it smelt too familiar.
In alarm Fiona jumped up. Too late. Ursula sprang at her. A length of wood she had found behind the bar. Fiona keeled sideways. “You little rat. You shan’t get away again.” Ursula gripped Fiona’s arm hard and took a syringe from her pocket. She removed the protective cap and slid the needle into a bulging vein. “Too easy little Fionnoula. Too easy. Another homeless bum overdoses. Ha!”
When the seven homeless people returned that night they were surprised not to see smoke twisting into the night sky from the chimney. They lit a candle and found Fiona lying unconscious and cold on the floor.
“Oh!” Cried Mary “Like when a little bird has flown into a closed window! Carboomf!”
“Wow.” Said Matt “Look at the bruise on her arm.”
“Who left their gear lying around?” Said John.
“Not me man, I’m just passing through.” Said Jock scratching the inside of his elbow.
“You fools, she don’t do this herself!” Carina knelt down close to Fiona and checked for a breath. “Oh, our little baby. Come back to us little one. Who do this to you? Did your bad man find you today?”
They lit the fire and watched over her. The wind died down outside, and a damp sadness settled on them.
“Maybe we should take her to a hospital.” Matt said pulling at his bedraggled beard.
“It is not far to the LGI.” Rick said, with a wave of the umbrella in the vague direction of the hospital.
“She is not so big, for a few of us?” Jason said.
Let’s all take her.” Mary said.
They carefully lifted Fiona between them. They staggered down the footpaths. The Chinese Restaurant had begun its evening service; the heady aroma of sweet deep-frying infiltrated the mizzle. Up the hill to the motorway, pausing for a break in the early evening traffic.
They stumbled and tripped around the emergency drop off roundabout and tumbled through the enormous rotating glass doors of the LGI. Like stunned rabbits in the bright bustling entrance they stopped. A rich warm aroma filtered through from Costa Coffee and their injured bird was whisked out of their tired arms into the maze of corridors. A million questions were asked of them, of which they could answer none, other than that they called her Fiona.
The seven homeless people took turns to stay beside her bed and gazed at their ethereal girl. They stroked her raven hair and spread it out in a fan on the pillow. Her face was as white and smooth as the hospital linen.
After three days Fiona’s guardians were looking noticeably cleaner. An optimistic young social worker had been appointed to the case of Fiona and the seven homeless people. He became immediately entranced by the sleeping child and knew he had made the right career choice.
He took her pale hand in his and whispered, “Wake up little one, don’t give up on life yet. We will sort this mess out with you. Let us help you.” He pressed her delicate fingers to his lips and with that her eyes lids fluttered to reveal sparkling sapphires.
She smiled. “My name is Fionnoula.”