Centre Of Inertia

Entry by: Maxine

26th May 2024
Stock still.

‘Sorry to bother you mate you got a light?’

Mac, whose gaze had not risen from its customary downwards trajectory, registered the girl by sensory message. The aroma of unwashed body and stale clothes reached him first. Her voice had that raw quality as if she had been screaming or not slept for days. She stood in his path. He could hear a wheeze as she took breath.

Reaching into his pocket for a lighter he lifted his chin enough to see where her hand was and stretched his arm towards her. As she turned her arm over to allow the lighter to be placed into her upturned palm he noticed scratch marks on the pale white skin around her wrist. She was moving from foot to foot, in a sort of excited anticipation as she cupped her hands around a half smoked roll up held between her lips. He saw that she was young and scrawny. She took a long drag ad breathed out a moan of relief. He could feel her expectant eyes on him. His head remained where it had been half raised. She bent down and looked under the peak of his baseball cap pulled down covering the upper part of his face.

‘Why you hidin' under there?’

She made a small child like chuckle and handed back the lighter.

He coughed and looked away. He hadn’t spoken to anyone for weeks. He’d forgotten how much it interrupted his thoughts to have to listen to someone speak. The unfamiliarity paralysed him. It didn’t really matter though because she would be gone in a minute and he could carry on to the shop to get his milk.

‘Hope it stays dry tonight the thing is I’m sleeping in a tent coz I got kicked out of the homeless place they said I was usin' but I was just holding the gear for someone its a nightmare trying to get my stuff dry they won’t let me hang around in the day centre for more than 5 hours so I got to walk around town now til I can face getting back into the tent coz I hate getting into a wet sleeping bag.’

The unbidden words came out of her in a stream between drags on the cig. She did not move from the spot. He realised with dread that she thought that they were in some sort of conversation even though he hadn't actually said anything. By handing over his lighter he had created in her a legitimate expectation that he was capable of doing what normal people did. He searched his mind for something to say.

‘Oh fuck my feet suddenly feel really heavy I was only going to the shop for milk see I haven’t been out the flat for 3 months my sister was bringing my shopping but now she’s gone away for a holiday and I’m on my own so I was feeling hungry I tried cornflakes with water coz I ran out of milk but it tastes like shit I can’t talk to anyone I need to feel safe and that’s why I never come out of my flat she’ll be back next saturday but I needed to get the milk and I thought it would be ok if I came out late at night coz there’s no one about.’

These thoughts went through his head but the only sound he made was a low groan.

Now she was rolling another cig. The adrenaline pumping through him triggered his nicotine addiction. He’d smoked the last of his tobacco. He was gonna get more with the milk. He held out his hand and she placed the almost too thin to smoke roll up in his palm. That chuckle again, they were complicit in something now. He didn’t know what. By the time he’d lit it and taken a deep lung full the scratched forearm with open palm motioned for the lighter.

‘Thing is Frank will be looking for me now he will need some gear for tonight he knows where my tent is so I gotta stay low coz I don’t feel like working sometimes I just can’t be arsed with blow jobs and weird guys in their cars I know he’ll kill me tomorrow but so long as I can keep out of his way til he gets something I don’t know where he’ll go but he knows plenty others who can sort him out so that’s his problem anyway.’

The girl took another drag and looked over her shoulder. Her words came out just as fast but she took a couple of pauses to suck on the cig.

Mac felt a pang of something. He wanted to protect this skinny girl from her life. Images of her in his flat floated across his mind’s eye, all soft cushions, low lights, breakfast in bed, cosying up to watch films on his laptop. And locking the door to keep Frank and all the bad stuff out. She’d need to have a shower thought, the smell of her arm pits was stronger than the tobacco.

‘Whats your name?’ He surprised himself that he could dredge up what used to pass for a chat up line. He didn’t fancy her but it was all he could think of to say.

‘Its shit being on the street hiding from everyone if its not Frank its the other girls they hate me coz I’m younger and if I’m out they don’t get any business so that’s how come I said yes to Frank when he said he’d protect me see this bruise around my eye that was Kate she landed a fist on my head one time was I was out.’

She shuddered as a chill wind blew over them. He noticed that the skin on her face had an unwashed weathered look - she lived more outside than in. The faint outline of blue/black on some skin that was slightly raised around her left eye. His fingers felt the heat of the end of the cigarette as it burnt down.

‘So what did you say your name was?’He didn’t really want to know but felt he should say something. It was ok to remind her he had asked. This was an achievement for him. Something about practising the things he found difficult was registering in the back of his memory from some online CBT shit his sister had made him watch.

Then from down the street came a man’s voice.

‘Jemma! where the fuck you been? Frank’s looking for you.’ Before Mac knew what was going on she leant forward and grabbed his belt buckle. She was tiny but she leant into his body and he felt her push. His mind was freaking out but his centre of gravity was powerless to resist her force in pushing him towards the alley bending them. She waved her arm behind her. She had manoeuvred him so he had his back to the road. Mac Looked over his shoulder. The man was hovering at the end of the alley.

‘Make like you’re enjoying this will you?’ She whispered to him and knelt down so her head was in front of his groin. He tried to step back but the guy was still pacing.

‘He’ll fuck off in a minute. Stay still.’

Mac let the heaviness he’d felt earlier take over him so he felt as if he were sinking deep into the ground. He really didn’t want to be here with this smelly girl but he was incapable of moving.

‘For fuck’s sake all I wanted was some milk and tobacco why did I have to get mixed up with all this shit I want to be back on my sofa with a cushion over my head closing out all this that’s what you get for having feelings when you let someone talk to you fuck all the CBT shite I’m not doing it any more fuck what my sister says about getting out of the flat this is all her fault for going away I don’t need anyone I’m not letting her into the flat again.’

He had closed his eyes and could feel his heart racing but his feet staying stock still.

If was like a long long time passed but when he looked round she was gone and he was alone in the alley. His belt was undone but she hadn’t done anything just pretended so the guy would leave her alone. Motion returned to Mac who went quickly to the shop. With his milk and tobacco under his arm he went from leaden weight to flying dart. By the time he leant against the back of his flat door he could hardly breathe. He turned the key, slid all the bolts across and pushed the draught excluder along the bottom to block out the hallway light. Slowly the feeling of relief tingled through his motionless body. He was safe. He was unable to sleep. He smoked all night. The smell of the girl returned to him. He wondered if she was back in her tent or whether Frank had caught up with her.