High Tide on Baker Street
By Oscar Windsor-Smith
The city desert makes you feel so cold.
It's got so many people but it's got no soul… *
Seen by the window lights her eyes shine star-bright. She may be a cop perhaps––no, someone softer––and she's crouching close to a bed that stinks of London, piss and unwashed feet.
The woman crouching in the doorway is wearing dark clothing, knitted tights and clumpy shoes; she smells clean, like lost memories of seaside air and the homes of other people's kids.
'Hello. What's your dog's name?' she asks the boy in the box.
'Jack,' he croaks.
The rat-dog hears his name. His tail thump-thumps on cardboard. The woman smiles as if she understands.
'Rafferty. He's Jack Rafferty.'
The woman laughs. She opens up her carry-bag and lifts out a Styrofoam cup. 'Rafferty? I expected he'd be called Russell.'
The boy glares out at the world. 'I don't do what's expected.'
She smiles again and nods. 'I'm Jane. I'm here to make sure you'll be okay.'
'You're wasting your time. I don't believe in God.'
'Did I ask you to believe?'
'My old man calls people like you God-botherers... But he’s a bastard. Sorry. '
'Don't be.' Jane leans back, out into the street, and glances side to side. 'Do you believe in me?
'Course I do. I can see you.'
'Good. That's a start.' She offers him the cup.
He takes it in quivering hands and peels back the cover. Soup. Piping hot.
'It's freezing hard tonight. You should find a hostel.'
Through the steam, he gives her that dangerous look, the one that sends most God-botherers scuttling. His scowl bounces off her gentleness.
'Ah... They won't take Jack, I suppose?'
'Well, Jack Rafferty's Dad, where are you from?'
'Yeah, like, I'm gonna tell you.'
'I won't interfere. Promise.'
He hesitates, whispers: 'Northumberland.'
Jane scans the street again like she's expecting someone. 'Look, give me a name. Jack Rafferty's Dad is far too long.'
'Like in pebble.'
She nods. 'Why did you pick this street, Pebb?'
'It has a happy ending.'
She does a double take. 'Ah, the song?'
'Yeah. Mum loved that track. We'd run along the beach and she'd sing "...one more year and then you'll be happy...*" to the east wind. Then she'd pretend the wind had made her cry.'
'But she's at peace now?'
'You'll find no peace here, Pebb.' Jane's words are a sigh barely audible against the roar of traffic.
'When violence is called home, this is peace,' Pebb whispers. His eyes roll and close, frost glittering on his lashes. Jack whimpers, cowers back into his box.
With a final glance at scuttling, unfeeling feet and streaks of light from passing cars, Jane lowers her body to the ground and wraps herself around Pebb.
Seen through a car window, another London night once sparkled in wind-blown freezing rain. Empty drink cans rolled, dancing in the orange light. Tumbling food wrappers teased the dispossessed laid out in doorways and hidden behind rubbish sacks.
'Why must you put yourself at risk by going out alone?' asked the driver, dressed in paramedic uniform.
Surprised in her thoughts, Jane glanced at her fiancé. 'Danger finds you wherever you hide. Better to go out and meet it. Anyway, people are mostly good.'
'Your "Junkies and murderers are misunderstood" theory again?'
'You're so cynical, David. Many of these people are emotionally damaged or following a misguided dream. All most of them want is to identify with something or somewhere they see as significant.'
'So, our social problems are all about bad self-image?'
'There are lines in life like tide marks on a beach. Fortunate people, like you and me, live above the high water mark. Others sink below the low water mark and drown. Between those tide lines are the ones we can save. Think of me as a beachcomber and them as precious salvage.'
'Very poetical, but you can't cure the world's ills alone, Jane.'
'Am I alone?'
‘On my own is not the same as being alone.’
‘Groups of people scare the rough sleepers. On my own I can make contact.'
'So you say.'
'Anyway, you face similar dangers on every shift.'
'Drop me here.'
'No. Let me drop you at the citadel. Take a partner with you, it's a lousy night.'
'Here, David, please. I'll be fine. See you in the morning.'
An ambulance swings into Baker Street on blues and twos.
'Over there––doorway––near the museum.'
'David, are you okay? Christ, isn't that where they found your–?'
'No. Not again. Please.'
'Pull yourself together, mate, we've got to deal with this.'
They fall into life-saving routine, wrap the semi-conscious boy in a space-blanket and place him in the ambulance.
'There’s a dog. His, do you think?'
'No worries, it's off. The rascal's seen someone it knows. '
David switches on the blues and twos. ‘Let’s go.'
'Will the kid be okay?'
'He'll live. He was on the right side of the tide line.'
David stares into the wing mirror as the ambulance accelerates away. 'Oh... Just an old saying.'
* Excerpts from Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty ©