In the soft, but harsh, glow of the street light, she stamps her icy heel clad feet in a futile attempt to bring some life back into them. She pulls the small, leather jacket with the broken zip closer around her shivering upper body. Her shivers make her large breasts shake comically, like a pair of oversized maracas, and her teeth chatter in rhythm with the shakes, as though attempting to harmonise, perhaps in sympathy. The unforgiving light she stands under shines down, like a spotlight on her strained, age-worn face, highlighting the loose, wrinkled skin under her eyes, the result of many a drug fuelled, sleepless night. The skin on her cheeks, once youthful and rosy, now has a sallow, drooping quality made worse by the foundation she has caked haphazardly all over it. The remnants of a cheap, red lipstick gather at the corners of her downcast, forlorn looking mouth. She was rapidly approaching her 40th trip around the sun, but she looked and felt much older. Her weathered look would pass a drunken inspection in a dimly lit pub, as it had on many occasions before, but not here under this savage spotlight where even her most redeeming features, the blonde flecked hair and straight, Grecian nose, do her no favours.
This time 5 years ago, she was living an unremarkable life. Well, as unremarkable as was possible on the estate where she had grown up and still lived. As a barmaid at the local dive, hers was a well recognised face and her cheeky, yet firm, attitude towards her customers meant that she was both well liked and respected.
She had met Lewis, the man who she was waiting for now, on a rare night out with some friends; good friends that she had since lost and missed terribly. Lewis had swept her off her feet and right out of her wedged heels that night, showering her with compliments, buying her and her friends expensive cocktails and providing them all with top quality cocaine, as though it cost no more than a packet of Sherbet from Jones’ shop on the corner of her street. At the end of the night she had let him walk her home, wanting him to come in for ‘coffee’, stunned, but flattered when he refused, claiming he had more respect for her than that. She had never had that off any man in her life before and it cemented her already growing feelings for him. The problem, she mused now on this freezing street corner, was that this is what Lewis had orchestrated before he had ever even approached her.
Over the next 3 months their relationship became official and she didn’t waste any time telling anyone who would listen how lucky she was. She would have taken an all-singing, all-dancing advert out in the middle of Coronation Street if she’d been able to. Lewis was so generous, nothing was too much for him. He bought her flowers, took her out for expensive meals to fancy restaurants where she could hardly pronounce any of the menu, he lavished gifts on her and, of course, that expensive cocaine just kept coming. He didn’t seem to mind how much of it she did, often encouraging her to take more than she really wanted to. She did it, not wanting him to think she was being ungrateful by refusing. There was no way she was going to do anything to spoil what she had with him.
She knew he was a drug dealer, there was no other explanation for the seemingly endless supply of drugs and money. He didn’t have a job, yet he wore designer clothes, drove brand new luxury cars and strutted around the estate like a Rockefeller 2.0. Not knowing a whole lot about drug distribution, buying the odd gram of coke didn’t make anyone an expert, she didn’t know where he landed on the food chain, but she figured he must be fairly high up. He was certainly above anyone she had ever dealt with in the past. She thought he was maybe a few rungs of the ladder higher than the guys who hung around the streets and dealt out of the pub toilet. In between them and Lewis was Morris, his driver and general dogsbody. This was all just speculation, of course. She never asked Lewis about his business in those early days and he never offered her any insight either. She had no idea how bad it really was and there was no way of knowing how caught up in his web of drugs, gangs and sex she was about to become and the saddest part, she thinks to herself now, is that even if she had known, she probably wouldn’t have done it any differently.
A small red car full of youngsters passed her, the driver honking the horn as it went. Through the open windows she could hear them laughing, the still, frozen air making the sound linger, hanging there like the pine air freshener she had glimpsed on the cars rear view mirror. She hadn’t recognised the driver or any of the passengers, so she assumed they were just kids taking the piss. It happened quite often, more so since Lewis had forced her to pedal her wares on the street in front of the harbour. She was recognised a lot more now than she had been when she had sold what her mama gave her, as the saying went, in hotels and exclusive nightclubs. She wondered if everyone on the estate knew that she sold herself? She supposed they must do, nothing stayed hidden in that shit hole for long.
A shiver went through her, as though someone in a parallel universe somewhere had walked over her grave. She hoped that in this parallel universe, as dead as she may be, she hadn’t fallen in love with or even met a man like Lewis. He was nearly 10 minutes late now, which wasn’t like him at all. He was a stickler for punctuality and had often given her a stomach punch (his specialty; he never touched her face anymore, not even to kiss it) if she was even a couple of minutes late for anything. As she scanned the street for approaching cars, she allowed her mind to wander back to the first time he had asked her to sleep with another man.
“Why do I have to?”, she said, defiantly.
She was still trying to process what he had just asked her to do. It was shocking, to say the least. He looked at her like she had just pissed on the grave of his beloved grandmother.
“Because I owe him money for all the cocaine you’ve sniffed over the past 18 months, that’s why. This isn’t a man you fuck around with. If you owe him, you pay him”, had been Lewis’ reply, as if the explanation was as obvious as an elephant in a room full of mice.
“So, pay him then. I don’t see why I have to shag him. I’m not a prostitute”, she retorted, with the same ‘this is so obvious’ manner he had just affected.
He hit her then for the first time, but most certainly not the last. It was an open palmed slap across her right cheek. Her head rocked back like a crash test dummy and she could have sworn it had loosened a couple of her teeth. Her mouth filled with blood and her eyes filled with tears. The menace in his eyes was terrifying, almost alive, but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. A shocked, pitiful expression took its place. He covered it with hands that weren’t quite steady.
“Baby, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Please, forgive me? I just don’t know what else to do. Frank isn’t the kind of guy you mess about with”, with tears in his eyes, he moved towards her, arms outstretched. “I love you, baby. I’m so sorry”.
The love she felt for him in that moment scared her slightly, but any doubts she may have had were quickly pushed aside when he kissed her reddening cheek with the tenderness a parent shows a child. She had done what he wanted, she had slept with Frank. It hadn’t been awful, but she didn’t feel good about it either. He was nice enough, wasn’t nasty to her in any way, but she still felt sick after it. As soon as she left the hotel lobby where he had a room booked, she vomited into a drain on the edge of the pavement.
It didn’t take her long to realise that Lewis was, in effect, pimping her out to all and sundry. He had plausible explanations for a while - debts that needed paying, feuds that needed putting to bed (oh, the irony, she thinks, in the here and now), but he would turn nasty every time she protested, the slaps soon becoming punches and kicks, threats that he’d kill her if she defied him. After the 12th time, she stopped protesting and just went along with what he wanted. It was around this time that he stopped giving her reasons, instead just telling her where to be and when. The coke, her habit growing steadily worse over the last couple of years, kept coming and she took as much of it as she could - for courage, more than anything else. She felt trapped. If she didn’t do as he asked, she didn’t know what he would be capable of. How had she let it come to this?
That was almost 3 years ago. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun, eh?’, she thought to herself, her bitterness almost as cold as the wind that whipped around her stockinged legs. About a year ago, Lewis and Morris had come to her with a criticism. They had sat on her sofa, cups of tea in their hands, looking at her as though she were something to be pitied, which she supposed she was. More so now than ever.
“You’re just not pulling in the punters like you used to, pet”, Morris had said, even the pity in his eyes couldn’t mask the way he was leering at her. His scrawny, rat-like features had always made her skin crawl.
“I’ll just stop then. I never wanted to do it in the first place”, she glanced sideways at Lewis as she said this, trying to gauge his reaction. Her stomach still hurt from the last punch he had inflicted upon her and she had no desire for another one. His face, however, was unreadable. Just as Morris was about to start one of his insufferable monologues, Lewis raised a hand to stop him.
“We’re going to need you to start working the streets with the other girls”, he said, his tone low and level.
This was the first she’d heard of any ‘other girls’, but she thought it wise not to mention this. She had learned to keep her trap shut, she got less stomach punches when she did and anything that resulted in less pain was fine by her. Still, she had to say something. “Lewis, I don’t want to be a hooker on the streets. Please”. She hated the pleading sound of her voice, childlike and whining, but she couldn’t help it.
“You have to pay for all this gear somehow, my love. You’ll do as your told. Seeing as I’m such a good bloke, you can have the night off tonight. Be there tomorrow at 9 and for fucks sake, make yourself look half decent”, with that final parting shot he stood up, brushing invisible lint off his trouser legs as he did. Morris the Lackey quickly followed suit. Just before they left, Lewis threw her a gram of coke, which she fumbled while trying for a catch. It dropped on to the threadbare carpet and under the cigarette burn scarred coffee table. She got on her knees to retrieve it. When she looked up, Lewis was looking at her with something close to revulsion in his eyes. That look broke her heart. After they had left, she spent the night snorting line after line and sobbing into a cushion.
So, she had been working the street in front of the harbour with 3 other girls, barely out of their teens and all supporting substantial drug habits, for a year now. She hated it. She hated the men, with their stomachs spilling over the trousers of their cheap suits. She hated Lewis and Morris for getting her into it. Most of all though, she hated herself. She had contemplated suicide a couple of times in the last month, but she was too much of a coward. A fact that compounded her self hatred, which made her want to end her pathetic life even more. And around and around it went.
Her hands and feet now numb from the cold, she was starting to get anxious about why Lewis and Morris hadn’t picked her up yet. It was 9:20pm and they were always here by 9. Something must have happened. Things had been a bit tense around the estate over the last 3 months or so. Tensions were brewing, like some foul potion in a witches cauldron, between Lewis’ crew and some new gang that had decided to use the estate as their ‘patch’. There had been some battles over who could deal where and several of Lewis’ crew had had the windows of their houses and cars smashed. She knew, from snippets of conversation she’d overheard, that Lewis was gunning for the leader of this gang - a young, black thug who went by the name of Trix. Worried that something might have transpired between the two of them, she was both relieved and slightly nervous when a car’s headlights came around the corner towards her. The car was going at quite a pelt and she took a step back as it neared, fearing for herself. If Trix’s crew knew she was one of Lewis’ girls, they might try and do something to her. Not that Lewis would have been particularly bothered if anything had happened to her, she thought, that bitterness rearing its ugly head once again. Pretty soon, it would surface and just stay there, like an unwelcome house guest who just wouldn’t take the hint and leave.
When the car was only a few feet away from her, she recognised it as Morris’ clapped out old banger. He only drove it to avoid suspicion, he had told her on several occasions, but she suspected that Lewis didn’t give Morris enough of a cut to be able to afford anything better. Peering at the car now as it screeched to a halt directly in front of where she stood, leaving an acrid smell of burning rubber, she saw him behind the wheel. He looked awful, something she knew a bit about. His face, already thin and waxy looking, was as white as the cocaine she shoved up her ravaged nose. Beads of sweat were running down his forehead into his sunken eyes. The expression plastered on his face, wide eyed and shocked beyond words, would have been comical in any other situation, but tonight, under the glow of this street light, it looked haunting and she knew she’d have trouble forgetting it. A quick glance past him told her that the passenger seat was empty. Where the hell was Lewis? This was bad.
As she stepped into the road, ready to open Morris’ driver side door, he opened it himself and leapt out, head darting in every direction, eyes flicking all over the place. He finally looked at her, as though seeing her for the first time. “Shit has gone down tonight, babe”, he said. “I have to get out of here or I’ll be next”. He made his way around the back of the car, smoke from the exhaust and the light shining on him from the rear headlamps made him look like a magician about to perform a disappearing act, which wasn’t far from the truth.
“Next? What do you mean ‘next’, Morris? Where’s Lewis? What’s happened?”. Her mind raced at a million miles an hour. ‘I’ll be next’ he’d said. Did that mean Lewis was dead? Her stomach gave a lurch, threatening to show her the measly dinner she had forced herself to eat earlier that day.
Ignoring her, Morris reached the back door and yanked it open. As he did so, she heard an intake of breath and a weak groan coming from the back seat. Running towards Morris, taking the same route around the car as him, she stopped herself from colliding into the back of him by sheer luck alone. Her gaze had been drawn to what looked like a heap of bloody, torn rags on the back seat. This is who had groaned, whoever it was. She looked up at Morris, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the back seat.
“What the fuck, Morris? What’s happened? Where’s Lewis?”, she said, her voice portraying much more confidence than her almost liquified insides felt. Morris finally looked at her, his face a picture of shock and slight amusement.
“That is Lewis, you silly bint. Trix shot him in the chest, right in the middle of the estate. Everyone saw him. This is bad, shit is gonna hit the fan something chronic after this”, he grabbed the lapels of her leather jacket as he said this, pulling her towards him and peering straight into her eyes. She averted her gaze, fearing the insanity she saw in his eyes might be catching. “I can’t be around when it does. Hear me? You’ll have to take care of this. I wash my hands of it. Should have never got involved with him anyway”, he jerked his head towards the car. “The guy’s a fucking psycho”.
Another groan and an intake of breath that reminded her of ice cubes knocking together in a glass. “What do you mean I’ll have to take care of it?”, she wailed. “He needs to go to the hospital”. As she said this, she shrugged free of Morris’ grip and moved over to the back seat, bending over to get closer to the figure she still didn’t recognise as Lewis. The face was as pale as an albino’s, blood was smeared all over the cheeks and forehead and the lips were dry and cracked, in desperate need of moisture. The eyes, half closed, flicked open now to look at her. As they did so, she gasped in surprise. Taking a backwards step away and attempting to stand up straight at the same time, she cracked her head on the top of the door frame. She barely noticed. This half dead person was unmistakably Lewis, the eyes had told her everything she needed to know.
“You can take him then, I’m getting the fuck out of Dodge”. Morris moved towards the backseat and gripped Lewis by the arms, pulling with all the strength his puny frame could muster. Lewis gave a howl of pain in protest, but Morris didn’t notice. He wouldn’t have cared if he had, she thought.
“How am I supposed to take him? You can’t just leave him here to die?”, she was close to panic now, her hammering heart almost beating out of her chest.
“Watch me. And, if you know what’s good for you, sister, you’ll do the same thing”. He had managed to pull Lewis from the car while he spoke. He gripped him under the arms, but now he let go and Lewis folded over like freshly laundered sheet. If freshly laundered sheets came complete with bullet holes and blood stains, that is. His groan of protest was barely audible. He was losing consciousness and would die in the street like a stray dog if he didn’t get to the hospital soon.
Morris laid his hands on her shoulders and looked at her curiously. “You were so beautiful, you know that? Then he got his hooks into you and I’ve watched you sink lower and lower. Becoming a shadow of the bubbly barmaid you used to be. Do the right thing here, for you, not for this cunt”, he looked down at Lewis as he said this. “He never did anything that was in your interest, he only ever thought of himself and what he could gain. Don’t let him win. Walk away and let this be the end of it all. I have to go, it’s too on top for me to stay around here now”, he shut the open back door with a slam, moved around her and opened the drivers door. He climbed in behind the wheel and with a final glance back in her direction, he said “Don’t let him win”. With that, he shut the door, took the handbrake off and pulled away, accelerating as he went. She looked after the car until it had gone over the brow of the hill and out of sight. Then she just kept looking.
A small, rattling breath pulled her from her reverie. She looked down and Lewis, still conscious, but only just, was peering up at her through half-lidded, glazed over eyes. She could tell he was trying to speak and her mind felt like it was torn right down the middle. She wanted to help him, to try and save him. She loved him, after all. But, the other half of her mind knew that without medical help he was bound to die, and if he died she would never have to stand in front of that dock again, she’d never again have to let fat, sweaty, pockmarked men put their podgy, clammy hands anywhere near her, she would never again have to feel the shame of pulling her tights up and her skirt down as she slunk out of a back alley. Looking up, she saw the telephone box about 200 yards away. She could phone an ambulance and then go, he might still die, she might still be free. But, deep down, she knew that with her track record in luck, he’d make a miraculous recovery and be on her doorstep the next day, like the fucking Messiah risen from the grave.
The thought of him on her doorstep, ready to start right back where they had left off, as though nothing had happened, made up her mind. Neither half of it wanted to have to work on the streets ever again. With a final look down at the pathetic heap on the floor, now completely unconscious with a pool of blood spreading out from under him, staining the road like an oil spill, she started walking back in the direction of the estate. She passed under the street light and in the glow that shone down from it, her eyes gave a little twinkle and the corners of her mouth turned slightly upwards. She quickened her pace, suddenly not bothered by the cold at all anymore.