A few hours later, Scarlett found herself in the local library sat in a PC booth with her bag at her feet and her phone plugged into the wall.
As she had trudged away from Drew's house she had done everything she could to prevent blind panic from setting in, she knew that wouldn't help her. She had to think clearly and pragmatically. She was used to having to think clearly in a crisis and now was no different. There had been many times over the years when she'd had to flee her home and find somewhere to be while her mum got her latest fling or hangover out of her system. If she couldn't go to Billy or Sasha's and it was too rainy or cold for the park she always ended up at the library. There were colourful books for Jack and she could wile away the hours reading articles and listening to music on the computers. So this was where she went now.
Turning her phone on for the first time in weeks had been an upsetting experience. She had turned it on briefly to contact Drew a few nights before but had managed to quickly switch it back off and ignore the frantic messages from Billy, the matter-of-fact texts from her social worker and the late night drunken, rage-filled 6 minute voicemail from her mother. She read and listened to them all now and learned that she had been expected to attend a homeless teenager's hostel in her hometown. Nina had also made her an appointment with a support worker to get her into education at the local comprehensive. She also learned that her mum blamed her whole heartedly for losing custody of Jack and that neither of them would ever see him again.
Scarlett let the information wash over her. No one from home had attempted to contact her in over 2 weeks now so she guessed everyone had officially given up on her. They'd finally got the message that she wasn't coming back. It should have been scary but Scarlett couldn't deny how free she felt. She tried to hold onto that feeling, to hold onto the empowerment and endless possibilities of her situation. But she couldn't shake the anxiety gnawing at her. Where was she going to sleep tonight?
She considered calling Billy but couldn't bring herself to do it. She'd hurt him very badly and very publicly last night. Not only that but she'd physically assaulted one of his housemates. She wanted normality for Billy, she wanted him to move on with his life, he'd already been bogged down enough by her and her issues. She cared too much about him to call him with this problem and become a burden again that would potentially drive a wedge between him and his new friends. She'd prefer for him to think she was living her life without him and that he should do the same.
What about Sasha, she thought to herself. But the thought of getting on a train and returning to her home town made the bile rise in the back of her throat. She recognised a feeling she hadn't felt since that last night at her mother's - fear. She was scared of going back home. Scared of seeing her mum, scared of seeing him. And just the thought of walking around her home town knowing that Jack was lost to her forever, seeing the parks they frequented and the fountain she'd let him play in, started to fill her eyes with water.
She couldn't rely on those people anymore. She had chosen this path and it was time for her to become truly self sufficient. To break herself off entirely from her old life and start afresh. She would have to be brave but she knew she could do this. She had been dreaming about this since she was a little girl.
She started by using the computer to consider any other options she had. A quick Google search threw up information about a nearby hostel, she needed to contact an out of hours number for the local council to get a referral. It was a start.
* * * * *
The hostel was scary and smelly and full of the dirty, scarred and inebriated East London homeless community. The minute she had walked through the door all eyes had been on her and she hadn't managed to sleep a wink that night. At one point someone had leaned over her to snatch at her bag while she had lay in the crowded dormitory and she had kicked out at him, shouting a warning and attracting the attention of the staff. She knew she couldn't stay here, she felt even more vulnerable here than she would on the street, but the following day showed up no viable alternative as she pounded the streets of East London and she found herself with no choice but to return. Luckily the staff at the hostel felt sorry for her and had let her sleep in an office on the floor the second night so she finally managed to get some much needed sleep.
The next day she awoke with a clearer head. She had spoken to one of the staff members who had told her there was a backpackers hostel not far from there where she could get a shared room with young people who were visiting the city from abroad, but it wasn't for free. Scarlett resolved to find a way to get some money and an idea started to form in her head.
As she had wondered around the tourist trap areas of London she had seen various street performers and watched as passer-by's threw pound coins into their hats. Scarlett could play a guitar and sing a tune so perhaps she could earn the money she needed which would allow her to secure a few nights in a hostel and some food other than the free morning toast and evening soup she had been living off. The only problem was that she didn't have a guitar or any money to buy one. But she did have an idea where she could find one.
* * * * *
Stood outside Billy's university, Scarlett started to get cold feet. She had stolen before, that was true. A sandwich here, a bag of crisps there. But this would be serious theft of an item which could cost up to £1000. But it was either this or steal from Billy himself and she knew she couldn't bring herself to do that. She had been here with him once before, he had showed her round the studios where he recorded his pieces for his Music Technology degree and she had spied several top of the range acoustic guitars, just lying around. All she had to do was get in and out undetected.
She pulled the hood of her parka jacket up to hide her face and slipped through the door behind another student. She made her way quickly across the studio to where she spied a cherry red Fender acoustic which she promptly picked up without hesitation. After a few glances up and down the studio she saw the coast was clear and made a run for it.
* * * * *
Scarlett had made around £100 after three hours of busking near the Tower of London and could barely contain her elation as she hungrily counted the coins and fivers that had been flung into her outstretched parka jacket. She felt triumph and pride flush her cheeks as she shoved every penny into the pockets of her backpack and jacket. She would be able to afford a night in the hostel and some warm food with this.
She made a beeline for a chip shop and helped herself to a huge mound of greasy chips and a large crispy battered haddock, smothered in salt and vinegar and washed down with an ice cold can of coke. It felt like the first time she had eaten properly in days and she had eaten hardly any of it before she was feeling full. The sun had already started to set when she had made her way into the chip shop and had now fully settled, plunging the busy streets of East London into a darkness, lit by the neon signs of pharmacies and the light spilling out from corner shops and takeaways. She couldn't wait to take a shower and sleep in a real bed.
She grabbed her bag and guitar and waved a thanks to the chip shop proprietor before making her way across the road in the direction of the hostel. She knew this part of town like the back of her hand now after weeks of trawling the streets and so took what she knew was a short cut down the back of an alley, happily humming a tune, feeling content and in control for the first time in weeks.
The first thing she felt was an arm from behind, clamping down over her throat. Her guitar fell to the floor with a clang and she felt herself being dragged down next to it shortly after with heavy force. She attempted to recover from the shock and swung an arm backwards at her assailant but was pinned to the floor painfully.
"I been watching you, girly," a gruff voice growled into her ear, "You ain't got no one but you've a pretty voice on that gee-tar."
The man spoke with a thick cockney accent and smelled like sour milk. He began to rifle in her pockets, his whole weight pushing Scarlett's body into the pebble rock floor, her ribs straining and cracking with the pressure.
"Bingo!" he found the rest of the money she had made that day in her inside jacket pocket and she felt him begin to stand up, "I'll be taking that as well!" she saw him reach for the guitar out of the corner of her eye and felt a frantic desperate need to stop him from taking the only thing that had given her hope and a way out.
Taking all of the force she had left in her body she used her hands to press up as hard as she could to surprise her attacker and cause him to lose his grip, rolling off her and letting go of the guitar. A frenzied scramble began which left Scarlett clutching the guitar and kicking ferociously at the mugger. She could see him properly now. He looked old and shrivelled and had a huge scar running across his face. His bony hands found a grip on her ankles and she knew he would come crashing down on top of her, she closed her eyes and braced herself. But the impact never came. She opened her eyes to see him running off down the alley way, scared off by two boys who had come to her rescue.
"Th-thank you so much, " Scarlett stuttered, grabbing for her bag, her whole body still coursing with adrenaline. He had managed to take all her money but at least she still had her guitar which meant the means to make more.
"You're welcome," one of the boys said. He was tall and lanky with hardly any teeth, sporting a dirty tracksuit and a gormless facial expression. His friend was just as tall with dark skin that looked nearly black, but he was also very wide, with hands the size of dustbin lids.
Scarlett stood up and brushed herself down, clutching her belongings, "I better go.." she started.
"I don't think so!" the lanky boy spoke again, "You owe us!"
"I don't have any money, you just saw me get robbed!" Scarlett exclaimed coarsely.
"Well okay," he acquiesced, "But you're gonna make more tomorrow, ain't ya. With that lovely guitar of yours. And the same thing will probably happen. Some horrid old tramp will spot you, pretty little thing out here all on her own, and he'll rob you blind!"
Scarlett blinked at him, "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying you need protection! And lucky for you, me and my friend here can offer it. Just give us a cut of your busking money every day and we'll make sure no one hurts you."
Scarlett looked around the dingy alley and felt a sharp pain in her chest where the floor had dug into her ribs just moments ago. They were right. She was completely defenceless on the streets and couldn't protect herself at all in this ruthless echelon of society. She nodded her head slowly, "Okay. Fine."