“I don’t understand where she could be,” Tabitha whined from her spot on the sofa.
“She must’ve gone back to her boyfriend’s,” Mairead shrugged, taking a bite from her apple.
“No way,” Drew interjected as he entered the room, “there was no way those two were getting back together after what me and Jim saw last night. Tab’s right, it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Can’t you call her?” Tabitha asked.
“She called me off an unknown number. Maybe she’ll turn back up at the café next Friday.”
The whole thing left a bad taste in Tabitha’s mouth. She had spent nearly the whole night with Scarlett and she had been excited about staying with them. Tabitha was going to help her get a job and her own place - she desperately wanted to help her. Tabitha got the feeling that she really needed help right now, more than anyone in the world. Anyone who didn’t have any parents and has just been cheated on by their boyfriend needed all the help they could get. And besides, Scarlett was super cool. Once she loosened up a bit she was clever and funny and had some great dance moves. She may be young but she was far more mature than her years suggested and after clicking so quickly Tabitha thought they would end up great friends. It doesn’t make sense that she would just disappear like this.
“You guys still haven’t cleaned up this mess?” Ros interrupted Tabitha’s thoughts, poking her head around the door to the sitting room, her waist length dark brown hair dangling down to the floor in a side braid.
“It was your house party too,” Tabitha shot back. She didn’t like Ros at the best of times, she was so bossy and stuck up. Tabitha had no idea why Mairead was such good friends with her, but Mairead was her best friend and so she mostly put up with Ros for her sake.
“Alright, tetchy,” Ros smiled, strutting into the room and perching on the arm of the sofa, ” What’s got you in a tizz?”
“Scarlett is missing. Did you see her last night?” Tabitha surveyed Ros’ face carefully and suspiciously, she could tell straight away that Ros didn’t agree with Scarlett staying and she was starting to think maybe she had said something to drive her away.
“No,” Ros responded, peeling the lid off a yoghurt, “but you know this is probably for the best. You’re nearly 21, surely you don’t want to be hanging around with a 16 year old. She should be back home with her parents.”
Furious, Tabitha spun round to face Ros, “She told us she didn’t have any parents. I swear to God if you said anything to her-”
“I didn’t say anything,” Ros held her hands up, “I’m just saying do we really have time to look after a poor devil like her?”
“You’re a total bitch, Ros,” Tabitha replied defiantly. She heard Mairead suck in some air to her right, she hated confrontation. Ros just smiled, licking the lid of her yoghurt.
“You know it makes sense, Tab.”
* * * * *
Scarlett had fallen into life on the streets with a bump. but she was finally used to her new routine and somehow had found a way to numb the pain and degradation from day to day by viewing her life through the fog of drugs, alcohol and disassociation. In the morning, she would wake up in the backpackers hostel early with a groggy head and be shooed out by the staff. She'd walk to the Feed the Homeless van on the corner of Weavers Fields for some free toast and tea and would meet Inky and Pip, her new companions. From there they would jump on the District line tube to Westminster. Occasionally they had change to pay but mostly they would vault over the barriers when no one was looking.
They would split up once they got onto the tube and beg the commuters for spare change before reconvening on the other side to set up a busking spot near Parliament Square Gardens.
Scarlett would play until her fingers were bleeding and calloused and her voice was scratchy and strained in her throat. She would play Smiths songs, Oasis songs and the odd original that she wrote back at school if she felt like it. Sometimes she took requests if the strangers promised her a shiny pound coin. Throughout the day, Pip would bring her cans of cider, half smoked cigarettes and the sandwiches they had been gifted by strangers, and she’d be able to take a break on the green while they left her to score drugs.
Sometimes they would get moved on by the police and the day would be unsuccessfully cut short, other days they would encounter a wave of generous Japanese tourists who would leave crisp ten pound notes curled up in Scarlett’s paper cup. If that happened, they would set off to find a bottle of vodka and a good hash deal to enjoy under a tree in one of the nearby parks.
At the end of every day, Scarlett would make her way back to the hostel and collapse onto her bed, her head foggy from the booze and the drugs, her fingers filthy and stinging. She'd fall asleep listening to young European tourists giggling and chatting about the adventures they'd had that day. Sometimes they would shoot her a cautious glance and double check the locks on their luggage.
That was if she was lucky. The hostel staff didn't like her much and occasionally they'd be too full and turn her away at the door. Those nights were the worst. But she'd found a launderette not too far away where she could sleep in a back alley doorway, bunched up in her parka.
Pip and Inky were true to their word. Scarlett hadn’t been jumped or assaulted while she had been in their company, and while she didn’t class them as friends, she was glad she wasn’t entirely alone navigating day to day life on the streets of London.
One day in particular, the rain had come down hard and the crowds hadn’t paid them well so they decided to travel back to East London early. Pip and Inky sheltered under a bridge near Whitechapel station and Scarlett was tasked with going to the shop to top up the cigarette stash.
She zig zagged through the crowds and the puddles to the nearest corner shop, clutching a paper cup full of change. Even though she wasn’t 18 yet, her dirty face and matted hair assured any shop keeper that she wasn’t a child and so she was served for cigarettes with ease. She bought herself a quarter of vodka as well. The boys didn’t have to know about that. As she was tucking the vodka away into a pocket and stepping out of the shop doorway into the cold early evening, Scarlett collided hard with a dark figure causing her to drop her paper cup and litter the wet, shiny pavement with coins.
“Fuck!” She fell to the floor, picking up her cup and crawling around on the pavement to sweep up the lost coins. She barely registered the person she had bumped into.
“Hey...it’s you,” Scarlett looked up to find the dark figure crouched next to her. She was met with the sight of nearly-black tousled hair, slightly damp from the rain, falling across two pale, blue eyes, ringed heavily with dark eyelashes.
Jim looked just as perfect as she remembered him, head to toe in black, crouching with her in the rain and looking at her with some trepidation. She could only imagine how she must look to him, scrambling around in the dark, scooping up old coins with her dirty fingers. She felt hot shame redden her pale, clammy face.
"I'm sorry, you must be mistaking me for someone else," before he could reply she had straightened up and ran off into the night, heading back to the bridge, persuading herself the chance encounter was already forgotten.
By the time she'd gotten back to the bridge she was soaked through with rainwater and sweat. She spied Pip and Inky huddled together over something looking very suspicious as she approached.
"What are you two doing?" she inquired, moving forward and craning her neck to get a better look.
"Never you mind, this isn't for you youngsters!" Pip replied, moving whatever was in his hand away from where she could see.
"I thought we were a team! I bet you've used the money I made today to buy whatever it is you're hiding from me!" Scarlett was enraged, the shock from her chance meeting with Jim still ringing in her ears. It seemed a lifetime ago that she'd admired him from across the kitchen that morning.
Pip and Inky looked at each other for a moment before Pip revealed a piece of foil and a lighter in his hand. "This is the bad stuff, kid," he said, a serious expression on his face, "You don't wanna be getting into this, it'll ruin your life."
"What life?" Scarlett replied, bitterly, "I'm stood under a bridge in the rain with you losers. I don't have a life to ruin. Give me some."
Pip shrugged and motioned for her to move forward, he handed her the empty casing of a ball point pen and lit a fire underneath the foil. Scarlett leaned in towards the foil and used the pen casing to breath in the heavy, fetid smoke before coughing it back out. She felt the effect instantly and leaned heavily against the bridge wall, eventually slumping down into a sitting position with her hands by her sides. Her body felt incredibly heavy and she let her eyelids flutter closed as she drifted away into a blissful oblivion. The feeling of euphoria was replaced as quickly as it had come with a huge wave of nausea, she was nearly too slow to react but managed to turn her head with a great deal of effort and vomit onto the floor next to her, some falling onto her chin and her shoulder. She felt better after that and let herself sink into a new wave of sleepy happiness, completely ignorant of her surroundings.
She didn't notice two dark strangers approaching them in their hiding place under the bridge. She also didn't notice the apparently violent altercation that ensued between the two pairs of men. She was completely oblivious to her street companions being subsequently driven away into the wet night, nor did she recognise her backpack and guitar being gathered from beside her.
The one thing she did register was being lifted onto her feet by her armpits. "...hey…"she began to protest, attempting to open her heavy lidded eyes. She was pinned on either side by two figures who were moving her at some speed through the night which had at some point gone from grey to jet black. She could hear them murmuring on either side of her, their voices vaguely registering somewhere in her memory.
After a brief attempt at protesting, Scarlett decided to let her eyes succumb to their heaviness. Pip and Inky were probably just taking her somewhere less obvious to pass out, she told herself somewhere deep in the back of her head. She felt relaxed enough and they seemed to be carrying her with relative ease, she didn't even really need to put one foot in front of the other to move.
Scarlet let her head tilt back and could feel the soft pitter patter of rain on her cheeks. She opened her mouth and smiled. She felt like she was flying. After that, everything went black.