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Enough was enough. In the bleary rays of the morning, Joe decided to stop being a victim. Simple. He’d stop being one of the faceless untouchables, a stinking body that made everyone avert their gaze. Today the tables would turn. He would be his own master, take control of his own destiny.
Gone were the traces of the suppressed, small child quaking at school; the wary glances, ears attuned to any movement along the corridor.
‘Make sure you’re not alone,’ they’d whispered.
‘Don’t upset them’.
‘Watch out for Mr Johnson, he’s the worst.’
The teachers, honourable men, cast their eyes over the new intake each year, assessing each boy.
‘Corporal punishment is character building,’ they brayed, and the parents agreed. After all it had never done them any harm. Some punishments were worse than others.
When Mr Johnson discovered Murphy, the school put on a brave face.
‘Don’t know why this happened.’
‘Top boy, but prone to depression.’
With Murphy gone, who would be the next favourite?
Joe had never been able to tell anyone. His supportive parents thought he was just becoming a typical, moody teenager. He repressed his personality, made himself less attractive. Stopped washing. Greasy hair. Discovered ways to cover the hurt. Drugs. Alcohol, glue. Anything to make school a distant memory.
Now Joe staggered to his feet as his body screamed off the frozen night and the pounding from the Special Brew. He looked down at himself. Doc Martens, stained jeans and the obligatory great coat. How different from the over-perfumed butterflies that clacked past him. But today he’d change his life, choose a new path, make something of himself.
He struggled with the cafe door. The heat and smell from fried bacon hit him and he inhaled deeply. How many times in the past had he used smells to fill his stomach, to act as food for the day? Joe weaved his way carefully to the counter, conscious of the grimaces he received as people turned away, holding their breath. Ordering a mug of tea, white, three sugars, he rooted in his pocket for some change. He looked at the assistant.
‘I’ve only got 50p.’
The Chinese girl about his age with neat, black hair framing her face looked squarely at him, weighing him up. She glanced behind at a man who gave her a quick nod.
‘No charge today, it’s on the house.’ A mug of tea and a bacon sandwich appeared on a clean tray. ‘Take it.’
Joe gave her a questioning look, but she nudged it towards him and moved on to the next customer. He grabbed the tray and sat as far away from other customers as he could.
For the first time in as long as he could remember he felt a fluttering of happiness. The resolution he had felt on waking strengthened with the fortune of the food. A simple bacon sarnie. He hunched over the plate and breathed in deeply. Peeling the slices apart, he considered the greasy rasher, the melted margarine, the soggy white bread and he smiled. His stomach lurched as he added ketchup and made the sandwich whole again. One small bite and his senses roared. He began to chew, feeling the different textures with his tongue. He swallowed and felt alive, hopeful. A new dawn. A better life from now on as long as he was strong, resolute, made his own decisions. He picked up the mug, the ceramic burning his hand.
Outside the sun played hide and seek, one minute glancing off shiny hair, the next making the busy street frown. He sipped at the scorching tea, burning the roof of his mouth, appreciating the sensation. As he drank, he started to imagine his new life. Where should he start? Shower and new clothes would be good. He’d find a job, somewhere to stay, an identity. The Chinese girl hovered close by. Joe looked up at her.
‘Thank you. I will get your money, I just need...’ he ran out of words.
She smiled at him and he felt that she could see inside him, beyond the stench and dirt. ‘You will meet my father.’
Joe frowned. He pulled his fingers through his rough hair and looked down at his broken nails and calloused hands.
He sighed. Payback time.
‘Back there. We need someone for washing up. Now.’
Joe’s head jerked. This was different. A job offer?
‘It’s what he does,’ she shrugged, ‘help people. Like you. You need to get cleaned up.’
‘I can’t, I have no...’
‘Door to the right. Storeroom. Clothes and shower. Go.’
She started to walk away then turned. ‘And don’t let him down. My father. He’s a good man. An honourable man.’
He watched her walk back towards the kitchen. From behind the counter the girl stared at him. Tapping her watch face she jerked her head towards the storeroom.
Joe stood up and took a deep breath. Coming to a decision, he walked between the tables and chairs, bumping into a suit on the way and, managing to lift a wallet, headed for the sun.