Tommy salvaged what he could, gently sitting Jerry on top of a bin liner, full of clothes, the only one Margaret had left, after the contents of the shopping trolley had spilled into the street. Jerry quickly curled up and started to close his eyes, he was tired after his ordeal. Tommy sat diligently on the side of the curb, waiting for Marg to return, he didn’t have long to wait, the doors on the back of the ambulance opened and she carefully walked out, guided by one of the Paramedics. She was glad to be in the fresh air, fearing a trip to the Hospital had been inevitable.
The ambulance left and Margaret and Tommy were alone, Marg sitting down next to the young boy. She looked tired and rather despondent, trying to hide her pain from him. He knew there was something on her mind, but didn’t know what, an almost childlike coyness, avoiding the truth. You could see her thinking and rethinking, over and over again, mulling over what to say.
“I’ve been around a long time youngen and yes I grew up next door to Annie, your neighbour. We were really close friends, playing with each other everyday. I suppose you could say we were inseparable; nothing lasts forever as they say,” Margaret explained.
Looking confused, Tommy moved closer. Margaret was quietly spoken, the harsh conditions she had experienced living on the streets had left her a shadow of her former self, her voice had gradually deteriorated over the years; today she hardly spoke a word, especially to people she didn’t know.
“What changed,” asked Tommy eagerly, wanting to hear the rest of her story.
“Annie met a new group of friends. They were a year older than both of us and were not the nicest people in the World youngen. All of a sudden, we had gone from friends living next door, to enemies in the playground. Annie changed; she became distant, angry and worst of all a bully.’ she continued.
“Did she hurt you Lady?” Said Tommy.
“Cuts and bruises heal youngen; the mental scars run deep!” She replied.
Margaret became the victim of bullying often, after suffering as a young girl. Even when she and her Mother moved away from Dockside Mews, she found herself in the same situation, time after time. As she grew up, she hoped the bullying would stop, if anything it got worse. Her traumatic experiences haunted her, following her around, like a great weight upon her shoulders. She just couldn’t shake off the spectre of abuse; even her own Mother couldn’t help her; the memories ran too deep! When her Mum died twenty years ago, Margaret was left alone, unable to cope with the daily rigours of life. Mum had always tried to protect her from these harsh realities; consequently she had very little concept of the real World. In the end, she preferred to walk away.
Tommy sat there, listening earnestly, as Margaret opened her heart. This was the first time she had ever done that, but today was the right time; it’s what she needed to do. He looked sad, but finally understood why she didn’t want to see Annie. Even at her advanced age, the agony of what had happened was still etched on her face. She had forgiven Annie for what transpired in her life, but she just couldn’t forget what had happened in the past.
“Will I see you again Lady; will you keep walking up the road?” asked Tommy, not wanting to lose touch with his new friend.
“I will from time to time, youngen. I wont forget you and who knows one day, I may even knock on Annie’s door; just not today,” she explained.
Tommy nodded his head, lifted his arms and put them securely round Margaret’s neck, hugging her tightly. That was the first time she had received such a gesture of affection, since her Mother had died. She barely knew how to respond, briefly lifting an arm, patting the young lad on the back.
Tommy lifted himself up, standing on tip toe, stroking Jerry, who was now fast asleep, before he went. From his pocket, he took out a crisp five pound note, his Mum had given him for refreshments, handing it to Margaret. “For Jerry Lady!” he said, knowing she wouldn’t take it otherwise. Margaret thanked Tommy, grasping his hand one last time; smiling, she said goodbye. She knew this would be the last time they saw each other, it was time she moved on, uptown away from her old stomping ground. She felt happy to have met the young boy, he had shown her, that not everyone is bad, there are good people out there and bullies are few and far between. After years of running away from the difficulties of the past, she had began a process of healing. At least now she would finally begin to trust people again.
Jerry came bounding across the road, barking loudly, jumping up into Margaret’s arms, licking her face, scratching her coat with his paws. After a few minutes of affection, he jumped on to the pavement, devouring what was left of the dog biscuits, the majority of which were strewn across the busy road. Not wanting Jerry to run further than he should, Margaret called him back, to where she was sitting. Jerry settled eagerly on her lap, burying his head into the lining of her jacket, trying to get comfortable. He was the most important thing in her life; gently a tear spilt from her eye as she squeezed her friend tightly, not wanting to let go. ‘Just you and me against the World Jerry. We’ll live to fight another day,’ she murmured in his ear!
Margaret could see Tommy as he reappeared from the top of Dockside Mews. Lifting her head as high as she could, trying to look through the group of onlookers, she could just make out his waving hands, followed by a thumbs up. Tommy turned his back, this time waving in the opposite direction; finally he turned, facing Margaret once again, running around the corner of Tesco and across the road, still waving as he went. ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, Mrs Marsh is OK,’ he bellowed, shouting louder and louder, as he ran towards her.
At that moment an ambulance turned into the road. The lights were flashing, but there was no sound, as the paramedics parked along side Margaret and her upturned trolley. With a sigh, she looked down, not wanting to make eye contact with the crew, as they alighted the vehicle.
“Hello Marg, how are you?’ Said the driver, as he hopped out of the cab.
“I’m fine thank you, just a bit of bother, you know how it is. A quick spruce up and I’ll be on me way,’ she replied, still looking at the pavement floor. If she caught his eye, he’d know she was worse than she claimed. Margaret was well known in the local area and had been picked up by the emergency services before; all of them knew her by name. Marg kind of liked the attention, especially as she had very little contact with people throughout the day. Fiercely independent, she always refused to go ‘inside,’ as she called it. At her age, she may never get out again; the streets were her domain, it’s all she knew!
“Let me be the judge of that Marg; this is Mary, she’s new on the job today, she’ll clean you up, while I just run a few tests. Lets get you in the back of the ambulance,’ the Paramedic instructed.
Retorting defensively, Margaret argued her corner. As a proud Eastender, it’s what she did best “What about Jerry, I can’t leave him out here on his own. I wont go unless he can sit with me,” she demanded!
Winding his way through the crowd, Tommy reached the back of the Ambulance. "Shift, get out of my way, I need to make sure my friend is OK." he cried pushing his way to where Margaret was perched. "I look after ya dog Lady; just let them check you over; I have some news for ya." he continued.
Marg gingerly moved her head towards Tommy, looking up towards his face. They both smiled at one another, instantly she knew it would be alright. She had no idea who this young boy was, but despite his age, she felt she could trust him. He had looked out for her, not something she was used too. The younger generation of today would have walked on by, but not Tommy!
She picked up Jerry, ever so gently and handed him to the young lad. "You be good, you hear. Hold him tight youngen, he’s a feisty one." she warned.
"OK, OK I will, just do as the Ambulance man wants. Jerry will be safe with me, then we can go and see Annie." Tommy replied, grinning from side to side. Margaret shook her head as she was escorted into the back of the van.
"We’ll see youngen, we’ll see. Don’t move, stand just where you are, so I can see you," Marg said. The doors closed and the group of onlookers began to disperse. Finally just Tommy was left at the side of the road, holding Jerry close, trying to pick up the contents of Margaret’s cart. With Jerry under one arm, he used his other hand to retrieve what he could, piece by piece, placing each item neatly into the back of the trolley; Tommy just wanted to help. Margaret was his new friend and he was hers; it’s what mates do for one another! Both of them felt close, brought together through circumstances: a bond formed through adversity, another story to tell!
Margaret began to regain consciousness. Surrounded by a group of onlookers, she started to blink back to life. A well dressed gentleman, wearing an Italian suit and grey trilby, had removed the trolley from her legs, repositioning her in a more comfortable position. Kneeling down, in front of her, he made sure she was OK, using a handkerchief to wipe her forehead. A young lad, who was part of the growing crowd, pushed his way through, ducking under the man's legs, producing a bottle of still water he had purchased from Tesco Express, over the other side of the road. ‘Here lady, take a drink, you’ll feel better alright!’ he said.
Gradually Marg lifted herself up, sitting cross legged on the side of the road, rubbing her bruised, battered and bleeding legs. “It’s OK, an ambulance will be here in a minute, they’ll take care of you, “ whispered the young boy in her ear. This wasn’t the news, Margaret wanted to hear. The last thing she needed, was a stay in Hospital and all the questions that came with it. Surrounded by people, it would be difficult for her to get away, especially with her legs throbbing. She decided to wait it out, hopefully they would just clean her up and let her go about her business. Looking downwards, the wounds looked rather superficial, nothing she hadn’t dealt with before. Breathing a sigh of relief, she took a gulp from the water bottle, so kindly given to her by her new friend.
“What’s your name youngen?” enquired Margaret, taking another sip of water.
“It’s Tom, Tommy Finch; I was just on my way to the park, to play football with my mates. I wanted to make sure you were OK?” he replied. Tommy had seen Marg walking up and down the road often, living in Dockside Mews, just round the corner from Tesco.
“I’ve seen you before Tommy,’ murmured Marg, “You live down the Mews don’t ya? The same house me and my old Ma used to live in, Ooo sixty or so years ago!” she continued
“That’s right Lady, number 64, next to Mrs Marsh; she’s been there a long time herself. Mum takes her in a bit of shopping now and again” answered Tommy, smiling at Margaret, wanting to help as best he could.
Mrs Marsh or rather Annie Marsh was about the same age as Margaret, they had grown up together as children, going to the same school, playing in the street and enjoying an idyllic if rather challenging childhood. Life was difficult sixty years ago; Margaret was an only child, looked after solely by her Mother, her Dad had passed away suddenly from a heart attack, when she was only four years old. Margaret's Dad was a drinker, who used to work in the Docks at the end of the Mews; when he could get work that is. She often went to bed hungry; Dad spending what little he had down the Queens Head, long since gone, turned into a block of exclusive apartments, a World away from Margaret's childhood.
“I remember Annie youngen; she was my friend, we used to play together as little girls. Her Mum used to look after us both, after school; me old Ma was working down the Co op laundry at the time, just after Da died. We needed the money youngen, things were very different back then,’ she explained.
Margaret winced, as pain shot up her right leg. “Just a little discomfort Tommy, it will soon pass.” she said, smiling sweetly at the boy. “You should get off, and play your game of footie, you don’t want to miss that do you?”
“Don’t worry about that Lady, I can play any old time. I’m going to run over to Mrs Marsh’s house and tell her you’re here. She’ll help, I know she will, shouted Tommy, as he turned his back, running over the other side of the road.
Before Margaret could speak, Tommy was gone shouting ‘I’ll be back,’ in his wake. Margaret wasn’t entirely comfortable seeing Annie again. Despite their past together, there was history there, difficult times, buried deep for many years. These were not recollections she wanted to face, especially now; she had to get away quickly, Annie would not be happy to see her, this was not a time for a reunion.
My back was in pain, eased briefly propped up against the side of Burger King; Margaret one side, Geoff the other. The three of us tended to stay close these days; safety in numbers was important, especially after Marg was attacked. We were always the targets of abuse; living on the streets wasn’t easy, but things were getting steadily worse. At times we felt almost hunted, like animals, driven from where we sat, day after day, trying to survive.
Marg was walking past a group of lads, early one Sunday morning. They were all heavily intoxicated, jostling each other; goading, shouting, gesturing; throwing beer cans and debris from the side of the road, towards anyone who passed by. Most people simply crossed over to the other side of the road, avoiding confrontation, keeping their heads down, not making eye contact. Marg was pulling a large shopping trolley, full of the last vestiges of her life, not ideal for retreating; she would have to make the best of a bad situation. Clothes, a sleeping bag, suitcase, a few old photographs and sitting right on the top, Jerry her little Yorkshire Terrier, who had been with her for ten years, through good times and bad; these were her most prized possessions. In the back of the rusting, old cart, was a bag of dog food, a large sack, far too heavy for Margaret to carry on her own. She had managed to save enough small change, begging outside Embankment, her usual patch, making sure Jerry was alright. She could fend for herself, Jerry couldn’t!
Margaret pulled the hood of her grey duffle coat over her head, closing the nape tightly around her neck, holding the opening shut with her hand. The jacket, frayed, adorned with holes, no longer had any buttons, the zip had long since broken and she had lost the piece of string, that usually held it together. Confronted by a gang of young lads, unable to drag her haul across the busy road, she just hoped to avoid an altercation. Just one of the daily hazards, living on the streets!
Panting with fear, perspiring from her brow, she started to speed up, walking faster as she approached the drunken group. One of the wheels on the carriage, was playing up, it had a life of its own, rotating, wobbling uncontrollably in circles, pulling it to one side, making her journey even harder. The more it pushed her into the curb, the harder she fought, pulling it back towards the pavement. Her anxiety was beginning to get the better of her; starting to panic, she slipped on the side walk as the cart veered off course. Knocking her hip, she stumbled, her knee giving way; Marg only just managed to save the contents from spilling into the road.
As Margaret buckled, Jerry jumped off his vantage point, running around her legs, barking, trying to help, but making things worse. The group of lads pushed aggressively past, each one kicking the trolley in turn. Staggering at the rear, a short young man stopped in his tracks, swaying from side to side, pointing his finger at Margaret; laughing loudly, grinding his teeth. Spitting into her face, he poured an open can of beer over the top of her coat. All the while, she faced downwards, not looking up; she had been here before and knew just what to do. he grabbed her hood, roughly pulling her head backwards, exposing her traumatised face, Jerry barking, growling around his feet. Without a second thought he finished emptying the contents of the can over Margaret’s hair, crushing it into her forehead. Then he turned his attention to Jerry, snarling back at the scared dog, kicking him into the middle of the busy thoroughfare, right in the path of oncoming traffic. Limping and yelping, the little Yorkie managed to scramble over to the other side of the road, narrowly missing vehicle after vehicle, leaving Margaret, kneeling on the floor.
Covered in stale beer, Margaret fell forwards, unable to see where she was going; with a thud the trolley collapsed on top of her legs. Stunned, she laid there, in shock and pain, kicked in the head and spat on, one last time. She could hear Jerry calling for her, from the other side of the street; agonised, she tried to get up, only to fall back down under the weight of the cart. Everything went black as her eyes rolled to the back of her head. Jerry’s bark began to dwindle away; the sound of a Royal Mail delivery truck, breaking heavily, as it approached the scene, barely audible; the light of the morning faded to dark as Margaret closed her eyes!