It was a long way to the bus stop, much longer than he remembered. The rain had filled the potholes with mucky water and his shoes weren’t shiny anymore. He hoped it didn’t matter, but he thought it might and stopped to hold onto a lamp-post as he rubbed the toes of his shoes on the backs of his legs. Holding the pen tightly in his hand deep in his pocket he bent his head to the rain and marched on.
The other people at the bus stop weren’t interested in him and he squeezed into the end of the shelter next to an old man getting the last puff out of his cigarette before the bus arrived. The smoke made him feel sick and he leant against the glass wall to steady himself. The old man turned around and looked at him, but then took another drag and turned away.
It was getting darker and some of the cars had started to turn on their headlights. Slowly, one by one the streetlights turned themselves on and glowed gently above. The more lights came on the harder the rain seemed to fall and the longer the wait for the bus. He checked his money again, but without letting go of the pen in his other hand. It was tricky and he almost lost a fifty pence coin but the old man in front picked it up for him.
“Here you are lad; you don’t want to be throwing money away.” He smiled and breathed his smoky breath over him.
“Thank you”. He tried to smile back without breathing and ended up coughing and taking in a huge gasp of smoke. The old man looked as if he were about to speak, but the bus arrived, spraying them both in water as it pulled up to the kerb. The queue moved forward and shuffled on board. When it was his turn he stood on tip toe and pushed his coins across.
“Half please.” He looked up warily, but the bus driver hardly noticed him and punched the machine. He took his ticket and looked for a seat. The downstairs was almost full, there was a seat near the back but he didn’t like the look of the woman sitting next to it and there were too many bags he would have to climb over. He took hold of the railing and climbed upstairs. There was more space here but his favourite spot at the front had been taken. He opted for a window seat halfway back and rubbed the condensation off the window so that he could see outside.
The street was full of shoppers; most were heading home, arms tired and heavy from their bags. A few stopped in the cafes with steamed up windows that lined the streets. Occasionally a door would blow open and he saw families sharing hot chocolate and sticky buns. He felt a warmth swell up inside him. That could be him, maybe next weekend he would be one of those families, maybe he would help his mother carry lots of bags full of new things. He tugged his sweatshirt down over the top of his jeans. It was too small and he felt the cold air run up his back as he leaned forward. He wondered if he could go into a proper shop next weekend and buy a new one, one that fitted and had never been worn by anyone but him.
The bus lurched to a standstill and he grabbed the seat in front of him. He peered out of the window and looked around. This wasn’t his stop yet. The shops had thinned out and had been replaced by houses. Big houses, houses with gardens in the front as well as the back. Several people had already put up their Christmas trees and they stood proud in big bay windows, some people had even put lights up in the trees in their gardens. He thought it looked like fairy land. Gradually the houses and their gardens got bigger and he couldn’t see the trees in the windows, they were too far away. He thought he was probably in the right spot now and rang the bell. The bus was empty and the bus driver looked at him as he got off.
“You all right lad?” he asked kindly. Are you sure this is your stop?”
He nodded and clutching the pen in his pocket even tighter he jumped off. It took him a little while to find his bearings but armed with a pencil drawn map he had copied from his father’s A to Z it didn’t take him long to find the street he was looking for. The houses here was amongst the biggest he had ever seen with long sweeping driveways, neat lawns and imposing gates. He stopped. It had never occurred to him that he might not even be able to get as far as the front door. At home all the doors opened directly onto the street, the locked gates were an unexpected setback. He counted the numbers of the houses as he walked; it looked as if the one on the corner was the one he was looking for. Like all the others it was vast and imposing but it never occurred to him to turn back.
Luck appeared to be on his side, for while number six hundred and sixty six did have gates, they were wide open and he was free to walk up the driveway. Even in the gloom of dusk the garden seemed pretty; there were flowers, absent in all the other gardens laid low for winter. He stopped to smell a climbing bush covered in tiny white flowers and was surprised by its heady scent. Then he noticed tiny lights scattered through the branches of the trees like teardrops. He had never seen anything so beautiful.
He heard voices and was suddenly drenched in light. The front door had opened and someone was calling him.
“Hey you! What are you doing?”
He ran towards the door but was momentarily stunned by the intense heat, in sharp contrast to the winter chill. He wrinkled his nose slightly, there was a strange smell, it reminded him of bonfire night. There was a sort of singed and burning feel to the air. He shoved the pen towards the woman in the doorway and then whipped his hand away as if shocked by a jolt of electricity. Surprised, she took a step back and looked down at the boy and then at the pen. She frowned.
“You left it behind. At our house. You gave it to my dad to sign the papers, the ones that mean we’ve got money now.” He paused but as the woman said nothing he went on. “You said if he was going to sign his life away he might as well do it with a proper pen.”
“Ah yes, I do remember. It was kind of you to return it. But how did you find me, you must be a resourceful young man?”
“You’re address was on the paper, look I copied it out.” He showed her the scrap of paper with the crudely drawn map and the name and address clearly written in his round, childish script.
“Miss Lucy Ferr?” The woman nodded.
“That is certainly me,” she smiled a little “It’s cold and late, and I should invite you in, but I think you father would prefer that I sent you on your way, you don’t belong here,” she paused and a smile that never quite reached her eyes, slipped across her face, “well, certainly not yet.”
He didn’t move.
“For making it different, for making the bailiff men go away, for just you know, making it so we aren’t poor anymore.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank your father, it’s him I’ll be collecting,” and with that she took the scrap of paper from his hand burning his fingers as her hands slipped against his, stepped back and closed the door. A waft of bitter smoke slipped through the door before it slammed shut and the house was plunged into darkness.