Selected works by Elina Dow
Despite the stench, I place myself deliberately beside the nearly overflowing bin; edging slightly backwards to ensure that I am partially obstructed from view between the back of the bin and the damp brick wall. I think it’s been around six months, though it’s difficult to keep track. I have had plenty of time to adapt, to learn the best ways to get by. Placing myself like this, I make it easier for them to ignore me. I know the sight of me offends. The spot is ideal, just outside a bakery. The gluttonous commuters often unable to finish whatever pastry or sandwich they didn’t need, frequently throw scraps to the floor; failing to notice their inexpert shots have missed the bin. Mostly, I am ignored. The isolation suits me. Having experienced the alternative, it is not an encounter I wish to repeat. The ones who taunt and cause me pain I would prefer to avoid. Sometimes children see my true self; but their small, chubby, hands are swiftly snatched away by a concerned parent. A memory erupts without warning, the clear ringleader from a group of troubled teenagers trying to prove his worth to his comrades. Kicking me over and over. At least until boredom set in, when they headed off in an attempt to buy alcohol their youth didn’t yet entitle them to. I could have fought back, but I learnt long ago it isn’t worth the effort. I need what energy I can preserve to get me through the cold, dark nights.
People presume I was born on the streets, that I have never been anything else. This isn’t true. I used to have family, a home, a warm and comfortable bed. It seems imagined now, the reality slipping further away as each day out here passes. How this way of life came to be for me I don’t entirely recall. My memory is broken, my subconscious sheltering me from reality. I remember looking down at her lifeless body, no recollection of how it came to be. I tried nudging her, but she remained so still. I thought it a trick, a cruel hoax to teach me a lesson after our falling out; only, somehow, it didn’t feel fake. Panic overcame me. I ran. Never to return to the familiarity of our former home. Never again to feel the warmth of human touch.
I stay in this spot until lunch time and then move to the back of my favourite restaurant as the sun starts to set and the cold creeps across the moonlit streets. Here, I get the waste left behind at closing time. Usually, a younger man, with tattoos and a goatee beard, hands this to me directly. Gifting me a small sense of dignity. Occasionally, instead, a large blonde woman cackles as she purposefully throws all leftovers into the oversized bin, forcing me to clamber in and root around for my dinner. I sense she enjoys this. I spend the nights here too, the enclosed alley offering me a semblance of shelter. Though with the benefit of a more enclosed space comes greater danger; here I am more vulnerable. It was here that the hooded youths found me. Since then, I have learnt to stay better hidden, blending myself into the heaped black bin bags. Finally settling, I see a shadow too fast to make out. Just a cat, its fur ragged and patchy. Its approach is hostile. A short scream in my face, before fleeing fast. It knows I’m not scared, just too tired to care. Momentarily I’m transported back to another time, my dream world failing to recall my current plight. My sleep is shattered and, often, when I wake I feel worse than if I’d had no sleep at all.
As the sky turns a misty shade of yellow, I return to the bakery bin. Through the park, avoiding early morning joggers. I keep my head down and hope to be invisible. This is something I have managed to perfect. Or, perhaps, it’s simply that they choose not to see. Next, it’s on past the station and down the steep hill. Pacing cautiously, I outsmart momentum, careful not to stumble. The steps are always the same, though the routine offers no comfort. Having just settled myself in the usual spot, no more than ten minutes, a bulky-looking man approaches. He is greeted by someone from inside, someone whose face seems familiar. I recall him reaching out toward me. Unlike the others, not put off by my demeanour. This time though his features are less friendly. The two of them gaze at me intently and I wish I could understand the words they speak. I sense I should run but my body won’t cooperate. My legs have rooted to the pavement and refuse to unstick. As they burst into action I am grasped from behind. Kicking out, I hear myself yelp – a strangled sound that seems to come from elsewhere. People stare. No longer able to blend into the background, I succumb to the overpowering force.
Later, I awake in a dark, grey room. No windows, just a view beyond some bars. A group of them, watching me. I have, at least, been given some water. Small mercies. I observe them closely, trying to work out what I’m doing here. What they want with me. Suddenly, I realise that I’m warm, warmer than I remember having been in a long time. I notice a blanket has been draped gently over me and wonder how I didn’t notice this sooner. Confused, I start to call out. I pace my cell in circles. I realise the approach of being neither seen nor heard will not work on these people and hope that if I make enough noise I might be released. Hours pass. My throat hurts from the shouting and I feel dizzy. The heavy sensation of sleep overwhelms me and outweighs my desire to fight. My eyelids now uncontrollable, the world begins to blur.
Five of them huddle around the small brown table, reminiscent of a rugby scrum. Observing him carefully until, at last, he falls back to sleep. Breaking away from the rest, the bulky-looking man crosses the room to retrieve his printing. From the group behind him, a short, slight woman follows his path with her eyes. “What do we know about him, boss? How long’s he been out there?”
The acoustics of the room echo his response back to her, “I’d guess a few weeks from the look of him. He’s got ID. Says his name’s Toby.”
“How old is he?”
“I reckon about 12. I tried calling his family, but no luck.”
Sadness evident on the woman’s face, she allows a soft sigh to escape. “What happens if we can’t find them?” She lowers herself to her knees, peering in at Toby. “Poor little chap”.
Smiling to himself at the innocence of their newest recruit, the man places a hand gently on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’s safe now. If his family can’t be found, we’ll soon get him a new one. This is what we do.”
With soggy eyes, she looks up. A most serious expression worn on her young face. To no-one in particular, she mutters gently. “A few weeks. That’s months in dog years.”
‘Shadowed Haven’ (inspired by Elina’s love of animals and the work of RSPCA) was shortlisted for Waterstones Write and Raise 2018
Previews from Elina’s ‘Hidden Moments’ flash fiction series, out now – published in dragonflies.
A nice cup of tea
A nice cup of tea, that’s what I fancy.
I push all my weight into my arms and find the manoeuvre surprisingly tough. I feel a slight wobble as I reach my feet, finding balance more difficult than usual. My eyes catch on a metal walking frame and I reach for it instinctively. I remember, suddenly, the frame is mine. I wonder why I forgot this. As I reach the kitchen, I find myself standing in a stranger’s home. This isn’t my kitchen; my kitchen has red cupboards. Here they’re all grey.
“Frank, what’s happened to the kitchen?” “Did we redecorate?” Deaf as a post, my husband.
I find a fridge to my right. The fridge I recognise. We must have redecorated. Frank is always scolding me for my poor memory. As I close the fridge door I remember the milk and re-open it, chastising myself for allowing my daydreaming to disturb the task at hand. Reaching in for the two separate bottles (Frank has blue-top, I have green), I find only green. Strange. We must have forgotten to pick Frank’s up. The milk seems heavier than usual and I find myself almost hurling it toward the side in my need to release its bulk.
This is what people do
“Frank, I’m scared”.
I feel an idiot even thinking it, let alone speaking it out loud. I should have thought about today nine months ago. Recently, my stomach has grown more rapidly than I imagined possible. I didn’t even look pregnant
The full stories (together with one more) are available in dragonflies