By Abby Walker.
She wandered. That’s all she ever did really. She wondered if the fact of her wandering was somehow a metaphor for her life, stumbling cluelessly from childhood to adolescence. But the real reason she wandered wasn’t deep or philosophical. It was just because she didn’t know anything else. If you just keep moving, you can’t blame yourself when you end up just as desperate as you were yesterday. You just have to keep going. Keep wandering.
Einin sighed as she pushed open the door of the soup kitchen in the newest city she had come across. Birmingham this time. She supposed soon she’d end up having been in most of the cities in England. Not that it was by choice. Dublin – home – was where her heart ached for, though she knew she could never go back. But just to hear that loving Irish lilt was something she longed for more than food.
“Alright, love? What’s taking your fancy?”
Though…food sounded very appealing. Not that Einin could say that. As usual, she took out the stained notepad with the cheap pen clipped on the top, holding it up to the large woman behind the serving bar.
Tomato soup please, she wrote, adding a smile.
The woman raised her eyebrows, mouth parting a little, “Cat got your tongue, love?”
Einin shook her head, writing, Can’t speak, miss.
She frowned, “You’re a mute?”
The woman clucked and gave her a sympathetic smile, giving her a little more soup than she had given the man before her.
Einin wrapped her bitterly cold hands around the bowl, allowing the heat to caress her skin. She turned and looked around the room, searching for an empty table. The least full one was occupied by one man in the far corner.
The girl felt all eyes on her as she shuffled over to the table, elbows tucked into her side self-consciously. Making herself as small as possible, she sat opposite the man.
He seemed quite old, a muddy jacket draped over his skeletal frame. Most of his chin was covered by a thick layer of grubby whiskers.
“What’re you doin’?” he snarled, jowls rippling as he looked up from his newspaper.
Einin recoiled, not used to people talking to her like that. At least not people that she cared to spend time with. He reminded her of the Men. The Men-With-Guns. Nevertheless, she took out her pen and wrote a shaky reply.
My name is Einin O’Connell, sir.
He took the paper with a wrinkled nose, then threw it back in disgust.
“You’re Irish!” he exclaimed, and the light chatter of the people around them ceased immediately.
Einin folded her arms around herself, nodding hesitantly. Not again. She had had enough of this during her stint in London.
The man was vibrating with fury, his lips quivering and eyes glimmering with unbridled hate. Without warning, he stood up, throwing his newspaper at her. It hit her square in the face, pages falling into her soup and lap. When she pushed it out her of her face in shock, his face was a fraction away from hers.
“You’re scum,” he spat, and limped away, his heavy boots resonating around the silent room.
Einin stayed completely still, too startled to do anything else. She was painfully aware of everyone watching her, judging her.
Regaining a little of her dignity, she picked up the pages that had fallen onto the floor and reconstructed the newspaper.
It was the headliner again. Just under the date – 10th April 1976 – there, in big bold letters.
CASUALTIES SPIKE IN IRELAND.
Einin wondered what the exact number of the dead was. Did that count her mother, twin brothers, and father? Or did no-one else know about them? They had refused to fight. So did that mean they didn’t count?
Thinking like that made her wonder why she ran. She was going to die on the streets anyway. It was die then when she still had someone left who cared about her, or die alone now.
The other morbid thought that often crossed her mind resurfaced: no one would even notice when it happened. She would just be another tramp slumping in an alleyway. They wouldn’t realise that she was dead for days. Just one more in a long line of low lives. That’s all she was. A hindrance. Irish scum.
Curling her lip at the thought of food, Einin laid down her spoon and carried the bowl back to the serving lady. She took it with a hum of appreciation. Einin gave her one last smile – the strongest she could muster – and had turned to walk away when the woman pulled her back.
Einin cocked her head to the side.
“I’m sorry about Frank,” the woman said. “He lost his two sons over in Ireland a few months ago. He’s just looking for someone to blame. I’m sorry that had to be you.”
Einin bowed her head. No, she wanted to say, I’m sorry. But she couldn’t. Never had she wanted to speak so much before. The responsibility she felt for her country – as young as she was – was crushing. She couldn’t blame Frank for blaming her. She blamed herself as well. She was Irish. She was catholic. She had lost everything, and blaming herself was easier than having no one to blame at all.
Einin felt the tell-tale prickling behind her eyes.
“Wait here,” she said, and scuttled off behind the serving bar and through the double-doors into the kitchens.
She returned a few moments later with an Easter egg, wrapped in royal blue foil. She placed it into Einin’s hands.
“You look after yourself, Einin.”
The prickling increased to a sharp sting and eventual blurring of the vision as tears filled her eyes. However, never one to allow people to see her cry, Einin pocketed the egg, and almost ran out of the door.
As soon as she was out, she leant against the brick wall, head tilting back as she tried to control herself.
Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, she repeated over and over to herself.
Her breathing rate gradually returned to normal. She gritted her teeth and pushed off from the wall, forcing her head up high as she began to walk down the street.
But then she stopped stock-still. Sat on a bench, was Frank. His head was down and shoulders shaking.
Einin thought that he was just cold, but then she realised with a start that he was crying. It was silent, the worst type of crying. When it’s silent, it’s serious. Lonely. Desperate.
Before she comprehended what she was doing, Einin was over to the bench, standing in front of him. By the time he looked up, she had come to her senses, but couldn’t back out now.
“What do you want?” he snapped maliciously, furiously brushing at his eyes.
Einin blinked at his harsh tone, then did something very unexpected even to her – she sat next to him. He looked appalled and tried to stand up, but his leg wouldn’t allow him, and he fell back onto the bench with a grunt.
“Make you feel good, does it? Tormenting an old man?” he barked.
Einin didn’t respond. She just reached into her pocket and took out the egg. She could feel him watching her in confusion as she unwrapped it and split it down the middle. She handed half to him.
Stunned, he took it, looking down on it in his palm. He looked back to Einin, who returned his gaze. Then the wind got up, making Einin wince and curl her shoeless feet further under the bench.
Frank saw this and visibly softened. He placed the chocolate gently in his pocket and took off his shoes and the first layer of socks. He slipped his boots back on, and handed the socks to Einin wordlessly.
She took them as he had taken the chocolate, with bewilderment. The girl slid the woollen socks onto her bleeding feet and sighed in contentment at their warmth.
“I’m sorry, Einin,” Frank said sincerely – pronouncing her name wrong, though she couldn’t care less.
She smiled back at him, motioning to his pocket. It showed that he was forgiven. He held out his hand, and she shook it. It was calloused like her father’s.
“Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely.
She nodded and pointed to her shoes: thank you too.
The two fell into silence apart from the soft crack of chocolate being bitten into.
It made Einin think, Frank and her were completely different people, he had been rude to her, they were of different faiths, he had embarrassed her, she was from the nation that murdered his sons, and yet, they had forgiven each other.
So why couldn’t her country do the same?
And that was how Frank, the grieving homeless recluse and Einin, the grieving homeless orphan, became friends. They didn’t have to wander alone anymore. Maybe now they could wander together.