An extract from ‘Falling’

These paragraphs describe Jack’s first night in London and the following morning…

The daylight had slipped away and night had fallen but the riverside was as busy as ever. Jack walked on towards Waterloo Bridge and then made his way back over the river. Halfway across the bridge, he stopped and stared at the views up and downstream. The coloured lights from the buildings bounced and sparkled and glowed in the river and the city felt big and beautiful and wonderful – but how lonely Jack suddenly felt. He pulled up his hoody and stared across the water letting his vision slip out of focus, vaguely aware of the coloured reflections dancing on top of the deep, inky blackness.

Sometime later he made his way over the bridge and up to The Strand and wandered aimlessly through the backstreets of Holborn and Covent Garden and then into Soho, oblivious to the crowds of people on the streets enjoying their Sunday evening. And when he was unable to wander any more because of his tiredness and physical exhaustion, he found a doorway on a quieter back street where he felt less on show, climbed into his sleeping bag and curled into a ball with his backpack as a pillow. 

Sleep would not come. The ground was cold and hard and he felt vulnerable and was aware of people walking by. He curled into a tighter ball and pulled the sleeping bag right up over his head.

Eventually he fell into a fitful sleep but at around midnight he was woken by drunken shouting close by and he buried himself even deeper into his bag to try and shut out the noise and escape the threat. He was aware of laughing and felt the presence of two, maybe three people very close by. He could hear splashing on the pavement beside him and then the sound of heavy splashing on fabric – almost like heavy rain on tent canvas – except that now he could feel the impact of the warm liquid striking his sleeping bag. 

Oh my God! Someone’s pissing on me! was Jack’s awful realisation. He was too frightened to move and froze with fear and disgust. He felt sharp blows to the back of his thigh – one of the  men had finished urinating and was now kicking and throwing abuse at him:

‘Fucking scum!… You dirty, fucking scumbag!’ 

Jack heard the man snorting the content of his nasal passages into his mouth and spitting it out, and Jack felt the force of the lump of phlegm hit the back of his sleeping bag. There was more laughing and mumbled, drunken conversation from his assailants, followed by the sound of footsteps receding – and the street fell silent again.

Jack never got to see his abusers. He was too petrified and shocked to move, and for a long time he just lay there straining his ears to make sure that the drunks had moved on. Finally, he pushed his head out of his sleeping bag and looked around. The street was empty. He hauled himself out of the bag and in the half light he could make out the darker urine soaked patches upon it. He stood up carefully, aware of the dull pain on the muscle of his thigh, and patted himself down to check that he was dry. Luckily the sleeping bag had soaked up the worst of the piss and he abandoned it in the doorway, grabbed his rucksack and scuttled away like a wounded animal into the night. 

*

London’s West End, 6.30am – somewhere at the far end of Oxford Street, beyond the towering Centre Point, beyond Holborn and St Paul’s and the East End and way out past the muddy Thames estuary, the sun was reluctantly pushing its way up into the sky and casting a curious dirty sulphurous yellow light over the city. Oxford Street was waking up and early morning workers with their heads bowed, were on their way to vacuum and dust offices or open up shops and cafés. A street cleaner in a fluorescent coat was guiding her rumbling cleaning machine along the pavement to clear up Sunday’s dross and Jack stepped to one side to let her pass by before he became a victim of her cleaning machine as well. 

He made his way along Oxford Street and turned left up Tottenham Court Road. He’d had one of the worst nights of his life. After the shock of his encounter with the drunk men who had kicked him and urinated upon him, Jack had wandered aimlessly through London’s West End – through the streets of Soho, Fitzrovia and then west into Marylebone. He’d found a bench and had tried to fall asleep on it but he was too cold and frightened and so he’d just walked around, and then around again, despite his exhaustion, to try and keep warm. 

Dawn had never been more welcome and he stopped at the first café that he found open. The proprietor gave him an odd look but was happy to take his money, and Jack devoured two rounds of toast and a glass of milk. 

Sometime during his wanderings in the early hours, he’d thought to himself, What the hell am I doing here? and he’d decided that he would return home to Norfolk – he would make his way to King’s Cross station and catch a train back to Flintsford. But now he sat in the café pondering his decision. What if they don’t want me back – all the trouble I’ve caused. Dad hates me and mum will probably be really pissed off with me. But I can’t stay here – this is madness. But the more he thought about it, the more unsure he became. A couple of hours before, during the awful misery of the night, it had all made such clear sense, but now that he was fortified by a bit of breakfast and feeling warmer, he was confused. 

The café owner cleared up around him and made some disparaging noises. Jack decided that he would make his way to the station, find a public phone, and then call home and talk to his mother to gauge her mood and reaction. 

Jack checked directions with a passerby and at the end of Tottenham Court Road he turned right onto Euston Road, past Euston station and carried on towards King’s Cross station. The highway was rammed with traffic – tooting taxis, wailing sirens and foul, choking diesel fumes. 

He passed a street vendor selling copies of The Big Issue. The man was singing out optimistically in a jolly and mellifluous tone and with perfect enunciation, and trying to raise a smile from the passersby: 

Can I interest you, in the Big Issue? 

and again, 

Can I interest you, in the Big Issue? 

But the vendor was being completely ignored by the hoards of pedestrians with glum or sour expressions pasted across their faces and who avoided his gaze and marched busily on to their places of work . 

King’s Cross station was teeming with commuters pouring off the incoming trains. He found a call box and hesitated for a long while before picking up the phone. A man had approached and was now queuing to use the telephone after him and he gave Jack a dirty look of impatience – but Jack turned his back on him – and finally plucked up the courage to call home. He’d wanted to ring his mum’s mobile but had no idea what her number was but he knew the home number off by heart and now he tapped in the digits and waited for it to ring – and he hoped that his mother would answer and not be at work. His heart was thumping. He thrust his left hand over his left ear to shut out the noise of the tannoy and in his right ear he listened to the ringing tone calling out to a phone in Norfolk 100 miles away. The phone rang once, twice, three times…

Jack’s father John Preston had grabbed a quick breakfast and was just dashing out the front door ready to drive down to join Mary and Ellie in Hemel Hempstead, when he heard the phone ringing. He suspected that it might be a cold-caller trying to sell double glazing or solar panels and he was going to ignore it, but then he thought he’d better answer it and he nipped back into the house and grabbed the receiver.

‘Yes?’ he uttered abruptly – he had an unpleasant knack for rudeness that he’d developed over the years in his career as a newspaper editor.

Fuck it! thought Jack as his father, rather than his mum, answered the phone. He screwed up his face in anguish, unsure what to say and at first he held back and said nothing – the last person he wanted to talk to was his father. 

John barked impatiently in response to the silence, ‘Hello?… Hello?!’ He could make out the sound of a tannoy and suspected that whoever was on the line was calling from a bus or railway station. Detective Constable Lena Wójcik had warned Jack’s parents that their son might ring and now John suddenly realised that it might be Jack on the other end of the line. 

‘Jack, is that you?’ he said tersely. ‘Jack, listen to me. Where are you? Do you know how much trouble and worry you’ve caused your mother and I? What the hell do you think you are playing at? Jack, answer me please… Jack! Are you there?!’

Same old grumpy, rude, unpleasant man, thought Jack to himself as he listened silently to his father’s tirade of questioning and complaint. Jack’s heart had sunk, and when he finally spoke in answer to his father, it was with a sad and resigned tone, ‘Yes, it’s Jack. Just tell mum I’m fine and tell her not to worry about me. I’ll be in touch again soon.’ And before his father had time to respond, Jack quietly placed the receiver back on its mount, hung his head in disappointment and despair, pulled his pack onto his shoulder and walked away from the telephone booth.

John stared at the receiver in his hand, almost willing it to come back to life. ‘Damn… DAMN!’ …