Leaning her body against the skip, Laura pushed with her feet until the hulking great plastic beast let go of the pavement and finally nudged the wall. Slipping in behind it, she tucked down into the doorway. She reached into the plastic bag she’d left there that morning and pulled a small blanket over her knees.
The cold gripped her, like it always did, sinking its teeth into her skin. Even in the height of summer, there was no getting away from the cold that lived in her bones.
Again she wondered if she should go up to the hostel. There were beds there, and showers, and she’d get something to eat, and clean water to drink. It was almost human, the way they kept them in their walled cage. The bloke who worked on the late shift, he was all right, too. The lass, she was dumb as a rock, but at least she didn’t stare like the others.
Laura edged her back against the boards. Her spine bit on her skin from the inside.
She could go up to the park, but even tucked away, someone could find her. The hostel had doors that locked. If they had had any donations she could get clean underwear and clean socks. Sometimes the young priest came in with books—not always religious books, now. Nice ones, too.
Inside her head, Laura laughed. Book people, they liked clean in their stories, just like the hostel liked clean in the people walking through their corridors, or lying on their beds. Book people liked stories that washed through them, that didn’t leave a stain or a smell. They liked writing that meant everything would be okay in the end. They liked the men to be heroes—to be tall, blond and white, or to have beautiful skin and short hair if they were black. They liked their words to be clever, but not too clever—not to preach, now, but just to give the reader enough of their world, without making anyone swallow the dirt.
Laura watched them all, reading—the women sitting on benches in the park reading paperback books; the men turning quality pages as they showed the covers to their audience. They drank coffee from Starbucks, even though there was a perfectly good not-Starbucks on the next next corner. They knew Starbucks. The other place might make their coffee in a different way. The milk might not be frothy enough. The sweet chocolate sprinkles might be the wrong pattern, the wrong shape. The comfortable, regular profile of their tiny worlds might disappear.
Even as they read, they broke away to glance at their phones.
Those people, the book people, they liked to be clean.
The men would brush the bench before sitting. They did it on the Luas, too. A quick beat of their hands, as if to wipe away the last trace of aura from the previous passenger.
Someone stumbled past on the other side of the skip, their heavy steps catching against the cobbles. Laura held her breath. They passed by, leaving her invisible.
The air moved, a soft breeze cutting through the stillness.
Tucking herself further into the corner, Laura pulled her knees to her chest. When she’d first slept in the street, she’d kept her body facing the open, but after a while she found it was easier not to see. Whatever was there, it was coming anyway. It didn’t care if you opened your eyes, or if you screamed. Like two trams passing, destined never to touch, the world of the unclean ran on a different line to that of the normal people. The book people, the readers, the women with the umbrellas and fancy shoes—they didn’t see the dirt. She never had when she lived on the other side. She’d passed by the doors, the crumpled figures. She’d taken the Luas and turned away from the junkies. She’d tried not to see. She’d succeeded, but not for long. Those stories about heroes and adventures, they were fairy tales. Her story was told in blinkered stutters, in a smear on the city streets.
A man shouted at someone, or something. Friday night and the young knights were out to play. Probably the same people who shook their heads when she asked if they had any spare change.
‘Only going to spend it on drugs,’ one woman had said.
Laura huffed, pushing the sound from her chest. That ignorant bitch would do the same, if she were sleeping behind a skip, her clothes—her soul—drenched in other people’s shit.
She’d tried playing by their rules. She’d tried so damn hard. She tried every single day—but the clean people, they had no fucking idea.
The night ticked on, the crowds chiming each hour with their diminishing glamour. Soon, when the moon started to show on the tips of the church spire, it would be safe to sleep.
In her mind, she played the story she’d write.
First, she’d paint her nails. They’d be pretty and perfect, not ripped back with her teeth, because she didn’t have a nail file, not scored with blood because she had her period the week before and she didn’t have any sanitary towels, and the hostel ran out. No. When she wrote her story, her nails would be shiny and smooth, and as she wrote, she’d look down on her hands and know they were hers, and that they told her story. Her truth. She’d type the words on a laptop, like the young people in Starbucks. She wouldn’t dip into Facebook, or Twitter, like they did. She wouldn’t spend hours on Amazon, shopping for stuff she didn’t need. She would write and write and write with her pretty painted nails and her clean fingers until her whole story was done—
—and then she’d print out the book and stand on the Ha’penny Bridge, and drop in one page at a time—and her words, her life, would dissolve into the Liffey, and when she got to the last page, the final paragraph, she’d take it herself to the thick, gluey mud, and her unclean, broken body, her dirt, would become part of the city forever.