Many years ago I lived in a rather run-down part of town, and had some work in a crisis centre for people who were homeless. Our clients were from all walks of life, from over-extended yuppies unable to keep up their mortgage payments to fragile pensioners who had lost their homes through addiction to drink or gambling, or through some personal tragedy. They mostly wanted somewhere warm and safe to sleep, because the streets are cold and dangerous, and they wanted to eat a hot meal and find a friendly ear to tell their stories.
It won’t come as much of a surprise I am sure that some of the people who came to the centre were as mad a bag of frogs. This didn’t prevent them from desiring a warm and safe place to sleep, but it made the work quite challenging and often heart-breaking. It was not a job I felt I could do for long as the situation they were in was often so pitiful and sad.
One of our regulars was Horace, a traditional tramp who chose to live the old-fashioned life of wandering. In the summer he would walk out of London to the country where it was still possible, although increasingly difficult, to find casual unskilled labouring jobs. I am sure that by now the number of migrant workers coming into the country for fruit-picking and similar jobs would give Horace quite a challenge, although sadly he is no longer with us to have to confront the issue. Anyway, every winter Horace woudl come back into central London looking for work and sleeping wherever he found himself. When it was especially cold and icy he would find our shelter, or another like it, and stay for a night or two, although he never liked being trapped indoors unless it was unavoidable.
One day Horace arrived at the shelter in the midst of a terrible storm, but on this occasion he brought another person along with him.
“Have a look at her,” he muttered to me, “She’s too old to be out in this you know!”
“She” was called Rosie, and she was a very elderly woman, twisted up with arthritis and stinking to high heaven. Her thin white hair was pretty lively with lice, and she had an unattractive drip of snot at the end of her large red nose. However, once you managed to work your way past her exterior attributes, you found a sweet old lady who thought she was some kind of Queen; of where I couldn’t tell you.
Horace left in the morning once the weather cleared, planning to walk down to the docks to look for work. We sent him on his way with a big breakfast and a few roll-ups to help him.
Queen Rosie waved him off, then settled into a warm corner and started ordering the staff around. The morning passed peacefully enough until lunchtime arrived and she wanted to be at the front of the queue. A number of the other customers were not too keen on giving way to Her Majesty and everything got rather heated, so I took her off to one of the interview rooms and invited her to wait until I could fetch her lunch. When I got back she was sitting quietly for me and insisted I keep her company while she ate. She slurped and burped her way through the soup and bread, then fixed me with a bright eye and started to tell me stories of her “own country” where the animals talked and elves wove magic in the woodland glades. I listened patiently, although I had lots of other work to do; she was harmless enough, and it seemed to me that a large part of the job was the listening. It was dark when she finished, the winter afternoon fading quickly and the streetlights making puddles of yellow in the damp grey London murk. I got up to go.
“You’ve been very kind to hear my tales,” said Rosie, suddenly sounding saner than she had since she arrived. “I’ll grant you a wish for your kindness; I’m an accomplished witch you know.” And her eyes twinkled a little with an eldritch light.
Well, wishes are secret, aren’t they? So I made one that was all my own, to humour her, then said goodnight and went home, where I spent a long evening updating the reports. In the morning when I got back to the centre they told me Rosie had gone to sleep in her corner, and never woken up. They had called the ambulance at 7.46 when they realised they couldn’t wake her, and she had been taken away. I updated the report again.
Not long after that I moved away from London. And my wish came true most unexpectedly and gloriously.
So thank you Queen Rosie, this story is to remember you.