Rosie once told me a secret.
“I found a treasure at the rainbow’s end,” she said, looking a bit shifty, and checking no one was listening.
It was safe to talk; no one else in the hostel paid Rosie much attention, but it was a slow day and I felt the need for a chat, so I found myself sitting down with Rosie who could always find something to say. Today a little black cat was curled up in her lap, dreaming of whatever cats dream of, and keeping Rosie warm. It was pretty mangy and I didn’t feel quite strong enough to stroke it.
The weather had been fearsomely cold all week and even Rosie had been driven to the hostel at nights, although she and Horace still wandered outside all day, looking for news, or food, or miracles. Horace sometimes found some casual work, but Rosie was too dishevelled and smelt too bad for anyone to want her to stay around. On that day Horace had gone down to the docks to work in one of the warehouses still taking on labourers, and Rosie had stayed in the warm because there was macaroni cheese on the menu which was her favourite. She had taken three helpings, thinking none of us noticed, and was feeling pleased with her cunning. We didn’t mind her taking extra when there was enough, and we had plenty that day because the police had rounded up quite a few of our regulars the night before in order to bring their statistics up to the required level, so they were being fed at Her Majesty’s pleasure leaving us to catch up on the paperwork and find time to be sociable with the remaining regulars.
“What treasure?” I asked in a whisper.
“Can’t say,” Rosie muttered. “S’mine though ‘cos I found it.”
“Are you sure, Rosie?” I asked. I was beginning to suspect the use of the “found” part.
“Ain’t been touched since the old Queen’s day,” Rosie confirmed. “It were in the ditch.”
Then she put her finger to her lips and shushed loudly. A couple of the old fellas playing darts glanced across, then carried on their game.
“It’s a secret,” Rosie said, more forcefully. “Keep me safe it will from those buggers…”
“What will?” I asked, intrigued.
“Elf arrow,” she hissed. “Mustn’t let it fall.”
Then she turned her back on me, and pretended to go to sleep on the bench.
I asked Horace about it when he came in that night. He was tired from a long day for little money – not even minimum wage.
“What can you do?” he said. “But I got some fags.”
“You can’t smoke in here,” I told him, automatically. “Have you ever heard of an elf arrow?”
Horace was a well-read man, fallen on hard times. Perhaps they fell on him. He had chosen the traditional tramping life, but somehow had failed to recognise it as belonging to a previous generation. Inexplicably he survived.
“Flint arrow heads,” he replied promptly. “You find them lying about in fields where the farmer has ploughed them up to the surface.”
“Right,” I said. “Are they common then?”
“Probably,” said Horace. “I had one when I was a boy. Dropped it one day when I was messing about. ‘Sposed to be bad luck to lose it.”
He paused. “Just before I started out on the road.”
Rosie moved on the next day. The cat went with her. Horace said he thought she had gone up to Watford, but he didn’t elaborate. The police got tired of feeding our regulars and let them go with a warning, so we were busy again for the next few weeks.
Winter passed, as it usually does. I forgot about Rosie’s story until one spring day, after a thunderstorm, when I saw a rainbow against the sky over the East End. One of our regulars had been stabbed the night before, and I was coming back from the hospital, where there had been more paperwork and long depressing conversations with the police and social workers and probation officers.
I thought it would have been nice if he could find something to protect him at the end of the rainbow, but he had died anyway, and so all that was left to do was look at the colours fading as the rain blew away to the west.