"Here you go." A smiling woman passed me a scalding cup of coffee, and I clutched it gratefully. The heat seared my hands and the steam coming from it made my eyes water, but I hugged it with cupped hands, breathing in the heat and closing my eyes in bliss.
"Thanks," I grinned, turning away to sit on a nearby bench. The woman continued to watch me, her smile fading when she thought I couldn't see. She went to tap the woman beside her, and whispered something urgently in her ear, nodding her head in my general direction as if it was less conspicuous than holding up a sign saying I'm talking about you. Which it wasn't.
The lady next to her shrugged and whispered something back, hurriedly pulling a smile on to serve a hobbling old man a steaming cup of soup. The coffee woman had a sort of horrified look on her face, her mouth slightly open and her eyes wide. I recognized that look - I'd seen it many times when helpers had realised that there were kids on the streets too.
At the sight of me watching, she quickly smiled innocently with big white teeth in that annoyingly patronising way that adults do, as if I were only about five, and had witnessed none of the previous conversation. Which I had, albeit reluctantly. The only clue left of her conversation was the pity brimming in her eyes as she watched me.
I turned away in barely disguised disgust. I didn't want her pity. I didn't want anyone's pity. I could feel her piercing blue eyes boring a hole in the back of my head, and I ignored it with practiced nonchalance, taking a swig of coffee. It was sweet and hot, sharp on my tongue, and burned its way down to my stomach. I grimaced a little, but took another searing mouthful. Hot and sweet. Just how I liked it.
Next to me, a bloke in a misshapen woollen hat snored, an empty bottle of beer swinging from one hand like a teddy bear from a toddler's fist. I knew him. Old Jack we called him. Or some of us behind his back, Drunk Jack. A gambler who'd lost everything he had on a foolish bet, and had been tossed out onto the harsh streets of London where he'd fallen to drink to drown his sorrows. He was one of the rest of us, someone who'd lost everything, or couldn't find a decent job, and suddenly the rest of society had ganged up on us and chucked us out like garbage into a landfill; some pit where they could forget about us and avoid us at all costs.
Around me, other homeless people drank from cups of soup or tea, all huddled up in thick coats and blankets against the biting February wind. Queues of people waited patiently for a hot drink from the lines of tables and smiling volunteers.
I bit back a scream of frustration. They thought they helped but they didn't. I appreciated the drinks, but what I couldn't stand was the sympathy, the sad looks when they thought my back was turned, the furtive whispering that stopped as soon as the next person came up for their fill. I didn't want anyone's sympathy or pity, because around here, it didn't hep. It just made you feel helpless and worthless, and threatened to bring back the emotions from where I'd carefully buried them in my chest away from the rest of the world. It's why I liked to hang around for a bit before silently vanishing around a street corner or down an alley in the blink of an eye, out of sight. A shadow amongst shadows.
I shuffled further into my jacket, scrunching my chin under the collar, and pulled the hood up over my eyes in a desperate attempt to stay warm. In the background, cars charged along roads, and herds of tourists shuffled along the pavement, before being corralled into the nearest shop by an impatient guide. Windows glinted warm amber, and inside I could see people happily chatting and browsing shelves. The sky was an overwhelming shade of iron grey. The clouds hung forbiddingly over the damp grass and dull skyscrapers like the dust kicked up from a horse or a transit van, threatening sharp bullets of rain. I prayed the weather would hold off, just enough so I could get undercover.
Peering at the sky, I decided I wouldn't chance it, and stood up, stretching stiff muscles and hauling my rucksack over my shoulder. I strode out along the path, hands shoved deep into pockets and my eyes fixed on the damp tarmac, my battered walking boots, the trails of trodden grass and ploughed mud through the turf from push-chairs and exploring children. Size three, I noted aimlessly as I noticed a single firm footprint marked out in the grass, as clear as a thumbprint on glass.
"...Are you sure you're not him?" I caught a snippet of conversation as I trawled past the tables laden with coffee machines. The coffee lady was pouring another cup of coffee, a confused look on her face with a wrinkled forehead and furrowed eyebrows. I subconsciously compared her to a dog, although the big difference was that she stuck her nose into other people's business, instead of their private parts.
"Perfectly thank you." The coffee lady was evidently getting very nosy judging the stranger's annoyed tone. Yet she continued to persist.
"I'm sure you are. You look just like him, only you don't have the coat, or the deerstalker."
"You must be mistaken. Either way, I'd very much like to drink this cup of this very cheap instant coffee by myself if you don't mind." The man's obvious jibe turned her face bright red, and she stood with her mouth slightly ajar as if to say something clever, before hastily deciding against it and turning away to refill the coffee pot.
"Thank you so very much," the man muttered. I heard his thick shoes as they trudged down the soggy tarmac path, louder and louder as he got nearer. I looked up as he brushed past, and caught an impression of a striking pair of grey eyes, cold and piercing that seemed to see right through my own eyes and into my head. It was as if he'd effortlessly flicked through my thoughts as if they were the pages of a scrapbook, feelings and memories pinned helplessly onto pages to be scrutinized by mere strangers.
Then he was gone, and I shivered slightly, but not from the cold.
What did that woman mean about a deerstalker? Clearly she must've seen him before. My brain slowly chuntered into gear as reluctantly as a beaten-up car, but I still couldn't make it out. So she'd seen him before, but obviously in a different get up, so perhaps she'd seen him before he'd landed himself on the street. But a deerstalker? Around London? London was a stylish place, and wearing a deerstalker down somewhere like Regent Street would be suicide. Maybe he used to be on TV? Possible…
I shook myself clear of my dilemma. Why did I even care anyway? He was just a guy who'd been tossed out like the rest of us. I sank even deeper into my coat and picked up the pace so that I was jogging.
The clouds had finally broken, and wept tears over the gloomy landscape. I ploughed forwards, keen to reach shelter. A few others, who'd seemed to have the same idea as me, walked silently a few feet behind, eventually breaking off in their own separate directions, leaving me alone.
The rain was cold and pricked my face viciously, driving in great undulating sheets that battered the grass into thick, oily mud and pounded at the pavement. But when I left the park, exchanged the wide-open expanse of grass for great towering buildings of concrete, it seemed to lessen a little. Its fall was less like a shower of shrapnel and more like soft handfuls of confetti.
The city was softly lit and glowing already against the approaching night, and despite the wet, people still traipsed past shops and houses and cafes, shouting and laughing and lugging heavy shopping bags. Rickshaws wove through the chaos and continued to wait patiently by the sides of the roads, with the additions of small brightly coloured umbrellas.
London was usually beautiful, but at this very moment, it was ethereal. Every raindrop was illuminated in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colours on windows or the shining exteriors of beetling taxis, and liquid gold rather than water dripped from every surface. Refracted, swirling colours were painted on the pavement and on shop windows, wondrous colours that seeped into my skin and flashed on my eyelashes.
I smiled, and in the light my teeth were stained blue. I guess I liked it here. Loved it even. Loved the tireless drive that people seemed to have that pushed the city forwards through every night into the sunshine. Even then, London wasn't quite so fun when you didn't have a penny to your name and smelled like a gutter.
I put down my head and trudged along the pavement, weaving through the hoards of people and ignoring their pointed stares, before ducking down an alley into compete darkness. I tiptoed forwards blindly, fingertips stretched out in order to stop me from stumbling over a recycling bin (I've done that before). Eventually the blackness thinned, and I could see where I was going.
I emerged on the other side, and took a right turning before squeezing back into another side passage, only this time the street I came out on was quieter. More houses rather than shops - I was on the right track.
Suddenly, a pair of eyes loomed out of the dark, and I cried out in shock, backing away. A second longer, and I laughed in relief. It was a crumpled up newspaper on the pavement, and the eyes I'd seen were from a picture on the cover, only glittering because it was damp with rain.
I frowned and picked it up, squinting at it in a chink of light from a nearby window. It was an odd picture to have on the cover of a newspaper; I definitely wouldn't have chosen it. It was a profile of a man, his face lit up deathly pale from the flash of a camera, slightly blurred as if the photographer had only just been able to press the shutter. The collar of a thick black coat had been swung up to hide his features, but the cameraman had still managed to catch his face and pin it to paper. Pale, grey eyes regarded the camera with calm distain from under the brim of a hat that had been crammed down onto his head, so that his curly hair flared out from underneath.
The headline read in imposing, solemn letters: Sherlock Holmes: internet phenomenon.
The hat in question was an odd looking thing, an old fashioned garment made of tweed, with earflaps suspended above the head. I scanned the article curiously, the rain forgotten. A section caught my eye: Sherlock Holmes, frequently seen in the company of bachelor John Watson, has caught the attention of London after the successful recovery of Turner's masterpiece, The Fall of the Reichenbach. The detective was first seen in his famous combination of a deerstalker and overcoat at the case popularly referred to by fans as "The Navel Treatment", and ever since has been successfully cracking crimes across the city…
It was a deerstalker. Suddenly everything clicked into place. That man. The mention of the deerstalker. The grey eyes. He was Sherlock Holmes. Why that mattered was something I'd figure out later, but I revelled in the moment. I looked back down at the paper. It was old, the date some three months ago. I turned to a nearby bin and rummaged around in hopes of a newer edition.
My luck held out, and another paper surfaced, this time only about three days old. He was still on the cover, only this time it was a different picture, a full body shot. He was in an expensive suit with a thick black coat slung casually over the top, the collar thrown up dramatically around his throat. The deerstalker was gone, and his hair fell in wild curls over his forehead. His eyes were fixed on a point above the camera, and he looked pointedly bored, like a child who'd been made to go to a museum or an art gallery when they'd much prefer a zoo. A man stood stiffly next to him, casually dressed unlike his companion, with thin greying hair, and blue eyes. His mouth was pressed into a forced smile. He obviously didn't want to be there either. Was that John Watson? A family was gathered near them: a mother, a father and a young boy, all smiles and laughter. The caption read Boffin Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr John Watson after the rescue of Sir Thomas Black. The headline however was another story.
Sherlock Holmes dead screamed the paper. The article read on to say how he'd been found dead outside St Bartholomew's Hospital. Witnesses said that he committed suicide by jumping off the roof. It turned out that he'd been a fraud. He'd faked all of his cases, and once he had been discovered, the pressure must've been too much.
But that left me with a problem. Because I'd seen him today.
So was he actually dead?