The first time they met was outside the supermarket. She had come to do some shopping, obviously. There were always beggars there these days, though five years ago there had been none. It was strange how easily you got used to seeing them, after the first surprise and outrage. This guy, however, was different. It wasn’t just that he was so good looking, at least in her opinion. She knew that everyone had a different taste and a guy she found really hot, might be plain in someone else’s eyes. No, it was far more than that. Something in his eyes. A warmth and kindness, a gentleness. And he was looking straight at her, not someone else. No one in that town looked at her. They might glare at her, scowl, but never actually look like she meant something. He did. She knew there were people who would say he just wanted to con her out her money, but that wasn’t it. As if she couldn’t tell.
So she returned the smile. She didn’t have any loose change that day so she couldn’t give him anything and anyway, she couldn’t afford to give to everyone, every day. Besides, these days she rarely withdrew any cash. The plastic card worked just fine. He smiled anyway.
The next time she went to the supermarket, she remembered and must have been looking for him, even if she wasn’t exactly aware of it, in the middle of her every day stress. There he was, sitting on his fleece blanket, wrapped up against the cold, wearing an ugly, but not too worn jacket, meant for someone twenty or thirty years older. An old man’s jacket. He looked up and smiled, as if her appearance had just made his day. It had been a gruelling day and she was tired and depressed, but somehow, she found herself returning the smile. Again, she had no cash, but that didn’t seem to change anything.
This time she had to withdraw some cash, and she had to use it to pay for something right away so today, she actually had some change. As usual, she gave the remaining change to the beggar outside. Even the weird old ladies and the rude, brash young women. It wasn’t a popularity contest or a beauty pageant. She had a roof over her head and food to put on the table, whatever else she might lack in her life. It was only fair that she did something for the less fortunate.
He almost didn’t seem to notice the tiny clink at the bottom of his cup. Instead, he was busy looking at her. She couldn’t help smiling again, despite feeling worn out and fed up with just about everything.
From that day, she began to consciously look out for him, not just to give him her pitiful contribution of small change, but just to see him. It made her day too, to see that warm smile and those beautiful eyes light up at the sight of her. Once she’d had to wait for almost half an hour outside in the entrance area and had the opportunity to observe him without being observed herself. He was always polite and friendly to all the passers-by, but never did his face light up as it did when he caught sight of her. She couldn’t help feeling a little better after she noticed. How ironic. The town she ‘lived’ in, was full of people who thought themselves better than the beggars and the homeless, yet no one had any time or inclination to help their neighbours or even give them any consideration, other than complaining about whatever they could find or make up to complain about. Yet this poor, homeless guy noticed her, really saw her and liked her. Without even knowing her.
Her work took her around many different businesses and industrial areas and in one place, that was temporarily empty, between owners, after the crisis, there was an employee kitchen and a locker room. The electricity and the water was still on, and it occurred to her that the beggar might like to come in and get cleaned up. That particular place wasn’t too far from the town center and while not occupied at the moment, wasn’t completely empty. The repair crew were there during the day. They probably used the facilities too. So why not invite her homeless friend to come along?
She bought some takeout and put the suggestion to him.
”Listen, you don’t have to come, if you don’t want to, but I know this place where you could get inside for a while and there’s a bathroom and showers. I got you this. You can eat it here but if you want, I’m going over there – it’s part of my job – and you can tag along.”
She was hoping he knew enough of her language to understand and it turned out she was right. He must have been working hard to master the strange new language, but he had managed it quite well.
”Thanks. That’s very kind.”
He began to gather up his belongings and followed her, looking a little shy and awkward. As if he knew what most of the people in this town thought about him.
She used her key to get in, but could hear the repair crew at work nearby, so the place wasn’t exactly locked up.
”There. That’s the kitchen.”
She had got herself a baguette too, and sat down across from him and had her lunch too. They ate in silence, interspersed by friendly but shy smiles. Neither seemed inclined to chat, but it was a friendly silence.
Afterwards, she gathered up the packaging and tossed it in one of the big rubbish bins the repair crew had put in most of the rooms.
”I’m not sure if you want to use the bathroom or the showers, but they’re this way, if you do.”
He got up and followed her over there. Since he walked inside, she assumed he did want to use the facilities so she left him there to do her work. It wasn’t strenuous. She needed to keep an eye on the repair work and generally keep an eye on the premises, for the insurance. No break-ins, no damage. All was well, as usual. It wasn’t such a valuable place and since it was empty, there was nothing to steal either. She never felt scared in this place. Not like some of the more distant places or the more expensive ones.
When she got back, the guy was waiting for her. He was looking more relaxed but still just as friendly.
”Thank you. You are very kind. I’m Alexandru.”
”Agnes – very pretty name.”
”Thank you. I like Alexandru too.
He smiled shyly but didn’t reply.
They parted company outside. She had to get back to work and he, she assumed, had to get back to his spot outside the supermarket.
From that day, she quite often took him to the empty or almost empty building. After staring at his worn out clothing, she had overcome her reluctance to maybe offend him and had asked a colleague who worked for a charity about clean, second hand clothing. To her surprise, one day the colleague just came to work carrying a plastic bag full of men’s clothes and handed it to her.
”We get too much of this stuff. After we sell the best stuff, this is just left lying around. If he doesn’t want it, he can give it to someone else.”
The woman shrugged and walked away. Clearly not a gesture meant to be nice, just a way to get rid of her surplus junk.
Next time Agnes met Alexandru, she awkwardly showed him the plastic bag and mumbled something about clothes, if he wanted them. To her surprise, he quite seriously looked in the bag, then smiled when he found garments that did look a lot nicer than the ones he was wearing.
She smiled in reply. Today, someone had given him some takeout and she hadn’t had time to get anything, but as usual, she asked if he wanted to come along to the unused business she needed to check out several times a week. As usual, he accepted.
After he’d had his meal, and she had gone on her rounds, he went into the locker room and cleaned up and changed. When he came out, he looked completely transformed. Just like any other guy. Those clothes really were nicer. His hair was a little long, but was clean and looked really nice. She’d seen guys who kept their hair that long on purpose.
He smiled shyly, but didn’t seem to know how to reply. Like every other day, they were both in a hurry to leave so nothing else was said. They parted outside as they always did and she hurried back to work.
She got a bad cold and was at home for over a week, before she had the opportunity to return to the supermarket again. He wasn’t there. One of the nasty old women was there and tried to get her attention, but today she had to shop quickly and get home again to get some rest. She ignored the woman and hurried by.
For the next week, she kept an eye out for Alexandru but didn’t see him. She knew that the homeless came and went. Sometimes they returned to their home countries, at other times, they were just run off by racists. She had known all along that this could happen, but still she felt a little disappointed. His had been the only friendly face she could count on seeing from day to day. Now everything was back to normal again. Unpleasant, unfriendly.
Alexandru had noticed her absence right away. He kept looking for her among the shoppers, some unfriendly, some more polite, but for a few days, he didn’t see her.
Then one day, that man was standing over him. It was late, just before Alexandru had planned to pack up and leave and it was getting dark. There was something about that man and the way he looked at him that gave Alexandru a bad feeling. He had seen that sort of man before but most of the time he had managed to avoid them.
The man just stood there, staring, until Alexandru wanted to get up and leave. Then he spoke up.
”I’ll give you two hundred.”
Just like that. No specification about what he’d pay for, just the amount, but Alexandru thought he knew. His throat felt dry. Two hundred. He didn’t get two hundred from begging a whole day. Maybe thirty or forty or even fifty, but never that much. He had a cough that he should get medication for. Instead of replying he began to pack up his stuff.
The man just stayed in place, staring down at him. His expression didn’t change. He looked hungry. Alexandru felt cold.
”You let me know if you change your mind.”
In the end, the man walked away, leaving Alexandru feeling relieved, but still threatened. There was no doubt about it, that man would be back. Alexandru wasn’t sure what to tell him. He wanted to say no, even to change his normal polite behaviour and shout at him to go away and never come back. In reality, he wasn’t sure if he could afford to turn him down. He wasn’t getting enough food for himself, let alone enough money to send to his family. When he got here, he had still believed he could find a job. Just any job, whatever that paid a little more than sitting here begging. He had always known he would have to beg, even though it was the last thing he wanted. Except this. Compared to this, begging was easy. Nothing to be ashamed of – even though he did feel shame every time he had to smile at strangers to encourage them to give him money for nothing.
The following morning the man was there waiting for him when he arrived.
”Two fifty. Come on. I’ll drive you.”
Alexandru swallowed hard.
It was clear that the man wasn’t listening. And why should he? He could probably hear the doubt in Alexandru’s voice. No was what he wanted to say, but could he afford to?
He set out his stuff, trying to ignore the man. In the end, the man left, but Alexandru knew he would be back.
That day, everything seemed to go wrong. He didn’t get anything for the first four hours. People just scowled at him and looked away. One woman hissed at him to go home and not bother better people. She was dragging her child along, holding its wrist in a vice. Better than whom?
It began to rain, then later in the afternoon, the rain turned to sleet, then snow. Alexandru pulled the second fleece blanket up over his shoulders, but it didn’t help. He still felt the cold. All day, he looked for Agnes, but he couldn’t see her anywhere. His hands were shaking so hard he couldn’t hold the cup straight. One elderly lady gave him a cup of coffee that was going cold, but he gratefully sipped it anyway, even though he had never liked coffee.
Around seven in the evening it was so dark and cold that he knew he would have to pack up and go. When he was finished, he turned around and found that man standing there staring again.
Alexandru felt tears sting his eyes. He would do it. It was too cold and he was weak with hunger. Three hundred meant he could get that cough medication, some food and send a couple of hundred to his family. Just this once. He’d tell the old bastard exactly what he was going to do and nothing else. Anything else and he’d go right away.
Without a word, he followed the man to his car. It smelled faintly of leather and old cigarette smoke.
The house was low and brown. It was on the outskirts of town and Alexandru knew it would take him at least half an hour to walk back. If he could find a bus – but he hadn’t been able to afford to charge his bus card – He would have to walk, unless the man would drive him back and he doubted that.
Tensely, he followed the man inside. The man hung up his jacket then turned and watched Alexandru expectantly. He put his belongings down on a bench in the hallway, then slowly and reluctantly removed his jacket. The jacket Agnes had given him. After a closer look at the man, he also removed his boots, grateful that Agnes had given him those nice almost new socks.
Impatiently, the man waited until he was done, then walked away. Alexandru followed him, a hard knot forming at the pit of his stomach. His entire body was screaming no. He didn’t want this disgusting old man to touch him. Even thinking about it, made it hard to breathe.
The man took him to what looked like his own bedroom and pointed to the bed. Alexandru wanted to turn and run, but instead, after a short pause, he sat down on the edge of the bed. The man pushed him down, then got in beside him. Without hesitation, he put his hand down Alexandru’s pants and began to touch him. After a moment, he grabbed Alexandru’s hand and shoved it into his own crotch. It didn’t take that long, but as soon as it was over, Alexandru pushed himself past the man and ran into the hallway, picked up his stuff and began to struggle with the front door. The man came after him.
”You’re in a hurry. Hold on a sec.”
He put his hand in his back pocket, found a wrinkled old wallet and counted out three bank notes, then handed them to Alexandru. Alexandru pushed them into his pocket and began to put on his outer garments again.
”A thank you would have been nice.”
Alexandru coughed to clear his throat, then complied. He didn’t dare to anger the man.
The man stood watching him as he gathered up his belongings and left. It did take him at least half an hour to get back into the center. The van taking him back to the shelter was about to leave when he got there. He kept his eyes on the ground, not wanting to meet anyone else’s gaze. Not that they would care. No one kept track of the other homeless. It was everyone for himself.
There was no warm water at the shelter but he did his best to clean himself up with the cold water. It took him hours to drift off to sleep and even then he slept fitfully and woke up before dawn.
From then on, the man showed up every day. Most days, Alexandru shamefacedly came along. At the end of the week, the man suddenly changed his tactics. He wanted more. The moment he began to pull down Alexandru’s pants, he began to panic and thrash around. A sharp blow to his face put a stop to that.
”Lie still, you lowlife. I’m paying you good money to lie there and let me get on with it. Surely it can’t be that difficult, even for someone like you? Don’t move, or you’ll get more of this.”
He brandished his fist in the air above Alexandru’s face. For a second, he contemplated letting the man beat him, then push him away and go, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was scared and he knew he needed the money. It went to the medical treatment of his youngest brother, who had pneumonia.
When he felt the man’s greasy hair brush his belly, he closed his eyes firmly and tried to think of anything but what was going on. No. He had never meant to become this. Being a beggar was bad enough. As a child he had wanted to be a teacher or an engineer. Even an astronaut, though he had known all along that that was far beyond his wildest dreams.
Eventually, this too, was over and the man let him go. The price didn’t change. As a child, Alexandru had gone to church with his grandmother. The thirty gold pieces Judas had been paid to betray Jesus fluttered before his eyes. This was three hundred and not gold, but he still felt he was betraying something or someone. His grandmother. His mother. The other children. Himself. Agnes. From the moment he had seen her he had nurtured foolish dreams about being her boyfriend. He – a beggar – a – As he hastily gathered up his things, tears stung his eyes. What a fool he was. If Agnes wouldn’t have been his girlfriend before, she certainly wouldn’t now. Not after what he had become.
And though he was spending more time awake agonising over the next day and the sessions in the old man’s bed, he couldn’t see any way out. He needed that money. That was a fact. How he felt about what he had to do to earn them, really had nothing to do with it.
During the weekend, the man expected him to stay longer. He left Alexandru lying on the bed, went about his business, then returned for more. Not until early evening did he let him go.
On his way out, he almost ran into one of the neighbours. The man spat at him and called him a name that Alexandru thought he understood. Even if he was wrong, the man’s sentiment was right. He was the scum of the earth. His body felt more unclean than ever and he couldn’t find anywhere to get a proper shower or a bath. It felt revolting to put his clothes back on without washing, but there was nothing else to do. Every step he took, he felt sore and had to limp to avoid causing more pain. This had gone on for long enough. He couldn’t take anymore. It was as if the long hours on that bed had caused his mind to fracture. He wasn’t thinking like the normal Alexandru, who despite everything, could find reasons to smile, even on a grey, cold northern day.
At the bottom of his backpack, he had a razor. Even if he couldn’t shave every day, he tried to keep his beard under control. In the past few years he had noticed it becoming more profuse and he preferred to stay clean-shaven. That razor was still sharp. He would –
Back at the shelter, he managed to find a private spot away from prying eyes. It was some distance from the actual shelter, and he didn’t think anyone would find him. He sat down, his back to a sandbox. As far as he knew it was empty. This part of the town wasn’t kept up. That was why the homeless had moved in. He grabbed the razor with hands that he couldn’t quite keep steady and held on to it, his knuckles white with the force of the grip.
Soon he wouldn’t have to feel this way anymore. Soon it would be over. He tried not to think of his family – or Agnes. It was better this way. There was nothing left for him now. At least little Mihai was getting better. The medication was working.
He was so tired. The cuts almost didn’t hurt at all. He felt himself drift away. Now he didn’t feel anything.
The gang of racists stealthily crept up on the shelter. They had waited for this night for so long. One of them had a can of petrol, another the lighters. Most of the others came empty-handed, filled with a fierce exultation. Tonight they’d get these lowlife parasites. They would send them packing, maybe even kill a few. At the very least get them good. You could almost smell the adrenaline and testosterone in the air.
One of them almost stumbled across an unmoving body lying in his way.
”Hey, look a this loser. He’s drunk or stoned. Let’s start with him.”
He began to kick the prone body and three of his friends followed suit. After a while, the unmoving state of the body made them lose interest. They had expected screams. Crying. People begging for mercy. This one was just lying there.
The first guy watched his friends walk away, but was reluctant to quit just yet. That guy had dared to come here, to their nice, clean country to defile it with his drugged presence. He deserved some kind of punishment. Something more than just a few kicks.
The guy began to fumble with his fly, then, despite the cold, pissed over the piece of filth lying in his way. As they always did. Got in the way of pure Nordic people. Imposed their swarthy, inferior presence on them. Take that, you subhuman, the guy thought, before zipping his pants and running after his friends.
The fire department called for ambulances, mainly for the burns victims, but when the paramedics arrived, they found the unconscious young man lying on the outskirts of the shelter and brought him along to the hospital. He was suffering from exposure, had traces of blood on his wrists and smelled strongly of urine. When they began to insert the saline drip, they noticed the bruises. Obviously, he had also suffered some kind of physical attack.
When Agnes got back to work, the charity worker told her about the attack on the homless shelter.
”Six people hospitalised for burns, and another guy, who had been beaten.”
There was an undertone of satisfaction in her voice. As if she felt justified in her view that these poor people shouldn’t come up here. We should help them back in their own homes.
Agnes immediately thought of Alexandru. There was no reason at all that he should be among those injured people from the shelter. Except she was pretty sure he was staying there, or had been. She had to know for sure, even if she was more inclined to believe that he had had to return home. Why else would he be gone for so long? He had seen a chance to get a lift back home and had taken it. That was all there was to it. Of course. It was probably for the best. He’d have a roof over his head and some real cooking, maybe indoor plumbing too. She was being selfish. He was better off with his family back home.
She did know a guy who worked at the hospital. There would be no harm in asking. She had a snapshot of Alexandru, taken one day they had had a little more time at that unoccupied business place. The sun had been shining and they had both been in quite a good mood. She had taken that photo, but had to leave again soon after. Not until now did she remember that she had it. She would have sent it to Alexandru’s simple old phone, but it couldn’t receive images. The people who grudged the homeless their ancient black and white phones should know that. They weren’t smart phones, or if they were, they belonged to that first generation that couldn’t do half of what the modern phones could. Alexandru hadn’t even had that.
She called Jonas to find out if he was on duty and it turned out he was.
”Hey. Long time no see.”
She knew why they hadn’t met for so long. Jonas had met a girl and as usual, when he was involved with someone, he forgot about his friends. Fair enough. He wasn’t one of her closest friends – not that she had any close friends anyway.
”Hey, Agnes. I’m in a bit of a rush so -”
”Ok. I’m worried a friend of mine has been admitted. That burning of the homeless shelter.”
”Right. They’re all basically unknowns. A few have given their names, but two are still unconscious. Describe your friend.”
”Could be. One of the unconscious patients is that young. The other is an older woman. Sixtyish.”
”I could send you a photo.”
”Ok, do that.”
He sounded so impatient, Agnes almost changed her mind. Alexandru was far from here by now, she was pretty sure of that. Why nag Jonas for help when clearly he didn’t feel like helping out? It was just that she had to know. Would that photo get there when he was still on the phone? Sometimes they didn’t get through. No. That ping told her the photo had arrived.
”Yes, that looks like the guy. Come on over if you want to see him. I have to go.”
An icy hand seemed to clutch at her heart. So Alexandru was still here. And he was injured. Burned. Suddenly, she was filled with hatred towards those subhuman racists who thought their ethnic background somehow entitled them to more in life. Who thought it gave them the right to treat others any way they wanted. Because they were better. Better? Better than Alexandru with his warm smile and those lovely eyes that lit up when they saw her?
She got on the bus to the hospital, then called Jonas again, indifferent to his irritation.
”Right. He’s on the fourth floor. Not the burns unit. He’s been beaten and – I’m not sure what else, but not burned.”
She found the elevators and waited while one descended to her floor, then picked the fourth floor. To her surprise, Jonas was there to meet her. He impatiently walked her to the ward, and showed her inside.
”He’s bruised and it looks as if he botched a suicide attempt. Look at the bandages on his wrists. Poor guy didn’t know which direction to cut. Like most of them.”
Agnes couldn’t believe Jonas could speak so coolly and detachedly about something so horrible. Alexandru had tried to kill himself? Why? He always looked so happy, despite being in such a desperate situation. What had happened since she last saw him?
As if oblivious to her reaction, Jonas went on.
”Some of those racists had peed on him and – wait a sec – is your buddy gay? Some rough gay sex. Not from the attack. Earlier. That’s about it. Healthy in other ways it seems. No infection as far as I can tell. Ok. It’s not visiting hour yet, but – I’ll talk to Rita and she’ll let you sit with him for a while.”
She blinked to clear her sight. Hearing about what Alexandru had gone through in the short time since she’d last seen him had been a shock. Didn’t Jonas have any empathy at all? She hadn’t detected any contempt in his voice, but also no sympathy. Maybe that’s what working in a hospital did to you? Taught you to avoid excessive sympathy for the patients, especially the ones still unconscious?
The second she walked in, she knew it was Alexandru. He looked so young and pathetic, lying there, but also – for once – peaceful. Even though he always looked happy to see her, he also looked tense most of the time. Like this, he looked relaxed for the first time since she’d met him.
She sat down in the visitor’s chair and after some hesitation, put her hand over his. It was a while until she could collect her thoughts enough to consider what Jonas had told her. Some of it – the beating and the contempt he’d been treated with by the attackers – almost made her cry. As for the rest – had she really misinterpreted his reaction to her? She had believed that he was attracted to her, but maybe she had been wrong about that. Maybe he was bisexual. Not that it mattered in the least. She still cared just as much about him. It was just that – she had never seen that coming. If it was true. She recalled reading about homeless people turning to prostitution to make ends meet. Maybe that was it. That could explain the failed suicide attempt.
Again, she felt tears sting her eyes. Whatever the reason, he must have been so desperate. So miserable. She wished he could have come to her instead. Talked to her. Asked her for help. Her snarky colleague who worked in charity might have been able to find some kind of solution for him. Anything would have been better than that. Those bandages on his wrists felt like silent accusations against her. Yet how could she have known? The last time they’d met he had been his usual cheerful self. She had had no reason to suspect he was this miserable.
When she blinked to clear her sight, before she lost it completely, she realized that Alexandru had regained consciousness and his eyes were open. She sought out his gaze, but to her distress he looked away. Maybe she had been wrong to come. If he preferred to be on his own – Awkwardly, she removed her hand from his and straightened out. If he wanted her to go, she would leave him. At a time like this, maybe privacy was the best she could offer.
”I’m sorry. I – should go.”
Something about her tone made him take notice and suddenly their eyes met. His gaze was filled with despair, but this time he didn’t look away.
”I missed you.”
Filled with relief, she slumped down. At least he was still glad to see her, despite everything.
”I’m – really sorry. I heard what those bastards had done to you.”
He looked vague somehow, as if her words surprised him.
”Those racist bastards. Don’t you remember? You had bruises all over and -”
She bit off her comment about the urine. If he didn’t know what else those lowlifes had done, it was just as well.
”No. I didn’t know.”
Then his eyes fell on the bandages on his wrists and a strange look came over him. It was part shame, part – something else. Regret? As if he reproached himself for failing. No. Not someone this young. Even that rough sex shouldn’t be enough, unless – and Jonas hadn’t said rape, just rough sex. Chances were he had consented. One thing was certain, she wouldn’t take up that topic. She would leave him some dignity.
”I’m sorry. It was just – too much.”
He didn’t specify what was too much and she wasn’t going to ask.
”What about you? How are you? You were gone for so long -”
”I was sick. Had a bad cold.”
”Oh. Are you feeling better now?”
This time, she couldn’t stop crying. She tried to look away, but it was too late. Alexandru must have noticed. He reached out and took her hand. Incredible. Even after what he’d been through, he was trying to comfort her. She lost it even more and for a while, she couldn’t see him at all. Damn. She hated to lose control like this. Her nose would be running and her face would get all red and – Furiously she fumbled around in her pocket until she found a crumpled up tissue and blew her nose. Her sight cleared a little and now she saw that he was crying too. She bent over him and put her arms around him. He didn’t resist her. After a short pause, she felt him pulling her closer. She felt so helpless. Whatever he was going through, she clearly couldn’t help him. Couldn’t protect him from all the evil in the world. Not that she was surprised, but this went beyond anything she had been able to imagine.
What was the world coming to? When she was a child, it had seemed so safe, so harmless, so – predictable. Now – everything scared her. The coming storm. That was it. All the ominous signs pointed that way. A coming storm, a storm they hadn’t experienced in seventy years, one that they weren’t ready for, but ready or not, it was coming and there wasn’t anything they could do to stop it. All she could do was hold on to Alexandru and hope that when the storm hit, they could find some tiny little hideaway and survive somehow.