Hi – my name's Pete Davies. When this story began, I was twenty-five and working in IT security, which is only important because it meant I had enough money to buy, or begin to buy, the Victorian gate-lodge in which I live, and the motorbike, an Indian Royal Enfield Bullet, without which the story wouldn't have happened. But we'll get to that in a moment.
You'll find I tend to wander off into side-tracks from time to time, and I hope you'll bear with me. The house, which I, or rather the bank and I, own, was in a poor state when I bought it, but two years hard work had it pretty sound. As Victorian gate-lodges go, it's large. Two bedrooms, living room and kitchen with an entrance hall or lobby tacked on the side like an architectural afterthought. It fronts right on to the pavement, so passers-by can peer into my living-room if they wish, and some do. That's important, because I don't have anything valuable and portable in that room to encourage anyone to break in. The t/v is fixed to the wall, and the sound system is bulky and not expensive. My computer and such-like is upstairs, in the master bedroom, where I spend much of my time at home.
On the other side of the house from the lobby is a garage, which is set back from the front of the house. I don't keep my car in it as there isn't room for the other stuff which constitutes my workshop, but I do wheel my bike in there. The space in front of the garage is shaded and it used to be a popular spot for working girls to take their Johns for a quickie, for rough sleepers to doss and it was also tempting for thieves. After I fitted a security light, with a passive sensor, it became much less popular.
Which more or less sets the scene. I just need to comment that I was single, as none of the girls I dated met my criteria for a possible long-term relationship. I believe that a certain degree of compatibility in interests is vital.
So, one Sunday evening in November, I'd just returned from a visit to my parents on Oscar – that's my bike – and was about to wheel him into the garage. This story wouldn't have happened if I'd taken the car, as I wouldn't have gone to the garage. It also probably would not have happened if the lamp in the security light hadn't failed. So I muttered to myself about needing to replace the lamp, ignored the dark lump in the opposite corner which might have been a pile of leaves or a sack of rubbish left by some generous person, opened the door, switched on the light and wheeled Oscar in.
I settled him down and was about to turn off the light, when I noticed a noise, half groan, half sigh, from the dark shape outside. In the light leaking from the garage, and since I was looking more carefully, it was apparent that the dark lump was in fact a rough sleeper.
An even closer examination showed that it was young, and female: large, dark eyes in a thin, pale face gazed up at me. "Hey," I said, fairly gently. "That's not a good place to sleep."
"O, kýrie. Parakaló ... kryóno. Parakaló, min kalései tin astynomía."
As it happens, I knew a little Greek. Archaic, that is, from a brief foray into theology. But not enough to understand what she said. Just enough to know what language she was speaking.
"I'm sorry; I don't speak Greek," I told her.
"Cold," she said.
Well, okay. I could give her a hot drink and call for help, surely? Anyone who rides a motorbike much knows about cold, and additionally I'd done a fair bit of hill-walking. I fetched a space-blanket from in the garage, switched off the light and locked the door. She struggled to stand, so I had to help her up before wrapping the space-blanket round her. At which point I realised she wasn't going to walk round the house (I use the back door, usually) and scooped her up in my arms. She was light as a feather.
The house was quite warm anyway, though I hadn't left the heating on full. I sat her at the kitchen table, still wrapped in the space blanket, but I turned on the oven and got out a tin of tomato soup, that being the quickest thing I could think of, and dumped it into a saucepan.
She was watching me with those enormous dark eyes, and beginning to shiver, which was a good sign. The oven reached operating temperature and I popped some frozen bread rolls in. The soup was warming up and I tipped some into a mug, leaving the rest to finish heating up to simmer.
She stirred, and I held up a hand. "Stay wrapped up," I told her, not knowing how much she might understand. She seemed to get the idea, though, and I spooned tepid soup into her mouth.
"Efcharistó, kýrie." Barely above a whisper.
Well, I got that; just slightly changed from the first century AD. "Thank you, sir." I finished feeding her the contents of the mug, took the hot rolls out of the oven, and added another half mug of rather hotter soup. A grubby hand emerged from the space-blanket and I put the hot mug in it. She put it down on the table quickly, then picked it up by the handle. I boiled the kettle for tea, and buttered myself a roll. As an afterthought, I split a roll for her and spread it with honey in front of her. Her eyes widened and the trace of a smile appeared.
"Efcharistó, kýrie." Louder. Some colour was coming into her face now, and I could see that she wasn't pale, her complexion more appropriate to one whose first language is Greek.
I bit off a mouthful of my roll and went in search of my laptop. It's hard to believe, but my parents speak of days when computers filled rooms in universities and big companies and ordinary people got all their information from books, t/v or radio. I just logged on to Google and called up Google Translate. For brevity, I'll just put our conversation in italics, rather than every detail of I said/she said, and the translation.
"My name is Pete Davies," I said.
"I am Demetra. Demi." No surname.
"Why are you sleeping rough, Demi?"
"I run away. My step-father..."
"You are not safe outside."
"I was not safe at home. Am I safe here, sir?" A quirked eyebrow.
"You are safe here, but you need to report your step-father if he's abusing you."
"The Police – they will make me go back."
"No. How old are you?"
"I am sixteen. Two weeks ago. He didn't touch me until I was sixteen, just looked."
"Tonight, Demi, have a bath and I will wash your clothes. You can sleep in my spare bedroom – the door locks. Tomorrow, we talk to NSPCC." (The NSPCC is the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a charity which works with the civil authorities to do what their title implies, and to try to undo damage which has already occurred.)
Her lips tightened, but she said, "Thank you. I would like a bath and clean clothes. This bread is good. And honey. Almost like home. But I will leave if that is better for you?"
"If you leave, I will worry that you are not safe. You could be abducted, or get ill from the cold."
"You would worry about me? But you do not know me."
"I have met you. You are a young woman and I want to protect you."
That got me a hard look, but her expression softened, she looked thoughtful, then determined. "Efcharistó, kýrie."
"Pete," I told her.
I showed her the bathroom and found draw-string trousers she could roll up, and a t-shirt which would be far too big, but serve to sleep in. Thick socks, much too big, and a mummy sleeping-bag. I showed her the lock on the bathroom door, and that on the bedroom door, and handed her my largest, softest towel.
She accepted them, head and eyes down. "Efcharistó, Pete," she said quietly.
I left her to it and went back downstairs to half-watch t/v for a while, while scanning emails. She reappeared maybe half, three-quarters of an hour later, a cute waif in loose, too-big clothing, holding a bundle of her dirty clothing. Her mouth opened, shut, opened again and shut again.
I thought for a moment. "Are you still hungry?"
"Could I have some more bread and honey, please?"
It took a while and, in fact, quite a lot of encouragement, but she eventually insisted she was full. She was also sagging with fatigue, and I told her to go to bed. I wasn't ready to sleep, so I sat up and listened to Delius, on headphones. I rarely bother with them but I didn't want to disturb my guest. Even then, I lay awake for quite a while, wondering what I was getting into...
Priority number one in the morning, after starting the coffee, was an email to work claiming a day off for 'a family emergency'. I didn't specify that it wasn't my family. As the coffee was dripping, I took Demi's clothes out of the dryer, folded them as neatly as I could. (I couldn't resist checking the label in her bra. Thirty-four B. Well, I never claimed to be a gentleman.) I left the little pile outside the spare bedroom and went to make some toast to eat with my coffee.
I heard Demi's feet on the stairs, then she tentatively entered the kitchen.
"Good morning," I said. "Kaliméra."
The anxiety on her face was replaced by a small smile, which transformed her. "Kaliméra, kyrie. Pete."
Well, that was a step forward. "Breakfast?" I asked, holding up a roll, warm from the oven.
"Nai, parakalo. Yes ... please. Kyrie. Pete."
I put more in the oven, waved at a chair in front of plate and knife, and pushed the basket of bread closer to her. "Would you like coffee? Fruit juice?" Coffee is coffee (more or less) the world over, and I held up a glass of orange juice.
.... There is more of this story ...