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.
"Yes, please. Kafés. Chymós froúton." Well, that was clear enough. I poured coffee into a cup and put it and a small jug of cream, and sugar bowl near her, then poured orange juice into a glass, and put it next to the cup. "Efcharistó, Pete."
We both carried on with breakfast in silence. I'm not talkative, and anyway communication was clumsy and slow. At last, we were both finished – I'd been sipping at a third cup of coffee as I waited for Demi – and I rose. I glanced at my watch. "Nine fifteen. There ought to be someone in the NPCC offices by now." That was rhetorical, as I didn't think Demi would get that at all. "Demi, come with me please." I walked into the front room, picking up the phone en route. She did not follow. I returned to the kitchen. "Demi..."
She stood slowly. "I go, now."
"Please don't." I reached out and took her hand. She didn't pull away, and I gently encouraged her into the other room.
"Good morning. Could I speak to someone concerned with child protection?"
"Certainly, sir. Just a moment." A pause, then, "Good morning. Paula Smith. Who am I speaking to?"
"Oh, good morning. My name is Pete Davies. I live in Broomhall. Last night I found a young woman sleeping rough on my property. I took her in, gave her soup and dry clothes and she's with me now. She's claiming her mother's partner, or husband, has been making inappropriate advances to her and she ran away. She's been sleeping rough, as I say."
"Can you bring her in so we can talk to her?"
"I can try to persuade her. Just one thing. She speaks Greek, apparently has little or no English."
"Ah. In that case, give me some time to find an interpreter. Can I ring you back?"
"Surely." I gave her my mobile number, and hung up. Demi was shaking. I turned to the laptop again. "They won't make you go back," I told her.
"I am scared," she said.
Paula Smith called back. "Could you bring the young lady in to see us in an hour? We have an interpreter on the way."
"She's very nervous," I said. "Can you promise she won't be made to go back?"
"How old is she?"
Now she asks. "She said sixteen."
"Well, there's no question of making her go back to her mother if she's at risk, and at sixteen she can leave home if she wants to. She won't get any benefits, though, unless she can convince us she is at risk."
"We'll be along."
She looked a question at me as I cut the call off. "Complicated," I said with the help of Google, "Best wait until there is someone who can translate."
Complicated, indeed. I couldn't be in the interview – indeed, I'd expected to leave her there and let the authorities sort things out – but when they were sending me away, Demi made it clear she wanted me to stay. They did get me a cup of pretty dreadful coffee, and I had my phone, so I could surf the net to an extent. I'd been there over an hour, getting bored, when a woman was admitted who looked very like an older version of Demi – her mother. She merely glanced at me, disinterestedly, then was escorted into the bowels of the building. Others came and went.
A large woman came over to me. "Mister Davies?" I stood and held out my hand, which she shook – her grip warm and firm. "I'm Shirley Easton," she said, "Social worker. Miss Iohannou is presenting us with a problem. Her mother is insisting there's no problem, and, er, Demetra is insisting there is and is refusing to go back with her mother. In the circumstances, we'd offer foster care, but she's sixteen and legally she's between two stools. She can live independently if she wishes, but there is no automatic financial provision. And, of course, there's the communication problem..."
You know that thing about engaging brain before opening mouth? I didn't. "Missus Easton," I said, "She's welcome to the use of my spare room. There's a lock on it for privacy." I shrugged. "I don't suppose she'll cost much in the way of food, and I'm not exactly poor, anyway. Of course, I'm out of the house much of the day..."
"I was hoping you'd offer," She smiled. "Er, Demetra was saying she'd like to stay with you, if you were willing. I'd like to see the house, if I may?"
"Certainly," I said, "But I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. I was hoping to get some lunch soon."
"If you're willing to take Demetra, perhaps I could call round later? Say, four o'clock?"
"Fine. We'll be there."
Demi emerged from the same place as Shirley Easton and made a bee-line for me, a question in her eyes. "Come along," I said, thinking she needed to get used to English and would get the meaning from context. "Let's get some lunch."
Lunch was spaghetti from a small Italian restaurant in the city centre, then I led Demi to Marks and Spencer. I pointed her to the underwear department and pointedly didn't watch her choose garments, then when she came and touched my arm she had packets in her hands. We selected jeans, t-shirts and warm tops, then went to pay. I pulled out my Visa card and dealt with that little matter. I was impressed – she hadn't chosen expensive stuff, and my card took a smaller hit than I expected. We walked home.
Shirley Easton duly visited and approved the arrangements, at least provisionally. I shrugged and signed when she asked me to undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check. Before she left, though, she told us, "Demetra's mother is going to bring a couple of cases of clothes to the Children's Centre for her. I thought it better not to let her know your address for the time being."
I nodded. "Thank you. Of course, you may have access to the young lady whenever you like. I'll probably need some advice about, well, education, finance and so on."
"I'll see what I can do. The Benefits Agency are reluctant to fund young people to live away from home, but in the circumstances we may be able to manage something."
Demi and I had a makeshift supper – more bread rolls, with some cheese – I would need to buy more food – then we went to our separate beds.
Knowing I had to return to work, I dragged my body reluctantly out of bed at six-thirty. When I got downstairs to the kitchen, though, I found Demi dressed, and she had coffee dripping through and more bread rolls warming in the oven. She'd found yoghurt in the fridge, and had peeled and chopped apples and satsumas into a simple fruit salad to eat with it.
"Kalimera, Pete," she said, "I have ... made ... proinó. Break – fast. I hope you like."
"Kalimera, Demi. It looks good; thank you." It was, in fact, a more interesting meal than I would usually have bothered with, and I enjoyed it. The coffee was a little stronger than I usually made it, but it was still good. I told her so. "And you have some English," I added.
She blushed. "We ... at school. I not work hard."
"Well, I must go to work. Ergo." I guessed at the Greek word, but she nodded. I fetched a laptop, an older one I could afford to lose, which needed to be plugged into the mains as the battery wasn't much good. "You can use this. It must be plugged in."
"I can stay?" She looked surprised.
I handed her a key to the back door. "You can stay. Please lock the door if you go out." I dumped money on the table, not much, a fiver and some loose change – maybe ten pounds in all.
Her eyes widened. "Gia emena? For me?"
I nodded again. She crossed the room, stretched up and kissed my cheek. "Efcharisto, Pete."
I resisted a sudden desire to hold her, threw on a coat, and left for work.