"Ya want business, Babe?"
It was a familiar situation; I lived in a somewhat run-down area, in a house I'd renovated, hoping for a future with a girl I was living with at the time. But she decided I was boring where I thought 'stable'. She liked dancing, night-clubs and booze. I liked books, music and quiet nights in. She wasn't stupid ... we met at college and we both graduated, but sex only carries a relationship so far and she left. I don't know if parting affected her, but it made me very careful of my heart. I couldn't just have sex. Anyway, the area I lived in was a Mecca for working girls looking for a pick-up; I'm told up to four hundred at any one time. I got used to smiling and saying some variation of, "Not today, darlin'." Don't get me wrong, I was tempted; I'm heterosexual and normal in most respects. I just didn't do one night stands or paying for sex. I didn't want to do that and risk my heart getting involved again.
Some of them, regulars, got friendly and realised they weren't going to make anything out of me and we got so we could banter as I cycled or walked past. On this occasion, I looked at the girl, my usual response on my lips ... and I fell into her eyes.
I must have stood there long enough to be awkward, because she spoke again. "You alright, Babe?"
I shook my head – not in negation, to clear it – and managed to say, "Sorry, Lass. Thanks, but I'm not in the market."
She smiled, "Let me persuade you? I can be very persuasive..."
I couldn't resist smiling back. "I'm sure you can, but I'm the original immoveable body."
"Well, if ever you change your mind..."
"I'll remember you."
From that evening, I saw her from time to time and, like some of the others, we'd smile, maybe wave, occasionally speak a few words. Autumn became winter; my heart went out to those girls out on the streets in provocative clothing that offered little protection against the weather. I don't know how they survived. But time passed and came the first signs of spring. One Saturday I set out, camera in hand, for a walk in the park. Looking for the first crocuses and snowdrops. Sometimes, it was a naked, solitary tree, or water over a weir.
I saw a young woman sketching, head bent over her pad. Something familiar about her. Fuzzy brown hair peeped from under a stocking hat. Fleece jacket over jeans, trainers. She looked up as I passed and our eyes met. A shock rippled through me as our eyes met.
"Hello," I croaked.
"Hello ... do I know you?"
"I think so," I said, "though we've never exchanged names. We meet from time to time as I'm on my way to and from work. I live in Broomhall."
"Oh..." her café-au-lait complexion darkened. "Ah. Yes, of course."
"What are you drawing?" Trying to get away from an awkward moment.
She hesitated, then came to a visible decision and extended the pad to me. If I looked round, I saw trees. Just trees. Sometimes, there'd be a single tree that called for my attention for some reason, otherwise trees together were woods; could be attractive, but collectively, not individually. But she'd picked out a Plane tree that could have been just one among many and turned it into a thing of beauty in its own right, its character singing out from the page.
I stood, gazing at it, occasionally glancing up at the tree, for some time. She cleared her throat and that stirred me out of my reverie. "Wow..." I breathed. "That's ... I don't know what to say. I could frame that and hang it on my living room wall." I handed the pad back to her.
"You have a gift," I told her.
"I like to think so."
"I..." I hesitated, as she cocked her head to one side in enquiry. Then I plunged ahead, "Have you got time for a cup of coffee?"
She frowned, but then her face cleared. "Are you buying?" Her tone had changed, become business-like.
"Well, of course; it was my invitation." Puzzled; the ... ambience ... between us had changed.
"Then, yes." She tucked her pad and pencils away and stood. "Where to, Babe?"
'Ah. That's what's changed. She thinks this is a business transaction.' "Don't get the wrong idea. This is just coffee and a chat. I'll buy you a sandwich if you like. I was thinking of the café in the park."
I could almost see the cogs turning in her head, but she made up her mind. "Okay. Tell me your name, though, first."
"Dave Thurston. How about yours?"
"Becky Greene. Pleased to meet you, Dave."
We made our way to the café. It was quite a pleasant day and the outdoor tables were full, so we sat inside and sipped our coffee as we waited our turn for individually prepared sandwiches. Our conversation was innocuous. What can you say when you're barely feet away from a bunch of strangers? Not that they'd be able to make out much in the muddle of conversation. I told her I was a staff-nurse at a local psychiatric hospital, hence my erratic times for starting and finishing work. She was working her way to a fine-arts degree. I suppose I didn't need it spelt out that she was funding her course on her back and it was only later I found out more of her history. Brought up by a single mother with a drug problem, who died of an overdose as Becky was in her "A" level final year, her decision to take up her mother's 'profession', hoping to escape her situation, get a degree, pursue her love of art. At the time, I just got the impression of a young woman with gifts and depths that were not obvious on the surface.
As we left the café, she headed back up through the park to continue her sketching. I walked a little way with her.
"What you're doing ... it's dangerous," I said.
She shrugged. "I know," she told me, "but I'm careful."
"Look," I said, "don't take this the wrong way..." I fumbled in my wallet and handed her my card. "One day, you might need a friend. If you do, I hope you'll think of me."
She took the card, glanced at it and tucked it in her backpack; then ... I thought it was impulsive ... she put her hand behind my neck, pulled my head down and kissed my cheek. "Thanks," she said, "you're a gentleman."
Before I could respond rationally, she was walking away from me without looking back.
After that, things seemed to return to the status quo. I saw Becky from time to time and smiled a 'hello' when I had a chance. In return, she smiled back. I didn't let our eyes meet long enough for hers to capture mine.
In nursing, you have to work erratic shifts including weekends and nights. Sometimes, overtime in an emergency might mean an eighteen hour shift ... getting home twenty-four hours after the last time you woke. Sometimes you hardly know whether you're coming or going and it's difficult to organise a social life ... Sorry about the rant – I got sidetracked there – anyway. Time passed ... weeks and months. I got a transfer to permanent nights on a general medical ward; the hospital was just up the road from where I was living and I was living a somewhat consistent life, eight nights on, six off, seven on, seven off. That meant I slept during the day, at least during work weeks.
So, there I was, one evening, eating breakfast ... at six pm ... ready to take a shower and head off for another ten and a half hours (including a meal break) and the door-bell rang. It was Becky.
"Dave ... you said if ever I needed a friend..." her voice was slurred – she was in a mess. Dirty, clothes torn, a swelling round one eye that was going to be a real shiner. Blood from assorted grazes, a split lip.
"Come in," I told her. She staggered as she stepped inside and I reached out to steady her. Guided her to a chair. "Want to tell me what happened?" I fetched out first-aid requisites and began to clean a graze on her cheek. She shrugged.
"One of the risks of my career choice," she spoke lightly, but bitterness underlay her words."
"Going to report it?"
"You're joking, right? The Police are going to take seriously a sexual assault on a prostitute? Nah. I'll go to the GU clinic in the morning, get tested."
When you work in psychiatry – which I did, of course, before I transferred – you get a sense of when someone isn't being entirely honest. I didn't doubt she'd been assaulted, but... "There's more, Becky, isn't there? Won't you tell me the rest?"
That was when she broke down and cried. I gave up with the first-aid. There wasn't a lot I could do about the bruising, anyway. I stood close and wrapped an arm round her shoulder and she turned and pressed her face against my midriff.
At length she finished crying and pulled back a little. "I've always been an independent. Didn't see why I should give up money to a pimp. But this guy's moving in, threatening the girls. I've got to work for him or get out of the area."
"How badly do you need the money?"
"Tuition's paid. It's just rent and food."
"How long is your lease? Or contract?"
"Lease?" She laughed, but it wasn't humorous. "I'm a prostitute. The sort of landlord who lets to whores doesn't give them a contract. He doesn't know if they'll be around. You just pay a week or a month ahead, and if you don't pay, you're out."
"Okay ... live here. Guest room, and I'll feed you, lend you any money you need for books and so on. Finish your course, graduate, and you'll have options. Just one condition."
"You mean that? Live here free?" She looked at me in disbelief. "So ... what condition?"
"Give up the streets. Concentrate on your course."
"Well ... I wouldn't mind some of your art work to hang on the wall." She was shaking her head, so I went on. "I have to work tonight, so you can stay here without fear I'll molest you. I need to shower, then you can have a bath and go to bed while I'm gone. I'll be home about eight or so and in the meantime, you can make up your mind." I went back to my seat, finished my coffee and cereal. "You want tea? Coffee?"
I boiled the kettle, made tea and put the pot in front of her. With milk, sugar and a tea-strainer.
"You use leaf tea? Who uses leaf tea these days?"
I left her to it and went for my shower. When I finished, I looked in the guest room, which was a mess, stacked up with boxes I'd never sorted out. I cleared the bed and made space to get to it ... put sheets, pillow and a duvet in a heap on it, and went downstairs.
"Okay," I said, "how are you doing?"
"Getting there," she answered, "Just being here has helped."
"Good. I need to leave. Now, I've put clean sheets, pillow and a duvet on the bed in the guest-room, but the room's a mess. You're welcome to sleep in my bed if you like for tonight and I'll sort the other room out tomorrow. Oh, and there's a towel for you in the bathroom. This is my last night, but I'll have a couple of hours when I get in."
"I can't believe you're trusting me in your house..."
I didn't answer, just got ready to go and handed her a key before I left. "If you decide not to stay, please lock the door after you and put the key through the letter-box."
It was a rotten shift. I always hate to lose a patient, and this was one I'd got friendly with. She was asthmatic, and kept getting panic attacks. The doctor in the case ruled out sending her to Intensive Therapy (ITU) which we'd done previously to sedate her and get her condition under control. While we were discussing what we could do her blood-gas levels reached a critical point and she went into respiratory arrest. We called the team, but couldn't get her back. Let me tell you, you can die of fright. But that put a shadow over the whole shift.
Back home, I made tea and toast before heading off to bed. The events of the night, believe it or not, meant I'd forgotten my guest ... who was still asleep, in my bed, when I went upstairs.
I shook her shoulder gently. "Hey, Becky. I need you to get up."
Her eyes opened and she looked at me blearily. Then, those eyes widened ... and I fell in. Time stopped, you know? I think she looked away first, because I found I was standing next to the bed and she was sitting up, wearing one of my old t-shirts, with her head down.
"Dave ... Sorry ... meant to be up when you came home, but I had a dreadful night and then dropped off just as I was thinking of getting up..."
"It's okay," I told her, "but I had a dreadful night too and I need to get a couple of hours." I smiled at her. "You don't have to get up if you don't want to, but I can promise I will be asleep the moment my head hits the pillow whether you're here or not!"
"Oh ... okay..."
She didn't move, just sat there as I draped a blanket over the curtain-track to cut down on the light in the room, stripped to t-shirt and boxers, and slipped under the duvet. She was still sitting there when, as predicted, I dropped off like a brick down a well.
I slept longer than I expected – nearly four hours – and she was asleep tucked up against me when I woke. I slid out of bed without waking her and went down to sort out some lunch. She appeared, blinking sleepily, as I was washing the few pots I'd used.
"Hungry?" I asked, "Coffee?"
She yawned. "Coffee, please," and after a pause, "maybe some toast?"
"How are you this morning ... afternoon... ?" I asked as I was putting bread in the toaster.
She didn't reply immediately, clearly giving the question some thought. "Not bad, actually. Much better than I ought to be, in fact. Thank you, Dave."
I didn't push her and when she'd had her coffee and toast, she took off to visit the clinic. As for me, I sorted out the guest-room. I had places for most of the stuff, but had just never found the motivation to go through it. I made a couple of visits to a local charity shop with stuff I'd been hanging on to with no reason.
She came back looking a little brighter, maybe. She didn't say anything at the time, it was only months later I found the supply of condoms she'd brought back with her; by which time they were quite unnecessary. But I get ahead of myself.