Gabrielle woke up in the early hours of the morning as the sunlight streamed in tangible rays through the open curtains. She blinked, looked up and saw dust particles dancing down the rays of light to the rough carpet, where they made a layer that billowed in tiny clouds wherever she placed her feet.
She sat up a little groggily, wondering why she was sleeping on the floor with her duvet wrapped around her body like a cocoon. She couldn't remember, so she slipped out of the duvet and instantly felt the chilly air seep through the gap between her pyjama top and bottoms and spread through her veins into every corner in her body.
Her flesh vibrated and she moved over to shut the window. She gazed through the glass a little wistfully. Without Grannie, life seemed like a prison with no respite. She thought of her father, powerless to control her mother, and her sister and her posh friends, and her grandfather's grumbling ways. They didn't realise how lucky they were just to be alive. Gabrielle made a mental note to cherish every day with her family and friends doing the things she liked doing. There was no knowing when it might all be taken from her.
She thought about her life in her cold little bedroom, with its sloping ceiling and rough beige carpet, its dull walls and low short bed. It's ugly desk and unpainted door. And she liked it. She was content. She was sad, and sorry, and lonely. But she was content in her homely little room. It was a privacy. It was a prison, but it was hers, and as no one was expected to enter the room she could never feel lonely in it. It was downstairs, when she sat alone at the breakfast table, or shivering on the sofa, when she felt lonely. Here in her room she felt...content. No more, no less.
Then the day darkened, and she shivered again. No one else was up. Maybe she could go out for a bit before breakfast. How about a walk with Grannie? Maybe she'd find a confidante out in the November. The air was the best conversationalist she knew. It never ordered her to do anything, it never scolded her, it never answered back. It swathed her in a cloak of fresh frostiness very alerting for the mind and body. Perhaps the air would provide her start for the new day.
Gabrielle was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans as she stepped into the open, but she grabbed her wellies and mittens for a little protection, and swung her arms to get warm. As she sauntered down the pavement she lifted her chin a fraction, gaining confidence from the empty world and lack of eyes, and it felt good.
She walked for many whiles, not having a plan of where she was going, and as the sun rose above the horizon and cast a watery warmth over her back, she decided to turn back.
Several streets later Gabrielle realised that she was lost. She did not recognise any of the buildings she was passing and she was beginning to lose her initial confidence as the roads began to circulate with vehicles on their daily business, many dirty trucks and sinister vans. Being Gabrielle, after the first panic she did not lose her calm and began to survey her situation from a distance.
The houses were old and rust-red, the colour of crumbling brick. Many of the walls were tinged black and the windows were broken and lopsided. Metal drainpipes were falling off walls and a solitary clothes line was strung between two houses on either side of the street. She noted that the street name was Cotton Way. She had never heard of that road before. It must've been where the old cotton mills were. For a second Gabrielle forgot herself in time, peering down the street and seeing the great cotton mills with their orange chimneys, black smoke and iron gates. She hastily recalled herself and the vision faded. She had got lost in turning back, but which street had she got lost at? The first turning she was sure had been right. She must go back the way she had come. Gabrielle took a step in a direction. Then she hesitated. Which way had she come from?
She let her eyelids drop and her brows drew together in the effort to concentrate. A quick prayer rose up from her mind like steam rising from a kettle.
"Are you alright?"
Gabrielle froze in terror. Someone was talking to her.
"Are you alright?" the voice said again.
She relaxed. It was a child's voice, high-pitched and innocent. She turned slowly and came face to face with a boy no taller than four and a half feet high.
"Hello," said the boy. "You look lost."
Gabrielle stared at him, then remembered herself. "Yes, I'm lost," she owned. "Can you tell me the way to Greenbottle Street? I don't know the centre of the city very well."
"Well you shouldn't be round here," said the boy. "You don't look very old to be wandering alone in this part of town."
Gabrielle frowned. "I'm no younger than you. I'm eleven years old."
"I win. I'm twelve," said the tiny boy, and Gabrielle had difficulty in suppressing her astonishment. "Shortness is in the family," said the boy. "My younger brother is taller than me. But my sister was this height till she was fourteen, and now she's nearly six foot. I'll grow. And my voice will break too. Sometime."
Gabrielle nodded. "Of course. I wasn't saying it wouldn't. Girls are meant to grow quicker than boys, Grannie always told me."
For some reason she felt her eyes fill at the mention of Grannie, even to a stranger, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand quickly.
"Hey, don't worry. Your Grannie wouldn't like to see you crying," the boy said quickly.
Gabrielle smiled at him. "No," she agreed. "She wouldn't."
"I'm Dominick," said the boy. "What's your name?"
"I...I'd rather not say," said Gabrielle, who suddenly had the inexplicable desire to hide her identity. Maybe it was her sense of security, although she felt perfectly safe with this short friendly boy. He couldn't hurt her if he tried. "Would you mind directing me to Greenbottle Street? I'm late for breakfast."
"Lucky you to have breakfast," said the boy with glittering eyes. "We can't afford breakfast very well. My dad only works in a failing garage, and my mum has a job as a shop checkouteer. We don't have a lot coming in, and we're expected to work for our breakfast."
"Work for your breakfast?" said Gabrielle. "How's that?"
"Do odd jobs for dodgy-looking men generally," said Dominick with a shrug. "I couldn't find work today. I'm looking for something to do."
Gabrielle felt tears coming to her eyes again. She had heard of the slums in the city centre, but she had never come this close to them, or anyone living there. She fingered her lucky pound coin sewed into the seams of her left glove. Grannie had done that for her.
"Would you tell me where Greenbottle Street is, for a pound?" she said. "It's all I've got on me."
"I'll do that for nothing," said Dominick even as Gabrielle heard his stomach emit gurgling noises she rightly enterpreted as hunger. "Left at the bottom of Cotton Way, right at the end of there, and keep going straight for seven more streets till you reach the bridge, then take the second right."
Gabrielle bit her lip. Rolling back her glove she ripped off the protective pouch, the threads Grannie sewed snapping one by one, and the coin fell to a rotten bench just next to her, spinning. She slapped it flat, and looked Dominick straight in the eye.
"Thanks," she said. "And take this or leave it. I don't want it."
It was a lie, and she was a bad lier when it was a matter of the heart, and Dominick saw right through her. As she released the pressure of her hand from the coin, and turned down the street, her cheeks were wet with tears. Ripping the coin from her glove was opening old wounds. And yet something had been trapped inside that healed wound. The lucky coin had been removed, and Gabrielle felt the hurt heal over with no telltale bulges, no unbalanced weight.
As she turned back at the end of Cotton Way just before turning left, she looked back and saw the small statured boy reach onto the bench and pluck the coin from its seat. She couldn't see his facial expression.
She turned the corner and walked home.
And the pouch that had been the deformed wound was left a toy of the November winds. Gabrielle would never forget. But perhaps the hurt would be less severe. Her loneliness had gone. She had a new friend.