‘How long is this rain going to last?’ shouted Jayden.
Mum’s reply was muffled through damp layers of scarf, jacket and fingers, and she and Jayden ducked out of the wind into a courtyard protected by thick brick walls and vines.
‘Till lunch time, at least,’ she answered.
Jayden let out an exaggerated groan. ‘But that means I won’t get to play.’
‘Not this weekend,’ agreed his Mum. ‘But there are plenty more weekends.’
It was then they heard the sharp cough and turned around. The young man was huddled beneath a narrow roof, his body barely visible under a pile of faded grey blankets. He’d taken off a pair of boots and placed them carefully beside his makeshift camp, their leather toes wet with rain. He looked thoroughly cold and fed up.
‘Who was that?’ asked Jayden back in the car.
His Mum was quiet for a long time. ‘Someone,’ she eventually said.
Back at home, Jayden couldn’t stop thinking about him. ‘Do you know him?’
Mum dragged a tray of hot biscuits out of the oven. ‘Whatever makes you think that?’
‘Because he was talking to you.’ Jayden said the words slowly, to emphasise the obviousness of his point.
‘He wanted money, that’s all.’
‘So you didn’t know him?’ said Jayden.
‘No.’ Mum handed him a biscuit. She sounded slightly irritated.
Still hot, the moist, sweet centre was gooey with chocolate. ‘But you didn’t give him any.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
Definitely irritated, thought Jayden. ‘Why?’ he persisted.
Jayden’s seventeen year old brother, Max, answered. ‘Because he’d probably waste it-’
‘Enough,’ snapped Mum. There was a short silence during which she let out a tired sigh. ‘I don’t know why I didn’t give him anything. I felt … awkward, I guess.’ She turned to Max. ‘And I don’t want to hear you talk like that. We’ve no idea why he’s homeless. And does it even matter? The fact is the poor man’s sleeping outside on the streets. No-one actually chooses to live like that. Would you?’
‘And is it any of our business how he spends his money? I don’t tell you how to spend yours.’
‘We should have given him something,’ said Jayden with conviction.
Max rolled his eyes.
A few weeks later, Jayden spotted the young man again. He was crouched just inside the entrance to the main railway station. A bright red cap sat on the concrete in front of him. Inside it were a couple of coins. Jayden fumbled around in his pockets and pulled out fifty cents.
The young man juggled the coin between two fingers. ‘Thanks young fella,’ he said with a smile. He was missing a front tooth.
‘I’m Jayden,’ said Jayden, feeling suddenly very self-conscious.
The young man’s smile grew wider. ‘Well, nice to meet you Jayden.’ He offered his hand.
‘Why don’t you have a home?’ The words blurted out.
Jayden felt his shoulder being squeezed meaningfully as his mother apologised to the young man while at the same time dragging him firmly away.
‘Why wouldn’t you let me talk to him?’ demanded Jayden, as they crossed the street.
‘Jayden, you can’t just ask personal questions like that?’
‘Yeah, Jayden. He’s probably got issues.’
‘Max,’ warned Mum.
‘Some people become homeless because they find life difficult,’ Mum explained slowly. ‘They aren’t able to cope. Or they’re escaping difficult situations.’ She glanced at Max. ‘Issues that we might all experience at one stage or another during our lives. Luckily, most people are able to get help when they need it.’
‘So why can’t we help him?’ said Jayden. ‘If we find out why he’s homeless, we might be able to help.’
Mex belted out a loud laugh. ‘He’s not moving in with us.’
‘That’s not a very nice thing to say,’ said Mum quietly.
‘So he can?’ said Jayden.
‘No,’ said his mother. ‘I’m sorry, Jayden, but he can’t.’
A couple of days later, Jayden’s mother handed him a bag. Inside was a scarf, a kilo of pink lady apples, a green woollen blanket, and a red basketball shirt that had once belonged to Jayden’s father.
‘What’s it for?’ asked Jayden.
‘I thought we could drop them off at the Green Street shelter. Down in the city. They help people like the young man we saw. Give them food and things they might need.’
‘Will he be there?’
Mum smiled. ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you come with me and see?’
Max stifled a snort.
The next day they went to the shelter.
‘It’s very busy,’ whispered Jayden as they stepped around a pile of plastic bags stuffed full of someone’s belongings.
Inside, men and women were lined up waiting for food, and the atmosphere was friendly but also somehow tense. To Jayden’s left was a large saucepan of soup, plates of sausages, piles of crusty bread, a basket of oranges and an urn of hot tea. The noise in the room was as furious as the heat and Jayden felt a little dizzy.
‘I can’t see him,’ he mumbled.
A lady with wild black hair leaned around Mum. ‘See who darling?’
Jayden shrugged. ‘The man we met. He was at the station. He has a red cap and one of his teeth is missing.’
‘Sounds like George,’ called someone close by. ‘He’s got a spot on Parliament Street now. Sells the Big Issue.’
This started up a very noisy conversation.
‘What’s the Big Issue?’ asked Jayden.
One of the volunteer helpers answered. ‘It’s a magazine.’ A badge on the front of her pale salmon sweater announced her as Brenda. ‘The sellers get to keep the profit. It’s a way of helping people who need to get back on their feet.’ She took their bag.
Outside, the autumn air was cool and pleasantly scented with damp earth and the promise of more rain.
‘Thanks for coming,’ said Brenda. Her tone was brusque. ‘We can always use donations, especially food and clothing.’
Jayden’s mother assured Brenda that they’d be back.
As they turned to leave, Brenda stopped Jayden. ‘Why are you interested in George?’ she asked.
Jayden thought about it. ‘He looked so sad.’
Brenda’s expression eased into a smile. ‘I can try to make sure some of these get to him, if you like?’ She held up their bag.
Over the next few months, Jayden all but completely forgot about George, the Big Issue and the homeless shelter. School work and the start of soccer season took up most of his time; family and friends the rest. Gradually, the weather grew warmer, then hot, and hotter still.
‘Why’s it so hot?’ complained Jayden, bouncing his soccer ball along the pavement as he, Max and his mother ducked from shadow to shadow on their way into the city.
‘It’s called summer, blockhead,’ said Max. Sweat was gluing hair to his forehead.
‘It’s not usually this hot,’ countered Jayden with an angry bounce. The ball leapt high into the air, hit the edge of a twisted piece of bark and shot off sideways. Without a second thought, Jayden followed.
There was a loud shout, a scream and Jayden found himself lifted bodily off the ground. The world tumbled sideways and all of a sudden he was lying on the concrete path, tangled up in a pair of legs and a pile of magazines. When he looked up, it was into the eyes of a young man wearing a bright red cap.
‘Hello, young fella,’ grinned George.
The next minute Jayden was hauled to his feet by Max.
‘For goodness sake,’ yelled Mum. ‘You almost got run over.’ She grabbed Jayden into a fierce hug, her whole body shaking with emotion.
‘Thank you,’ she gushed to George. She looked on the verge of tears. ‘Really I can’t thank you enough.’
George looked as embarrassed as Jayden was confused. After all, it was George who had knocked him over.
‘Have you any idea what just happened?’ said Max dramatically. ‘George just saved your butt. Big time. You’d have been squashed flat by that car. It must have been going at least seventy -’
‘Max!’ cried Mum, and burst into tears.
Jayden stared up at George, his legs feeling suddenly wobbly. ‘Thanks,’ he mumbled.
‘Thanks indeed,’ echoed Mum, with a shaky smile.
George bent down to pick up his magazines, and Jayden crouched down to help. His shoulder hurt where it had hit the pavement. He noticed a scratch on George’s knuckles. When their eyes met, he said, ‘I’m sorry you hurt your hand.’
George shrugged. ‘S’alright. I’ve had worse.’
Jayden looked down at one of the shiny magazines now dusted with a layer of red dirt. ‘Can we buy one?’ he asked Mum.
‘We certainly can,’ she replied. ‘In fact, I think we should buy one each. Considering.’
George let out a wry chuckle. ‘I should knock people down more often. Might make myself a tidy profit.’
Jayden rubbed his shoulder. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
This made George laugh out loud.
After they’d paid for the magazines, George told them a little about himself. How he’d left home at the age of fifteen; gone to live with a friend. ‘It wasn’t nothing Mum did.’ He glanced at Jayden’s mother. ‘I guess I just kinda went off the rails. Ended up quitting school and doing some stuff I shouldn’t have. But things are going good now. A few more months, and I’m looking to get myself a place to stay.’
‘Why were you here?’ asked Jayden, after a short silence.
George grinned. ‘I was on my way to Parliament Street when I saw you guys.’ He touched his chest. ‘Thought I’d come and say thank you.’
Jayden blinked. George was pointing at his shirt. A bright red basketball shirt.
He heard his mother gasp.
‘Is that my dad’s?’ asked Jayden.
‘You’ll have to tell me,’ smiled George. ‘All I know is it was a present from you guys. Lady at the shelter told me.’
‘It was,’ confirmed Mum. One hand was pressed firmly against her chest and she looked like she might cry again.
Jayden decided it was probably time to go.
‘I’m glad you like it,’ he said with a grin.
George gave him a friendly nudge. ‘I’m glad you decided to give it to me.’
‘So am I,’ whispered Jayden’s mother in a very wobbly voice.
During the short walk home, Jayden’s mind fizzed with new thoughts. Foremost was his lucky escape and what might have happened if he hadn’t agreed to give George the basketball shirt. And what if George hadn’t seen him and come over to say thank you … By the time they got home, Jayden had the beginnings of a headache.
‘That was lucky,’ he said quietly, as Max unlocked the front door. ‘Meeting George like that.’
‘It sure was,’ smiled Mum and for the first time in months Max actually agreed.