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Faces of Cambridge: Giving the homeless a voice – a series

Part 3: ‘Invisible’, a creative piece of fiction from the perspective of a young homeless woman

“Can you spare a little change?” I sound pathetic, desperate. Correction: I am pathetic and desperate.

Scores of people hurry past me, that dishevelled, hard-nosed hobo covered in piercings. Some don’t notice me at all – some glance at me and then look away quickly. Some frown. Some offer an apologetic smile – no one has any spare change.

I am huddling in the artificial glow of the supermarket. The people walking in and out pay no attention to me. A dusty, scruffy builder walks out with a six-pack of beer. The craving hits me: to let go, to escape, to numb my shitty excuse of a reality.

A rowdy gaggle of young men dressed in posh, striped blazers come out the supermarket clutching bottles of wine and yelling at each other stridently. Another world. One boy – and he really was a boy, not a man, with his soft skin and curly hair – looks at me long and hard. His mouth curves into a harsh smirk.

That was it. Just a smirk. But it makes my eyes glisten. No one gives a shit. That phrase circles my exhausted, sleep-deprived, overworked brain and a fat, salty tear escapes from the corner of my left eye.

Alf staggers over to the alcove where I’m trying to shield myself from the bitter November wind. He is drunk. Incredibly drunk. He sways from side to side, and I see a damp patch on his jeans around his crotch. I avert my eyes, embarrassed for him. He sinks down next to me, breathing heavily. He stinks.

“Fucking hell, Alf.”

“I feel great—I don’t feel anything. I could be fucking anywhere—anywhere I like.” He stumbles over his words, and to any outsider, he would have just sounded drunk and delirious. But his words touch a nerve in me – that is exactly what being drunk feels like, and why most of us on the streets are alcoholics.

A girl approaches us. I put on my best pity-me face and ask her if she has any spare change.

To my shock, she hands me a note. “Here’s a tenner. Honestly—I would have just spent it on coffee. I’m going into the shop. Do you fancy anything?”

I feel overwhelmed by her matter-of-fact kindness. “I…I… yes—orange juice and, like—a pasta salad or something.”

“Sure. Any tissues or tampons or anything?”

“Both would be amazing,” I croak. “Thank you—you’ve made my day.”

The girl insists on taking me to Costa for a cup of tea. I can’t stop saying thank you—no one has ever done anything like that before.

"What's your name?"

"Ivy." I shake the hand she offers to me. I haven't shaken anyone's hand for a long time.

"That's such a pretty name. I'm Anna. So—tell me your story. I’m so sorry to hear you ended up on the streets. It must be rough as hell.”

“Well… I—um… I lost my mum and dad to a car crash when I was 18. I'm 19 now. I’d just finished school, and I had a job with the hairdressing salon they owned. When they died, obviously the business went bust and I was forced out onto the streets. We don't have no relatives in this country who I'm in touch with, cos we're immigrants, and no mates I could stay with cos we'd just moved to a new city. I just wanna get a job and start like—climbing out of this hole I'm in, but cos I don't have no address, it's impossible. I’ve been sleeping in the homeless shelter on and off, but there’s not always space and I'm really, really scared about the winter.”

It feels so strange to hear the sound of my voice go on and on for such a long time. It sounds unused, in need of some oiling. I never exchange more than a few words at a time with Alf and the others.

Anna listens, comforts me, and promises to stay in touch. She asks me if I want to crash at her place for a few nights and I start weeping. For the first time in maybe months, I feel warm, happy and appreciated.

Cover image is my own art.