It was still dark as Rob and Maria left the house. The early start had been her idea; jet lag still had her on American time and so she said she’d sooner go out first thing rather than the evening. Rob thought she must have been up for a full hour or so before they left because she was as perfectly elegant as she’d been the day before: there was a precision and neatness about her that he thought must require serious time. He looked like he’d rolled straight out of bed, planted his feet in his trainers, and pulled on whichever coat he’d passed on route to the front door. From under the duvet to the porch in thirty seconds flat. It was cold. The heat from yesterday’s late Autumn sun had faded fast, up and out as evening cooled to night with no cloud cover to cap its escape. They’d all sat up on the terrace and watched it sink over towards Highgate. They were up too early to see it reappear.
“This better be good,” said Rob.
“Well, good morning to you too,” replied Maria brightly. “It’s nice to see you made an effort for me.”
“Believe me. Being up at this time is an effort.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never seen the dawn before, Rob ?” smiled Maria. “Open your eyes, it’s beautiful.”
Rob glanced up and mentally conceded that there was something magical about the half light and quiet of this hour. He had seen it many times. It’s just that he usually saw it hazily soft filtered through the alcohol of the previous night before he found his way to bed. The idea for this morning’s early start had germinated the previous evening. They’d all sat out on the roof and listened to Sarah rave about the Kusama installation that she’d seen the day before, none of them wanting to point out the smudge of paint on her cheek. She’d spent the late afternoon absorbed in a fresh canvas. Rob couldn’t remember seeing her passion that clearly since the day they’d met, back when she insisted on dragging him round the Murakami exhibition that she’d missed after he insisted that she stay and listen to the talk from Vision Housing and the various other social enterprises speaking that evening. They’d both been so certain then. Both fit to burst with ideas and energy. For a while he’d mistaken their mutual passion as a spark between them, a shared attraction, but as they spent longer together they settled into an easy friendship. There was a drunken kiss one night shortly after they’d moved in to the house but it had marked the end of any romance rather than the beginning; they’d both laughed it off. You can’t fake chemistry. Alex had told them that the mutual attraction of objects into each other’s orbit was actually more of a physics thing. Somehow this story had come up during the evening, Maria was curious as to how they all wound up together in the house. In turn that had led to a conversation about how Rob had fallen into his current job rather than pursuing the idiosyncrasies of London’s housing policies. He’d told her how those things had happened but he hadn’t really told her why. He wasn’t sure if he knew why. He knew the lines he said out loud when people asked him – it’s just a stop gap, I’m just getting some money behind me, it’s just a temporary thing – but he couldn’t remember now whether they were true.
Maria had insisted that she wanted to see London’s homeless crisis (Rob’s words) for herself. The others, surprised, had listed a host of alternative ways to spend a morning in the city but Maria wouldn’t budge. She said wanted to experience the place as it was, not as its people presented it for visitors. After he’d first moved into the house Rob had done some volunteering at the various homeless shelters round Islington and so he’d offered to take her down to one of them; he hadn’t been for about a year but if the circuit hadn’t changed then breakfast would need serving at Union Chapel. They took the tube down from Finsbury Park down to Highbury and Islington, sitting quietly in half empty carriages with early rising, suited commuters and late returning nightshift workers, stifled yawns marking the beginnings and endings of days.
There were soft slashes of pink in the dawn sky, sunrise’s forward scouts, as they approached the church. The Union Chapel spire was bathed in the soft early morning glow, red brick framing high vaulted windows and gothic revival detail. A pair of magpies took flight from a perch near the top of the tower squabbling in their rattling, staccato voices. Rob was halfway up Compton Terrace, almost at the church, before he realised that Maria wasn’t with him. Turning back he saw her standing beneath the overhang of a spreading Oak, leaning on an iron railing, just gazing at the building. He was about to urge her to hurry up but something in her reaction gave him pause. He walked back to her and together they stood for a few minutes and watched as the rising sun slowly warmed the russet tones of the old spire. Watched it come to life in the light.
“Do you believe in God ?” asked Maria, relinquishing her hand on the railing and taking Rob’s arm instead.
“No, I don’t I’m afraid Maria,” he answered. “It’s kind of magical this time of the day though, I’ll give you that.”
“Oh no, don’t misunderstand,” said Maria. “I don’t believe either. Not anymore at least. Not since my late husband passed away. There’s nobody and nothing controlling our futures. There’s just here, now. Come on, you promised you’d show me the shelter.”
They ended up working the morning shift, changing bedding, washing up, serving London’s lost bacon and eggs and endless cups of tea. The centre manager had remembered Rob and had set them straight to helping out. Maria was a novelty for the patrons of the shelter and she spent most of her time sat quietly talking with each of them individually, laughter following her around the room. She was deep in conversation with an older guy when their shift finished. He had a grey flecked beard and a nasty scar running between his right ear and the corner of his eye that gave him an intimidating look. The smell of stale alcohol and tobacco clung to him. Maria was sitting opposite him, holding his upturned hands in her own, gently massaging his fingers with her thumbs. Rob stood, arms folded, and watched them from across the room.
“He’s in a bad way.” The centre manager had noticed Rob watching the odd couple and joined in the observation. “He shouldn’t be here to be honest. He’s got stomach cancer. Late stages. They’ve told him its incurable and so every time he gets checked in to a hospital he just checks himself out again. Says he’d rather live out his last days on the street than lie down in a ward.”
“Hasn’t he got anybody ?” asked Rob. He knew what the answer would be, he’d had this conversation so many times before in the early days of his volunteering. Surely everyone has someone. The truth was that everyone didn’t have someone. This was a community to pick up the pieces for people without a community.
“He had a wife. From what he’s told me after she died he lost his way, took to drinking too much, lost his job. You know the story. You’re only ever…”
“You’re only ever six bad months away from the street,” interrupted Rob. “I remember.”
They went over to join them. Maria was whispering something to him and, in response, the man had reached up to touch her hair clip. He had started to cry. As his fingers found the carved flower in her hair Maria quickly reached for his hand, moved it, pressed it to her cheek instead. Eventually she released his hand and said her goodbyes.
“Come on,” said Rob. “Let me show you inside the church. It’s quite something.”
Maria shook her head. “I’ve seen the church,” she replied. “I’ve seen your church. It’s all here, in this room, in the bedrooms we cleaned and the pots we washed up. I don’t need to see another grand and imposing space.”
Rob smiled at her. “Let me buy you a coffee then. There’s a kiosk in the foyer of that grand and imposing space that does a great cappuccino and all the money comes back into the shelter. You don’t have to look at the stained glass window or the chandeliers or the balustrades. Just have a drink with me. You’ve reminded me of something today and I wanted to say thank you.”
“Alright, it’s a deal,” said Maria. “And just what have I reminded you of today young man ?”
“You’ve reminded me of who I used to be,” said Rob.
“No, no, no,” replied Maria gently. “Not who you used to be. Who you are.”