Devi Patel was minding his own business when he heard the passing car brake to a screeching halt, shattering the midnight silence. He collapsed the empty newspaper stand and refused to turn around. With only two weeks left before his corner shop was sold and replaced by a Taiwanese Nail Bar he concentrated on thoughts of the six month Cruise he would take with his wife.
The car parked close by and a strong smell of stale and fresh cigarette smoke polluted the summer night air and he heard the sound of something dropped onto the pavement.
‘Go on, get lost,’ the young female voice, harsh and raspy mingled with the jangle of bangles.
Devi knew the sound of gold. The bangles were not gold.
The cheap car door banged shut. The idling engine shifted into gear and as it sped off there was a dull thud before it roared away into its own mystery.
The shutter already down over the window, Devi blinked in the bright strip lights of his second home. Having stowed the newspaper rack behind the display of sugary sweets he turned to close and lock the door.
He wouldn’t have heard the silent footsteps because the filthy feet wore no shoes. Filthy ... it was the only word to describe the surprising four foot high apparition standing in the open doorway. The dreadfully thin small boy wearing only oversized underpants cradled a dying, furry Mr Twinkle across his bare arms. It was the victim of the ‘dull thud’.
Devi stared at the two pitiful sights facing him. Mr Twinkle’s black eyes, unfocused pools of pain watched him while the boy’s blank eyes focused on Devi silently pleading from the depths of their own misery.
It was pointless to run out into the street and search for the car. It was far gone by now, the driver having no intention of returning for the unwanted passenger. While Devi hastily locked up, his mind raced with the urgent intention of helping his two visitors.
Standing behind the boy his nose was assaulted by the choking stench of unwashed body odour, vomit, urine - and worse.
‘Make better?’ The boy turned his head to the side as he held out Mr Twinkle and Devi saw his fragile body retreat into itself as though expecting a verbal or actual blow, simply for asking the question.
Bags of crisps were thrown from a cardboard container onto the floor and Devi tore off his aged, cashmere jumper. The boy knelt on the floor with him and together they carefully wrapped Mr Twinkle in the warm wool, settling him inside the box.
‘I’ll leave Mr Twinkle here to sleep. If he feels better in the night he’ll probably make his own way home. You look hungry. Come and eat. We have toast and hot chocolate.’
He’d expected a smile from the suggestion of food or at least the anticipation of chocolate. The boy looked about four years old, neglected and half starved.
Instead, without a word, after stroking Mr Twinkle’s shit streaked fur, he followed Devi to the warm kitchen where his wife was preparing their supper.
A recently retired doctor she could only stare in open-mouthed disbelief at the boy standing next to her husband. Her blinking eyes communicated with Devi across the room and each waited for the other to speak first.
‘Sit down. I’ll make you a drink,’ he pointed to a chair at the small table they used for snatched meals during the long opening hours. ‘What’s your name?’
“I’m an ungrateful bastard” the boy snarled in an adult male’s voice and dropped down onto the dusty floor. He hunched his bare knees to his chest trying to make himself even smaller. His dirty underpants hung around his bony bottom.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ The stunned words were whispered like a soft summer breeze.
Devi watched his wife stoop down and gently touch the boy’s elbow. ‘You must sit on the chair to eat.’ She didn’t rise until the boy was seated. Instead of toast she ripped open a sachet of microwave oats that had never see Scottish land. After a few minutes she pushed the dish, flowing with cooling milk toward the “ungrateful bastard”.
‘Eat slowly,’ she said, her Asian accent still strong even after living in Bradford for fifty years.
The boy watched the strange man and the woman contemplating him. He picked up the spoon with both hands and dropped it, uncertain of its use. Devi scooped a small blob of porridge and slurped it with a grin of exaggerated pleasure.
The boy copied him, grinning like a monkey after each savoured slurp, quickening the pace as he enjoyed the cereal. ‘Slowly,’ Devi’s wife advised and sat in the empty chair opposite the boy.
He swallowed in slow motion to prolong the delight and relaxed his tense shoulders, eyes fixed on her.
‘Are you A Paki?’
‘No. I am A Nita.’
Inured to insults from old and young, Devi and Anita lifted their deep brown eyes to the ceiling. She joined him at the sink where he fussed with hot milk and powdered drinking chocolate.
They spoke in lowered whispers without shifting their attention from the boy.
‘Tell me,’ ordered Anita and Devi related the events after the car stopped.
‘You must call the police. They’ll have to find his mother.’ Anita headed upstairs to fetch her medical bag. ‘Sachin will know what to do. I’ll call him.’
‘I’m not calling the police unless they’re looking for him,’ thought Devi. ‘He’s been abandoned and by the looks of him treated worse than an animal. There’s no way he’s going back to whoever did this.’
Distracted by concern he poured steaming liquid into a mug and placed it in front of the boy. ‘Drinking chocolate,’ he said and half smiled at Anita when she returned, bag in hand.
‘He’ll need a bath and we can find Sachin’s old pyjamas for him to sleep in.’
‘Bath. Sleep.’ Anita hissed, her dark eyes wide, smoothing out the shadowed circles beneath them. ‘Are you crazy? We cannot do anything like that. We’ll be accused of all sorts once the police get here. We cannot even touch him.’
The boy ignored their whispers and licked spilt porridge from blackened nails. Too late not to have helped him wash before eating, thought Devi.
‘I know you want to be kind,’ Anita continued, ‘but these days, it’s wrong to be kind. You have to step back and let Social Services do their job.’
The boy reached for the mug and squeaked when his fingers touched the fiery sides.
‘Oh no, sorry,’ Devi was devastated; ‘I should have said it will be hot. I’m very sorry.’
The boy bit his lip and blinked hard when he heard the word ‘sorry’.
“So you bleeding well should be,” he rasped at Devi who recognised a perfect imitation of the voice he’d heard from the car.
He turned to Anita. ‘Can’t you see he’s never had a decent word said to him in his life? We can decide what to do after we’ve cleaned him up and he’s had a good night’s sleep. I don’t think he’s even capable of talking properly – not to us anyway.’
As Anita struggled to decide on the right decision, she and Devi passed a hand over their faces, trying not to breathe in the smell of urine trickling onto the floor. The boy leant over the hot chocolate sniffing the pungent cocoa, oblivious to the acrid smell of ammonia rising from beneath his swinging feet.
Devi breathed hard, ‘Okay, this is my plan. We’ll use the mobile and video everything we do …’
‘Then they’ll think we’re paedophiles … No Devi … that’s …’
‘Not if we do it in a decent way. I will document everything from the moment the car stopped outside. We’ll take him upstairs. You help him bath – he’s probably never had one in his life. I’ll check the Internet for a missing child.’
Anita placed her trembling hands each side of his face. ‘Devi Patel, you are a veRy lovely man.’ She still over pronounced the ‘r’ in very and Devi loved her for it.
An hour later, the boy snuggled into the comfortable single bed in the spare room, breathing deeply from long overdue sleep in clean bedding. Devi huddled on the carpet outside the open door, ready to leap up and reassure their visitor if he woke in the night, frightened or crying.
He needn’t have worried. The boy slept for six hours without moving.
To pass the time, Devi trawled through local and National Internet news pages, finding nothing about a lost or missing boy.
Wide awake at 3am he heard their barrister son walk up the carpeted stairs. Encouraged by Anita, Sachin peeped into the bedroom often used by nieces and nephews. Spotting a well-worn teddy bear, he tucked it under the duvet.
Standing with his son on the landing Devi embraced the young man who was his image; taller, wider in the chest, thick rather than thinning hair but with the same unmistakable even white teeth and brown eyes.
‘Pops, what on earth are you doing? You know you can’t keep him like some stray dog or cat. You could get into a lot of trouble. The law sees things in black and white.’ He groaned as he sat on the floor next to his stubborn father who had returned to his vigil.
Devi’s sobbing sigh lingered in the air. ‘Tell me Sachin, how have we lost the right to show kindness? Who decided it was so wrong?’
How could Sachin argue with the questions? ‘We didn’t lose it Pops. It just happened gradually. The bad guys make things change and the good guys have to accept it.’
Anita appeared with hot drinks and chocolate biscuits and knelt on the floor with them, her patterned silk dressing gown billowing around her like a gaudy parachute.
‘Sachin, you know what will happen if the police and social services get involved. He’ll be taken to a foster home and who knows how he will be treated. Or worse, they’ll send him back to wherever he came from. Our house in town is big Sachin, plenty of room for a small boy. When he’s older he could work …’
Sachin snorted and smiled. ‘… in the shop? No mum, the corner shop is dead with all this competition from late night Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. The authorities will make sure he doesn’t go back to his parents.’
He nudged Devi’s phone. ‘Call them Pops. You can’t afford my fees if you end up in court.’
It was fortunate their regular PC Brian Hadley was on duty that morning. His bulky frame filled the open shop doorway as he swiped left through Devi’s photo record from the boy’s arrival to transformation from discarded urchin into a human being. He breathed heavily and his fingers tensed.
‘Don’t worry too much Devi. There are still a lot of good people in the world. Social Services are not as bad as you think. I’ll make sure they know you want to foster him.’
The boy stood in his new clean clothes clutching the teddy bear, each with matching glassy eyes. Looking up at Devi he held the bear in front of his face.
“Devi Patel, you are a veRy lovely man.”
He imitated Anita’s accent perfectly.
Devi laughed out loud and patted the boy’s head, ignoring Sachin’s warning gestures. They’d left Anita upstairs cancelling the cruise, prepared to lose their money.
‘This boy is a born mimic, Brian. You’ll learn a lot from the things he comes out with.’
This time Devi didn’t mind his own business and helped Brian secure the boy’s seat belt in the back of the police car. He waved as the vehicle drove the boy away from his life – leaving him with a hopeful plan for their future.