“I told them last Wednesday. Told them to get some Earl Grey.”
Her hair: muddy puddles, old tarmac, a bleak winter’s day. Hanging in strings, the tails of rats. “I wasn’t here Wednesday. I do Mondays and Fridays,” I say, like I need to excuse myself. Kayleigh’s whinges are all I need. Builders hammer and drill out the back repairing the loos; the place is ripe with clients, the air rank with the sleeping-bag scent of the street.
Her glare slams over my shoulder into the middle distance. “I’ll have the other then, but I need it really weak.”
“Okay.” I smile. “Eating today, Kayleigh?”
“Cheese on toast.”
Please I say inside my head.
Kayleigh sits at her table in the corner; buries her head in a red-top paper. The hunch of her back and ragged veil of her hair shield her from the world. While cheese sizzles behind me, Kayleigh does a crossword, pressing her pen hard and slow into the little squares. Her stick rests against the wall. Sometimes I reckon she keeps that stick for show; justification for why she’s not in work. How old is she? Thirty? She’s been coming to the foodbank for years, way longer than I’ve been volunteering. Suppose she thinks it gives her a right to insist on Earl Grey. Unlike the rest of them here, surely she could find a job.
“There you go, Kayleigh. Cheese on toast and a weak cup of tea.”
She mumbles thanks into her newspaper before pushing it aside, the crossword complete.
I put up a sign: Please use toilet in church hall. More clients come in with vouchers in hand. I return to the counter; sort food parcels; make beans on toast. No one else asks for Earl Grey.
I serve the beans and Kayleigh calls me aside.
“Can you show me where the loos are?” she whispers. “Come with me?” Terror in her eyes. Like she’ll have to climb mountains and ford streams to get there. I hesitate. Sue’s behind the counter now. It’s quiet for a minute.
“Okay,” I say.
Together we negotiate the weedy slabs of the courtyard. Is she shambling extra-slow for my benefit? The church hall reeks of dust and disinfectant. We get to the loo. It’s engaged. We step, step, click a few paces back. “So,” I begin, “I see you like crosswords.”
“Like cryptic ones usually,” she tells the floorboards.
“Wow. Never been able to do those,” I say.
Her eyes catch mine. “I’m not stupid.”
“No, I wasn’t…”
“Brain injury.” I wait. “Mum slammed my head against a wall when I was six months old. Alcoholic.” Another pause. “Lived with her ‘til I was thirteen,” she continues. “Broke my leg in three places, too, and my arm.”
The toilet flushes. On the door we watch ‘engaged’ slide to ‘vacant’. I open my mouth to speak, but the occupier emerges and Kayleigh and her stick go in.
The next week, I bring a packet of Earl Grey.