Yesterday was my birthday!
Have a short story in celebration. ;)
The multitude of homeless people in Oxford surprised Anna; she’d not been briefed on this during any pre-departure meetings. She rolled her luggage through the mixture of paved and cobblestone streets to what would be her flat during her Michaelmas study-abroad term and did her best to firstly, not get lost, and secondly to ignore all the homeless people along the way.
It took her a few weeks to adjust to the city and figure out the best routes. Soon, though, she knew that she could take Walton, Little Clarendon, Broad, and St. Giles Street to get to most of the places that she needed, like the market, library, and college that she’d be spending most of her time in. And as she learned the routes, she learned which homeless people “lived” on which street. Some were politer than others, and she began to plan her walks around them. It was worth an extra block or two if it otherwise made life easier.
Though reading and writing quickly consumed her life, as they did most Oxford University students, Anna still needed to find time to breathe. She’d heard rumors of a place called Port Meadow, north of the city center and her flat, where wild horses and cows were free to roam along acres of fenced in land. Two weeks into the term, with a grasp on the essentials of life abroad, she felt she was ready to find this place and meet the horses.
Of course, reaching Port Meadow involved walking on a non-preferred route, past a long row of homeless people. It was easiest to not meet their eyes. Anna didn’t exactly have much money either; the exchange rate was roughly two dollars to one pound, therefore quickly draining her bank account dry. So she tucked her head down and walked rapidly through the streets, ignoring the homeless people with dirty hats and ratty McDonald’s cups sitting next to them, asking for change, or even the homeless who tried to hawk Big Issue magazines through the government assistance program.
“I’m pregnant, love, and could use a quid.”
She looked up, startled by the voice, and met the homeless woman’s eyes.
Damn, she thought. The mistake was made and now she couldn’t ignore the conversation. The woman’s voice had the rattle of a smoker, but she smelled like all the other homeless people and Anna didn’t note tobacco among the pungent scents. She was tall, probably close to six feet, with stringy blonde hair. Her thick white sweatshirt, now stained, hid any potential proof of her pregnancy.
“Just a quid?” she prompted.
The battle raged on within Anna. She might truly be pregnant. She might need money for food and clothes and shelter. Or she might turn around and spend all of this in the nearest pub.
Anna covertly dug through her messenger bag for a handful of coins—all pennies, which were obnoxious to count out at the registers—and passed them off. She rushed off to avoid hearing the homeless woman thank her for a measly handful of coins, but thank her she did. Anna mumbled something and continued walking, eager to meet the wild horses.
She would never forget that first moment she walked through the gate to Port Meadow. All cares and worries melted away as she stepped foot into “the leaping greenly spirit of trees and the true blue dream of sky” made real, for surely e.e. couldn’t have meant anywhere else but here. The perfect meadow stretched before her. A bike trail, walking trail, or grand expanse of grass beckoned toward her, and Anna chose the grass. She traipsed through until her shoes began to squelch in the mud where the ever-changing pond had chosen to dwell for that day; with the next rainfall, it would grow even more.
The horses were there, drinking deep from the muddy water.
People often said things like “horse craze is a phase all little girls go through,” but Anna had never grown out of it. Seeing the magnificent creatures up close made her feel alive and full of joy. She didn’t know where to begin, but a horse with a bright white blaze on its face introduced itself by walking straight up to her.
“Hi,” Anna said, surprised. The horse’s nostrils widened and Anna blew politely into them, teaching it her scent. The brown mare’s belly was wet with dew from brushing so low to the tall grass. She was clearly pregnant. Anna let her snuffle through the pockets of her cozy black peacoat while she planned out what to bring her the next time she came by. Horses ate apples and carrots, but could a horse safely eat a whole apple if handed one? Would it have to be chopped up and stuffed into her pockets in little baggies?
Guiltily, Anna recalled the other pregnant being she’d interacted with that day: the homeless woman that she’d tossed some pennies to. Why am I willing to plan a shopping trip for an animal, and make plans to see it again, yet all I plan to do for someone in need—of my own species—is avoid them or give them as little as possible if I can’t? She shook her head, dug her camera out of another pocket to snap a memory of the mare, then trudged home as the sun set behind her.
She stopped at the market the next day. The Co-Op was cramped compared to the grocery stores Anna shopped in back in the states, but she wove through the tiny aisles and reached the corner full of fresh produce. She picked two apples, two carrots, and then thought about what a homeless person might desire. Something warm wouldn’t stay warm for long; anything in a can would be difficult to open. It might be offensive to hand someone a homemade sandwich, and sweets wouldn’t be nutritious.
I’m overthinking this, she thought in frustration, and grabbed another apple along with a baby-carrots-and-ranch-dressing pack. If fresh food was good enough for a horse, it should be good enough for a homeless person. Anna immediately felt horrible for thinking such a thing, and knew she just wasn’t going to win.
She put off her return for a week. Her studies called for her attention, and she was eager to let a distraction exist. But the meadow called to her, and she braced herself as she jogged up Walton Street.
The pregnant woman was there, and smiled when she saw her.
She knows I’m a sucker, Anna thought. Yet she found herself smiling back.
“Fancy sharing a pound or two with a pregnant woman?” she asked. Anna tried not to feel uncomfortable as they stood face-to-face.
“I’m Anna,” she said. “And I would love to help. What’s your name?”
A dagger sank into Anna’s heart. Natalie was her sister’s name. This woman was just like her, could be a member of her family, but she was living on the streets and Anna was assuming the worst. Of course her name is Natalie. She took another deep breath and continued her speech. “I don’t have any change with me at the moment”—a lie—“but I do have some snacks, if you’d like.” She retrieved an apple and the carrot pack from her bag and held them out in offering.
“Why thank you, love,” Natalie said. It sounded genuine. She bit into the apple and leaned back against the blue wall she frequented of the Phoenix Picture house, and Anna took it as permission to leave. She continued on to Port Meadow and managed to spot the pregnant mare scratching her hindquarters against a tree. Anna needed the mare’s friendship, and somehow the horse understood that; she moseyed up to the woman and began to snuffle her pockets.
“It’s true, I’m bribing you for friendship,” Anna whispered while the horse chomped on an apple slice. She ran her fingers through the tangled auburn mane and thought about how free the horses in the meadow were.
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” she told the horse—though perhaps the horse suspected, since others broke off from the distant herd and meandered over to the provider of crunchy treats. Anna shared with the other horses, hoping none of them were biters, and then bribed her pregnant buddy along behind her with bit by bit of carrot. She led the horse to the dock overlooking the meadow, where the horse could graze nearby and she could continue with her Shakespeare readings.
Natalie wasn’t around for the next few days, as the skies decided to open up and pour a few inches down onto the world below. Anna clopped around town with her wide black umbrella, thankful for the cobblestones that kept puddles from forming like the ones she was used to trudging through back home. When the sun showed up again, slowly evaporating the wetness, she knew to expect Natalie. Anna had an apple for her horse and a packet of peanut butter crackers for “her homeless friend,” as she’d taken to thinking of her. She held it out as soon as she saw Natalie, who leaned against her regular, chipped-blue-paint wall, staring out unflinchingly at the world.
“Thanks,” the woman said with a smile. “God bless ya.”
Anna couldn’t help but notice that Natalie still didn’t appear to be pregnant in the slightest. The lack of cigarettes or beer bottles helped her try to ignore it, though.
“Where d’you go when you come up this way? Not much up there for a uni kid.” Natalie tore open the flimsy plastic and began to chew on one of the crackers.
“Port Meadow—it’s a big field with wild horses, very peaceful. I like to read there and visit with the animals.”
Natalie laughed. Anna clammed up immediately, aghast that anyone could not find Port Meadow as perfect as she did.
“That’s sweet,” was all the homeless woman said, and Anna continued her walk.
Proves she’s ungrateful, she told herself, though she knew it wasn’t true. She skirted around a homeless man who was sleeping on a pile of rags, so dirty that they’d all lost their original color and become a clump of dark grey matter. A skinny shepherd dog curled next to him.
She still had the apple. She had money in the maroon messenger bag she clutched to her side. But she didn’t stop for him. Another man was stretched across the bench near the entrance to Port Meadow, staring up at the sky. His head rose when he heard her footsteps.
“Spare a bit of change?” he asked through coughs.
Anna shook her head and continued on to the horses.
The heavy rain had filled the craterous, soggy middle of the field into an enormous pond, almost double what Anna was used to seeing. Her pregnant horse, noticeable even this far away thanks to her dark brown coat and distinctive white blaze, was across the pond from her. She wouldn’t be able to see her today. Other horses grazed near the dock where she usually sat, including the one she called Bad Horse for always snuffling her pockets so intrusively, but she didn’t know how to pick who to get her apple. She wanted her favorite horse to have it, and she wasn’t available.
I’m such a jerk, she thought, feeling deflated. She reached a hand up to run it stressfully through her hair; a drop of rain splattered down onto her hand. She shoved it deep into the pocket of her peacoat and hit the apple. The drizzle picked up, beginning to flatten her hair.
“I’m sorry,” she said aloud, uncertain to whom she meant, and left the meadow.
None of the homeless people she’d passed on her way in had left their perches, despite the rain. Flashes of Sunday school learning popped into Anna’s mind as she walked. She knew quite well how many times the Bible urged everyone to help the poor. It was probably the easiest commandment to ignore. One of the homeless men, a beer bottle in hand, leered at her and began to speak, though his rising drunkenness swallowed his words up before any intelligible ones emerged. The hat at his feet had a slew of coins filling it. Who gave to him, and did they know he was using it on alcohol? Didn’t he know that he was affecting the willingness of people to give to those who truly needed it?
Natalie wasn’t in her normal spot. Anna didn’t know what to think. She had a copy of The Tempest in her bag and felt like the title was appropriate for how her heart felt, especially considering how damp the rest of her was after the ten-minute walk in the rain.
An unfamiliar homeless man sat on the corner of her street, beneath an Oxford University umbrella, just when Anna thought she’d be able to get home unobserved. She could recite the words along with the stranger: “Spare a bit o’ change?”
Anna shook her head. I don’t want him to know where I live.
Why? He’s a danger just because he’s begging?
The homeless man was giving her a look that warned Anna that she looked like the crazy one in the situation. Her internal monologue had made enough of an impact on her face that the homeless man actually backed away. Embarrassed, Anna ran down the street and let herself into her dry flat where she could finally peel off her soaking jeans. She missed whatever the homeless person had called out after her; the words were drowned in the now-pouring rain.
She removed the apple from her pocket, set it on the kitchen counter, tore off her peacoat, and threw it over the radiator. The shiny red apple stared at her. Maybe this one was for her to eat. That was allowed. She didn’t have to give everything away to homeless and horses. Would she pick and choose her graciousness for the rest of her life, she wondered? One day—soon, too soon—she would have to leave Oxford, and the people on the street and the horses in the meadow would be for someone else to experience, and she’d be far away. “The poor you will always have with you,” Anna thought, spinning the apple on the counter. Nobody could run from “always.”
She stood up and filled a pot with water, then set it on the stove to begin boiling. She took a box of pasta out of the cupboard and set it on the counter. The Tempest needed to dry before she could begin reading it, so she grabbed her copy of Measure for Measure to skim through while she cooked. She’d read it earlier but needed a refresher so she could successfully write her Shakespeare essay for that week.
“The miserable have no other medicine/But only hope,” Claudio said in Act III, and Anna slammed the book shut. She sighed and finished making her spaghetti and meatballs. With the rain still tumbling down, she filled up a bowl and took it to the man on the corner.