She sits beside the newspaper stand in the deli’s small porch, on its black and white chequerboard tiles, leaning against a locked red door. Cross-legged, hands cupped in her lap. ‘Please,’ she calls to passers-by. ‘Please.’ Not with desperation, nor with any particular pathos, but calmly, conserving energy for a long day’s work.

We don’t speak. I slip her olives, some days, but it’s as though I do it behind my own back. I don’t offer sliced meats in case they’re offensive to her. She materialises in the same place again and again, like a flame rising along a wick.

I’m sent outside to tidy the newspapers. I step around her, keeping my feet clear of her fabrics and plastics bags. It hasn’t been a day for generosity. There’s gum in my pocket but I don’t offer it. She never seems to remember me from one day to the next.

I have a room in a shared flat. That’s all. A rented bed, a cupboard.


‘Go back where you came from.’

I snap my head around. A woman walks past us, swishing expensive hair. Clip, clip go her heels along the pavement. Her words tumble behind her, like a piano falling downstairs. Go back where you came from.

I look at the girl. She is staring straight ahead with her mouth open. She is seeing something in her mind’s eye that I cannot imagine. Something the woman cannot imagine, either.

Go Back Where You Came From. The words are neon-lit, suspended in air above the road, above our high street with its pavement cafes and artisan shops, above the swelling Thames. The river is larger than the city – there’s room in it for everyone. The woman has already disappeared into the crowd.

I wonder where she comes from.

‘I’m Clare,’ I say, but the girl gives the slightest shake of the head, as though she has heard enough.