Miriam Burke

We're Not Born Here

Miriam Burke

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I frighten the women. They look at the remnants of my beauty and think: none of us are safe. They hurry home to their faithless, bad tempered husbands and cling to them in the night. The men linger; some want to save me and others want to piss on me. 

     When morning rush hour is over, I put four fingers in my mouth and whistle for Argos. He’s always across the road, a few doors away. I call him Argos because my father loved Greek and he named my pets after mythological creatures. Argos’s brown hair has run wild about his head and his beard is like cloth spun by his chin. I have never heard him speak. I give him money to buy me a bottle of vodka and I add a few pounds for his cider.

     I have done well this morning; the spring sun shines rays of hope and commuters dream of eating seafood on terraces by the Mediterranean. I pick up my takings and put them in a secret pocket on the inside of my coat. I take a long swig from a water bottle full of vodka and my body comes to life again as if I have been touched by a loved one. 

     I walk to the little square a few streets away and sit on a bench under a plane tree with lime green bark. Finches are bickering above me and a squirrel stands next to a takeaway box, eating the flesh of an animal ten times his size. Two magpies walk slowly across the grass, like aged actresses. Argos has followed me and he crawls into a clump of bushes on the other side of the square.

     Ivor walks towards me with an outstretched hand. He is a tall white-haired man wearing a navy cashmere coat with bald patches. 

     ‘Roast beef this morning,’ he says, handing me a sandwich. He gets them from the rubbish bins behind a supermarket.

     ‘Thank you, Ivor.’

He sits next to me and we eat our sandwiches. He takes a mouthful of my vodka but he’s not a drinker.  He was a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office when his wife came home one day to find he had taken apart every television and radio in the house looking for bugs. He stopped sleeping in the same room as her in case she injected him with poison and he railed at his children for betraying him. He lost everything.

     ‘Has anyone been looking for me?’ he asks.

     ‘No.’ 

He stares at a middle aged couple standing at a statue of Charles II. The man is reading aloud from a book.

     ‘The garden was laid out in 1681....’

     ‘More than three hundred years old and we’re standing in it,’ says the woman.

     ‘They’re tourists, Ivor. Listen; their accents are American.’

     ‘They have agents in every country.’

I notice a newspaper in his coat pocket and say: ‘Read to me: tell me what’s going on in the world.’

He puts on glasses with a lens cracked like a spider’s web.

     ‘There’s data from The Office of National Statistics on the ages at which people are happiest.’

     ‘What did they find?’

     ‘It seems we’re happiest before our mid-twenties and after our mid-fifties.’

     ‘It’s when they’re free.’

     ‘Why do you say they?’

     ‘Because we have resigned our people status.’ I take another drink. ‘My father believed he would have been happy if he hadn’t married my mother.’

     ‘Did they stay together?’

     ‘Unhappiness is more binding than love. My father was a student when he had a one-night-stand with a barmaid in a pub car park. I was the consequence of a few minutes forgotten folly. He had to give up his dream of becoming an academic and she gave up her dream of being loved.’

     ‘It’s sad.’

     ‘They got comfort from hurting each other. He was unfaithful and she made his life hell.’

     ‘Would they have been happy if they hadn’t married each other?’

     ‘He’d still have been a bastard and she’d have got herself into another kind of mess.’

Colin comes into the square and walks towards us. His upper body is muscular from years of carrying weapons and backpacks. He can’t stand still and his eyes scan the buildings behind the square. The wars he fought carry on inside him. 

     ‘Anything to eat?’ There is threat in his voice.

I shake my head.

He looks at our empty sandwich wrappers.

     ‘Drink?’

I shake my head again.

He spots Argos drinking cider in the bushes.

     ‘Leave him alone,’ I say.

I brace myself for a punch.

Ivor quickly pulls pound coins from his pocket and thrusts them at Colin. Colin stares at the money but doesn’t reach out to take it.  He walks away and leaves the square.

     ‘Thank you,’ I say.

     ‘At your service, my lady,’ says Ivor, smiling.

I think of his wife and know she must miss the man he once was.

     ‘Mozart lived near here, on Frith Street,’ says the American husband. They have moved closer to us.

     ‘So he must have walked this path,’ replies his wife. Her dark blue blazer fits her well and her cream trousers have no creases.

     ‘I guess so.’

     ‘This is why I love London; the past is always present.’

     ‘I’m going to take a photo of the statue. Will you stand next to it?’

The sight of the American’s camera has brought terror to Ivor’s eyes.

     ‘I have to go,’ he says. He stands up and hurries out of the square. 

The American has no idea a man has fled from him in fear of his life.

     I felt the power of my beauty from an early age. The fathers of my friends would encourage them to bring me on their family outings and holidays, teachers let me away with murder, and I was invited to every party. 

     I wanted to live life, not read about it, so I didn’t go to university. I took a secretarial course where we had classes in deportment and etiquette. My first job was PA to the chief executive of an electronics company. My boss had small eyes, a large nose and the mouth of a monkfish. I tormented him for six months; I opened buttons in my blouse so he could see my cleavage when I leaned over him to put papers on his desk, I brushed his hand when I gave him coffee, and I wore skirts short enough to show my great calves but not so short I looked like easy picking. I was very formal in my manner so he didn’t know where he was.

     Our affair started on a business trip and ended three months later when his wife found out. She found out from me; I sent her an anonymous letter. You can make a man tell you anything if you give him the sex he wants and I had enough information by then about the company money he was siphoning to his off-shore bank account. I suggested I might have a chat with The Serious Fraud Office and mentioned a large sum that would dissuade me. I expected him to negotiate a reduction but he gave me the unreasonable sum I’d requested. I spent two years travelling the world and sleeping with beautiful young men with tenderness in their eyes and firm, strong bodies.

     ‘Hello, my queen.’

JohnJoe is limping towards me. He’s a red-headed giant who broke his body digging the foundations for motorways.

He sits next to me and asks: ‘And how are we this glorious morning?’

     ‘Good, and you?’

     ‘I’m grand. How did you do?’

     ‘Better than usual. The sun, I think. And you?’

     ‘Same. If they’re miserable, they have no mercy.’ He looks around the square. ‘Where’s Ivor?’

     ‘Fled from a tourist.’

     ‘They’re terrifying beasts alright with their big shiny white teeth and black sunglasses.’

I offer him some vodka but he pulls a bottle of Buckfast from his pocket. ‘Thanks, I’ll stick with the monks’.

I close my eyes, and raise my face to the sun. JohnJoe starts singing:

     ‘Oh grey and bleak, by shore and creek, the rugged rocks abound,

     But sweeter green the grass between than grows on Irish ground:

     So friendship fond, all else beyond, and love that lives always,

     Bless each dear home, beside your foam......’

When he finishes, he says: ‘I’m thinking of going back.’

     ‘For good?’ I ask.

     ‘No. There’s a charity that would give me the money for my fare and a few days in a B&B.’

     ‘How long has it been?’

     ‘Over fifty years.’

     ‘It’s a long time.’

     ‘Aye.’

     ‘Have you family there?’

     ‘My brothers emigrated but I don’t know if any of the girls stayed behind. I heard the houses in our area have been bought as holiday homes by Germans and French. Strangers who know nothing about us sit in our kitchens, sleep in our bedrooms, and sow flowers on our farmland, while we’re scattered to all corners of the world.’

     ‘Occupied territories. It mightn’t be a good idea.’

     ‘Maybe you’re right.’ He takes another swig from his bottle. ‘I’d love to see hares chasing each other around a field on a spring evening. And to wake to the roar of a donkey and a yard full of squawking chickens.’

 We sit quietly for a while.

     ‘How long do you think it’ll be before Ivor comes back?’ asks JohnJoe.

     ‘Could be a day, could be weeks.’

     ‘Poor man. He’s a true gentleman.’

     ‘He is a gentle man.’

 JohnJoe looks up at the position of the sun and says: ‘Well, I better go; a funeral down the road in St. Pats.’

     ‘A close friend?’

     ‘A stranger. I like the atmosphere; people come alive in the presence of the dead.’

I laugh.

     ‘I’ll see you later, a stór.’

     ‘Goodbye JohnJoe.’

     I put my feet on the bench and sleep for a while. I dream of the limestone terraces on a Greek island where I once lived.

     ‘Cass, wake up.’

I open an eye to see a young woman with long blonde hair, wearing a pale blue wool coat, leaning over me.

     ‘I’m sorry to wake you but I want to have a word.’

     ‘You look like a social worker.’

     ‘I’m Margaret’s replacement.’

     ‘They never last long.’

I don’t like her hovering over me so I sit up.

     ‘I was wondering if you need anything?’

     ‘No, do you?’

 She joins me on the bench, trying to position herself between pigeon droppings. ‘It’s a nice little square.’

     ‘Have you come to tell me that?’

     ‘I’ve come to see you because it’s not safe for you to.....’

     ‘Are you married?’

 She looks puzzled. ‘No, but I live with a partner.’

     ‘You’re at much greater risk of being murdered than I am.’

     ‘Statistically, maybe but...’

     ‘Statistically, definitely. Remember that, when you get home tonight.’

I pass her the vodka but she shakes her head. I take a long draught. The blackbirds are singing their sweet tunes and the tree tops are swaying like drunken dancers.

     ‘It’s the toll on your health.’

     ‘You’re being paid to sit here and talk to me, aren’t you?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘I should be paid too. That’s something I need.’

     ‘You could die of cold, Cass.’

     ‘I’d be found. My boss only liked blow jobs. Don’t stay with a man who only likes blow jobs. What age are you?’

     ‘Twenty-five.’

     ‘You won’t be happy again until you’re sixty’

     ‘I’m not sure I believe those surveys.’

     ‘Do you ever look at your partner’s face over the cereal bowl and think; that’ll be my view every morning for the rest of my life?’

     ‘We could get you a place quickly because of your age.’

     ‘I have a place, a whole city. Sans-abri; that’s what the French call us. It means without shelter.  People need shelter from their home. I never had shelter.’

     ‘Do you speak French?’

     ‘We’re not born on the streets.’ I look at a young couple who have come into the square; they’re tangled around each other as if they’ve just had sex. ‘Love is over-rated. What do you think?’ 

     ‘There’ll be a van coming around next week to take lung X-rays.’

     ‘Don’t get inside his head; you won’t like what you find.’

     ‘You’re not making it easy for us.’

     ‘I was always searching, searching. It’s hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for.’

     ‘Would you prefer if I went away?’

     ‘No, I’m enjoying myself.’

It is night and I’m woken by the sound of drunken men. 

     ‘Look at this filthy cunt.’

I’m lying on the bench and they’re standing over me. One of them holds a lighter to my face and says: ‘She looks just like you, Spike.’

     ‘Shut the fuck up.’

     ‘Look at her face; it’s your Mum, Spike. Jonno, isn’t she the spit of him?’

     ‘Yeah, Spike. She is; she’s your Mum.’

The lighter is taken away from my face.

     ‘Fuck off you bastards,’ says Spike.

I put my feet on the ground and sit up.

  ‘Say hello to your son.’

Someone kicks my legs, hard. I keep very still.

     ‘Say hello to your Mum, Spike.’

     ‘I’ve had enough of this shit.’

     ‘She wants to talk to you.’

     ‘Take her home with you, Spike. You can’t leave your mum out here.’

Jonno picks up my bag and pulls out my water bottle. He takes the top off and sniffs, before taking a mouthful.

      ‘It’s bloody vodka.’ He takes a long drink before passing it to the others. They start to sing:

     ‘No one likes us, no one likes us

     No one likes us, we don’t care

     We are Millwall, from The Den.’

Jonno puts the bottle in his coat pocket.

     ‘See if there’s money in the bag; they make loads begging.’

Jonno pulls everything from my bag and scatters the contents on the ground.

     ‘Fuck all.’

The lighter is brought close to my face again.

     ‘Where’s your money, you cunt.’

I am outside myself.

     ‘Christ, she stinks. Let’s have a bonfire.’

     ‘A barbey. I’ve never seen a body burn.’

     ‘Save money on a takeaway.’

They laugh.

     ‘We’ll need petrol to get a good blaze going. We can tie her to the bench and light the fire under her.’

     ‘There’s sticks on the ground and paper in the bins.’

     ‘You been a boy scout?’

    ‘Course not, it’s common-fuckin-sense.’

     ‘Alcohol burns – we could pour vodka on her.’

     ‘She’s full of it already.’ 

     ‘Come on, let’s collect paper and sticks.’

They start pulling paper from the rubbish bin nearest to my bench.

     ‘You stupid dickheads, you’d do time for that – a long stretch, at least twenty years,’ says Spike.

     ‘How would they know it was us?’

     ‘There’s fuckin cameras everywhere around here.’

They’re quiet for a few seconds.

     ‘She needs a wash.’

     ‘Yeah, Spike, your Mum needs a wash before you take her home.’

They have started unzipping when I hear the sound of smashing glass. I look towards the sound and see Jack running out of the bushes holding a broken bottle and roaring like a bull. They see the madness in his eyes.

     ‘Jesus, he’s a psycho. Let’s get out of here.’

     Jack waits outside the square until he’s sure they’ve gone. When he comes back, he nods towards me and disappears back into the bushes. I settle down on the bench and go back to sleep.


Miriam Burke


Miriam Burke has had stories published in anthologies and magazines and a number of her stories won awards. She is from the West of Ireland and lives in London.