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The Arches

Robert Hart

His name was Peter, but no-one homeless in the arches knew that: they called him Pong. Hygiene was problematic and none of them smelled of roses, but Pong’s pong was eye-wateringly world-class. For the rest of the loose group, Pong was an arches fixture of indeterminate though considerable age; he had been there when each of them first arrived, some a decade or more ago.

Peter didn’t care that he ponged as he was a loner. The others stayed away mostly because of the pong but further distanced by his strangeness: he never spoke to them but was always murmuring oddly to an invisible friend. The murmurs were usually quiet, with a sing-song quality, the words lost in his scraggly beard and the deep, grimy folds of his coat. Sometimes, though, they rang out through the stillness of the freezing nights, jarring his fellows to wakefulness.

“Eat that leg, Frobisher. Suck the marrow.”

Then Pong would shiver down into his clothes until the next disturbing outburst, perhaps days later. The consensus was that Frobisher was imaginary, invented by Pong to console his isolation.

The northern summers were cool but the winters were ferocious in their burning, biting cold. On the bad nights, the small community clustered against the arches for shared warmth, trying to keep a small fire burning. But not Pong: he hunkered deeper into his odorous clothes, alone, muttering softly to Frobisher.

The winter storm had lashed the city for a day and continued into the night, hurling half-seen rubbish through the derelict ground around the arches, lit dimly by the reflected light from the scudding clouds. By midnight, the wind was dying and the temperature plunging. By morning it was a hard freeze.

Slowly, the others unwound themselves and stood, stamping feeling back into their feet. The wind-scattered remnants of the fire were gathered and, after several attempts, a thread of smoke rose. A battered saucepan of solid ice went onto the fire. A few of them looked across at where Pong sat in his voluminous garments, ignoring them. It was only when the water had finally boiled and a handful of tea leaves had been added that one of them called across.

“Tea’s up, Pong.”

Pong was unmoved as they folded hands around their battered mugs, savouring warmth as much as the tea itself. After a while, one of them refilled his mug and shuffled across to Pong.

“Here ya go.” He held out the steaming mug but Pong remained oblivious. “Come on, Pong. ’Ave some tea.”

He gave Pong a gentle nudge on the shoulder. Pong toppled sideways, his head hitting the ground with a sold thud.

“Damn,” the man muttered, raising the mug intended for Pong to his lips.

The rest of the men gravitated across, ringing Pong’s body. A section of Pong’s clothing moved.

“He’s still alive.” The voice held a touch of awe.

But no, a whiskered nose wormed out of Pong’s clothes: Frobisher, Pong’s pet rat.

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