Staring across the ocean waves reflecting a sky the colour of hung meat, Elsie thought about all the children she could save. She coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the smell of washed-up fish.
Elsie turned, as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. Elsie knew he was beyond saving.
The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the prez?” he said.
Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”
The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”
Elsie pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal,” she said. “If you want the caps–.”
“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his matted hair. He lay the items out on the mottled concrete. A smile crept over Elsie’s face.
“Real. Unopened.” Elsie knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”
The boy frowned as he groped inside his rucksack for several seconds, then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect,” the boy said. “It’s the best I could find.” He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint. Its bristles were uneven and some were missing.
Elsie placed the paintbrush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of plastic and a coil of blue rope.
The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before Elsie. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned and ran. Elsie shook her head and sighed as the boy descended a ladder and over the sea wall.
Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley uphill along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded houses.
She thought about the boy, about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most, then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death. The demand was there – the demand was always there. It was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.
Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway. She shouldered her way back through a gate and closed it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.
Elsie surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected her bed of chrysanthemums, the red and pink blooms swaying gently with the wind, their fragrance tickling her nose and bringing to mind memories of carefree, more playful times.
She walked over to her bench with varnished wooden slats and framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with images of leaves and twisting vines. The slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants climbing the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.
The tins were the finishing touch. Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever-open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.
Moving the tin over to the first pole, Elsie set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the top beam and decided she would paint them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.
Elsie rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. She knew her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung meat sky.
She approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than six.
“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.
The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.
“You’ll like it,” Elsie said. “I promise.”
The children exchanged furtive, suspicious glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.
“Okay, but if you try anything funny,” the boy said, patting a blade on his belt.
The children followed. Elsie opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden – their garden.
“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here,” she said. “If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”
“This is for us?” the boy said.
“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”
The children smiled. “What’s that do?” the girl said, gesturing past Elsie.
“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and for her to grip the bright white chains.
“Hold on,” said Elsie as she walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.
Elsie wiped a tear. It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.
This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.