The ocean reflected a sky the colour of hung meat. Elsie coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the stench of washed-up fish.
She turned as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. He was beyond saving.
The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the plez?”
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.”
Raising her chin, she pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal. If you want the caps—”
“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his hair, and laid the items out on the mottled concrete.
A smile crept over Elsie’s face. “Real. Unopened.” She knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”
The boy groped inside his rucksack for several seconds and then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect. 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.
She placed the brush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of polythene and a coil of blue rope.
The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before her. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned, and ran. She shook her head and sighed as the boy disappeared beyond 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 along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded terraced houses.
She thought about the boy and about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most and 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. She told herself it was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.
Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway, and shouldered her way backwards through a gate, closing 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.
She surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected a bed of chrysanthemums, red and pink blooms swaying gently with the breeze, their fragrance tickling her memories, reminding her of carefree, more playful times.
She walked over to her bench, and ran a finger along its framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with twists of ivy. Varnished slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants crawling up 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.
Dragging the tin over to the first pole, she set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the crossbeam and painted them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.
She rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. Her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung-meat sky, and approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than eight.
“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. I promise.”
The children exchanged furtive 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 patted a blade on his belt.
Elsie led the way and the children followed. She 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. If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”
“This is for us?” the boy asked.
“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”
The children smiled. “What’s that do?” The girl gestured past Elsie.
“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and to grip the bright white chains.
“Hold on.” Elsie 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.