Excerpt from Vagabundo

‘Hello,’ she said in English. ‘I’m Beatriz.’

He took a seat in front of his tent and threw the rake aside. If she was shocked by his appearance, she hid it well. Can’t see me properly in the dull light, he thought. ‘Bruno,’ he said, getting up again. He lit the fire and lingered over it, so she could see the full horror show. Teenager, he guessed as he looked her over. A bit young for this life. He didn’t bother putting his top on. Like the rest of him, his torso was covered in tattoos. There were anchors, boats, compasses and birds. Fortune Favours the Bold was inked in a scrawl across his abdomen.

‘Been here long?’ she asked. There was hesitation in her voice. Is this man dangerous? she’d be thinking. Have I made a mistake setting my tent here? He could tell by her accent that Spanish was her native tongue. Faded jeans, which once would have been as black as her hair, clung to her slender legs. Sequins on her loose top sparkled in the firelight. She reached into her tent and drew out a tortoise-shell hairbrush.

‘Dos noches,’ he said, snapping dried mangrove roots and tossing them into the fire. She sandwiched her hair between the brush and her palm and made smooth downward strokes. He became conscious of his own hair, matted strands of uneven lengths and thicknesses. It had been years since he’d brushed it. Hers was so cultivated in comparison that he could barely hold back a smile when the brush snagged on a knot.

‘I’m still not sure how long I’ll stay,’ she said, switching to Spanish. ‘I met some people in the city. They had a spare seat in a pickup truck. I bought this tent and came along.’ Her skin was unblemished, white porcelain, but her eyes were dark and puffed with fatigue, or grief. He wasn’t sure which.

‘Why aren’t you on Main Street? That’s where they’ll be. You’re missing all the action.’

She tossed the brush to the sand and worked at the knot with her fingers. ‘It’s been a long day. Maybe I’ll see them tomorrow. How about you?’

‘Don’t like crowds.’ He followed her eyes as she surveyed the site. Only a few travellers were around. The majority would be in town making sales. He fished a bottle of water from his tent and drank. Her fingers stopped working the knot. Her eyes were on the bottle. He offered it to her, and she gulped at it, straight from his mouth to hers, before he could even pass her a cup. ‘Have you eaten today?’ he asked.

She passed the bottle back. ‘I have oatmeal if you want to use the rest for porridge.’ She wiped her lips.

‘I can do better than water for you.’ He balanced a pot over the fire, opened a pair of coconuts and mashed their insides into a slurry. ‘Get the oatmeal.’

She withdrew a crumpled box of porridge oats and emptied it into the pot.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Drink the rest of the water. There’s plenty in town. You don’t have to go thirsty.’

She drained the bottle and handed it back. He cut two vertical strips from its side, each encompassing one of the feet at the bottle’s base. He folded them lengthways for strength and held them over the fire to round the edges in the heat.

‘A spoon,’ she said, her eyebrows lifting. He cupped the porridge into one of the bowls he’d made and passed it over to her. Her cupid’s-bow lips drew back in a smile, unsheathing diamond-shaped canines at either side.

Look at those teeth, he thought. Perfect for tearing fibre from branches, meat from bones. He watched her as she stirred the porridge in her bowl. Her face had perfect symmetry. He could tell she would never have been in a bad photo in her life. But those teeth, he thought. What a gift. Her eyes rose and met his. Her mouth snapped shut.

‘This is how you survive?’ she asked after a few spoonfuls. ‘You live off the land, make what you need from junk?’

Porridge stuck to his beard. ‘It’s not difficult,’ he said, his mouth full. ‘In the wild I can forage, trap and fish. In cities I can find anything I need in the bins. You know the supermarkets throw food out long before it goes off.’

‘I tried to find a job today,’ she said. ‘Went from door to door, shops, restaurants, bars. I’ve got experience, you know? I’m a hard worker, I told them. I’ll do anything.’ She was an animated talker, eyes fixed on his, eyebrows moving, head bobbing. ‘I almost begged. You know what they did?’ Her jaw clenched. ‘Soon as they realised I wasn’t a tourist, they laughed at me. They said,’ she spoke into the bowl, ‘local jobs for locals only.’

She was a runaway. He’d seen enough of them in the city dosshouses to recognise one. Meek little creatures, usually, sitting in the corner, afraid, noses twitching as the city’s finest hobbled in wearing their rags, accompanied by the sour stench of filth and ill-health. But this girl was different. The clothes, her fine, arched eyebrows, slender nose and tapering jaw; there was a confidence in how she spoke, a quality in her mannerisms. Everything about her spoke of privilege.

‘How old are you?’ he asked. She lowered the bowl to one side, drew circles in the sand with her finger and didn’t answer. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school?’

‘I’m twenty,’ she said. ‘I left school already. I wanted to explore the continent for a while before going back and finishing university.’ There was a touch of defiance in her voice. She knew he’d read her but didn’t want to give anything up.

He pulled on his beard. ‘Same here,’ he said. ‘Me too. I’m studying anthropology.’ He looked hard at her when he spoke. ‘But why not go back now? Get your family to pay the trip home. I’m sure they miss you.’

‘What makes you think I have a family?’ She stared at him.

He was enjoying this. He was so used to being talked down to and abused by others. Now he could give a bit back to one of them. ‘You’ll never get a job here. They don’t like outsiders.’ She swept her hand over the circles she’d drawn. ‘If we get up early enough,’ he continued, ‘we can have a good look in the bins. It’ll still be cool then. Won’t stink as much. See what goodies we can find. I got a nice baguette the other day. It only stank a little bit. Tasted great.’ He rubbed his hands together and smiled at her.

‘I don’t want to look through bins,’ she said, shaking her head. Was there a quiver in her voice? He pressed on. ‘It’s not that bad. Who cares if the food’s not served on a silver platter in some fancy restaurant?’

‘It’ll be covered in flies! Full of germs!’

‘You can’t beg here. They’ll throw you straight out. Then what’ll you do?’

‘Beg?’ She stared at him in disgust. He could see the tears were just about ready. He almost had her. ‘What are you talking about, beg?’

‘Pride will only hold you back. Beatriz, isn’t it? Let go of it now. She lowered her eyes. Her shoulders rose and fell with burdened breaths. He leaned in to hear her whimpers, watched for her hand to reach up and rub the tears from her red lids, but neither happened. Instead, she cocked her head to one side, fed her fingers into her hair and tore the knot out with such force it made him wince. She threw the clump of hair in the fire. The smell of it singeing curled his lip. He reached into his shelter, picked a piece of jewellery from his selling-board and threw it over to her.

‘What’s this?’ she asked, holding it up in the firelight.

‘A welcome present.’

‘To poverty?’ She smoothed her hair back and held his gaze until he looked away. 

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