Sam spotted her locking up her bike, hoping she was coming to the meeting, wondering if she would remember him. Two of his team had dropped out already, he didn’t imagine they had anywhere better to be on a Friday afternoon, but that’s the way it was; some homeless people didn’t like being organised and they didn’t like talking. He couldn’t remember her name, despite making such an impression on him. Katie, no, perhaps the earnest facilitator would say her name. He whistled to Sheba who helpfully rounded up his new charge, a snappy terrier mix the elderly owner claimed was a Jack Russell. He would have to keep her on a tight lead at the meeting.
Cassie removed her cycle helmet, took her shoulder bag out of the panier, stretched her back, stepped onto the path and nearly tripped over a little dog.
‘Sorry.’ Why was she apologising to a dog?
‘Bella, come here…’ a man’s voice called.
Bella! Maybe she was pretty as a puppy. Cassie regained her balance and carried along the path, wondering how today’s meeting would be. One of the others from work couldn’t come, he was actually back in the office so had a good excuse. All the more reason for Cassie to feel she should attend, even though James had suggested a trip over on the ferry and lunch outside a waterside pub.
She was aware of someone behind her, in these days of pandemic it wasn’t just women in dark lonely places who were nervous of strangers, anyone who took the virus seriously did not want people breathing near them. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a man on the grass, giving her plenty of space on the path.
‘I’m so sorry, the dog, not mine, exercising her for an old lady. You don’t recognise me, do you?’
When a shaggy dog bounded up she realised who it was.
‘Sam, oh sorry, haircut and wrong dog.’
‘No wonder you’re confused, you are going to the meeting again?’
‘Yes, yes, I’m a bit worried as one of my team can’t come and it was my company that started this in the first place.’
He laughed. ‘Two of my team are missing, not as if they had anything better to do, hope we don’t get told off.’
‘She is a bit serious isn’t she.’
Cassie smiled to herself. Sam brushed up well with his neat haircut and she found herself glad he was going to be there. Perhaps a reflection on her lack of a social life, no that was a condescending thought, Sam was as worthy of sharing her afternoon as James and probably more interesting.
‘You must like dogs a lot Sam.’
‘I like Sheba, not too enamoured with this one, but the lady who is fostering Sheba while I’m in the hotel suggested I get into dog walking, might be an earner.’
‘Oh yes, it was big business where I was in London, some walkers even had their own doggy mini buses.’
He looked crestfallen.
‘Oh I’m sure most dog walkers just have strong leads and a good supply of those plastic bags… hmm rather you than me.’
‘That is a downside, but I’ve seen worse in my life.’
‘Of course, I mean er…’
He smiled in a way that suggested he was worried about embarrassing her, rather than the other way round. ‘Hey, what was pre Covid stays pre Covid, new haircut, new man. That’s what I liked about the group, not dwelling, just looking for solutions, looking to the future.’
‘Will you still sell the Big Issue?’
‘Yes, I just started again, over the water is my pitch, small town, but no other sellers around. Trouble is, people haven’t really started coming out much, I need more strings to my bow.’
‘People going back to work – lonely dogs, people isolating – bored dogs, yes I’m sure there will be customers out there.’
That’s what Sam liked about Carol, no that wasn’t her name, anyway she was easy to talk to and positive. She was pretty in a quirky sort of way, not that she could ever be more than a friend, what clever career woman would want to go out with a homeless chap. Besides, she was probably married, children, teenagers even, hard to say how old she was, his age, younger… Still, it was good to have a nice sensible adult to talk to, though he would not mention the fact that he was likely to have to leave the hotel next week with no idea where to go. It was unlikely that well intentioned meetings could come up with solutions quickly.
They were all greeted by name by the earnest facilitator who seemed relieved that anyone had turned up again. Cassie, of course, why hadn’t he remembered that was her name. He smiled at Cassie across the six foot gap between their folding chairs, but was jolted out of his relaxed state by a familiar grating voice. Lindy, one of the other homeless staying at the hotel, Lindy who loved talking, Lindy who he tried to avoid.
She did not wait to be introduced but launched straight into her spiel.
‘So can your company, PMJ…’
‘MPJ’ Cassie tried to interrupt.
‘…JPM really help? I’ve been here before, talk, talk, talk then you all go back to your comfortable homes.’
Sam felt his stomach clench, mortified for Cassie, most people weren’t given life on a plate, what did Lindy know about Cassie and her colleague. He managed to catch her eye and wink, did she smile back or was she just cringing. For a moment he closed his eyes, imagining going over, clasping her hand and taking her away… but Lindy was still talking.
‘… and then there’s poor old Sam, gotta leave the hotel next week, can’t chuck me out yet, cos I’m a woman…’
Sam kept his eyes closed, could he ever really move forward?