They sat around an untidy bonfire on a cold wintry night sharing a bottle of Jack wrapped in a brown paper bag.
Elsie pulled a stained mackintosh closer to her emaciated body, ‘I haven’t seen John for a while. Is he ok?’
‘Last I heard he’s gone to detox in hospital, or is it prison? I’m not sure,’ said Frank passing the bottle to Oliver.
Oliver said between glugs, ‘Rehab’s bad for you. It’s a killer. Nothing’s surer than John will return to the bottle and kill himself with an overdose.’
‘Can’t be any worse than what we do most nights,’ said Frank.
‘They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, “no, no, no,”’ sang Elsie in a cracked voice.
Oliver handed her the bottle. ‘This’ll shut you up, I hope.’
The ragged trio stared at the glowing embers of the fire for a while, treasuring a moment’s warm escape from their troubles. Frank broke the silence:
‘Do you know today’s Ash Wednesday? That’s the beginning of Lent when we’re supposed to give something up until Easter.’
Elsie laughed. ‘Give something up? What’ve we got left to give up?’
Oliver grunted in agreement.
Frank said, ‘Look around you. We have a warm fire, a bottle of Jack, and good company. What more do we need?’
Elsie said, ‘Fuck you Frank. You give up something if you like. I’ve already given up enough for fifty Lents.’
‘Ok,’ said Frank smiling. ‘What about this? ‘We make a case one by one why we deserve a special dispensation on Lent. Who wants to start?’
‘Great, I like games,’ said Oliver. ‘I’ll start.’
‘Hold on, ‘laughed Elsie. ‘What about a prize for the best story?’
‘I’ve already thought of that,’ said Frank holding up the depleted bottle of Jack. ‘The winner gets to finish the bottle.’
Oliver started his story.
‘I’ve been living rough since I went bankrupt and I supplement my benefits with a bit of cadging. One day in the high street, a woman comes up to me, puts a fiver in my hat and hands me a package. She tells me it’s a lightweight tent so I can sleep rough easier. That night, I go to the park, set up the tent in the middle of some woods and settle down for the night. I was grateful for the shelter when it started to rain.
All of a sudden, I feel myself being pulled out of the tent. I think, ‘aye-aye, some local yobbos.’ I close my eyes waiting to get my head kicked in, but nothing happens. When I open my eyes, I’m in another world. I’m there for thirty years and then one day I wake up back in my tent. Even though all that time had passed for me, it’s only the next morning in the park. Each time I sleep in the tent I’m transported to another world and another life. I’ve spent twelve hundred years so far living about thirty lives. I’ve had to give all those lives up to return to this miserable place. So, I think that lets me off Lent.’
Elsie and Frank nodded in appreciation of Oliver’s story. Frank gestured to Elsie to start hers.
‘I’ve been homeless for two years now. Before that, I was a long-distance runner. Not big-time, but my performances were starting to get me noticed at the national level. One day, I was out training and I was abducted by aliens.
They took me up in their spaceship where they carried out tests, but they didn’t hurt me. After a few days, one of the aliens said they were taking me home. It told me that the tests had given them invaluable information but warned me there’d be side-effects. These included a massive increase in my strength and reaction time, and a thousand-fold decrease in healing time. Athletics became pointless, but worse was to come. One night I got very drunk and tried to get into a night club. There were two bouncers, one small and wiry and the other big and bulky. They refused me let me in so I picked up a bottle. The small wiry man came at me and I think he was dead before he hit the floor. The big man ended up in a wheelchair. I’ve been hiding ever since, so don’t tell me about Lent.’
Frank said, ‘great stories both of you but I think mine will win.’
‘Before this, I had an important job at Porton Down as a senior technician. I’m sure you’ve heard the work carried out at Porton is for the protection of the population against chemical and biological weapons. What the public isn’t told is that some top-secret work is done developing very potent chemical and biological agents. I worked in one of these top-secret sections making a biological nerve agent that upon release would replicate itself and so have the ability to infect whole populations. The problem with it was that we had not found a way to stop it replicating, so if it escaped, it would wipe out all of humankind.
The professor I worked for was a genius but, it turned out, he was a gambling addict. One morning he arrived at work as normal, but unknown to us, he had gone on a gambling bender the night before and had lost everything – house, car, savings, the lot. In addition, he had borrowed money from some violent characters who said they would kill his family if he didn’t pay them back. Anyway, he was in such a state, he got a phial of this terrible stuff and ran out into the car park and climbed up on a car shouting that he was going to end it for everyone. There must have been about twenty of us there trying to encourage him down when he hurled the phial high into the air. Everyone froze in terror. The phial arced through the air coming straight for me. I just about managed to catch it. Security hustled the professor away and the phial was returned to the lab. Of course, the whole thing was covered up.
I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after this but wasn’t allowed treatment in case I spilled the beans. And that’s why I’m here today. Forget Jesus, I’m the real saviour of the World, so Lent doesn’t count for me.’
Elsie and Oliver agreed that their stories could not beat the saviour of the World and Frank got to keep the bottle of Jack.
Oliver said with a smirk, ‘Well I’m off to my tent. See you in thirty years.’
Frank said to Elsie, ‘Do you want to come back with me to my place to help finish the bottle?
‘No thanks Frank. I’ll take my chances here. Goodnight.’
Elsie watched her friends fade into the shadows. She pulled up the dirty sleeve of her mackintosh to reveal a thin arm criss-crossed with faint white lines. Taking out her knife she cut into her arm, blood welling up from the deep fissure.
Twenty minutes later the cut had disappeared.