Balker came down from the north and lived on the street.
He was young for his age. He started in the station where the train emptied him out, then moved out into a doorway near a bus stop. It was all right for a while. Then he met Verdigris and they went up to the High City together. Verdigris wasn’t that much older than Balker. They were about the same height, but Verdigris knew more. He came from somewhere in the city, he had always lived in Viriconium. He had bright red hair, an alcohol tan and a personalised way of walking. He could get a laugh out of anything. For a while Balker and Veridigris did well out of the tourists in the High City. But Verdigris’ lifestyle-choices moved him along quickly and he started to limp up and down the Terrace of the Fallen Leaves saying, “’I’m in bits, me!’” and showing people the big sore on his neck.
“Hey, look mate, I’m in bits!”
After Verdigris died, Balker stayed away from the other street people. They had a language all their own he never learned to speak, but he knew the same thing was happening to them as to him.
He knew the same thing was happening to everyone.
There were new rules in. New rules had come in, and everyone in Viriconium was in the same position. If you couldn’t look after yourself there was a new way to pay.
Sleeping on the street is hard, all the reasons for that are obvious. It’s never quiet. The police move you about, the mutual associations won’t leave you alone: everyone thinks the boroughs belong to them. You’re hungry, you’ve got a cough, there’s other stuff, it’s an endless list. No one sleeps well in a doorway. You get fragments of sleep, you get the little enticing flakes of it that fall off the big warm central mass. Wake up, and everything seems to have fallen sideways. You guess it’s four in the morning in November, somewhere at the foot of the Ghabelline Stair; but you could be wrong. Are you awake ? Are you asleep ? Rain swirls in the doorway. You’ve got a bit of fever and you can’t quite remember who you are. It’s your own fault of course. You wake up and he’s there in front of you, with his nice overcoat, or sometimes a nice leather jacket, to protect him from the weather. You never really hear his name, though he tells you more than once. He seems to know yours from the beginning.
“Your health’s going,” he says. “You want to start now, before it goes too far.”
So he leaned into Balker’s doorway–maybe it was the night, maybe it wasn’t–and took Balker’s chin in his hand. He turned Balker’s face one way then the other. He was gentle, he even looked a bit puzzled, as if he was wondering why anyone would choose to live that way, what bad choices they must have made made to find themselves in a doorway at the foot of the Ghabelline Stair.
“You want to start now,” he repeated.
So Balker started. They took him to the place in the maze of streets below Mynned Saba. You’d get a meal afterwards, they said. You could expect your head to swim a bit, but come on: somebody in Balker’s condition was going to notice that ? In the end it was easy and it was a bit of money in your hand. It was a way of being responsible for yourself. It could be a beginning, they told him; or you could just leave it at that. But what Balker liked most was the warmth and the calm of the place. It was worth it just to lie down and not think about what to do next. Balker looked around and fell asleep. That was how it started for him, really. That was how his whole life started.