Sasha La Ruche should be dancing at the Folies Bergère, not swigging from a shoplifted bottle of wine in Starbucks. But if she ever was in sequins and feathers, she hocked them years ago, and the left arm of the tatty red overcoat she lives in these days has been cut up the seam from cuff to shoulder by the paramedics who attended her yesterday. The nurses put it back together with strips of Micropore.
She’s been up to A&E every day for the past week, always presenting in the same way – unconsciousness in some public place, on the pavement, bench, grass verge, supermarket, once outside a clothes shop where she was trying to walk out wearing a lifted pair of jeans (which the store did not take back, given that Sasha had promptly defecated in them). But although Sasha is always drunk, her unconsciousness is an adaptation, a ploy. In much the same way the puffer fish inflates itself to distract predators and make itself as difficult to handle as possible, Sasha closes her eyes and goes floppy.
It’s a bright, busy morning and Starbucks is crowded, the shoppers and workers on lunch politely fighting over every last seat and table top with trays of coffee, Danish pastries, baguettes. It’s a mark of how busy it is that the spaces on this padded bench either side of Sasha are still occupied. After all, a seat’s a seat. On one side of her, an old lady with such a wholesome gloss about her she could have been dipped in white chocolate.
‘It’s such a shame,’ she says. ‘Tsch.’
On the other side, a woman and her friend, shoulder to shoulder, both sipping coffee and texting with their phones just south of their noses, scrupulously avoid any kind of contact, with us, or each other.
‘Come on Sasha,’ I say, squeezing her shoulder. ‘Open your eyes.’
Two police officers stand just behind us. We’re all wearing gloves, which feels much the worst detail, given the environment, far more than our uniforms or radios.
‘Sasha. Open your eyes. We need to stand up and walk out of here. Okay? Come on, then.’
I apply some more unpleasant stimuli and she’s driven to bat my hand away.
‘Up we come. Ready? Two, three, four... and stand.’
She does, but in a showily unsteady way.
‘Mind your backs!’
And if nature abhors a vacuum, that’s doubly true of a busy coffee shop. Sasha’s spot is taken before we’ve made it past the cookies.