The posh suburbs of Paris were a dead loss.
By the time the trains had reached La Defense, the inner city mob with its rich tourist pickings would have fizzled out, and they’d be left with nothing but well-off suburban wives, and sharp-faced young women in stylish clothes. Not many soft hearts to be melted there; not much to be wheedled out of those designer bags or those soft leather satchels.
But the three of them couldn't work all the time, and often, like today, they stayed on just for the ride - all the way to St. Germain and all the way back. They enjoyed spying on balconies which at one point were level with the train, and speeding across the two wide loops of the river. The ride was always free because they never got out, and even if an inspector turfed them off, there were plenty of other trains.
The girl kicked off her ill-fitting shoes and curled her bare toes around the edge of the seat. Her pale, pointed face with its dark, thickly-browed eyes, was further narrowed by two skinny, red-ribbonned braids in front of gold-ringed ears that held back a tangle of long, almost black hair. Pretending to be alone, she hugged her knees and rocked gently with the rhythm of the train, her brightly flowered skirts billowing round her like a tent.
At the other end of the carriage, the two boys were larking about noisily, offering nothing, not even displaying the note, Nikolas not even bothering to play the mouth organ. Maritsa sighed. Kids, she thought: just stupid kids. She wasn't really with them; they really had nothing to do with her. She could see the other passengers pointedly ignoring them, scanning their newspapers with fake concentration, or staring fixedly out of windows.
But one woman looked up, and in a fine display of charity, smiled at them indulgently. It was a big mistake. In an instant they were on her, grubby fingers pawing at her fur coat.
'Nice mother, give us a couple of francs.'
Maritsa shook her head: they would never do it properly. They were loud and aggressive and they scared people. When she worked a carriage, she was pleading and gentle, remembering her good manners, saying 'please' and 'thank you' and 'God bless you' in her very best French, for Maritsa knew that soft words could often prize open even the tightest purse. People sometimes gave the boys money in order to be rid of them, but it was she, Maritsa, who made the real loot. Soon she'd be grown-up. Then she'd work alone and keep the money for herself, and spend it on all the things she wanted...
The woman stiffened. She did not like to be called 'mother'; the word spoilt her carefully constructed image - the smooth mask of her face and the creamy fingers immaculately tipped with scarlet. Moreover, the kids' breath smelt of cheap sweets, and if they could afford to buy sweets, why were they begging? Like those so-called homeless, she thought, who wore placards round their necks. Able-bodied young people, just too lazy to work.
Oh she’d been wrong to smile at these two, she could see that now. She drew herself further back against the seat. 'Go away,' she said firmly.
Nikolas grinned, revealing lumpy pink gum-gaps and a small flash of gold. He draped an arm around Stefan's shoulder, like that gangster he'd once seen on TV. They'd have fun with this one.
'Ten francs would do,' he pleaded, holding the mouth organ like a gun.
They were only kids, the woman told herself nervously.
'Or twenty... How about a twenty?'
'Give us a twenty, mother.' Stefan ran a sticky finger across the smooth leather of the woman's bag. 'You got plenty in there.'
The train surfaced into sunshine and Maritsa found her lashes suddenly beaded with points of light, so that for a moment everything she looked at was framed with little pearls. The light shimmered and danced over a bunch of plastic cherries pinned to the jacket of the girl sitting next to her. They looked sticky, juicy, almost edible, irresistible. Maritsa put out a finger to touch them.
Immediately the girl shifted, drawing herself in. Didn't these gipsy brats have fleas?
From the other end of the carriage came the woman's voice, loud and with an edge of panic: 'If you do not go away this instant, I'll pull the alarmcall.' It was attracting attention. Heads were beginning to turn.
Nikolas immediately backed down.
'Only a couple of francs, mother,' he wheedled.
'Lousy beggars,' someone grumbled.
'Guard'll fix them and out they'll go, the whole bunch of them, girl as well...'
Maritsa had had enough. As the train slowed to enter Nanterre, she swung her bag over her shoulder and marched up to the boys.
'We get out here,' she said pointedly, speaking in Rom.
They turned. They gawped.
'Bossy, aren't you?' sneered Stefan.
'You can't order us around,' said Nikolas.'
'You should treat us with respect,' added Stefan. 'Our mama feeds you, remember.'
The train slid along the platform and stopped.
'Well I'm getting out,' said Maritsa with dignity. 'You two can do whatever you like.'
The sight of her discarded shoes gave Stefan an idea. He suddenly ran forward, grabbed them and hurled them across the carriage. When the automatic doors opened, he bowed. 'Get out then, your majesty,' he taunted. 'Got no shoes now, have you?'
Maritsa hesitated. By the time she’d scrabbled around for her shoes, those doors would have closed.
In a sudden rage, she forced herself, barefoot, through the narrowing gap. This would teach them, she thought; this would scare them. She grinned. If those two kids turned up without her at the end of the day, they'd be walloped. She might not be their blood sister but she still lived with their family. And they were part of a kumpania. They shared the same base, they ate together, they worked together and they were supposed to look after each other.
Her feet met the icy concrete of the platform. She tugged at the folds of her skirts still trapped between the doors, and the fabric tore as it came away. The train began to move, gather speed. Maritsa stood and watched the two grinning masks at the window blurring, then vanishing. The empty rails glittered like swords. Suddenly she felt exhilarated. She was alone. At last she was alone.
She turned and looked, and saw a day that was silver and blue. The air was like crystal, the December light dancing and sparkling on every surface. Unable to keep still, Maritsa began skipping along the platform, excitement zizzling inside her like the champagne bubbles she’d seen in the ads.
She worked it out. The boys would soon be back. They’d cross over at the next station, take the inner city train and come back to pick her up; after all, Maritsa had the bag with the morning's pickings. Not much, but enough. And naturally they’d expect her to be waiting, for how far could she get without shoes? It had only been a joke, they'd tell her. They would bring her shoes back (lucky for them, thought Maritsa, that those shoes hadn't hit anyone, or things might have gone badly). They’d wave them in front of her, laughing, teasing.
Well, too bad, Maritsa thought. Because she wouldn't be there.
She glanced up at the indicator and worked out the patterns of letters and numbers; the next train to St. Germain was already announced. Good, she thought: so the game could begin. Hide and seek, she supposed it might be called. Maritsa never played - playing was for kids and she was nearly thirteen - but this was a serious game, to teach those kids a lesson. She’d keep to their usual route, and she'd work as well, so no money would be lost and no one could complain.
And she’d play fair: she would leave them plenty of clues. Whenever she changed trains, she would draw them a 'patrin' - a direction sign - with the pencil stub she had in the bag. The boys knew all the 'patrins' by heart. If they were too dumb to spot them, too bad. She was sick of their teasing and their constant squabbling. She was sick of hearing about their family's generosity and her mother’s shame.
The next few hours, she decided, until they caught up, belonged to her. Maritsa.