Annie Harris


Annie previously worked as an actress performing in the West End, Vienna and various repertory theatres. She now lives and works in London as a psychotherapist.


View as PDF: Annie Harris - Streetkids


Chapter 1

It was late on a Monday afternoon in November. I was in the drop-in centre, kneeling on the floor wiping up watery splatters of paint left by the children, when Laila Neal appeared in the doorway. She was carrying an enormous rucksack over one shoulder and wearing plain clothes - light jeans and a blue t-shirt – and her sandalled feet were grubby from the journey. We’d not had a new volunteer for over a year, and although things weren’t ideal, we were muddling along. Something in her face made me think muddling along was not her style.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Is this the Joshua Foundation for Street Kids?’

It was a disconcertingly deep voice for someone so tall and thin.

‘Yes. Come in.’ I put the wet cloth down on the table and stepped towards her. ‘I’m Barbara Merritt,’ I said.

‘I’m Laila Neal.’

‘I know.’

She seemed surprised that we should be expecting her, even though she’d been sending numerous emails keeping us informed of her arrival.

‘How was the journey?’ I said. ‘You must be tired.’

‘I slept on the train to Ajmer.’

‘Would you like a drink? Water?’

‘No water, thank you.’ There was a brief silence as she peered at the kitchen area behind me.

‘Here, let me take your bag. I can show you your room. I’ll take you over.’

The room was in a separate small building. I picked up the rucksack and she followed me out. The temperature was in the low thirties, the air comfortable and warm. The weight of her bag slowed me down as we walked along a crumbling brown path. She barely looked up at the line of thorny Kikar trees, making shadows over us like tall, spindly buildings.

‘There are two other volunteers, Zac and Hannah. Our rooms are along there.’ I pointed along the corridor, which was feebly lit by a single bulb hanging from the low ceiling and shrouded by a flimsy paper shade. We made our way down the narrow passage to the room. It hadn’t been used for fourteen months and when I walked in it smelt of dust and citronella. The furniture was a mix of ill-matched items; a narrow bed, a plain wardrobe, a bamboo chest of drawers, a table made of wood veneer, a small blue dhurrie on the linoleum floor and a cheap print on one wall. All the rooms were much the same.

‘There are hangers in the wardrobe,’ I said, ‘and there’s a bathroom’s down the corridor.’

‘Thanks.’ She was still standing in the doorway.

I put the bag by the foot of the bed and opened the large grimy window. She finally crossed the room and stood next to me. We were looking onto a tarmac area the size of a tennis court. ‘Where is everyone?’ she asked staring at the empty space.

‘The kids only come in the morning. They have two hours of lessons and half an hour of recreation. Some only come for breakfast, and then we take them to school.’

‘I thought this was a school.’

‘Not exactly. It’s a charity. If we think a child will be able to make use of school we help them get in. Then we provide food, uniforms, books.’

Her brown eyes looked directly at me from under a sharply cut fringe of dark hair.

‘Don’t worry. It’ll all become clear,’ I said.

I’d only heard five days earlier that I was to show a new volunteer the ropes. The school director had called me in to his office. I wasn’t happy with the responsibility, but in the days that followed I had second thoughts and came round to the idea of a new companion. I might even like her. So I decided to make some changes to her room to make it at least more welcoming. I moved her bed into the corner to make more space. It gave me some satisfaction as I’d never bothered to make many changes to my own room. But by the expression on Laila’s face I could see my effort was wasted, and the room was still basic and unwelcoming. I sympathized with her disappointment. I’d felt it too when I first arrived.

After the crowded bus from Ajmer had wound its way through Nag Pahar, the ‘Snake Mountain’, I saw the city of Pushkar clinging to the side of the lake. The main bazaar was lined with men squatting inside entrances to shops selling vividly coloured fabrics and exotic spices. Cows meandered in the streets, where there was a cacophany of rickshaw bells and car horns. But the Joshua Foundation was housed in a little jumble of unsightly buildings, on the bend of a deserted road a mile away from the centre of town. The white-washed walls had faded with the weather into a nondescript shade of grey and the surrounding silence was in stark contrast to the noisy chaos of the bazaar. So Laila’s bewilderment didn’t surprise me.

‘Where’s Mr. Sen?’ she said. ‘I really want to meet him.’

‘You’ll meet him in the morning. He goes home at night.’ I told her that he lived above a tailor’s shop in the town, where he had a room at the rear of the house belonging to his aunt

‘I see.’

She paused.

‘So what happens now?’

‘Why don’t you unpack? Make yourself comfortable.’


‘Zac and Hannah are having supper out tonight. You and I can eat here if that’s alright.’

She needed a couple of hours to sort herself out so I went to my room. I sat at the low desk, which was the only piece of furniture I’d acquired, and opened my diary. My eyes roamed out of the window. The street was empty except for a three-legged cat emerging from an alleyway. I picked up my pen to write but my mind turned to Laila. I couldn’t decide on her age. Her figure and energy were those of a young woman but her serious demeanour made her seem older. I made a note in my diary about our first meeting and went off to the kitchen to heat up some supper for us both.

I’d made a fish curry and we sat at a small table in the drop-in centre. There was no conversation between us as she hungrily ate her food and wiped her plate clean. Afterwards I made some tea and she sat on the sofa opposite me, her legs tucked under her and her fingers curled like the legs of a spider around her mug.

‘You’re a medical student?’ I said.


‘Why this place, and not a hospital?’

She paused. ‘I wanted something different. All the other students just want to qualify as quickly as possible and get convenient jobs, somewhere not too far from home.’

‘And you?’

‘I want more of a challenge.’

I laughed. ‘You’ve come to the right place.’

Her eyes narrowed and she dropped her voice. ‘Is that stupid?’

‘No, course not. But it sounds like a bit of a big gesture.’

She thought about this, pressing the back of her hand against her lips. ‘I can do something positive here. Change people’s lives.’ There was a surprising passion in her voice.

‘That kind of change isn’t always possible.’

‘Why not? Mr. Sen’s work makes a difference doesn’t it?’

I wanted to say, you’re very young. What I said was, ‘I think you’re idealistic.’

‘Yes.’ She nodded and smiled; she took my remark as a complement. Sipping her tea she became serious again. ‘All my life I’ve dreamed of coming to India.’

Her tone of voice made me think she’d come to India for a very specific reason, which I wasn’t as yet quite sure of, nor did I want to ask. What a contrast with myself. For me there’d been no soul-searching, no sense of mission the first time I went to India. The truth was, I’d lit upon the idea by an accident of fate.

Chapter 3

Over the next couple of mornings Laila was up well before the rest of us. I didn’t see her in the complex so I assumed she was visiting the bazaar or exploring the tourist areas next to the lake. She bought baggy cotton trousers, a loose shirt and cheap leather sandals, making her look like so many other brightly clad travellers. I took up her request for me to show her the town, and following afternoon classes we went for the kind of walks I’d not been on since I’d first arrived there.

She took an interest in everything; walked about eagerly craning her neck to see the people in the hustling bazaar, food stalls precariously piled with glittering water-melons, and pyramids of spices and apricots. Her eyes danced as she watched the langur monkeys springing across the flat-rooves of squat buildings. At the lake she stopped to stare at dhobis washing their clothes on the ghats. She asked me about the priests who convened there, and I told her they were Bhopas who descended from a community who’d worshipped the Sun God. It was satisfying being a guide; I had been in Pushkar so long I no longer looked at things with a fresh eye. I felt grateful to Laila for bringing it all back into focus.

She surprised me one morning when she asked if we could go further afield, to some place off the beaten track. She’d already looked at a map of the surrounding countryside and planned a route for us. It seemed ambitious to me. She’d been in India less than a week. But I went along with it, partly because I felt responsible for her and partly because I was curious about where she was taking us. I’d never had the confidence to venture much more than a mile away from the compound myself, on foot at least.

We set off late that afternoon, and walked down the wide street that runs along one side of the bazaar. Laila turned left into a thin road I’d not been down before, and as we wound along the streets the usual gaggle of small boys grouped together behind us and ran around our ankles, tugging at our clothes. Barbara asked me what they were saying.

‘They’re asking for money. I’ll give them a biro instead.’ I fished one out of my bag and gave it to one of them while Laila stopped to look at the map. She led us along an even narrower complex of roads, eventually arriving at the outskirts of the town.

For an hour we made our way along a dusty, loose-stoned pathway. The surrounding desert was dotted with fig trees and thorny pipe-shaped plants with tiny red flowers running up the side that looked like ladybirds. We passed a small abandoned brick house, the size of one room. A woman dressed in a vivid yellow sari walked out from behind it, balancing a large bundle of branches on her head with both hands. The brightness of her dress did nothing to alleviate the barren, desolate nature of the place; nor the stench of urine and rotting vegetables that emanated from a cluster of shacks to our right.

Further along we came across a little boy and girl crouching in front of a rusty corrugated shack. They both had short black hair and stared up at us with curious cat-like expressions. They stayed close to the ground, where they jabbed a large beetle with a stick. I watched Laila. She rummaged around in her rucksack and pulled out a wallet.

‘So young,’ she said. ‘I want to give them some money.’ But as she bent down and put some coins in the little girl’s hands, a stooping, skeletal old man shuffled quickly out of a doorway. He moved abruptly towards Laila and she murmured something I couldn’t hear. A look of shock passed over her face and she stumbled backwards. A chill passed through me when I saw that the fingers of his outstretched hand were missing. I’d seen a leper only once before, but not as close as this. Laila stood rooted to the spot, staring blankly at the grotesque stump. I grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her towards me. ‘Let’s get away from here,’ I said.

We walked back in silence, too disturbed by what we’d seen. I was relieved to have escaped but also aware of how tired and thirsty I was. Laila was much fitter than me and I struggled to keep up with her. By the time we arrived at the bazaar I was breathing heavily and sweating, desperate for a drink.

We stopped at The Honeydew Café. By now the sun had turned red in the sky before it began its descent, and a group of tourists were relaxing and chatting as they enjoyed the sunset over the lake. I collapsed onto a chair and remained in confused and exhausted silence. Laila ignored the menu and ordered us two large pomegranate juices. She shuffled her sandals around under the table and fiddled with a silver ring she’d bought at the bazaar.

‘I wish you hadn’t stopped me giving them money Barbara.’

The icy juice flowed along the parched surfaces of my mouth and throat. I could feel it tumble like snowdrift into the empty chambers of my stomach. My skull pulsed as I took a longer, greedier pull on the glass covered in condensation. I didn’t answer her. I couldn’t find the words. I thought the whole outing had been a crazy idea.

‘Are you angry?’ she said.

‘Of course I’m angry. I’m angry with myself. And I’m angry with you for taking me there.’

‘I just thought it was a good idea to see something more of the country.’

‘What did you expect Laila, golf clubs and condominiums?’

She said nothing.

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.

‘I’m hot and sticky,’ I said. ‘I need a shower.’


That evening Hannah prepared a sweet potato and cauliflower curry, and the four of us sat round a table in the drop-in centre. We were all getting on well, and I was just starting to forget the day’s events when Zac, always combative after a few glasses of wine, leaned back in his chair and looked at Laila with interest. ‘What do you think of the place?’ he said. ‘Bit of a shock. Pretty cushy life back home, hey?’

Hannah looked across at me and rolled her eyes. We both knew what was coming. Zac had seen volunteers coming and going, and he liked to think of himself as an old hand. He’d only been working at The Shakti School for Streetkids for three years, but he’d stayed in Pushkar on and off since the late eighties. He only ever spoke about his life on the road in India, Afghanistan and Thailand. All I knew about him was that he’d grown up in Cleveland and both parents had died young. As far he was concerned Laila was just another gap year rich kid.

‘I like it here,’ she said.

He looked at her, incredulous. ‘Sure, sure,’ he said. ‘So where’d you grow up?’

‘London. Place called Camden. D’you know it?’’

Zac snorted. ‘Yeah I know it.’ He took a gulp of wine. ‘Bet you went to a posh school.’

‘Not really. North London Collegiate.’

Zac nodded his head confidently, as if this were exactly the piece of information he had hoped to uncover. ‘How many A’ levels did you get?’


‘Then Cambridge I bet?’

She smiled. ‘No. Leeds.’

‘So I was right.’

Laila shook her head.

Zac took another gulp of wine. ‘So what are you running away from?’


‘What are you running away from?’

Laila looked down and waited a moment. ‘Why? Did you come to Pushkar to run away from something?’ she asked finally.

Zac laughed. The sound split out of him, uncontrolled, and he picked up his glass and emptied it in one large mouthful. In the silence I stood up to collect the plates. I carried them out to the kitchen and Zac followed after me. He leaned his back against the draining board and I started scrubbing caked rice off the bottom of a saucepan.

‘She’s a serious one,’ he said. ‘Another bleeding heart who thinks they can solve India’s problems in a day.’

I said nothing. He lit a cigarette and I could feel him watching me.

‘I don’t believe a word she says,’ he said.

‘She’s naïve, I’ll give you that.’

‘Could’ve fooled me. Last week she told me she’s taking a year out of her medical degree. What kind of bullshit is that?’

‘I don’t know Zac.’

‘Come on Barbara. It doesn’t hang together.’

Zac wasn’t going to let go, and I was about to change the subject when Hannah walked into the kitchen. She sidled up to Zac and wrapped her arms round his waist. ‘Zac, honey?’

He turned his head to the side and grinned. ‘Where’s Laila?’

‘She went outside,’ Hannah said.

‘Oh yeah. Walking on water no doubt.’ He jutted out his chin to blow three smoke rings and watched them disappear in the air.

‘Za-ac,’ she said, as if she was talking to a six year old.

It was late by now. The office needed locking up, and I was also a little worried about where Laila had gone. I said goodnight to the others. Outside the night air was still warm. When I reached the office in the building opposite I saw Laila sitting on the porch steps, shining a torch down at a map spread out on the ground.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Oh, trying to work out some distances.’ She quickly turned off the torch.

‘Don’t take Zac seriously,’ I said. ‘He’s got a few axes to grind.’

‘Yes, so I see.’ She turned away from me and rolled up the map, put an elastic band round it and slid it into her bag. She stood up and hooked the bag over her shoulder. ‘I’m pretty tired,’ she said. ‘I’m going to bed.’

I watched her walk across the compound. It was completely dark, and she used the torch to light her way. I could see hundreds of tiny insects nervously flitting back and forth, trapped in the tunnel of light. The map, which she’d made sure I didn’t properly see, poked out of the top her rucksack. I watched her climb the steps to the verandah and disappear inside.

Although I was sleepy I didn’t feel like going back to my room. So I wandered along the road towards the town. Thoughts and questions about Laila chattered in my mind and it occurred to me with some amazement that it had been a very long time since I’d been this curious about another person. It also surprised me to realize that since her arrival at the school, I’d felt grateful not to be so alone.