This story is by Jan Achterhof and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alone in the Cold.
He fidgeted around in his sleeping bag trying to get warm and comfortable.
Pulling his woolly hat, that someone had donated to the shelter, further down around his ears, he tried to sleep.
But sleep was reluctant to come, refusing to release him from the world he now inhabited.
Homeless…street dweller…the lowest dregs of society… he was all of these… but it hadn’t always been that way.
Once he had had a beautiful wife, a daughter that was his world and a house that had been a happy family home.
But that was before the fire.
The fire that had been his fault because of a stupid electrical fault he had made… and his mistake had robbed him of everything he loved.
He was told not to blame himself, that no one could have seen or known the fault that was already there , but he saw the pitying looks, heard the comments, and knew that secretly people, friends, neighbors, all blamed him.
The house was a ruin and he had rented a cheap, shabby room, waiting for the insurance money so that he could start again.
But he didn’t want to start again… not without his family at his side… not alone.
So he began to drink, hoping that by falling into an alcoholic stupor he could escape his thoughts.
He was sacked from his job, his boss’s patience and sympathy reaching an end.
He shunned his friends, family, neighbours, and little by little they drew away from him, leaving him alone in a drunken, lonely haze of an alcoholic isolation.
He fell deeper and deeper into debt, swapping one lonely, shabby room for another as his money grew lower and lower until all that was left to him were the streets.
His days were spent wandering around in a drunken haze… a few clothes and a photo of his wife and daughter his only possessions.
He had come across a group of vagrants on some waste ground, huddled around a fire burning in an old oil drum.
Cold, hungry, he had sat down near them to try and get some warmth.
No one spoke to him.
No one even looked at him.
All of them lost in their own thoughts, desperation etched on all their faces.
A van pulled up close to them and a young man and woman got out, their arms full of packages.
The couple passed among the group, passing out food, clothing even a few pounds.
The young woman noticed him and he moved away, not wanting or needing human contact, but she caught him gently on the arm and asked him if he was new.
He gave a sharp nod of his head and went to move off but she stopped him again.
She gave him some food and clothing and said something to the young man who went to the back of the van, returning with a sleeping bag and blankets.
The young woman told him that she worked at the local shelter and he was welcome there at any time, twenty- four hours a day.
She told him he must keep warm now that winter was on its way and that they always had warm, donated clothing and a hot meal at the shelter any time he needed it.
He gave another sharp nod and moved away and this time the woman let him go.
He walked the streets by day and slept in shop doorways at night.
He spoke to no one and no one spoke to him.
The weather turned colder, the meagre amount of money he had getting smaller.
He knew he had money in his bank, the insurance had probably paid out by now, but he wanted nothing to do with it … it was blood money … he would rather beg and rely on the kindness of strangers than touch one penny of it.
He was a regular at the off sales, never speaking to the shop keeper but just pointing to what he wanted and handing the money over… a cheap bottle of wine his only comfort .
Once, he had visited the shelter.
He had been given a hot meal and a woolly hat, gloves and a scarf, but the noise grated in his head, bombarding him with noises and sounds he no longer wanted to hear…laughter… chatting…sounds that had no place in his lonely world he had created.
He didn’t go back to the shelter again.
The first flakes of snow began to fall, awakening memories he no longer wanted to see… his little daughter laughing, sticking out her tongue so she could catch the soft, cold flakes … the three of them making snow angels and building snow men in the garden.
His heart ached so much he wanted to tear it from his chest rather than bear the pain.
He used to pray, to believe, but no longer. How could he believe in a power so great, a power that had taken everything so precious to him?
He pulled his hat down over his head even further; pulling his sleeping bag up until it nearly covered him, trying to find some warmth from the intense cold, the gloves and scarf offering little protection.
He felt in his pocket with fingers numb and blue for the photo he had there.
Barely able to manage to hold it he looked at the smiling faces of his wife and daughter, not bothering to wipe away the tears that fell and froze on his face.
The snow began falling heavier, gusts of wind blowing it into drifts against the shop doorway he sheltered in.
The crowd gathered around the body that lay frozen in the doorway.
Mobile phones recording and snapping photos, later to be uploaded to social media.
People muttering how sad it was that he had frozen to death, the same people who had turned their backs on him a few days ago and passed him by.
Only the young woman from the shelter grieved for him as she grieved every time one of her homeless people died.
She knelt down and gently covered his face with a blanket … the face that held a frozen smile and an old creased photo to its lips.