This story is by Martine Macmillan and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The girl was there again. He had first noticed her slumped in the entrance of the supermarket some days ago. Her thin body shivered in the bitter cold, her face was pale and deep violet rings darkened her eyes.
He went in, chose a basket, one of the cleaner ones -he must tell the staff to clean them more often- picked up his daily copy of the newspaper from the magazine rack, made his way past the cigarette booth and booze aisle – still too many people smoking and drinking- He reached for his list, picked up the usual eggs, coffee, bread, salad. The girl was on his mind, how had she come to be in that state? Homeless, sitting in the freezing December weather, no doubt she was a drug addict, they were everywhere these days, but she was so young, where were her parents and if she was on drugs what did she resort to, to get what she craved for?
With a grimace of disgust he brought back his mind to the shopping. Tuesday was ham and eggs, David’s favourite it had been. He made his way round to the cold meat aisle, past the array of sandwiches, he was never tempted by them, his appetite wasn’t what it had been. The girl could do with one of those, he thought, but which one should he pick? Meat would be good protein but maybe she was a vegetarian or vegan? He snorted aloud in amusement, she didn’t look the sort to care much about what she put in her body! At last he picked up a cheese one, made his way to the till where Joyce was her usual cheery self,
‘Hello Mr.Wright, how are you doing today? Now, you’re not going to spend Christmas by yourself, are you? You know you’re welcome to come over for Christmas dinner at our place, the more the merrier!’
‘No, no, thank you, you’re very kind, how’s the family?’
She was still there when he came out. The wintery afternoon light was fading fast and frost already glinted on the bare branches of the trees, soon the Christmas street lights would come on. He glanced at the battered hat on the damp pavement, a few copper coins, a couple of silver ones, she hadn’t done well today. He approached her and put the sandwich box down. Her unwashed smell hit him. She looked up, matted strands of hair shielding her eyes. Her dry, peeling lips twisted into a sneer. ‘A sandwich? At least some booze or fags would keep me warm!’ The rejection was a slap in the face. Ungrateful little bitch, he wouldn’t bother again, not even look at her!
He made his way home against the icy blasts. The flat was cold and dark, he switched the gas fire and lights on, to dispel the shadows in the room. Across the road the windows burned with the glittery sparkle of Christmas trees; he’d not put any decorations up, hadn’t for a long time. He’d have to cook the ham and eggs now and try to eat some of it. He picked up the framed photo off the dresser, David on graduation day, the huge, toothy smile incongruous under the serious mortar board. A happy, proud day for them both.
Christmas Eve, he’d fobbed off the carol singers, ignored the door bell, switched the lights off. He was running out of tea though, blast! He’d have to fight the crowds in the supermarket, the throng of people in the grip of Christmas Eve panic, grabbing anything, whatever was left on the shelves.
She was there again… he would ignore her. Yet his eyes seemed dragged to the desperate, huddled form. With a jolt he realised that she was sobbing, the gasps convulsing her. The throng of customers was pushing past, ignoring them. As he approached, she looked up, tears streaming down her face, eyes bloodshot with grief. Before he could think, the words were out of his mouth:
‘Please, come and spend Christmas in the warm, you can leave when you want; just come and be warm for a day or two.’
She shook her head, ‘No, no I’m OK, I was just remembering something, that’s all.’ Suddenly the sneer returned, ‘What’ you after eh?’
‘No, I promise….nothing. I just hate to see you so… cold and … well I’m alone see, would be glad of the company…’ She stared at him, the sobs receding, appraising him. Suddenly, she nodded, then pulled out a wrinkled, bent cigarette from the pocket of her thin jacket.
He’d never dashed round the supermarket so fast, grabbed all he could, like the other demented souls, the last small turkey, stuffing mix, a sack of potatoes, a readymade Christmas pudding… before she changed her mind. Joyce was at the till again and looked at him in a friendly, curious way.
‘Well this is a turn up for the books Mr. Wright, thought you were having Christmas dinner with friends?’
‘Oh, there’s been a change of plan, I’m cooking now. Merry Christmas!’
He came out, stood in front of her. She got up, threw her fag end away and followed him in the dark street, the fairy lights reflected in the frozen puddles.
Once inside the flat, he switched on the central heating and the gas fire.
‘There’ll be enough hot water for a bath if you want. Shall I make you a cup of tea first and something to eat?’ ‘Yeah, OK but God, I’m tired, I need to sleep. Have you got any booze? I’d prefer that to tea really.’
‘No, sorry I don’t drink, lost my wife to the old demon drink see, couldn’t save her, she wouldn’t be saved.’
The girl had picked up the framed photo ‘Who’s he?’
‘My son, David, he was in the army, died a few years back… an ambush.’
‘It’s OK, he was a good lad, we got very close after my wife died. What about you?’
‘Oh, boring really, single mother, stepfather beat me and… other things, children home not much better, left as soon as I could, been on the streets ever since. It’s not too bad in Summer but Winter’s a bitch. Some stuff helps you to keep warm though, booze, fags…well, I’ll have that bath.’
She slept now, he’d gone to check on her. Here she was in David’s bed and for all the world looking in sleep as he had, young and vulnerable, the hardness gone, a half smile on her lips. She wouldn’t stay long, he knew that, but if he could give her a bit of warmth and food for a day or two, well why not? He’d wrapped up the warm scarf and gloves he’d bought for her, he only had brown parcel paper and there was no tree to put the package under but that couldn’t be helped. He turned the lights off.
He woke up with a start. Christmas Day, he’d better get on with the dinner. He’d take her a cup of tea first. There was no answer to his knock, he pushed the door open gently, calling out ‘Can I come in? Is it OK?’ There was no sign of the girl, the bed covers were thrown back and her clothes and battered hat were gone. Now he knew why she’d accepted his offer, fool that he was! He knew his wallet would be gone from the pocket of his coat. How could he have been so stupid? All of a sudden he felt exhausted and the tears welled up until he was sobbing, for himself, for her, for dead David, for his dead wife, for what people did to each other, for what life did to people.
He sat by the fire, watching a repeat of some game show on television. He’d cleared up the Christmas Day stuff, it had all gone in the bin; he felt guilty, he should have taken it to the food bank down the road. Well it was too late now. The doorbell made him jump. Who the hell was that now? He’d ignore it. It rang again, and again until he dragged himself out of his chair.
He opened the door. She stood there, holding his wallet and an almost empty booze bottle. He was about to slam the door in her face when she crumpled. He held her until her sobs subsided.
‘I brought back your wallet , there’s no money left in it, I’m sorry, but there’s a drop of whisky left… oh, sorry, I forgot.’
The afternoon was fading into evening, the sky glowing red; it would freeze hard again tonight but the fire was warm and the neighbours’ Christmas lights imbued the room with a soft glow. She was sipping what was left of the whisky and chatting to him, almost happy, her tears forgotten now. Tomorrow would come too soon but for tonight that would do, that would do just fine.