A cold, grey morning in winter.
A small boy is about to leave his grandmother’s kitchen with the scent of lavender polish in his nostrils and the strains of Michael Holiday in his ears. Just as he crosses the threshold, another log gets fed to the range. A puff of sweet smoke beckons from the open firebox, but his momentum is too strong. In a moment he’s outdoors, a chocolate coloured dog at his heels.
The breeze is light, but carries a chill that straps itself to his skin. He shrugs, and runs half-heartedly to the garden gate. The lane beyond is hushed, or almost. There’s a faint sound, like someone using a stiff broom. He shrugs once more and turns back to the house.
The dog wants to play. She finds a chewed tennis ball, and drops it at the boy’s feet. He stoops and picks it up. The dog is dancing on her hind legs in anticipation. The boy lobs the ball high and long. He watches intently as the dog’s shape dissolves into a blur of pursuit.
The sound in the lane has stopped suddenly. The boy looks casually towards the gate, where a man is standing, staring. The boy’s grandmother appears at the door and the dog is immediately distracted from play. Instead, she begins to bark wildly. So wildly, the movement of her jaws is soon out of synch with each yelp.
The man speaks to the boy’s grandmother, “I don’t want any trouble missus.” He raises a tin can and asks for some hot water.
Grandmother disappears into the house. She returns to the door briefly and calls out, “You stay where you are. If you open the gate, you’ll have the dog to answer to.”
The wind has got up, but nothing appears to be moving. The man stands, waiting, and the dog stands, small and squat, quietly growling and groaning.
Grandmother re-emerges with a jug and a small parcel in greaseproof paper. As she approaches the gate, the man holds out the tin, his scrawny bare arm extending, telescopic, from his sleeve.
The boy stands close to his grandmother as she pours hot cocoa from the jug. For the first time, the boy sees the man’s unshaven face behind a rise of steam. Wisps of white hair, flattened by the wind, against his frail head. A heavy coat, with a belt of string. Tattered trousers flapping and fraying over boots, with string for laces.
He is an old man. He has his life in a bundle at his side while he takes the tin in both hands and drinks the cocoa. When he finishes, he shakes the tin dry and places it with his belongings. The boy’s grandmother presses the little parcel into the man’s hand. “A piece of cake for you,” she says.
He accepts it quietly and buries it in his pocket. All the while, he wears the same expression, his lifeless eyes watering a little as he whispers, “Bless y’ missus.”
The boy and his grandmother watch as the old man picks up the bundle and shuffles up the lane, in the direction of the main road. As he moves from view, the first drops of a winter shower come stinging out of the grey.
The sound of dragging feet is washed silent with the rain. In the kitchen, a fire burns brightly and a dog dozes, while a grandmother tells a small boy tales of men with no homes.
© 2010, copyright Martin T. Hodges