The snow did not so much drift as pour around him. The bitter flakes landing on his exposed face, tangling in his unwashed hair. George squinted through the flurries, in to the warm light of the window opposite. So overcome with envy and longing, he took a step forward, forgetting to care for a moment about keeping within the shadows. Tall and proud in the corner stood a Christmas tree, and the children came running in, only just avoiding it. George watched them pushing past each other for the seat next to their mother on the couch. He became so captivated by the warmth he could almost feel, and the comfort he could almost reach. He ached to be a part of this unknown family, but maybe that was just the ache of the cold settling in his bones.
The sudden appearance of the father at the window disrupted his thoughts.
” – going to need it when you burn that turkey,”
His voice came through the window as he threw it open with a cloud of disturbed snow. The children’s laughter followed, punctuated by the creeping smell of cooking meat, reaching out to George where he hid. He wanted to run, to escape from the smell. It mocked him, it made his empty stomach roil and cry out in protest, but he hesitated, hoping to watch the family for just a little while longer.
Huddled together in the flickering light of the TV, they laughed and chattered, oblivious to the news broadcast blaring out at them.
” – the ongoing campaign, raising awareness and prevention of drunk driving this holiday season. It was started by the parents of two teenagers who lost their lives in a car accident while intoxicated last month. We remind you all to leave your keys at home if you plan on drinking over these next – ”
The rest of the report was drowned out by the mother, glass of wine in hand, speaking with forced excitement.
“You kids need to get ready for bed! What if Father Christmas arrives and you’re still up?”
With a pang, George remembered that it was Christmas eve. How could he forget something as inescapable as the date? Standing there, he could no longer bear it, comparing his own life with this perfect scene in front of him. He was away before he could change his mind, running through the darkness. The little girl’s remonstrations of “but muuuum!” faded away behind him.
He fled through the streets, the exercise doing nothing to warm him as the snow soaked through his torn shoes, settling in his socks. It had been a long time since he had felt truly warm, dry, or clean for that matter.
He knew where he was running to, the familiar route that he made every day, with no-where else to go. The place where he slept was just a doorstep, an unused back entrance to some building. He didn’t care what the building was, only that there was something that could almost pass for a roof, jutting out over his spot. He could huddle on the step, and scrounge what little sleep there was left to take. It was not quite a home, but always reliably, unfailingly there.
He didn’t stop running until the place was in sight, and a girl, sitting there huddled as he had hoped to be, came in to view. He had been about to shout, to tell her to move, but as he slowed to a walk, and her figure became clearer, he lost the words along the way.
She was beautiful. A little bedraggled, perhaps, though even as the thought crossed his mind he knew that he was in no place to judge – it had been a long time since he had seen himself in the mirror. Her blonde hair was lank and greasy, and her most prominent features were heavy dark circles, but they only served to accentuate the lively green eyes.
She was wearing several more layers than he was, what looked like a man’s coat, and a scarf. Both of which she offered wordlessly to George as he approached. He accepted the scarf, but refused to take her coat, and sat down next to her, all thoughts of confrontation abandoning him. It was rare, he knew, in this kind of life, to come across generosity, and even more so to come across a pretty girl. She pulled out a flask of something, and took a swig before offering it to him.
“So what’s your name?” She asked. Her voice hoarse. He took a swig from the flask before he answered, the drink burning as it went down, causing his eyes to water but a welcome warmth to ignite in his chest.
“George Rigby” he coughed, “What’s yours?” She stared at him for a moment, unblinking, but didn’t answer.
“George is a nice name” She said, before tucking the flask back in to her pocket. There was silence as they both shivered in to the darkness, until she spoke again, louder this time, and quite suddenly.
“Do I know your face from somewhere?”
The intensity of her gaze almost made him flinch. Her face was vaguely familiar, but he knew that he would never be able to concentrate long enough place it with this bitter wind biting at him. She opened her mouth to speak again, her head tilted slightly to the side as though in confusion, but whatever words she had planned on saying were drowned out as the clock tower of the local church struck midnight. They both started out in to the darkness, the snow raging in front of them, the cold wall against their backs, lost in thought while the clock had its say. When it was over, the girl put a hand on his shoulder.
“Merry Christmas, George.”
If he looked taken aback at this rare moment of sentimentality, she didn’t let on, and after a moment, he managed to pull together a quiet “you too.” Silence fell again, as they allowed each other a moment of self-pity. Perhaps the girl was remembering where she had been this time last year, or the year before, or whenever it was that she last had a home. George’s memory didn’t go back that far, this was the only life he knew.
“Look, do you have anywhere to sleep?” Even as he said it, he knew it was a stupid question, but her answer surprised him. “There is a place that I go to rest sometimes. Will you walk me?” She got up then, holding out her hand, and even though it crossed his mind that he barely knew this girl, and that he had no idea where she was going to take him, he took it. Because it had been so long since somebody had offered to hold his hand. And even longer since that somebody had been so pretty. They walked for a long time, and though the snow still fell, it had lost some of the fury from before, and the thick white carpet, tinged orange by the murky light of the streetlights was almost so beautiful that he could pretend not to feel the cold.
George became so lost in the warmth of the girl’s hand, and his own thoughts, that he hardly realised where they were as he followed her over a short stone wall. He looked around in surprise when he noticed where they had come to, a labyrinth of granite and marble, flowers lain on bare earth.
“Here”, she said in a whisper, putting out an arm to stop him in front of one of the graves. She said it so casually, and as George looked on in confusion, she pointed towards the gravestone in front of them.
Annabelle Hudson, it read, 1995 – 2013. Beneath that, a touching – if generic – may she rest in peace.
A memory hit George like a punch in the gut, taking the wind, along with all logical thought processes, out of him. So that’s how he knew her face.
He said it like a question, and she nodded, but he hadn’t needed confirmation, he already knew, he already remembered. When she took a few steps to the left, it was with a pool of sharp icy dread in his stomach that he followed. He pointed at the next stone, but he didn’t look, he already understood too much.
“The couple, in the car crash – ” She nodded again, before he could finish. Just as well, he realised, as he wouldn’t have been able to finish that sentence even if he had wanted to.
“We were going to walk, but it was cold.” Her voice was low, and George fought to hear it over the riot in his mind.
“You even gave me your coat.”
She pulled on the man’s coat she was wearing, the one she had offered earlier, and a sad smile played around her lips.
“But I insisted that we drove. You had had less to drink than me, but not by much, so you drove – ”
He couldn’t bear to hear this anymore, and if only to make her stop talking, he decided to face the inevitable. He looked up at the gravestone opposite. He read it to himself, his mouth forming the words but no sound came out.
1994 – 2013
May he rest in peace.