‘You! I’ll no tell ye again about sleeping here. This is Government property! Come on! Move!’
The young policeman stood, hands on hips, just inside a half-demolished cellar with an entrance like a cave. Cha looked up at him, shook himself awake, and wondered why the man was so protective of this hole in the wall and the weed-grown, rubble-strewn half-acre that adjoined it.
The cellar was long, dark and narrow as a grave; the policeman had to step aside to let Cha out. He looked on with disgust as Cha left his bed – just dirty blankets and cardboard boxes – and then added, ‘I’ll be watching for ye, mind; don’t bother trying to come back!’
Cha lived alone; he did not care for the crowded hangouts where many of the city’s homeless gathered for the night. The others knew that Cha liked his own company, and stayed away; he liked it that way, and the others respected his privacy.
The day had dawned wet and raw under slate-grey December skies; Cha made for the city streets, safe in the knowledge that the evening policeman was more tolerant. The city centre was already thronging; Salvation Army bands were tuning up and buskers were playing to bumper audiences. More and more people poured off buses and trains and out of car parks, swelling the armies already battling from shop to shop. Christmas was just over a week away.
Cha wandered on, stopping here and there, sheltering from the rain in malls and railway stations until he was moved on. In early afternoon, gales of laughter erupted as office parties spilled out into the streets. The sea of people only parted when Cha passed through; mothers led away their children at the very sight of him. Cha wasn’t dismayed. He didn’t trouble with feeling any more. He just lived and moved and had his being.
Some time after one o’ clock a break in the weather allowed him to reach the Mission Hall dry in time for the homeless people’s Christmas lunch. As he entered, a firm hand grasped his; ‘Hullo, there – Cha, isn’t it? Come away in!’ One of the Mission staff showed Cha to a seat; he sat down amongst the bellowing laughter and toothless chortling. He found himself enjoying the meal; it was a novelty to be waited on, like in a restaurant. When all of the guests had been served, the Mission staff sat down and joined them.
The tables were cleared, and the Mission Superintendent rose to speak; a few of the guests switched off and began bickering amongst themselves, but others, like Cha, listened attentively to the message of Christmas, to words of hope, rebirth, salvation.
Cha recalled his first twelve-day alcoholic oblivion; it had straddled the New Year, perhaps nine years ago now, he couldn’t be sure. In the months that followed he lost his wife and family, was sacked from his job, and started drinking away his home.
The meeting broke up. Cha averted his eyes when the Mission Superintendent shook his hand, and then moved back into the street. The majority of the crowd went off to celebrate in the only way they knew. Cha himself rarely drank now; that wasn’t what kept him on the streets. He just lacked the ability to change.
He shambled back through the city centre, ignoring the taunts of a group of teenage boys. A Salvation Army band struck up The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was now late afternoon and Cha decided to return to the hole in the wall before the chill of evening stalked the streets. The Christmas lights were left behind and a charcoal sky strove to overpower the streetlamps. The sound of the music began to fade.
Cha could not get to the hole in the wall; the fence around the site had been repaired and a new notice on a large hoarding soared above it. It listed contractors and consultants and clients, and ended:-
JUNCTION 19 SLIP ROAD
Work commences January 6th
The distant band, still playing The Twelve Days of Christmas, could barely be heard, now.
David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.
Image: Vladislav Klapin