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Rated: E · Short Story · Emotional · #1367354
A very short story inspired by a woman I helped outside a department store one Christmas.
A shopping bag
By Mike Day

Word count 1,105

The door at the front of the hostel slammed shut. Joan stood irresolute. From under the portico she watched the sleet form halos around the street lights. In one hand the address of another hostel, in the other a paper sack with a snowman printed on the side, complete with carrot nose. It was intended for kids to put under the tree on Christmas eve so that Santa would fill it by morning. What it was not meant for, was toting an old portable black and white television and a handful of clothes across the city streets on a freezing December night.

Joan was special; they had told her that at school. Special, she clung to the word, when the other kids teased her for being slow. Special, when that man did things that hurt her. Special, when the policeman said it didn’t really happen. And special, when Mum died and the council said she couldn’t live there anymore.

Now Joan had to decide whether to walk across town and see if the other shelter had a bed or head for the boxes at the back of the shopping centre. A bed would be good, but if she got there late all the good packaging would be taken. She looked up into the ink black sky, trying to guess how bad the weather would get. All she could see was the rain and ice falling from beyond the street lights.

The bed sounded good though so she decided to try for that.

As she bumped apologetically passed the busy shoppers, she felt the rain trickle down the neck of her old wool coat. A woman, who, head down had cannoned into her, muttered something about looking where she was going. Joan felt one red handle rip from a hole in the sack. She clutched the wet paper tightly, pulling the weight up towards her chest so that she could get an arm underneath it.

Now she felt that she could manage a little way further. With the tall bag in front of her face she stumbled on, glancing from side to side and trying to walk sideways when she could.

As she reached the shelter of the big shops canopies the smell of sausages cooking filled the air and made her stomach growl in appreciation. She edged towards the blue and white striped stall, in which two men in crisp white aprons and straw boaters served. Her bag was heavy and she leaned against the aluminium side of the little stall, watching the hotdogs being passed over the counter.

‘Can I help you love?’ One of the men asked in between customers.
‘Err no, no just watching.’ She said.

‘Well you’re putting people off so go and watch somewhere else, ok?’
She smiled and hitched the bag back onto her hip. Joan wandered past the brightly lit shops filled with sparkling things until she came to the whispering automatic doors of the mall. People streamed in and out, she let them flow around her, enjoying the feeling, part of their busy whirling world. It was like being back in the playground, children running around her while she looked on. Except that after school, mom would always take her by the hand and they would go home.

She moved on, she needed to get to the hostel before it was full. No room at the inn, she had said that in a school nativity.

Away from the main street the rain was turning into snow. It didn’t stand a chance on the wet paving slabs. Her arms ached and the small of her back throbbed from leaning back to balance the weight.

When she had left the care home, after the business with the police, all her things had been in two stout suitcases. Somehow, as she slept on the streets, things just seemed to get lost. Now she only had a few old clothes and the TV. She was going to get some glue and fix the crack in its screen when she found somewhere to stay, somewhere special.

Carefully she put down the bag and stretched her shoulders and back, trying to work the stiffness out. Lacking the strength to pick up her burden again she took hold of the one good handle and dragged the sac along behind her.

The snow settled on her hair and eyelashes and she brushed it away with a soaking wet glove. The hostel was at the top of the next road, a steep dark road with a line of grand old houses, now turned into offices for dentists and lawyers, on either side.

Joan dragged her feet along under her, the wet and cold ate at her and she felt the strong desire to sit down on the curb and go to sleep. Finally the paper gave way to the inevitable and the bottom split wide open; her few clothes and the broken TV spilled out onto the pavement.

A small moan escaped her lips as she sank to the floor and tried to grab for her scattered things. She began to stuff them back, her left hand holding the bottom closed. It was all she could take, it was too much, the only thing to do was find a cardboard box for the night, on either side people skirted around her, unwilling to become involved.

‘Would this help?’ A small girl asked holding out a huge polythene bag with a store’s brand name printed across it.

‘We only had the one thing in it.’ Her father added smiling ruefully as he retrieved the TV. ‘Oh, I think it’s broken.’

‘It’s ok, it’s special.’ Joan said climbing to her feet.

‘Have you got far to go?’

She looked up the hill. ‘Top of this road.’ She said quietly.

‘Let me.’ He picked up the pathetic bundle and began to walk.

It took only a few minutes for them to reach the Hostel and he carried the bag up the stone steps behind her to the front desk.

She handed the slip of paper over to the tired looking woman in charge, who told her to go into the kitchen and get some hot food. Joan turned, ‘Thanks,’ she said as she crouched down to look the child in the eye. ‘You’re special.’ She said, giving the only present that she had.

The girl smiled. ‘You’re special too.’

After Joan had gone upstairs he turned to the middle aged woman behind the counter. ‘Is she going to be alright?’

‘She has an appointment here with social services in the New Year. At least she turned up this time.’

© Copyright 2007 Mike Day (mikeday at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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