The day is cold and grey, the threat of snow looming.
Tommo waits outside the soup-kitchen, inhaling the aroma of roast turkey drifting from the latched window. His stomach rumbles painfully, forging a momentary flash of anger.
“Get a friggin’ move on,” he curses, stamping his feet fretfully as the cold strikes through the newspaper folded inside his worn boots.
As if in reply, the doors open, and he pushes past the slight, blonde-haired woman standing there with keys in her hand.
Within seconds, he’s basking in the warmth of the soup-kitchen, easing his aching bones into the chair closest to the gas fire. He notes with irritation the shimmering Christmas tree, and the sound of carols in the background. As the heat permeates his slightly damp clothes, he realises that he smells pretty bad. His bloodless lips twist into a sardonic smile of satisfaction. He won’t be troubled by company then; he prefers it that way.
Within a few minutes the young woman hurries from the kitchen and places a plate piled with turkey, pork, roast potatoes and vegetables before him. Her cheeks are flushed from the heat of the kitchen.
He eyes the plate critically.
She flushes an even deeper pink.
She returns with a jug, the entire contents of which he dumps over his meal, before slamming it down on the table.
Other itinerants are arriving as he eats, and soon the hall is filled with laughter, Christmas crackers being pulled and the sound of chairs scraping across the floor. One or two people look as though they might take a seat close to Tommo, but either the smell or his unfriendly scowl are enough to deter them. He sits alone, wiping a bread roll in the gravy still swimming around his plate, glaring at people from beneath his bushy grey brows.
A burst of laughter from the next table makes him turn round to see what the fun is about. Tommo doesn’t like fun. Old Peg has arrived, and taken a seat with two or three men he knows from the hostel. They wave at him to join them, but Tommo scowls, and shuffles off to the kitchen to collect his pudding.
“Grumpy old beggar,” shouts Peg, as her companions fall about laughing.
He waits behind two other men at the serving hatch, watching the young blonde woman talking on her phone in the kitchen. He raps on the counter impatiently with his spoon, and catching his eye she quickly finishes off her conversation, pushing her phone back into her handbag on the table.
The men in front of him turn to glare at Tommo, but he doesn’t care.
“Take your time, pet,” says one of them, “don’t mind us. We’re warm as toast here. Nobody’s got anywhere else to be.”
They both start laughing, and the blonde woman joins in.
She spoons out generous portions of Christmas pudding into bowls and pours white sauce liberally over them all. The others pick up their bowls and return to their tables, but Tommo stands there belligerently eyeing the woman.
“Who said I wanted white sauce?” he says, irritably. “Just because it’s charity don’t mean we can’t have a choice about things.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, embarrassed. “Shall I get you another one without sauce?”
“Yeah, you better,” he growls.
She turns and goes to fetch another pudding.
With a practiced eye Tommo measures the proximity of witnesses, before leaning quickly over the counter and extracting the purse sticking out of her open handbag.
She returns, and he snatches the dish from her, returning to his seat. Actually, he’d have liked white sauce, but hadn’t been able to think of any other excuse to distract her.
He bolts his pudding, keeping his eye on the woman all the while, to make sure she doesn’t go back to her handbag. If she does, he plans to slip quickly out onto the street.
He experiences a pang of regret; not at what he has done, but the fact that he’d been planning to stay in the warmth of the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon and now he’ll have to leave. And the purse might not be worth the sacrifice.
I’ve not really thought this through; I must be getting too old for this game.
Scraping his bowl clean, he decides he’ll pay a quick visit to the toilets, check the purse out, and if there’s nothing much to be gained he’ll just go back to the serving hatch and push it over onto the floor. Then he’ll stay all afternoon. Perhaps there’ll be mince pies.
He shuffles off to the cloakroom, ignoring greetings from people at the other tables who recognise him from his patch on the embankment.
In the toilet cubicle, he breathes a sigh of satisfaction. The purse yields a hundred pounds. “Merry Christmas, Tommo,” he whispers gleefully.
Returning to the warmth of the soup-kitchen, he edges to the door and out onto the street. He’s fairly sure no one saw him leave. It’s started to snow, and he heads towards the embankment, trying not to slip on the icy pavements.
Then he flinches, hearing running footsteps behind him.
A hand grabs his sleeve. He turns defensively.
The young blonde woman from the kitchen stands there, offering a parcel, wrapped in red-and-silver paper.
“You forgot your Christmas present,” she says breathlessly, shivering without her coat. “Merry Christmas.”
Tommo stares at her and she looks uncomfortable.
“I hope you didn’t think I was patronising you,” she says, uncertainly. “I know how proud you people can be.”
He says nothing, and she turns back towards the centre, occasionally slipping in the snow.
Tommo watches her go, snowflakes melting on his burning cheeks.
There’s a sudden flashback, a rush of memories, sensations from years long gone.
He scratches his head. What’s this strange feeling?… it’s vaguely familiar… and not very pleasant either.
And then he remembers.
Christ… it’s shame.
Sandra Crook lives in Cambridgeshire, UK and spends several months a year cruising the French waterways with her husband in their dutch barge, Desormais. Links to published work, cruising reports and photos can be found at http://www.castelsarrasin.wordpress.com.