“Is this seat taken?”
My daydreams skid to a sudden halt. A tramp hovers next to me, broadcasting an odour of grime and unwashed clothes. Forcing myself not to shrink back, and suddenly aware of how crowded the cafe has become, I reluctantly shake my head and mutter, “No, it’s fine.”
With a gap-toothed smile, the man pulls out the chair opposite and sits down.
“I don’t suppose you’ve any change? I’d love a hot cuppa,” he says, tilting his head to one side, appraising me with pale blue eyes.
His stare makes me uncomfortable, as though he finds me wanting in some way.
Blushing, I delve into my bag and fumble for my purse. Apart from my credit card – already maxed out – I have precisely £2.22 in change. Wordlessly, I offer him the money.
His face lights up, as though this is the first kindness he’s received in a while. He leans forward to scoop the coins from my palm, his fingers surprisingly gentle, then heads for the counter.
I start to think about what his life might have been like, about the challenges and conflicts which led to his homelessness, to society’s indifference. To his becoming invisible. Given that I’ve just spent over fifty pounds on Christmas gifts, these new questions leave me uncomfortable. I fidget in my seat and fiddle with my coffee cup.
Outside, a string of twinkling fairy lights quivers in the chilly wind. I wonder which dress to wear to the Christmas party tomorrow. The safe black one, with the long sleeves? Or the showy turquoise sheath with the teasing neckline? Then I wonder if he will even have a meal on Christmas Day. He’d probably just be grateful to make it through tonight. Does he have somewhere to sleep? Is there anyone to love him?
The man returns to his seat with a mug of black coffee. He warms his hands on it, and I notice the elegance of his fingers, like a pianist’s. He is clearly a man of contradictions. When I see clean white cuffs peeking from beneath his smart navy suit, I nearly drop my cup in shock. Quickly, I raise my eyes, taking in the silk tie at his throat, the clean-shaven face, his strong, aquiline nose and the brilliance of those aquamarine eyes. His hair is clean, shiny, jet black.
It is the same man – and yet . . . I shake my head, sure that I’m hallucinating. What on earth’s in this coffee I’ve been drinking?
His mouth widens into a smile and, as he leans across the table towards me, I catch a scent of sandalwood and lime.
“Thank you,” he whispers, his words so soft they are little more than a breath. There is a strange and sudden intimacy between us; colour flushes my face.
His smile is gentle, reassuring. “Amazing what you see when your thoughts are of kindness and generosity, isn’t it, Gemma?” Those pale eyes twinkle in the same rhythm as the fairy lights dancing beyond the window.
I don’t know how to answer. Have I gone back in time, to a Christmas past? Is this a visit from his future self? Or has there been some inexplicable transformation in his present? How could I have judged him as being without value, without purpose . . . a lost cause? I don’t understand any of it . . . and I badly want to. Just as I open my mouth to ask how he knows my name, he pulls back his chair.
“No, Gemma,” he says with a wink. “You don’t need to comprehend what’s happened here. Just enjoy your life. Value it . . . and see the best in everyone. Who knows what miracles that will bring? Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” I echo as he strides away from the table. Inexplicably, I lose sight of him. Minutes tick by as I watch for the door to the cafe to open, but I never see him leave.
Copyright Joanna Gawn 2013
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